Tara Wanda Merrigan wrote an in-depth portrait of Poulin Prize-winning poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo in an article published at the Paris Review this week. The article, "A DACA Poet Speaks Out," describes Castillo's experience living as an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States when he was five years old:
"Castillo was excluded from the mundane privileges that documented Americans take for granted. When the local public library began requiring Social Security numbers, Castillo could no longer borrow books. When driving, Castillo strictly adhered to speeding laws. He would drive his brown Ford Taurus sedan, chosen for its discreteness, at exactly sixty-seven miles per hour when the highway speed limit was sixty-five, because 'sixty-four would’ve drawn too much attention to myself,' he says. (More than once, he tells me, he almost got into a car accident because he was looking at the speedometer rather than the road.) While studying for his M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Michigan, he could not work as a teaching fellow or grading position to earn his scholarship, as most M.F.A. candidates do, because he didn’t have work authorization.
"Constant hypervigilance made it difficult for Castillo to develop a stable sense of identity—so much so that for many years the poet avoided writing from a first-person perspective. 'My poetry doesn’t exist anywhere,' Castillo says of the poems in Cenzontle, which won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize in 2017. 'My readers have such a difficult time placing them in time and space. There’s no body attached to them. No attachment to the real world. This literally comes from this anxiety I had that I didn’t want to say too much.'”
Merrigan describes how President Obama's executive action on DACA in 2012 opened doors for Castillo, allowing him to receive a government-issued ID, to work as a teaching assistant while earning his M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Michigan, and to join with other DACA poets to launch the Undocupoets advocacy group that works to promote the work of undocumented poets and raise consciousness about the structural barriers that they face in the literary community. The article continues:
"And yet, twenty years of undocumented life still haunts Castillo, especially in his poetry. Many of the poems in Cenzontle were completed after Castillo received DACA status and later a green card, and yet they manifest the confusion and dislocation he experienced while living undocumented. 'A very foundational part of me was in that mode,' Castillo says. 'And that’s the poet I became. It wasn’t on purpose, but when I realized it and tried to change, it was too late.'
"Castillo crafts evocative scenes that draw readers in, but then, after a section break or sometimes even a line break, the focus changes. Readers are thrown into a new scene, equally compelling but seemingly unrelated. This juxtaposition prevents Castillo’s work from offering the comfort of logic or predictability. Instead, they twist away from you:
I opened his mouth and fed him a spoonful of honey.
I like the way you say “honey,” he said.
I made him a necklace out of the bees that have died in my yard.
How good it must have felt before the small village
echoed its grief in his throat, before the sirens began ringing.
Of Marcelo's Poulin Prize-winning debut collection Cenzontle, Merrigan writes:
"In the collection, which takes its title from the Spanish word for birdsong, to sing of one’s undocumented life is to risk being consumed by it: 'The song becoming / the bird becoming / the song,' the poet writes. 'The bird unraveled its song and became undone.' And yet, in the collection’s first poem, the desire to tell the story is also inescapable:
call it beginning—
The bird’s beak twisted
into a small circle of awe.
You called it cutting apart,
I called it song.
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