How It’s Made: Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat
We’re so happy to have had the chance to look under the hood of the 2020 winner of the National Poetry Series winning debut by Benjamin Garcia, Thrown in the Throat (from Milkweed Editions). With our How It’s Made series, we endeavor to take away some of that ever-present mystery of how a collection comes to being.
What were the most joyful moments of Thrown in the Throat journey to publication?
Working on the ode sequence was especially fun—fun in that rapturous, obsessive way. I didn’t know I was beginning a sequence with “Ode to the Corpse Flower.” It began as a simple question in my notebook: in the language of flowers, which one says “fuck you?” Once corpse flower walked into the poem, it demanded my attention. I stayed awake until two or three in the morning writing the first draft. The biggest thrill of writing is getting lost in the work.
“Ode to the Corpse Flower” was a break through, not just because it led me to the other odes, but because it’s one of the first poems that liberated me from the constraints of “What will Fulano, Zutano, Mengano think? Will it make sense? Will anyone publish this? Is it too extra?” When it comes to extra, corpse flower said, there is no too. It’s either extra or it’s not. So, I let the poem take control. This isn’t to say that excess can’t be directed, but I needed to release those questions first. It’s ironic that as I stopped worrying about publication, more acceptances seemed to come in. Maybe my energy was better directed or maybe I gave up trying to watch water boil. Either way, it’s a joy anytime an editor shares your words.
The most memorable joy along the way might be the phone call from Beth Dial at the National Poetry Series informing me that Kazim Ali had selected my book for publication with Milkweed Editions. I received it while on a bus headed for New York City to visit a friend and to celebrate my partner’s birthday. We were then to fly to San Francisco, after which I’d head to Los Angeles for Lambda Literary’s Emerging Writer’s Retreat. That call was the cherry on top of an already very gay cupcake. Thank you to my wonderful hosts, and thank you to the sponsors who made my Lambda Literary trip possible.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
Order, order, order. For a long time, I wasn’t starting with the right building blocks. I needed to be honest with myself about which poems were ready. It’s hard to let go of poems. But after doing this, I could see connections more clearly. I read book after book of poetry, as if there would be an epiphany. In the end what I slowly came away with is this: it’s useful to study structure, but you shouldn’t expect anyone else’s book to show you exactly how to structure yours. That comes from listening to your own work and using borrowed tools.
Being rejected. It’s especially hard when submissions cost money and you have student loans/work in nonprofit/help support your family. But getting rejected is like getting published: on its own, it doesn’t make your writing better or worse. Sometimes good poems get rejected. Sometimes less than finished poems get published. Keep writing. Keep submitting. Keep revising. Rejections suck—that hasn’t changed. But in the end, I know my book is stronger for it.
Promoting my work is probably the hardest part of getting the collection out there. I’m pretty introverted, despite what my poetry or social media accounts might suggest. Because I’m so afraid of being an inconvenience, I’m always grateful when other writers share their excitement for my work. I am learning to become more vocal in my celebration of others, which has also increased my comfort in doing this for myself. It’s not always easy, but it is simple: cheer for what you love. Otherwise, what’s the point?
An author never really works alone—without whose support would THROWN IN THE THROAT not have made it across the finish line?
So many. My acknowledgements page is loooong. Here are just a few:
Early on, CantoMundo provided me with a wide community of writers that helped me see the plurality of Latinx poetic traditions and how to locate myself within it. It provided space to talk about poetry without having to explain or defend certain experiences. I was grateful to feel a little less alone. Thank you to all my CantoMundo family. Being part of this community has also opened other doors.
The Frost Place Conference on Poetry had a huge impact on the development of this book. The level of rigor and care Frost Place faculty provides is both generous and humbling. In addition to new friendships, I found a great deal of inspiration at this conference. Several poems in THROWN IN THE THROAT began from my time there, including the first poem in a second series. Thank you to all of the folks at the Frost Place, especially Maudelle Driskell and Patrick Donnelly. Your kindness has kept me going.
Most of this book was written post-MFA, but those first two years after graduation were a little rough. I was working a day job with a two-hour daily commute. I wasn’t writing much. Because of challenges like these, Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez, Liza Flum, Emily Oliver, and I got together to create a small writing circle we called The Ironclad Medusa Collective. The name came from a big Medusa head fireplace cover in the room where we gathered. Also, it was just fun to say—ironclad Medusa! We shared poems without critique and read books for the joy of it. Currently, the snakes only convene via Zoom to sip cocktails and cast spells against the patriarchy.
The friends I would bother at all hours with unsolicited poems from sheer excitement: Alex Chertok, Casandra López, Christopher Phelps, Tacey Atsitty, Susaznne Richardson, and Tanaya Winder. Thank you for never saying “stop, this is harassment.” The best joy after getting gripped by a poem is sharing it with a trusted reader.
My partner. Sometimes this support looks like eating cheesecake for breakfast, giving up common spaces, ordering takeout, having patience, watching one more episode of HANNIBAL, putting up with puns and associative word loops. In other words, he’s a great companion.
What did you learn about writing and poetry over the journey of this book?
Being a writer is all about the long arc. We want things NOW, at least, I always have. Especially when it comes to publishing. But it rarely works out that way. And even when it does, then what?
Better to get lost in the work. If not yours, someone else’s.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
Until my partner slowly introduced them into my life, I was sure musicals were not for me. My partner teaches theater and directs his high school’s musical. He also directs and performs in community theater and regularly attends live shows. I didn’t know it then, but I was doomed the moment we met.
One day, I stopped to stretch my legs at Goodwill on my commute home and found myself buying the original Broadway cast recording of INTO THE WOODS. On a different stop, HAIR. Then JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. HAIRSPRAY. GODSPELL. Because I cover seven rural counties in New York for work, I drive a lot. CDs often have time to loop back over. It became a kind of game to discover new musicals in random, small town secondhand shops. Having little context for each show, part of the fun was to piece a story together based solely on the music. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes comically wrong.
In a passive way, I think listening to measured words set to music improved my ear for metrics. In a more active way, I was studying them for line breaks, syntax, pattern, diction, tone—poetry by another name. Now I seek out live theater, watch recordings of live performance, sing random show tunes. When I make a fragmented or obscure reference to a musical number and my partner can’t guess it, I joke that it’s because I know more musicals. He likes to joke that I thought EVITA consisted of just the second act, since I only purchased disc two of a two-disc set. Like I said, sometimes I got the story very wrong.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
To paraphrase a mentor, Kenneth McClane: “Just because you published it, doesn’t mean you have to include it in your manuscript.” And it’s true. Sometimes poems don’t fit or aren’t ready. Listen for what the book is asking.
Benjamin Garcia’s first collection of poems, Thrown in the Throat, was selected for the 2019 National Poetry Series by Kazim Ali. He is a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow, was the 2017 Latinx Scholar at the Frost Place, and was a 2018 CantoMundo Fellow at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2018, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and New England Review. Garcia received his MFA from Cornell University and currently works as a sexual health and harm reduction educator in the Finger Lakes region of New York.