HIV Aids

Queer Mexican-American Poet’s Debut Book Plays With Language to Explore Identity, Sexuality, Desire, and Resistance

“…having sex with other people is like passing love notes between bodies. That’s how HIV slides a letter opener into the slit of a white envelope or syphilis screws its way subsurface. In jail, one of the few pleasures is writing and receiving letters. You can choose to be mutually monogamous or not (that’s on you) but shhh, keep it to yourself whatever you do.”

That poem, “Mutual Monogamy,” is from Thrown in the Throat, the debut poetry collection (out August 11) by Benjamin Garcia, a queer, Mexican-American, Texas-born poet whose day job is as a sexual health and harm reduction educator for the LGBTQ-serving Trillium Health Center in Rochester, New York. Garcia, who received his Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University, has had his poems published in The Missouri Review and the Kenyon Review, among other places. Thrown in the Throat was praised by fellow queer poet Danez Smith (whom TheBody interviewed in 2018) as a “freaky, stunning debut” that “decimates and salivates over language.”

TheBody chatted with Garcia recently over what inspired this collection, whether he wants his mother to read his verse, and why the final poem is an ode to Adam Rippon’s butt.

Tim Murphy: Ben, congrats on your gorgeous collection, Thrown in the Throat. Can I ask how you became a poet in the first place?

Benjamin Garcia: I don’t know when I became a poet. I do know that from a young age I’ve been fascinated by the possibility of language. My family is Mexican, and I grew up in Texas only speaking Spanish. When I was 10 or 11, I started keeping a memo pad to write down words in English that I wanted to learn, meaningful quotes, song lyrics, witty comebacks—those kinds of things. I didn’t know it then, but this would be my first writer’s notebook. It’s actually similar to the type of notebook I keep now.

Ten or 11 is also when I moved into my family’s closet. Like, the actual physical closet in our apartment. The poem titled, “The Great Glass Closet” goes into more detail, but basically my uncle’s family had just arrived from Mexico and didn’t have anywhere else to stay, so they lived with us—11 people in a one-bedroom apartment. The adults slept in the living room. The kids slept in the bedroom. And I said see-ya-later to all of it. I guess even back then, I was a drama queen! The closet was a quiet place I could read. And it was private, so I could watch my gay shit, as my brother would say, on a small black and white TV my stepdad pulled out of a dumpster. Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that the closet gave me a few square feet to exist. “The Great Glass Closet” poem goes deeper into how language helped me survive a nesting doll of closets.

TM: So those were the first steps in your development as a poet?

BG: Pretty much. I tried to avoid becoming a poet when I did my undergrad at the University of New Mexico, though obviously I failed. Growing up poor, I felt a lot of pressure to study something that pays well in order to help my family. So I majored in biology for two years, thinking maybe I’d study medicine. But when I started to fail O-chem because I was writing instead of studying, I thought, “OK, maybe I should just do what I like.”

I didn’t tell my family about switching majors, mostly because they didn’t ask. They don’t exactly have familiarity with college. When I was accepted to Cornell for my MFA, their responses were similar. Something along the lines of, “But didn’t you just finish? Why do you need to go to school again?” I didn’t tell them I was trying to become a writer. Instead, I focused on the teaching part. Even then, when they found out I was teaching English, they would joke, “Why are you teaching them English? You should be teaching us English.”

TM: Has your family read your poems yet?

BG: Noooooo. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s sad my mom won’t be able to read them (she only speaks Spanish). On the other, it adds a kind of freedom to my writing. In their blurb, Danez Smith says, “This book is a slut. Immigrant smut, propaganda for the fag agenda.” Part of me is relieved to not explain certain ideas, like poppers or analingus, though she’ll be able to understand some phrases, like pinche puto and damelo duro, papi, so maybe I’m not in the clear.

TM: Your mother comes up a lot in your poems.

BG: Well, yeah—I’m gay, and I’m Mexican. Those are double risk factors for being a mama’s boy. But joking aside, she’s definitely one of my role models. Even though I did have male figures in my life (dad and stepdad), it was my mom who showed me what strength was. Not in the macho way, but the way I saw a lot of the women in my family be strong: not taking shit from men, working with what you got, and never giving up.

TM: I wanted to ask you about the “Ode to…” series of poems in your collection. They have a very bold, declarative, in-your-face quality, like they were written to be read aloud. Such as, “Ode to the Corpse Flower,” which goes, “In the language of flowers/I am the one who says/fuck you/I won’t be anyone’s nosegay/this Mary is her own/talking bouquet.” And then it ends, “I thrive in shade/my throat is my throne so/queen me bitch.”

BG: The ode series is definitely all the way up in your face. “Ode to the Corpse Flower” was the first ode that I wrote. Speaking from the point of view of a corpse flower felt like I was doing drag, so I just had fun and rolled with it. A corpse flower smells like vomit and rotting flesh, but it looks as gorgeous as “Marilyn Monroe/blowing in an air vent.” And it doesn’t give a fuck if you like how it smells or not. It’s there trying to be as disgusting as it can in order to get laid—well, to attract flies and meat-eating beetles for pollination. It doesn’t exist to please you. And that’s kind of how I’ve come to feel about being a gay man. I’m done trying to please people.

TM: So your day job is you’re a prevention specialist at Trillium Health in Rochester, New York, a health clinic known for its excellence in HIV and LGBTQ care. But HIV comes up only once, directly, in this collection. That would be in the poem, “Mutual Monogamy,” in which you write, “…having sex with other people is like passing love notes between bodies/That’s how HIV slides a letter opener into the slit of a white envelope or syphilis screws its way subsurface.”

BG: That’s right. Only one poem names HIV directly, though it’s definitely elsewhere for those who have an ear for it. Not foregrounding HIV was a conscious choice. We have amazing poets who have already written powerfully about HIV, folks like Jericho Brown, Danez Smith, Thom Gunn, Eduardo C. Corral, etc. I wanted to focus on what I could add to the conversation. Not that we are living in a post-HIV world (we’re definitely not) or that those stories aren’t important (they absolutely are). But my goal with this book is to reduce stigma—stigma about sex and queerness and status. The whole reason we have U=U [undetectable = untransmissible] is to reduce stigma around HIV. To be sex-positive is to understand sex as more than an opportunity to pass viruses and bacteria. Fuck “love is love,” give me “sex is sex.”

Anyway, to go back to “Mutual Monogamy.” That poem is pushing against heteronormative ideas of what’s “best.” Maybe having one sexual partner is a way to reduce exposure to STIs, but that doesn’t mean we should weaponize it to scare people into having one partner. Also, maybe mutual monogamy isn’t for everyone? Think about it: That’s so much pressure, to expect every single one of your sexual and romantic needs for the rest of your life to be met by just one person. There’s a reason people step outside of their relationships. We need to normalize other types of consensual love, which is where the companion poem, “Nonmonogamy,” comes in. That one ends with, “I might sleep with twelve hundred men, but who could know me more than you?”

TM: Sex positive, that’s an idea that gets visited a lot in this book. Talk about the poem “Huitlacoche,” which in the Aztec language means a kind of smut or fungus that grows on corn. You write, “…cock, suck; pussy, fuck; ass, lick./Relax. They are only words. They are the only words/you need to insult someone/or to have sex with them/no matter what country you find yourself in.”

BG: That was another fun poem to write. I got the idea at a training I attended for my day job. We were practicing saying cusswords and combining them every which way. The idea was to get comfortable with the language our clients use in order to keep communication flowing. If my client is telling me that his asshole hurts when his boyfriend fucks him, I might shut down that conversation if I translated that to, “So, you’re saying that his penis hurts your anus when you’re having anal intercourse.” It shifts the focus from their health to my comfort. It says, “Stop talking like that.” The language we use can say more than we intend for it to say.

TM: I really wanted to ask you about the last poem in the collection, “Ode to Adam Rippon’s Butt.”

BG: That’s one of my favorites. It uses Adam Rippon’s spectacular (and controversial) Olympic-size glutes as a way to affirm queer desire. Some people will say that there’s nothing radical about objectifying another person’s body, especially one so conventionally attractive. But as long as gay men or trans women can be beaten or murdered for expressing their desires, it’s radical just to exist. I wanted this poem to show that we deserve to experience beauty unapologetically.

TM: Finally, I wanted to ask you what it’s like to be putting out this collection at a very fraught time, between COVID, the protests over Black lives, and the impending election in November. Does your collection speak to this moment in any way?

BG: Absolutely. The bulk of Thrown in the Throat was written after and in response to the 2016 election. Like so many others, I was feeling angry and powerless. These poems, especially the odes, are protest poems. The voices in this book have been described as scathing, bitchy, loud, and in-your-face. Well, much like ACT UP in the early years of HIV activism, I think the Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us that sometimes you have to shout to be heard. And sometimes, yeah, break things. Poetry is language breaking silence.

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