Desiree Morales is a poet and educator whose work has been featured in the
forest dRIVE, Truck, and Conflict of Interest. She grew up in Southern
California and lives in Austin, Texas.
CH: What first got you interested in poetry? What is your first memory of poetry?
DM: When I was fifteen I actually had to save up to buy Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, which I found while loitering in a bookstore with queer friends. Watching people I loved get to see queerness reflected back at them was an education in art’s power against the loneliness of otherness. “A Supermarket in California,” “Howl,” “America”—these poems are so beautiful, and also biting, weird, subversive, explicit and for awhile ILLEGAL; everything about them was compelling for me. They were part of the secret world I was sure adults were keeping from me, and they were evidence of the existence of the people and ideas I wanted to be around always.
CH: When did you first begin to identify as a writer? as a poet?
DM: Around that same time, in high school. I got to be around a lot of really smart kids, and we wrote poems and made art and found subcultures to join. I wrote constantly, all cringe-worthy, but I was doing enough work to begin to have instincts by the time I got to college.
CH: What is your writing practice like?
DM: I love writing, talking, and reading with other poets. A daily practice isn’t for me. Getting to be in Hoa Nguyen’s workshops here in Austin is maybe the best thing that ever happened to me creatively, because seven years later I’m still generating work in that format, with talented poets I met in her living room. So I know you know the format since you write with me, but for anyone else, the format looks like this: read a poet’s work aloud for about an hour, then generate writing prompts based on observations of this poet’s work, then write from that. It’s like trying on a poet’s style to see where it fits and how it can move your own style forward. The poets in our group are all publishing and reading regularly and I also learn from watching their styles evolve, to see how work changes from first draft to finished—it’s fun to open a friend’s book and see a poem I first met right when it was written.
CH: How do your roots in Southern California influence your poetry?
DM: It’s inextricably part of me. I first experienced vastness and an intimacy with the world by swimming in the ocean and climbing red rocks in the desert and laying my hands on centuries-old sequoias—these are my first loves, and they’re all in California. I’ve learned how to really be openly unabashedly in love with California, strangely enough from being in Texas—Texans really know how to love a place. Climate change is showing up in my poems more and more, and this brings me back to California, the fate of our food, the way people feel when they don’t see rain anymore. I’m compelled to shout this to anyone who will listen.
CH: I know you studied linguistics and creative writing as an undergraduate. How did the study of linguistics influence your poetry?
DM: Aaaaaahh this question is so fun. Linguistics is an entry point for seeing that language is a fucking wilderness—it has all the elegant order of any living system, and also all of the totally out there, exotic wildness. To do linguistic field work you have to re-organize your mind to think outside of the constructs of your native language, and this forces you to realize how much of your worldview is built on the structure of your native language. A terrifically mindblowing example of this is noun classes—in some indigenous languages, nouns have a marker that indicate their category, and so there’s a language where a “feminine” category includes nouns for women, water, fire, violence, and certain animals. That makes me feel like the classification system I inherited is completely impoverished. I want more ways to see connections between things. As a poet studying different ways languages organize the world, I can see more of what’s possible when I’m open to experimenting.
There are these confidence-building truths rooted in linguistics, too. Language is innate. We are giving and receiving so many verbal cues about connection, culture and identity when we speak to each other. Language is generative, and native speakers of a language have impeccable instincts about that language—so if I name something, or choose to say something in an experimental way in the hope of getting it right, it’s likely to be understood, even if no one has said it that way before. From the point of view of linguistics it’s like, hey, you’re a human animal. You got this.
CH: How has your experience as an educator shaped you as a writer?
DM :I just heard an Eileen Myles interview in which she says that being a poet is kind of like being a professional human. So is being an educator. Both require you to interrogate this like, maelstrom of data and sensation to find what’s compelling and urgent about the human experience, and then what do we do with that? Hopefully you give someone else tools to make their lives richer, or more illuminated. Plus teenagers have a high standard of authenticity that would make anyone a better poet, if they can live up to it.
CH: What are you working on now?
DM: Poems of resistance. Sometimes trying to articulate anger and bear witness to the terrible history being made on us. Sometimes this frantic cataloging of everything I value, or struggling to value what I take for granted that might be taken from me. As we are living these experiences that I thought I would only encounter in history books—the dehumanization that is the groundwork for ethnic cleansing, for example—I want to say this is unacceptable and you have to do something about it. Right now. And also, this could be you. When we see civil-rights era photos of violence against activists, the lesson isn’t that this happened to someone fighting for their civil rights, the lesson is this might be what you have to do for your civil rights, be ready. It’s a lesson I’m learning right now and I want to put it into poems.
CH: Where would you like to see your work in five years?
DM: This question makes me think of CITIZEN by Claudia Rankine. That book is just so good, and seeing her style evolve over the course of her body of work leading up to CITIZEN, it’s so subtle that all I can really say is she sounds like a smart poet who has been at it for many years, honing her craft. She sounds like a Greek chorus, just naming and narrating with a spareness that’s never pedestrian. She is deft. So I hope my work gets more like that—maybe the mechanics aren’t as visible and it feels wise, like something that’s built on many years of practice. In five years I will have been writing poems for like 25 years, and I’d like that to shine through.
CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?
Dara Wier, Jack Gilbert, Ted Berrigan, Ada Limón, Hoa Nguyen.
CH: What is the last book of poetry you’ve read?
Bright Dead Things, Ada Limón. I keep coming back to it. The poems in this book are so fierce and tender, it hurts a little bit to read them. But they are also kind and wise—she urges us to see into what hurts, she tells us something beautiful about it, and we realize she’s showing us that we can take it because we’re strong, she’s strong. It’s great post-election fortification.