Nico Amador’s “Flower Wars” is a collection that lives up to its oxymoronic title. It is grounded, it is alive and growing, but it is also full of tension, power and conviction. The 2016 Anzaldúa Poetry Prize winner is nothing less than the heartfelt work of a poet formed by the strength of his political beliefs and his desire to understand and express his place in the world as a queer, trans and mixed-race poet.
To read “Flower Wars” is to see all of these labels both interwoven and dismissed. Amador’s collection, though it so delicately touches the nerves of modern life and confronts the shadows that we see growing in society’s corners, is able to provide for multiple types of reader. It is light, beautiful and fully capable of staking its claim as part of the contemporary poetic renaissance.
Nico Amador’s work has appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod International Journal, MiPOesias, HOLD, Big Bell, Plenitude, Bedfellows, and APIARY Magazine, and he is an alumni of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Writer’s Retreat. “Flower Wars” will be published by Newfound in 2017.
Writing in a way that risks exposure, that connects in an honest way, is a matter of integrity for me – Nico Amador
Josh King: I’d love to hear a little more about your writing history and your personal view of the writing life. Has your poetry, in your view, always been the shape that it is now, or do you see it reincarnating continuously as you mature?
Nico Amador: There’s a few different stories I could tell about my writing history but I think it’s fair to say that I probably wouldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t first become an activist. I became politicized as student in the wake of 9/11, from seeing the ways the government was manipulating the fear of terrorism to wage a war on Iraq, to profile Muslims and immigrants, to fuel the systems that funnel young people of color into the military and into prison.
At the same time, the spoken word and underground hip hop scene was thriving and these art forms were real tools for drawing people into these issues. Open mics became a recruitment strategy for our campaigns on campus – but that meant all of us had to be ready with our own work in order to ensure enough readers for a successful event. Everyone was expected to put their name on the list. So really, I first started writing poems as a function of my political work.
But the effect of having that space within our organizing work was transformative beyond whatever initial motivations we had for it. It allowed us to build an organizing culture that wasn’t based on dogmatism – participation required a measure of personal courage, vulnerability and witness. I felt that it deepened our commitment to each other across issue and identity, as well as to our own voices. It kept me returning to the page despite how difficult and clumsy it felt at times.
Certainly, my poems have evolved since then. My curiosity has led me to other influences and I’ve moved away from a performative style to one that’s quieter, more authentic to who I am. But I still write with those earlier rooms in mind. Writing in a way that risks exposure, that connects in an honest way, is a matter of integrity for me. I hope to never embarrass myself by becoming so pretentious a writer that I couldn’t find an audience with the person I was when I was twenty.
King: So, with that in mind, do you consider yours a writing life? Do you have a schedule for your writing, or does it come out when you are politically motivated?
Amador: My work as a writer and my political work inform one another but each requires its own kind of attention. I don’t have the privilege or desire to abandon all other commitments in order to devote myself completely to the writing life, so making room for both is a constant negotiation but one that has a symbiosis to it. My political work gives me a location from which to write from – it takes me places, literally and figuratively, and those places become sites of tension and wonder and longing and relationship that is worth writing about.
At the same time, the vision and the imagination that is necessary to the success of social movements can be easily consumed by the daily work it requires. It’s a grind – conference calls and meetings and hammering out the same kinds of emails over and over again and facing down the feeling that nothing you’re doing is meeting the urgency of the crisis at hand. Writing is a way to root in a practice of creation. I try to write most mornings for at least a couple hours, and there’s a discipline to protecting that time that I think is important for anyone in the long haul of social change work. It’s more than self-care, it’s staying conditioned to an attitude of possibility, of thinking elastically.
King: For those who know a little about you and work, both in writing and in activism, your poetry seems to do great justice, and act as great contextual pieces, to the causes you have stood for. Do you find that you are under any obligation, or any innate compulsion, to write from the perspective of a queer person, or about race, especially in the political climate in which we currently live?
Amador: One impact of oppression is that our sense of choice is narrowed. It imposes circumstances in which we can only be one thing or another, it robs us of our complexity. The poem is a space in which we are permitted to be whole. I find relief in getting to approach the page, not from a sense of mandate but from whatever questions are alive inside me. In getting to ask, what is true for me today? What am I drawn to that is delightful or troubling or strange? And each day the answer is allowed to change if it wants to.
Ultimately, that kind of process does those causes or perspectives more justice, as you say, because they’re allowed to exist within a kind of internal democracy, one that has many interests and many points of intersection. That to me is queerness or racial justice at its most liberatory. It’s not just the assertion of a single issue or identity, but about lifting the restrictions that have been placed upon us so that we can live in the full range of who we are. In this current climate, which is so restrictive and so polarized, I want to keep insisting on the right to have places where we get to experience freedom, wherever we can find it.
King: Tell me a little about the creation of “Flower Wars.” How long did it take? Do you remember the moment that it first sparked into life?
Amador: The oldest poem in “Flower Wars” is at least eight years old and the newest is only a few months old. In that span of time I wrote about sixty or seventy poems in order to be able to curate the slim collection that appears in this chapbook, because I was still teaching myself how to write during that time. Many of the poems in “Flower Wars” started as writing exercises, I didn’t have a plan for them. But at a certain point, I could see which poems had lasted, and how they spoke to each other.
One day I printed everything out and sat with pages and pages of poems spread out on the floor of my office and shuffled them around until I understood the story they were trying to tell. After that, it only took about a year to fill in the gaps and finish shaping them into the final manuscript.
To be trans or gender non-conforming is, in many ways, to live at the perimeter of what is considered real. – Nico Amador
King: When reading through “Flower Wars,” I was drawn in by the rises and falls from reality into a kind of surreality that you achieved by changing the time frame, the form the poem comes in or the vantage point we have as a reader, for all of which there are numerous great examples. How much do you find the vivid and personal themes affect the way you present your work?
Amador: So much of this chapbook is shaped by how I came to an understanding of myself as trans and what that meant in relationship to the rest of my environment and the histories I’m connected to. To be trans or gender non-conforming is, in many ways, to live at the perimeter of what is considered real. So much of who we are is not given validity in culture or language or law or ways of thinking about the body.
The surreality of the poems are an expression of what it feels like to interact with the world when our place in it has to be either imagined or explained in approximation to what is more readily known and understood. Invention and metaphor become a necessity, a way of building a bridge between ourselves and what others define as reality. There is pain that comes from the isolation of that position, but also a tremendous access to magic and beauty. I wanted my words to reflect both.
King: As a mixed-race writer, and a Latino, how important is a sense of place in your work? Is it important for a poet to anchor themselves to a certain place?
Amador: Most of the poems in “Flower Wars” are sourced in some way from encounters with place, real or imagined. But the way place shows up is episodic, it’s in these acute moments that happen as part of a larger journey, there’s not a single anchor. There’s descriptions of places like Denver, Minneapolis, Nicaragua, which I’ve only passed through as a visitor, but there’s very little of Philadelphia, where I lived when I was writing those poems, or San Diego, where I’m from.
I do think that’s partly about being mixed race – I think that’s what Anzaldúa means when she describes what it is to live in the borderlands or when Rebecca Walker writes that she feels more comfortable in airports than anywhere else. That our sense of belonging isn’t attached to one place but in what’s liminal. When I’m in one place too long I get restless, I feel depressed. It’s when I’m in motion between places that feel most alive, when I’m able to see and think most clearly about what’s around me.
King: How do you think poetry fits into today’s society? Obviously, in recent months, even days, the poetry that has erupted has been loud and powerful and creative, but how, if at all, do you see the poet speaking out against society’s evils in a way that can make a difference?
Amador: In any highly repressive system, I don’t doubt that the role of the poet is necessary, though it is difficult to know exactly how or what that means. It’s something I think a lot of writers are struggling with right now, myself included.
I was just listening to a discussion about Adrianne Rich and how even in the role of the poet she saw herself as a worker. I took that to mean not only that she saw her poetry as a form of labor, but also that she didn’t view herself or her labor as superior to anyone else’s. There’s something in that attitude that I find helpful for this moment. That the role of the poet isn’t to deliver truth to the masses from on high, but to be a worker that is allied with other workers that will have to fight the battles ahead on multiple fronts.
The poem is only useful as much as it’s a tool used in relationship to other tools and strategies – the word alone will not save us. I can’t say what each of us should do or how we should act at this moment, but I think we all should be asking ourselves, Where can I push back on or withdraw my participation in institutions that are causing harm? Where do I have the ability to influence power? What am I willing to risk? What actions can I take to be in solidarity with those around me?
King: I saw elements of e.e.cummings, of Alberto Rios, and a mix of the surreal and the natural, colliding head on to express something banal and human. There are also mentions of poetry and poets, such as Pablo Neruda, peppered throughout, creating a sort of timeless world where poets share the modern world. Where do you see your fitting into the poetic tradition? Who would you list, if there is anyone, as your main inspirations?
Amador: June Jordan was the first poet that I really latched onto as an influence, first because of her politics but later because of her lyricism and her effortlessness with sound in a poem. She gave me my ear and my attention to the arrangement of words within a line. And yes, of course, Neruda, the lushness of his poems, the emotional force of his imagery. The first time I heard Eduardo Corral read it was as though he’d conjured a door and handed me the key. And I also spent several years learning from the poet Michael Loughran, who has been a wonderful teacher and whose personal influences span a very different territory – The New York School, Gerald Stern, Mary Rufle, Dean Young – to which I was somewhat resistant at first. But I’ve come to love those poets also, they’re helpful counter-weights, they keep me from becoming too lofty or too pretty.
King: Speaking of inspirations, what are the best pieces of advice you’ve received from other poets? And what advice would you pass on to someone wanting to write their first collection?
Amador: Don’t be boring. Not just in what you write but in how you observe your surroundings in between the times you sit down to write. To try to notice what others aren’t noticing or to notice them differently. That, and I also had a mentor tell me to treat the poem as a made object, a thing that can be taken apart and reconstructed and made better if it isn’t working. Taking on that attitude helped me become a more fearless editor of my own work. That’s the advice I’d pass along, to put in the time in on revision and insist on pushing the poems as far as they can go.