The Creative Muscle: An Interview with Adrian Ernesto Cepeda
A little while ago, we got the chance to sit face to face with one of our favorite contributors, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda. His collection—Flashes & Verse… Becoming Attractions—was just released last month from Unsolicited Press. Our conversation was fun and expansive: ranging from erotic influences to overcoming speech impediments, and, not least of all, the best ways to grow your creative muscle. What follows is the transcript of that interview, edited for clarity and space.
Frontier Poetry: My impression of the book is that this poet is a person that is just inspired by the world around them. Everything is a cause for a poem. Everything you run into, especially these cultural artifacts that really speak to you, celebrities from a certain era, art, and music.
A lot of these poems are erotic poems too, with erotic love and sexuality and sex—where does all that come from for you?
Adrian Ernesto Cepeda: For a long time that part of my life was basically nonexistent, until my late 20s. I guess the pop culture stuff is always something that’s in my life that inspired me. It wasn’t until I read Pablo Neruda where I had somebody in my undergrad who said you should read Pablo Neruda. Since then everything kind of change for me. in some ways I guess I’ve always been channeling him, Neruda spirit in my poetry. That actually exploded more in my MFA once I started reading more female poets, like Anne Sexton. I felt a connection with other erotic poets, even poets that I know like Amber Decker from West Virginia, Alexis Rhone Fancher from LA. Something about erotic poetry is actually universal that everybody can understand. It’s a challenge to write poems like that because it’s been done so much. There’s just something about the way that you capture an intimate moment with somebody. The point is to capture it right before it happens. So basically, you end it in a place where the reader is going for the ride and they know what happens next. And that’s the hard thing about writing. A lot of the poems that I write are trying to capture intimacy with a poetic eye.
It’s a part of being visually inspired—because you can see I’ve been inspired by movies and paintings, so I try to make my poems as picturesque as I can. I’m basically trying to make a little visual movie with my stanzas.
FP: When you first started writing, was erotic poetry always there? Or was this something that grew as you became a poet?
AC: I guess it was always there. It kind of reflects my growth as a person where there is this longing to feel that aspect of desire. And since I grew, I experienced stuff late in my life, I graduated from undergrad later than most people, and the more I experienced stuff, it fueled the poetry.
FP: When did you start writing poetry?
AC: Probably in high school, but I didn’t really get serious until my undergrad. Mostly I would write about pop culture or erotic stuff. That’s when I was introduced to Pablo Neruda. And this is something I learned from my MFA: the more you read the better you are. I really connect more with female poets because it’s a viewpoint that’s new and foreign to me, and I feel like I learn more from those writers and poets than I do reading from males. All my life, I’ve been reading male poetry, but I feel like there’s this explosion of all these great female writers and poets. What I read now is 90% female and writers of color. It’s influenced my poetry a lot—I’ve become a better writer because of it.
FP: The end of your book is the poem “Advice to Myself as a Young Poet” where you’re giving yourself permission to speak, and that’s what this whole thing feels like. There’s so much that was just needing to burst out, as if this was all just waiting for years underneath the surface. That’s why it’s exuberant, it’s 110 pages, it’s a lot—everything around you, you bring into it. When I landed in that poem at the end, I said to myself, there it is, that wraps everything together.
AC: That poem was actually a breakthrough for me, thanks to Alma Luz Villanueva I wrote and read this poem in her seminar at Antioch LA, because writing about my speech impediment was always something that I always avoided. It wasn’t until I got to Antioch LA— my first residency—where I had to redo a Brown Bag reading and I went to Gayle Brandies’ seminar. The great thing about Antioch is that they encourage you to go to seminars out of your genre. After the seminar, I went up to her and I said, “Gale, I’m a poet. I have to do a reading and I have a speech impediment. I stutter. Do you have any advice?” And she said the five words that changed my life: “Adrian, it’s okay if you stutter.” When I heard that, I realized a door had been opened. And there’s another poem in there that I wrote about my stutter. It’s a sestina I wrote, it’s “Sounds Feel Trapped.” It’s putting the reader in the mindset of what it’s like having a speech impediment.
I’ve come to the point where I’ve accepted it. Whenever I read out loud, I try not to sweat it. If it happens, it happens, it’s part of me. And it’s something I’m going to start acknowledging when I start doing my readings and promotions for the book. If I can come up here and read, you can do it too.
For so many years it was a source of shame for me. I’ve been teased about it. I’ve had women laugh in my face while I’ve tried to talk. It got to a point where accepting it was something important. I went through the full steps of denial and trying to hide it.
FP: Your language, your style is super consistent across every poem. The way that you have a lot of gerunds, there’s a sense of motion and rolling. You have a very certain sense of your own style. Does that relate to the speech impediment at all? Or are they one different tracks, the writing and reading out loud?
AC: Yea, I usually don’t read the poems out loud until I’ve gone through so many drafts. Last night I actually submitted to Voice Mail poems. There’s a poem that I written about a long-distance relationship I had with somebody years ago, reflecting what it’s like being connected to somebody across a distance. The first half it was flowing, but when I got to the half-way point I started to stutter, but I kept going. I felt proud that I actually could do that because a couple years ago I never would have even tried to do that.
FP: When you sit down to write the poem, it’s a different track?
AC: It’s all about what’s on the page.
FP: Yea, I can see that—the style is always super consistent. Where do you think this style came from? You said Neruda was really big for you—what else made you choose this style?
AC: Everything changed for me when I came into Antioch. I was this free-verse poet, but learning all the traditional styles. When you read so many poetry books, it just seeps in.
FP: Is there anybody else’s poetry that you feel really close to?
AC: Neruda, Bukowski, Sexton. Sandra Cisneros is not known for her poetry, but she was a poet first. Her poems were actually a revelation. Reading latinx poets is actually a revelation for me. W.H. Auden too actually wrote one of the most carnal erotic poems called “The Platonic Blow”. Lately, it’s been Sylvia Plath and Sexton. I like poets that use strict form, even though I don’t. Juan Felipe Herrera. His is the only reading I ever went to where there was an encore.
FP: Back to your exuberant inspiration—I don’t think it’s the same for all poets out there, where they see something external to them whether its a person, a body, a piece of art, a song—they experience something outside themselves and there’s an immediate instinct to put that experience into poetry, into language.
AC: Well, it’s not something that happened over night. I keep telling people that I had to train my creative muscle. Ask anyone who works out. The hardest thing is when you’re starting it. There’s a million things you want to do except for that. I had to train my creative muscle every day to write. When something appears in my life, I don’t think it’s an accident. That’s why I’m always reflecting because anything that’s in anybody’s universe, is going to be specific to them. A lot of times, my wife and I will be watching a movie and then all the sudden I bring out the pen. There’s a scene in Handmaid’s Tale where two handmaids are walking across the shop talking about ice cream. That made it into a poem.
FP: When you say, it’s for you, it’s meant to be for you—where does that sense come from?
AC: I think for a long time, before I got accepted into Antioch, I had this fear: what’s going to be my legacy? I felt like I was wandering lost. But now that I’ve found what I want to to do, I don’t want to waste any time. I’d be betraying my creative instincts if I don’t write it down. I’m really tied into the trying to reflect. Even if it doesn’t come out good, at least I put it down. It’s something that Maya Angelou said, that basically she encourages people to write everyday and I follow her lead. The quote is that, even if you write the cat is on the hat on the mat—that’s going to lead you into two or three poems later. I found it happening where in the morning I write this poem that is so terrible. Then later on that day or that week, just putting that out will lead to something else.
FP: You’re one of the most prolific poets I know. If you actually listed out your publication credentials, it’d go two pages. So I think this idea of training the creative muscle, that it didn’t happen over night is important. I think most people who are going to see that about you are going to think that’s part of who Adrian has always been, that he’s always been prolific. But you’re saying that there was a shift, that you had to deliberately choose to become that prolific as a poet.
AC: I took the whole Malcolm Gladwell twenty thousand hours and I ran with it. I created a blog about my favorite songs and I’d just write about it. One of the things I tell young writers to do is that you need to pavlov your poetry. Writing is a really solitary act, so when you finish and complete something give yourself a treat. You have to train your brain. That took like 3 or four years to do, doing it every day. After a while, the first thing I do every day is write.
Surround yourself with people who can harness that and not complain, oh he’s writing again. I remember one time we were in Vegas with my wife’s family. I started to write something down, and then one of my wife’s uncles was like, wait wait wait. They were waiting for me to finish what I was writing. That’s the kind of support that you need and a lot of people don’t have that.
I remember the “Fear of Driving” poem from the collection. For my MFA graduation, my Dad who has been a supporter of me, he bequeathed me his car. My wife and I had to fly to San Antonio where they were so we could drive it back. That was around the time of Sandra Bland. So I had all this anxiety of driving this nice car. Before I left, I picked up Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying book. I was having trouble sleeping and I was reading the book. I woke up at two in the morning and it came to me. I wrote the poem at two in the morning.
FP: “I have no fear of driving, I just don’t want to write gun poetry.” That’s a great line from that poem.
AC: Yea, whenever I have any kind of stress or problems, poetry is my outlet. It loosens the way for me and helps me. Like when my mom passed away. I was just writing so much over there, with my dad, and it was so helpful to do. I realized that I have this outlet. I read poems at my mom’s memorial service, and the reaction I got made me think, okay, I can put these poems together.
FP: Well, this whole thing feels like a release. It’s a total complement, and admirable that everything is consistently Adrian throughout. From page one to page one hundred ten, it’s all Adrian.
AC: It required all this work, rewiring my creative sense, what I wanted to do. I’ve always felt like whenever I was trying to do stuff, trying to make money, it was always like blocks. Whenever I do things, using my writing and poetry, doors open. I’m doing this because I want my poems to resonate with people, like if he can do it, I can too.
Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is the author of the full-length poetry collection Flashbacks & Verses… Becoming Attractions from Unsolicited Press and the poetry chapbook So Many Flowers, So Little Time from Red Mare Press. His poetry has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Frontier Poetry, poeticdiversity, The Wild Word, The Fem, Rigorous, Palette Poetry, and Lunch Ticket’s Special Issue: Celebrating 20 Years of Antioch University Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing.
One of his poems was named the winner of Subterranean Blue Poetry’s 2016 “The Children of Orpheus” Anthology Contest and two of his poems “Buzz Me” and “Estranged Fruit” were nominated for Best of the Net in 2015 and 2016.
Adrian is an LA Poet who has a BA from the University of Texas at San Antonio and he is also a graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and their cat Woody Gold. You can connect with Adrian on his website: http://www.adrianernestocepeda.com/