In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—JC Talamantez

by Apr 2, 2024

When did you first get the idea to weave your poem about sexual assault and rape with the violent film, “A Clockwork Orange?”

I suppose it’s partly because I’m fascinated with that film’s complex reputation in popular culture. Many people find it when they are young and first becoming interested in film as a medium; I assume that, like myself, many admire its audacity while also struggling to make sense of its use of violence. The novel is arguably less morally muddied, and I’ve always wondered if the film’s ability to inspire mayhem is due to the shift in mediums—from written narrative to visual—or to the idiosyncrasies of the director. I am genuinely fond of Kubrick’s body of work, but he wasn’t particularly good at representing women as characters. 

In that sense, the use of “A Clockwork Orange” in this piece is perhaps a stand-in for that consistent experience of finding joy in art as counterculture, while also encountering exploitation and violence against women as representations of freedom, rebellion, or masculinity. While I tend to think we should be careful about how we moralize art, the need for such care shouldn’t preclude consideration of conflicting properties within aesthetic pieces.  

Which is all a long way of saying that it’s always been a bit of a puzzle as to how sanguine we are with raising children who will need to come to terms with the reality of sexual assault. Grief over that sad fact should cost us something, I suppose, both as persons and as a broader culture. 

You begin the poem with “—” which as a reader, I interpreted as a deep inhale before a release. What was your intention when you started your poem that way?

I also think of that element as a pause or an inhale, like a moment for gathering thoughts, or maybe as a way of interrupting some yet unspoken chain of events. Some poems seem to arise from a blank world, others in the middle of a river. This poem felt like the second to me. I suppose it’s a bit worrisome to begin a piece with an invocation, but maybe taking a breath is one gesture towards that older “o”/“oh” movement that now feels somewhat dated.  

I want to thank you for the line “all that grief/should mean something,” which resonates with me. When writing trauma-based poetry, do you find this cathartic, or as a writer, do you find that you need to set boundaries with yourself and your art?

Thank you! That’s a difficult question for sure. It’s a careful line that writers navigate between resonance and exploitation, or clarity and confession. On the one hand, poetry reflects human experience, and should be capable of incorporating elements of grief and trauma as part of that overall tapestry—all forms of art can help us make sense of loss and violence. On the other, poetry is not therapy or confession, and pouring our emotional souls into line breaks strikes me as mostly an act of blunt narcissism rather than of love. 

Writing about trauma seems to carry an additional burden as well, since the kinds of events that traumatize are experiences shared in some form by many people, and such representations require not just forthrightness but also, I think, kindness. The point there is not to shock, but to render otherwise inexplicable elements of living more visible and maybe thereby, at least give them some shape, boundaries, and conflict.  

It seems that movement in stanzas is something much of your poetry reflects; I’m thinking of Flower in Corridors of Sun, published by Hopkins Review or Insect, published by Frontier Poetry. How did you develop this method of writing?

I used to fuss a lot with trying to press my work into shapes that, in the end, didn’t really fit my voice, but I’ve gotten better about letting a poem unfurl with just a bit of guidance. Spiraling lines and stanzas seem to animate these pieces and give them a certain kind of life. I think I’ve slowly developed a style of spacing and line breaks that help to emphasize certain elements in my work. It has taken a lot of refiguring to get to here, and some pieces have been reworked too many times for comfort, but eventually you learn a bit what suits your voice, and accept it. 

What themes do you return to in your work? What themes are you still developing?

Part of developing an independent voice as a poet (which I’m now guessing is a life-long endeavor) is figuring out what you can bring to the work that no one else can, and leaning into it. I think that is one way in which very young writers eventually learn to temper themselves into maturity—as a young poet you kind of want to say everything, but you eventually learn to focus on saying one true thing well, with specificity and care. I used to think that the themes that come naturally to me—familial intimacies, petty injustices and cruelties—were too small to act as foundations for interesting poems that others might find compelling. But one small truth can be powerful. My more recent work has taken on a bit more of a political tone, and I’m happy to have that develop insofar as it is useful and honest.   

Who are some authors who have inspired your writing?

Prose-wise, I have a long-standing love of Larry McMurtry, Annie Proulx, Jose Saramago; James Baldwin writes an incredible sentence. More recently I’ve become enamored with Graham Green and W. Somerset Maugham. John Irving’s pair of novels The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year are bookends to my adult life—I’ve returned to them numerous times and they seem to age up as I do. Jeanette Winterson often bridges the gap, if there is one, between prose and poetry, as does Cormac MacCarthy. 

Poetry-wise, I sometimes think that I completed an MFA just so that I could be exposed to Rilke—he is astonishing. James Tate’s use of broken narrative and elements of absurdity are utterly compelling to me. I’ve never grown tired of Leaves of Grass or Autobiography of Red. Also Galway Kinnell, e.e. cummings, Adrienne Rich. In high school I had a bit of an obsession with Richard Brautigan and Raymond Carver. Louise Glück’s simultaneously beautiful and dread-inducing tone has been a significant source of inspiration for many years.     

What projects are you working on now?

My focus so far has been on literary magazines, and I really appreciate the readership and community that I’ve found there. I have a completed book of poetry and another in development, (though the magnitude of editing an entire book has sometimes seemed a truly monumental task). Perhaps these will eventually see the light of day!

Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!


JC TalamantezJC Talamantez is a Mexican-American poet whose work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, New Ohio Review, Salamander, Smartish Pace, Hopkins Review, Frontier Poetry, Boulevard, Water~Stone Review, and others. She was a longtime student of academic philosophy and teaches writing and humanities courses across a number of disciplines.

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