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Q&A with mónica teresa ortiz
My friend, the poet on: growing up in the Panhandle, Texas as a "Death-World," queer futurity and letters to the land.
I met mónica teresa ortiz in Austin around 2012. My wife, who I was dating at the time, interned at an organization for construction workers’ rights. My wife dragged me to all the org's actions. I was just coming into my political consciousness and was learning so much about all the fucked up shit around me. mónica was involved with the org and at many of these actions. Soon, we started to become friends.
Over the years, mónica has become a close friend and someone I deeply admire. I turn to her work over and over again because her words are intoxicatingly, painfully accurate and I’m addicted to knowing the truth. I’ve been honored to edit mónica’s essays for Autostraddle, which you should definitely read. I’ve also been honored to spend time with her in my home and exchange crucial conversations that have shaped the way I think about the world.
I’m excited to share with you this interview with her. I encourage you to read her work, follow her on Twitter, and keep an eye out for her future writing workshops!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Yvonne: I don't think I've ever asked you this, but why do you do poetry? What's your origin story?
mónica: I always liked writing. It was always something that I felt was very easy for me to do. I remember the first thing I ever wrote, I was in third grade. I wrote a retelling of the story of Robin Hood, in my own version. And then I became really interested in journalism actually. I did a lot of UIL writing competitions.
Oh really! I didn't know that.
Yeah, so I was always interested in telling stories and to some degree investigating. I was always a very observant and curious person. When I got to high school I also did journalism. When I was a freshman in high school, my teacher who was also the coach for UIL, got me into a program at UT. I don't know if they still do, but it was a summer program for high school students. It was basically a creative writing and journalism camp. When I was 14, she drove me to Austin. I got to stay on campus at UT in the dorms and attend all these workshops and seminars with different writing teachers from across the state. It was such a different experience than my very small town in the Bible belt. It made me really want to pursue journalism as my study and it made me want to go to school at UT Austin. During high school, that's pretty much all I was focused on was writing and doing well in school and doing competitions.
When I was 16, I got a job at the county newspaper. I worked there from the time I was a sophomore until I graduated. I was mostly doing layouts. I learned how to do darkroom photography. I covered a little bit of sports. I only ended up writing like one or two stories. A lot of my work was not glorious. I was learning and just like the intern there. But it was nice, because I spent a lot of time talking to the editor who owned the paper. He was this older man named Don Nelson, and he had actually gone to school at UT and studied journalism. He taught me a lot and always gave me an opportunity to learn more.
I applied to the university and I was accepted. I actually got into their journalism program. So I was a journalism student when I started at UT. I wanted to do magazine journalism, so that's where I started.
This is so funny that this is your origin story! I love this so much.
Yeah, it’s where I started. You can still see it in a lot of my poetry and that's why I really enjoy reading books written by journalists. I like the balance between learning and studying and getting into different aspects of the story. I think that definitely influenced my poetry later.
But when I was a freshman, I took a journalism class, which is required of all journalism students at UT, J310.
Yeah, it's still called J310. [Side note: I was also a UT journalism major]
I don't know who taught it when you were there, but my teacher was Bob Jenson in that class. One thing I do remember is we covered the Vietnam War. He went over the ethics of it because it was one of the first wars that the media and journalism broadcasted for people to see. After that class, I began to question whether this was something that I wanted to be a part of. They emphasize non-partisanship and not having a politic, which, even though I was 18-19, was already hard for me. I had come from such a rural, conservative area, and I already began to formulate different ideas from the ones that I was raised with, especially during that time.
I graduated high school in ‘99, so that was when Columbine happened. I was a senior in high school. It was also around the time that Matthew Shepard was beaten and killed. There were just a lot of different political events happening in the country that were receiving more coverage. It was also the first election that I could vote in and I ended up voting Green Party, for Ralph Nader. I was at the capitol when they announced the results of the election. And of course, they declared Al Gore the winner which, in my young unformed mind, at that time, I could live with. And then the next morning, of course, Florida delivered the election, and George Bush was declared the winner. I think that changed the trajectory of so many things.
The next year in 2000, I took a poetry class. It was called introduction to policies and I just really loved poetry. I had read poetry in high school, but most of the time they just feed you by default white poets. So we had read a lot of the Renaissance poets, John Donne, Keats, Yeats, Shakespeare, etc. all of those guys. But in this class, my teacher was a grad student, and he had us reading...I remember the first book that really just made me want to be a poet which was Audre Lorde's, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance. It just changed everything for me. For the first time, I was like, oh, poetry is something that is accessible. It's not just something for white people. That book in particular is the catalyst for my origin story.
Before that semester ended, I went to the College of Communications and told them I was changing my major to English. And they were pretty shocked. I think people didn't do that. I liked writing, I liked studying poetry, but I didn't think that it was something I could do until right before I graduated. I took creative writing classes and I had these professors who started talking to me about MFA programs which was like, one way for me to develop my craft.
Then you went to get your MFA in El Paso.
El Paso had always called to me. My dad is from Del Rio. I spent a lot of my summers as a child in Del Rio, which is in South Texas, on the border. I think part of me had always wanted to go to the border, and know what that experience was. My mom is from Chihuahua so there was also another part of me that felt like spending time in the Chihuahuan Desert would be really important for me. And I had family in El Paso. So I found out that they had an MFA program that was bilingual, that they didn't just focus on English literature, which I was already tired of, because, again most of my experience taking classes at UT were very white-centered text. So I was interested in reading texts that were from Spanish-speaking and Spanish-writing poets.
That's so great.
You're from the panhandle. So what was it like growing up there?
It's one of the most conservative areas in the country. I like to say that people here are probably some of the most polite racists they will ever find. But it is extremely, extremely racist. It's still very segregated in a lot of ways. It's very conservative and religion-oriented; a lot of churches, Catholic churches, Methodist churches, Southern Baptist.
It was very hard, to be honest, to grow up here. Because it's racist, it's extremely homophobic. It's very religious, there's just a lot of suppression of self. In order to survive, I chose to focus on studying and getting out of here. But I have many stories of things that I saw that really affected me, and affected the way that I see things. My cousins are mixed — they're half Black and half Mexican. They had extremely horrible experiences of racism, which affected them incredibly. I'm a little bit younger than them so I saw that happening to them, that affected me. I had a childhood friend growing up — he was just very undeniably gay from a young age. And I also witnessed how he was treated and threatened and how unsafe his life was here.
I write quite a lot about death. I think that's because I learned from a very young age that it's part of life. I learned a lot about loss and grief very early.
During the pandemic, you lost your job. You were living in Austin, and then you went back home to the Panhandle, which you just described growing up there. What's it been like, as an artist and writer, going back home?
I had been living in Austin since 2009 and had been at my job since 2012. So I had been there a while. I did my undergrad at UT from ‘99 to 2003. I have seen a lot of change in Austin. I had witnessed the massive scale gentrification that happened there and the altering, I suppose, of the landscape in the city.
I worked at a coffee shop and didn't make a lot of money. I was part of the service industry, which in a city that is as expensive as Austin — it's just very unequal, the way that certain classes of people are treated and the limited amount of resources that they have compared to the rest of the city. Austin is sold as this oasis of liberalism in Texas, and that's a completely false perception. It can be incredibly homophobic. There's a lot of anti-blackness in the city. It was a city that was constructed architecturally to be segregated, and that still lingers in the city. It's just been made worse by gentrification and by the influx of people that have moved into the city from different parts of the country, bought up properties, raised prices and driven out Black and Latinx families that have lived there for quite a bit of time.
So that was the city I had been living in and to be honest, I was really tired of. Also something that people don't talk about often is the amount of police violence, and the militarization of APD. I also witnessed this escalation of abuse and violence from APD over the years. And I was exhausted from that. When I lost my job, I wasn't sad about it. I felt it was a good moment to move on and to reset my life.
I had run away at 18 from this place, where I grew up and now I was returning. And obviously, there's still things here that are visible. I moved back in March of 2020. Again, it's a very conservative area. So there are a lot of people who supported and still support Donald Trump and everything that he represents. The poet Harmony Holiday calls this the myth of white supremacy because we say “white supremacy” but she points out there's this assumption that whiteness is above all else. So instead she has called it the myth of white supremacy which is definitely evident here.
Now that I'm older, and I have a different understanding of globalization and capitalism and all of these different lenses, being home has been really interesting because I'm seeing a different landscape through different eyes. I spend a lot of time reflecting on my youth as well. For example, the cattle industry is a huge part of this area. It’s something I was just so used to and it was just so common growing up but now I'm like, oh my god, this is truly wild. Sometimes at dusk, because of the cattle, there's just so much methane, that everything becomes really obscured and there's just fog. It's fecal matter that's in the air and it causes everything to be in this haze. In my mind now I'm like, oh my god, people are breathing this. There are people that are working in these conditions. Being more aware of that now has been really eye opening to me — like actually seeing these different ways that environmental racism and capitalism affect people here.
You call Texas a “Death-World” in your book, Autobiography of a Semiromantic Anarchist. I can understand why you call it that for the reasons you just described. So my question is, why do you still choose to live in Texas?
I was born here. I was raised here. And even as I've grown, physically, emotionally, spiritually, politically, through the years I came to recognize a lot of faults in this place that I call home. It's really challenged the idea of what home is for me, and especially also as a queer person. There have been times when I've been estranged from my blood family, and I've had to build community with others. I had a more complicated relationship to Texas, especially because it is so conservative and it really relies on its own mythology that comes from colonization and stealing land from the indigenous nations that have been the stewards of this land for thousands of years. So my relationship to this place has changed a lot over the years.
But also one reason that I am committed to this place is because I want it to be better. I want it to change. I still believe in a future that is not rooted in colonization, that is not rooted in capitalism, that is not rooted in anti-blackness. I firmly believe that leaving is not going to change the present. I could have gone to New York, I could have gone to LA, to Chicago, to any one of the other major metropolises in the country to be a writer. But I think that it's important for me to be here and committed to changing the conversations and changing what this place could be and I think that's one of the reasons that I continue to stay here.
You also mention in your book, “queer futurity is the best bomb shelter we could ever build.” What does that mean for you? Can you just talk a little bit more about that?
I think about that line a lot. When I wrote it, I had read a book by José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. It had given me the concept of what is possible. It related back to my youth as well. Everything for me as a teenager was about the future. Because it was the thing that gave me hope. I knew living in this rural, conservative town, I couldn't change my present at that moment. But I knew that I could change my future — I could leave this place and in the future, there would be more freedom. There is the possibility of liberation.
For me, that line kind of recalls that feeling. In a lot of ways, the past and the present, there is a lot of violence, there has been a lot of grief, a lot of horrible, awful things have happened. But there's still that possibility of a future. For me, a part of, what has gotten me through many things is queerness. And I'm not saying queer, necessarily, in terms of my sexuality, but as a politic, because I think it's a very different idea. It's the politics of queerness. It's about building bonds and relationships with other people that are not necessarily blood family. It's about care, it's about community, it's kind of this creation of possibility of something better and different than this heteronormative, patriarchal society that we live in now. And so I think that that's kind of where it comes from — there's a hope in that.
We talk about “let's burn this all down” as a metaphor but then, in some cases, that's not a metaphor, we really want things to burn down. I think about that a lot too. If things do burn down, like literally, then what is going to get us through that, and I think for me, it’s queer families, queer politics and practices.
You wrote that in 2019, before the pandemic. How does that apply to now especially during the pandemic, or especially now that this has happened? How do you see that in practice now in your own life?
I think the pandemic has altered many of our lives in ways that I think are not going to allow us to return to what was before. I've been doing these writing workshops with The Operating System and the title is Letters to the Land: Eating With Gratitude. One thing that we have talked about a lot in these workshops is about practices of gratitude, and not just for our lives, but creating reciprocal exchanges between ourselves and non-human entities, like land, water, animals, birds, the air.
That's something I've been spending a lot of my time thinking about really, especially during this pandemic, and also having returned to the Panhandle, which in terms of physical descriptors, it's the bottom half of the High Plains of the Great Plains, so it's very flat out here. There's a lot of open space. You can see miles in any direction, and the sky here is bigger than anywhere else in Texas; it's an ocean, really. But being home and returning to all of this space and openness has really allowed me the same space to reflect and to think outside of these structures that the pandemic has shown their weaknesses to the way that we have been living before. There is possibility that these things can change.
One thing that I've really appreciated is there's been a lot of accessibility to conversations and discussions from poets, public intellectuals, people who are doing different kinds of really incredible work. One of those people is the poet Dionne Brand. There's an essay that she shared where she writes, “What COVID-19 has done is expose even further the endoskeleton of the world,” and I thought a lot about that. There has been this skeleton, or this shell that maybe a lot of people haven't seen or haven't noticed for various reasons. Again, capitalism or this myth of white supremacy.
Now like in the Wizard of Oz, the veil has been pulled back. People, now can see it. The issue is: now that you've seen it, what are you going to do about it? And when I'm talking about people, I'm talking more specifically non-Black and non-Native people because I think it's important to recognize that it is non-Black, non-Native people who need to reckon with the way that we've built this society.
Is there anything else that you're working on currently that you're excited about?
One thing that I've kind of started doing is moving away from poetry into doing other kinds of creative work. For me, that looks like doing these kinds of workshops, having conversations with people in other fields. One particular area that I've become really obsessed with is geography. I love reading the work of Black, Indigenous geographers. It’s where I've found some of the most radical work is in this area. I'm really interested in that and rethinking these terms, the way that we define certain things, even geography itself, and its proximity to colonialism and whiteness. That's affected a lot of the work that I want to do. I have a project on the horizon that has a lot to do with working on these areas of relationships, to land, to water, to non-human life and becoming more aware of and more intentional about the way that we relate to space and to the space around us.
That's great. Also, it doesn't surprise me that these are the projects you're interested in, because all of your work always references the land and geography and space. So it's really great that you're gonna continue that. That's really interesting to me, too.
Obviously, it has affected me a lot. It's important to recognize our relationship to these places that it's not just a place where we live. In some senses, it's a metaphysical experience of being able to relate to the histories of the land and the story that it holds, and the stories of non-human life as well. Capitalism, especially, has not allowed us to do that. Capitalism has an extremely extractive relationship to the land and to water because it just wants to take resources and exploit them. It's important to rethink that relationship, or not view land or water as a source for extraction.