An Interview with Bill Tremblay on Radical Poetry and the Art and Life of David Siqueiros
I’m beginning the “Political Poetry” series with an interview with poet Bill Tremblay and an overview of his new book, Magician’s Hat: Poems on the Life and Art of David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Bill Tremblay was born in Southbridge, Massachusetts. His poems have been published in literary magazines and seven prior books in the United States and Canada. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Fulbright, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Poetry. He is a John F. Stern Distinguished Professor for his thirty-three years teaching in and directing the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University. He co-founded the literary magazine, Colorado Review.
Tremblay’s latest work, Magician’s Hat, consists of thirty-four beautifully constructed poems about the Mexican muralist, José Alfaro Siqueiros, whose life is a story of war, revolutionary politics, passionate love, persecution, and artistic innovation.
The poems focus on the period 1936-40, but with flashbacks and flash-forwards we see the arc of his life. He was born in Chihuahua in 1896. In 1914, he joined the Mexican Revolution to free the campesinos from the cruelty of the peonage system. He was posted to Europe, studied art, and returned to Mexico to work first on public mural projects with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, then as a labor organizer, resulting in his imprisonment. He was sent into internal exile and began painting revolutionary art. After a conversation with Stalin in Moscow arranged by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, he turned to modern methods to reflect modern struggle.
Siqueiros was a lifelong communist who, after receiving the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967, sent the prize money to Ho Chi Minh.
Tremblay’s book of poems captures the soul of Siqueiros as honestly, eloquently and passionately as Siqueiros in his epic murals depicts the struggle of the Mexican people. The strength of Magicians Hat is exactly that—the honest, eloquent and compelling way Tremblay presents Siqueiros’s conflicts and suffering, along with his triumphs, unbounded courage, and zest for living life large.
I’ve never read a book of poems like Magician’s Hat. It’s hard to put a label on it, although unique and ambitious and daring come to mind. So do the words pleasurable, highly entertaining, educational and worthy of emulation. Tremblay calls his poetry “concrete expressionism.” As theorized by Mark Edmundson in his recent article “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse” (Harpers, July 2013), poetry today has little relevance to social and political issues and prefers to reside in the inner lives of individual poets.
I promise you, Magicians Hat is relevant.
Tremblay refers to the style as “lyrical narrative,” as illustrated in the following lines from the poem “Killing Time” in Magician’s Hat:
… as he turned onto Vienna Street
what came to him was the music of bed creak,
love moan, bird cry, war dance, seed time,
struggle-in-the-street song, his hands
beautiful as lilacs over stretch-marked canvas …
The imagery, with its jazzy rhythms, is meant to evoke a woman’s belly-skin stretched from giving birth. Tremblay calls his innovative form “poetic montage.”
The poetry is first rate. There is not a wasted word, not a word out of place. Lots of verbs and, as in the murals they often depict, people in movement. Each line is worth savoring, reflecting upon.
The dialogue is especially insightful and exciting. In the poem “Café Barcelona,” Tremblay describes Siqueiros drinking with Ernest Hemingway and a Mexican military officer. They’re taking a break from fighting the fascists and talking about women. Hemingway says: “strong women are impossible, but who cares about the other kind”. The three men then walk outside into a firefight between anti-fascist Loyalist troops and a brigade under the banner of Leon Trotsky’s P.O.U.M.
Siqueiros fought all his life—fought the oppression that comes at us in endless waves—and there are wonderfully descriptive battle scenes, not the stuff you find in expository biographies. There are also unforgettable love scenes, including one of Siqueiros and Angelica Arenal in bed:
They kissed like drunken poets singing
on a Madrid rooftop, poets who promise to bring
each other in the small things of life
peace enough to go on with the struggle,
As if war were fireworks and only
spilled wine covered the cobblestone streets.
In capturing the spirit of Mexico, Tremblay, like Siqueiros, contrasts the ancient Aztec gods with Christian symbols. In one poem he tells of “Spelling the Virgin’s outline/Like flaming ink from a pen, glittering/On the Archbishop’s gold embroidered robe.” We see a “the sky full of black crucifixes.”
In another poem Siqueiros says: “I spit in death’s face. It’s a Mexican thing.”
Much of Magician’s Hat focuses on Siqueiros’s anger with Leon Trotsky, which began in Spain, where he saw many comrades die in battles with Trotskyist forces. This section climaxes with a paramilitary raid Siqueiros led on Trotsky’s Mexican fortress in 1940. It begins in President Cardenas’ office. Cardenas has granted asylum to Trotsky. Cardenas expresses his disdain for Stalin and his shock that Siqueiros supports him. He mentions Stalin’s purges and plots, and the fact that Trotsky helped Cardenas learn to use union strikes to oust Rockefeller. Tremblay deals with this confrontation by interspersing ironic bits of a tourist guide’s spiel overheard from the street.
And he dramatizes Siqueiros’ dilemmas. In “Dream of the Permanent Inward Gaze” he opens a space into the soldier’s PTSD and his guilt. Siqueiros is a giant, but he’s also a man with doubts, confused by politics. His tireless fight means sleep deprivation and bad dreams.
Siqueiros paid a heavy price for his defiance, including constant surveillance, intimidation, and years in prison. The FBI shadowed him from the time he got back from Spain. The CIA kept tabs on him too, after World War II.
In the poem “The Colonel Comes Calling,” “The unmarked Buick carved the rotary.” The secret police Colonel tells Siqueiros his work of liberating poor people is fantasy. They sit inside the colonel’s limo while outside, “traders were taking profits from teachers’ pensions.”
Tremblay effectively contrasts Siqueiros’ idealism with the colonel’s cynicism. They fought in the revolution together but, the colonel says, “We fought for pocket change.”
The colonel warns Siqueiros not to march against Trotsky. He tries to bribe him: “You could write your own ticket if you’d just….” At that point Siqueiros jumps out of car and flicks his cigarette against the Colonel’s windshield. And I cheered.
Authority constantly reminds Siqueiros that his efforts are futile. It’s the message we receive every day in every way on the modern landscape, a mural painted by advertisers agitating for corporations, bribing us with the prospect of material happiness. You have only to sell your soul and who knows, if you get a high enough price, they might put you on the Jay Leno show.
I recently asked Bill Tremblay some questions about Magicians Hat.
DV: Tell us why you decided to write about DS in this fashion.
BT: In 1998 I was in Mexico researching for my just-previous book, Shooting Script: Door of Fire , about the last years of Leon Trotsky’s life, when I saw Siqueiros’ mural “The Torment of Cuauhtemoc” in the Palacio de Belles Artes. In my notebook I wrote: “Rivera paints with a brush, Siqueiros with a blow-torch.” Later, I saw a billboard advertising Siqueiros’ “March of Humanity” at the Polyforum, showing him with a crown of thorns made of bayonets. It’s typical of Mexican folk-art that one thing will be fashioned out of another, for example a little church cut from a tin can with shears. Something similar can be done with words, I thought. If not, there would be no figures of speech.
A graphic artist had suggested that Siqueiros was a Christ-figure. How could that be? What I read about him indicated he was not one for “turning the other cheek.” He had seen as a teen-ager that the Mexican people rose up against the tyranny of Porfirio Diaz and had won. He decided that to defend oneself is better than letting one’s life waste away suffering in resentment. Some of his comrades-in-arms who greatly admired his courage on the battlefield became important figures in the revolutionary government, even Presidents. They funded his public arts projects. And even when he accused them of selling out the revolution, they couldn’t bring themselves to have him killed.
When I mentioned Siqueiros back in the States, the response was, “Who?” I wondered why some educated people did not know his work. From what I was learning about the Mexican Muralist Movement, Siqueiros was the driving spirit. Who was this complicated man, at once an artist and a fighter? From my research on Trotsky I knew he led a paramilitary assault on Trotsky’s house on May 24, 1940. The more I read the more amazed I was at his toughness, his defiance. “Apathy is collaboration with oppression,” he told the people he worked with on mural projects.
Like a lot of people who have a liberal arts education in the United States, I was warned by my professors that to take sides between oppressors and oppressed, to struggle toward that place where art and politics stand together, is to invite attack, controversy, dismissal, or worse. I remember asking Andrei Voznesenky after hearing him read “Goya” how he got along with the two burly men in suits standing in the corner. “Oh, you mean the cultural attaches?” he answered with a smile. “I will tell you this,” he said. “I would rather be considered a dangerous character because I am a poet in Russia where there is still an audience for poetry in the millions than be an American poet who drops his book into a bottomless well and waits for a splash that never comes.” I put that together with the American saying that “There’s no such thing as bad press.” If that is true, then the literary establishment knows better than to attack a poem or book of poetry. The strategy is to ignore it.
The inspiration for the style used in Magician’s Hat came when I was invited to CINETEC, the Mexican film archives where I was given a showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! I got a copy of Eisenstein’s Notes of a Film Director and learned about montage and its relation to dialectics and to Pushkin’s poetry. “Image by image” became for Eisenstein “shot by shot,” the connections between sometimes highly contrasting images to be inferred. To understand Eisenstein’s theory and practice better, I began to study screenwriting, which meant studying plot as a way of seeing assemblages in murals as the equivalent of a visual grammar of shot composition. I began asking of my drafts of poems, “Have you shown what’s at stake here?”
Magician’s Hat is a sequel to Shooting Script: Door of Fire which is about the last years of Leon Trotsky’s life. It participates in that style, a lyrical narrative cinematically structured, rather than most poems today which are lyrical meditations. I found myself thinking in filmic terms, not the glossary of poetics, not in terms of epiphanies but “set-ups and pay-offs.” I was thinking of scenes instead of poems, of plot and character arcs. I realized I could go into Siqueiros’ Mexico with Eisenstein’s way of framing and animating a scene which would be completed in the audience’s mind. Indeed, Eisenstein had raised the rhetorical question, “What is film but an animated mural?”
DV: How did you find Siqueiros’ voice?
BT: Siqueiros’ voice only appears when he speaks in dialogue. I use a narrator who learned his sensibility by studying his paintings more than anything he said or wrote. I think also that everything I’ve said up to this point answers the question, “Can poets write the equivalent of mural poetry.” (Laughs.) But I’m not starting a movement called “Mural poetry.”
I set still images in motion, bring them to life, repeat images and generate ironies, moments of recognition, moments when a reader could say, “Oh, that’s why.” The imagery was everywhere in Mexico, and I could advance down the page showing the world through narration that renders Siqueiros’ sensibilities. Read the first few stanzas of the first poem, “George’s Apartment,” on the first page that way. Siqueiros is observing a dozen or so people at an unveiling party for his portrait of Gershwin:
… women in gowns
like clouds of daffodils, and men in black-tie
tuxedos bloomed on polar bear carpets,
magnified through cigarette smoke
coiled above silver fingernails
sharp as chipped obsidian …
When they leaned
back laughing he saw them as chrome
DV: Is Magician’s Hat an attempt to bring revolutionary art to the masses?
BT: I don’t think of the American people—any people in any country—as “the masses.” But, yes. I think art should delight and encourage. I’m not recommending that people go shoot up the houses of the billionaire monopolists who are choking off their opportunities in a way that’s practically medieval. But I am suggesting that they not stand for it anymore.
When Siqueiros says to his dying father, “My politics is what you might call ‘audience development,’” he’s talking about revolutionary art for the people. His view was that people are so bullied by bosses who believe they have the right to exploit them that they have no energy left to lift up their eyes and see an artwork that might liberate them. In effect, then, to organize a union is to create working conditions that allow workers enough spare energy to receive the vision of a more fulfilled life. Maybe that’s why today in the US art education is considered a non-fundable “frill.”
DV: Have you always written this way?
BT: I started in this cinematic style during the writing of Shooting Script after I shifted from writing autobiographically. Siqueiros said, “The only bad painting is the one dominated by the individual ego.” I’m not fool enough to say I have no ego. But in 1983 when I started work on Duhamel: Ideas of Order in Little Canada  I got the idea that I wanted to project myself beyond what I knew into other lives and into what I didn’t know I knew. In my novel, The June Rise: the Apocryphal Letters of Joseph Antoine Janis , I extended that idea into a real historical “mountain man” who married Red Cloud’s sister, First Elk Woman, and who in trying to raise his children during the Indian wars found himself subverting “Manifest Destiny” and thus became a forgotten man because he resisted the removal of the native tribes.
DV: What makes his spray paint on cement work dramatic and effective?
BT: In a painting like “Portrait of the Bourgeosie” acrylics lend an inner illumination to the figures. To some extent, you could say that Siqueiros subscribed to the tenets of Futurism. Industrialism was seen by Marx as an irony in that working people could use their wages, even though they were kept low by their factory bosses, to free themselves. Machinery was good. Mechanics were artists. Note that we are living in a post-industrial age, a post-modernist age, even a post-capitalist age in that Adam Smith must be spinning in his grave saying, “Monopolism isn’t what I meant in The Wealth of Nations.”
DV: Why start with Gershwin’s apartment?
BT: Because that’s where the love story starts. The book rests on a triangle: Siqueiros’ love for Angelica Arenal, Siqueiros’ painting, and Siqueiros’ anger toward Leon Trotsky. In the next poem, the title poem, Siqueiros realizes that he’s met Angelica before … and instead of exposition I tell the story, through dialogue, of how they met in Los Angeles when he was making a community project out of painting “America Tropical”. Much better dramatically. In that painting he had the irreverence to suggest that the United States was crucifying Latin America. The State Department wanted to deport him on the grounds that he was an ingrate. No manners. How wonderful!
DV: Is the dialogue between David and Angelica (and others) your creation?
BT: Some is taken from Me Llamaban el Coronelazo. At their wedding he says “We will travel the immense road of life … “ [p. 21] That was from a letter he wrote to her. Pretty much the rest of the dialogue I made up. That’s my job.
DV: Tell us about composing the passage that includes the lines, “the foreman must do as the owner says/the owner must do as the North Americans say.”
BT: There’s a famous saying, “Poor Mexico. So far from heaven, so close to the United States.” That’s what the woman is referring to. She knows who pulls the strings. It isn’t the “Foreman,” it isn’t even Don Reynaldo, the hacendado. The decisions are coming from New York and Washington. Now it’s from the World Bank or some other agency of globalization.
DV: Is it necessary for people to take up arms and fight for what they believe in?
BT: Hopefully not. The US Constitution is set up so that people don’t have to “take up arms.” The Civil war is a tragic exception. There are other ways to fight, including embodying a new consciousness. Our problem is that we live inside a world-wide web which enables oppression to operate globally. We haven’t figured out quite how we are spied on, how we are deprived of the truth of what’s going on. We still think that what the US is doing at home and abroad is connected to our prosperity, our well-being. The more informed we are the more we feel surrounded. But it is the self-alienation that’s more lethal than external forces. How can you stick up for yourself if you don’t know you have an inherent dignity that must not be trampled?
DV: Last but not least, tell us where you get the words.
BT: From the murals like “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie.” The blind tragedy of the bourgeoisie is that we are trained up to serve corporations instead of life. In the painting, endless lines of people wait for their turn to be stamped, to be, in Marx’s term, “commodified” into gold. There are men in gas masks, but they aren’t armed. Nobody is actually forcing the people into the machine. They go willingly because they’ve never been exposed to other possibilities.
That’s why I relied on Diane DiPrima’s poem, “A Rant,” for one of my epigrams: “the war is the war against the imagination.” A world without imagination is a world of spiritual poverty, a diminished world, a world where the sun never shines. As I look back today, I can speculate on what it was in me that was so moved by Trotsky’s dwindling world. In a poem in Shooting Script called “Diego Drives Leon to Cuernavaca,” there’s a moment when Leon is obviously in pain. Diego asks him about it. Leon says, “Somebody is out there planning to kill me, Diego/and all I can do is live each day/as an act of faith …” He started out such a charismatic figure. Even Lenin was afraid of his rhetorical genius. Emma Goldman commented about a speech he gave in Brooklyn. She disagreed with him yet she applauded like everyone else. He was outmaneuvered by Josef Stalin and was exiled, driven from Turkey to Paris to Norway and finally Mexico.
I had a feeling at the end of the 20th century, the millennium, of living on a smaller and smaller planet, and not in the “flat earth” context Thomas Friedman writes about. What was only a vague and disturbing intuition then came crashing into clear consciousness with September, 2008. Many Americans then realized that the sense they had of time and space becoming denser, more pressurized reached a conscious state. It’s still going on. Humanity is being choked by its elites. This is an anti-culture which limits the possibilities so that men like David Siqueiros and Leon Trotsky, each a genius, find themselves set against one another in a tangle of ghastly and ironic loyalties. You know the old saying about the left, that it always at last forms itself into a circular firing-squad. It is also true about the right.
You ask, in effect, how I do it. Look at “A Square in Valencia.” There’s a hellacious war going on, artillery fire constantly, but there’s this tender moment when he renders the two girls as refugees of war. Another example is in the lines where Siqueiros has just arrived at the battlefield and is sent to warn Lt. Modesto of an advancing column of Franco’s men, Siqueiros goes into an orange orchard. He is “crouching through orange tree boughs,/taking green globes in hand, sniffing them,/careful not to knock them off their stems.” See also “Panic Breathing” where I render his painting, “Our Current Image.” In it a man’s head is encased in mud. I see a parallel with today. Some of us don’t want to know. Why did we go to college? To get a good job. But there are no jobs, only a lifetime’s worth of debt. Your employer wants you to complete a task, not ask whether it’s worth doing. Where is the meaning? Will we tear the blinders off? The therapeutic question is: “What are you going to do about it?” What I did about it was write Magician’s Hat. Something amazing does still exist in us if we would just pull it out; something inside us that Albert Camus talks about in The Rebel keeps telling us to resist. We do. Sometimes we don’t know it, but we do. It’s there, even if we don’t consciously acknowledge it, the sense of the dignity and worth of our lives and thus of other lives, for which we find a sudden compassion.
DV: Thank you, Bill Tremblay
To purchase a copy of Magician’s Hat please contact his publisher Lynx House Press at email@example.com. Bill has adapted the book into a radio play. For Magician’s Hat, A Radio Play, go to CDBaby and type in “Magician’s Hat” or visit the Amazon book site an click on the red line that says “Results for ‘Magician’s Hat’ Bill Tremblay” in All Departments.” See his website at http://www.tremblayscript.com/.
One of Tremblay’s poems from Magician’s Hat will appear in the forthcoming anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century, published by West End Press, edited by Doug Valentine. To pre-order the anthology, please contact John Franklin Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org.