so I give up on the 1/2 oz bottle because it starts to not have enough room and someone tells me that the 2 oz bottles last forever but they are 6$ or so and that is pretty pricey but I go for it but unfortunately for me I didn’t notice that I am going to have to use the tweezers to take everybody out of the 1/2 oz bottle first and put them into the second bottle and then I can continue with what got dried up in my bellybutton and I start to think of the metaphor for hell where a bird can only carry one grain of sand at a time and I get very old very quickly and I get cancer in multiple places especially my skin so I hire somebody to carve me up and that gets all the little people very excited in the bottle and soon enough they get so excited because of the man cutting out all the little moles on my skin and all the big moles on my lungs and brain and they start to shake and shake until the bottle bursts and I sit in my room and comb my very big but still very patchy beard like my father’s beard and drink a root beer
Oil & Candle, winner of Timeless, Infinite Light’s 2015 TRACT contest, is the first full-length book from poet Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, addressing “the climax of controversies around race in poetry.” The work is centralized by acts of cleansing and ritual practice, occurring through numerous paths: the mystical/religious, the bodily, the intellectual. Expressed through Santería and Latinx-Catholic magic, this informs the critique of the institution of poetry: the speaker intends to “cleanse the network.” The first poem, ‘Limpias,’ Ojeda-Sague says, “is about risk-taking. About new forms of community organizing. About de-centering poetic efforts and creating more efficient and more evenly distributed forms of support. Any critique of white supremacy must also come with a critique of networking and social elevation that puts underprivileged and underrepresented writers of color at risk.”
This applies not only to institutions who prioritize white poets with racist practices, such as Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, but even to those that position themselves as anti-racist. “It’s not a risk for a publication to invite Fred Moten to write an essay about race,” he notes, “that’s self-gratifying for the publication. I say this as a big fan of his work, too…If the real work of change was going to happen in the poetry world, you have to take risks to decenter the established and the centered.” Cleansing the network requires hierarchical overhaul: “What about people with no prior publications? Very local writers? Poets with just one book? Undocumented poets? The increasing wave of experimental Latino poets? Young writers? This is about publications realizing that they have an easy out: ‘oh, have we been accused of publishing too many white poets? Well, to fix that, we’ll publish a ‘POC’ issue and it’ll just feature excerpts from Citizen by Claudia Rankine.’”
This renders the limpias and ritual objects -- such as the titular oil and candle -- in Ojeda-Sague’s work not exclusively religious, but poignantly critical, involved in vernacularity. In consideration of the “Soft Targets” theme, I reached out to Gabe to discuss Oil & Candle, his practice as a poet, and the interaction of his religious/cultural heritage with poetry in the context of colonialism and diaspora.
The implication that poetry is “unclean” reverses historically white supremacist notions of cleanliness, including in the religious context. The scene of poets “having a contest where they hold up / Kleenex soaked with how much blood they can get / out of themselves or others” evokes a pseudo-self-purification: how the institution of poetry attempts to “clean” itself. As a religious act it recalls the self-flagellation of “white guilt,” or white male poets’ self-conflation with Christ. Could you talk a bit about what it means to “cleanse the network” in relation to this scene and “Limpias”?
That scene, for me, was all about the melodrama of these debates around racism in poetry. Take, for example, Ron Silliman’s claim that people attempting to get Vanessa Place disinvited from AWP Conference last year were no different from Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown. In the same blog post where he says that, he also compares it to the Holocaust, especially the German destruction of art and literature. Wild comparisons! I mean the scale change in that is total melodrama. And it takes a very specific kind of body-switching, saying Vanessa Place is like Michael Brown, and the poets of color decrying VP are like Darren Wilson. That’s a rhetorical bodily switch. I was thinking about that when I wrote about poets trying to get blood out of themselves or others. And “getting blood” is a phrase I use earlier in the poem as a way of labeling the manipulation of bodies that don’t belong to you through rhetoric and aesthetic conventions. It’s a phrase I describe to use the way someone like Kenneth Goldsmith manipulated Michael Brown’s body. And the joke of that Kleenex section is that a white man faints from fear or whatever and everyone becomes even more dramatic. So it’s a moment I wanted to be totally bonkers. Bonkers, to deal with the highly rhetorical forms of self-martyring and performances of self-flagellation, as you say, around political poetics.
“Limpias” decides that the right home for this kind of critique is within ritual practice, a really interesting space somewhere between procedural, spiritual, bodily, ghostly, refined, risky, erotic, dangerous, alienating, intimate. And then that ritual practice is embodied, as the poem imagines poets dried up in my belly-button and having to put them in a bottle of cleansing oil. And then as the poem goes on, you realize that the ritual isn’t going to work that well, it’s actually quite a bad idea to deal with the expansive, shaking networks of poetic organization. That embodiment of these networks inside my belly-button and eventual failure of the ritual is to highlight the fact that one of the major affective responses from these debates around racism in poetry is exhaustion. Total exhaustion. I guess the cleansing is a performance of this exhaustion. If the question is “what do we do from how tired we are” and the answer is “start cleaning,” well the answer doesn’t fit exactly. But the reason for that is seen as being because of my status as first-generation American, as “not Latino enough,” as the child of immigrants. The lens of cleansing in the religious sense is one I don’t get to fully grasp.
There really is a gap between the aestheticization of violence and its perpetration, they aren’t the same things. But what interests me is how the current political moment, full of real, concrete violence, created these aestheticized portraits of violence that in turn were violent themselves. And then the extended discussions around these performances of violence, and how those debates performed violence in and of themselves.
Exhaustion suggests labor, at least in the affective sense; in conjunction with cleaning, it recalls the maid “fired for her attempt / at black magic” (14). Do you feel your poetics derive from or constitute a form of labor?
The exhaustion that I’m talking about is connected to the labor of networking and social interaction in the artistic context, making connections, keeping connections. Staying present as an artist under the duress of shifting relationships, connections being infected by the reveal of political opinions, you know, pressure cooker of a social arts scene.
I’d say that very much there is reference to the amount of work it takes for marginalized people to be present in the world. In “Limpias,” there’s reference to fear of assault, need for protection, being paranoid about how people around you look at you. Those also come up in “Poem for Eleguá” and “Any.” And then the experience of war from the homefront and the precarity of the latino queer life specifically is essential to “Abrecaminos.” I thought that white magic would be an interesting and useful form to reflect that exhaustion and daily fear that comes with walking around, being present, being or not being a citizen.
The story of the maid is a true story that I think about a lot. The story is an example of how class difference affects Latinos (specifically Latinos in Miami) and their relationship to Santería. And further it’s interesting to see how this middle-class family brought a working-class woman into their home and then when her intention of cursing the mother of the family was revealed they felt unsafe with her and needed her out. She’s deemed unfit as a laborer once she enters this religious realm that went against the mother’s beliefs and crossed personal boundaries (including cutting her hair while she slept).
Labor in these poems would be defined around the emotions connected to the presence and absence of people who you expect or hope can provide you with something. So the maid comes about as a story because it takes a woman who is deemed unsavory or inappropriate for her labor because of her actions within witchcraft. And in the critiques of poetic networks, it comes about in seeing people as supporters of your career, relying on other’s exposure or fame to boost you, or feeling that people who used to be your mentors failed you. And in “Abrecaminos,” there is discussion of the citizen and the non-citizen’s labor and how war merges the citizen and the nation in violent and ill-fitting ways.
Does the commoditization of religious objects affect your personal belief system?
Religious belief, for me, is the idea that something has a physical manifestation in and of itself, whether “physical” there means scientifically physical, detectable, or manifest in another plane of presence. By this definition of belief, I don’t have a religious belief system. I often consider myself atheist or nonreligious. But I do believe there is something to be said for intention and purpose. What interests me about ritual practice is the way in which the specificity of the ritual’s ingredients and procedure reinforces and defines the intention of the ritual. I “believe” that resting upon intention and processing that intention through object and procedure-based practice can perform changes upon a person and their mind, which is important for a religious understanding of ritual practice.
The objects that I discuss in the book, the oil and the candle, don’t do anything without an intention and a procedure. In this way, they are merely vessels, even if the vessels are advertised as tools by their manufacturers (“Limpias oil” for cleansing, “abrecaminos candle” for opening paths to success). You have to incorporate the oil into something for it to matter, whether it be as simple as anointing a candle with it or anointing your body with it. So, the sort of flexibility of some of these mass-produced items became an interesting opening for me. For example, I change the abrecaminos candle from being a tool of “opening paths” to financial success into a tool for opening critical paths of thought and “paths to resistance” towards forms of cruelty, especially war. The poem “abrecaminos” is about an experiment of intention and it requires a mix of objects to perform that experiment, including Tarot, the candle, and whatever else.
I realize that this sounds a bit secular or disappointing. Some might think I’m saying “Pah! These belief systems are silly and don’t actually do anything, it’s just about intentions!” which is not what I’m saying. I think that the ritual practices of the Caribbean and South American folk traditions are so essential and so useful because they provide really detailed ways of transforming intention into “reality” through the use of anchor points based in objects, chants, and procedure. I think some people might see a huge rack of mass-produced perfume oils and be critical of it, but I think it creates quite a beautiful way of using spirituality through objects to reflect back on oneself. The objects create a necessary feedback loop.
How does ½ oz bottle breaking, or becoming non-functional, relate to diaspora? As you write, “I can’t / stop and get the symbolism / straight what is white / for again and what does / this candle do” (17). It seems not only referential to your mother’s advice earlier in the poem (“no / creo pero respeto” (16), but expressing diasporic trauma: you don’t know, or remember, the meaning of the candle.
Yeah, a lot of these moments that you are mentioning are related to issues of the diaspora, of immigration, and of heritage. People say “heritage” in very positive senses, but I use it here to highlight its distance. The way I frame Santería is through the lens of a first-generation American: that’s why it’s written on the jacket of the book that it is a “torch-song to cultures inherited and not necessarily lived.” Very much I feel that one gets less access to the latinidad they inherit as the generations pass on, as people move from country to country, etc. You have to form a new latinidad, and you have to be aware that Latinos will challenge you on those things. Latinos LOVE to tell people if they are Latino or enough or not. Trust me, my family does it a lot. A lot of these scenes of forgetfulness in “Limpias” are to highlight that movement downwards in a genealogical track. Forgetting a word in Spanish, not knowing exactly the symbolism of one of these objects, not knowing why a cultural habit exists, these are pretty common things for first-generation American Latinos. And it should be noted that my grandparents and father came to the US as exiles from communist dictatorship, and my mother’s side of the family is from Puerto-Rico so that’s a whole ‘nother colonial history. So American-ness, though I embrace it, is rather forced on me. I wanted to express in those moments you are mentioning that difficulty of being between cultures, or really desiring the heritage culture but having these sort of blocks. They’re sad moments I think, but also funny. I’m not opposed to when people laugh with me on these things.
It’s connected to Eleguá as a character in this book. He comes up a few times as a point of erotic desire and as a point of desire for protection. But the thing is, Eleguá is a trickster, and because of what I was just mentioning, I don’t have a whole ton of faith in his ability to protect me. In “Poem for Eleguá,” the second of the book, I write out a hope that Eleguá will protect me from the world’s violences (towards queers, latinos), and that description of “thick and separate and soaked” comes as a pretty genuine description of finding Eleguá’s human-form’s hair beautiful or erotic or safe. But it’s just that, a hope. The underbelly of that poem, is that I don’t have the right way to access that trickster’s powers. And inevitably, from a failure on my own part, and from his own maliciousness, the violences will make their way through anyways.
In reference to “Abrecaminos,” what does it mean for a ritual to be useless? What does it mean for a page to be intentionally blank?
I wrote “Abrecaminos” in a notebook first, as the notes of experience from conducting a ritual involving an Abrecaminos candle and an Ace of Wands Tarot card and accompanying chants, prayer, music, etc. So, I wrote everyday at least a page of the notebook and I went along for 7 days writing in there. On the 7th day, I transferred the notes into a Word document. As I was doing that, I noticed that I had accidentally skipped two pages of the notebook, which were now blank. I thought that since so much of this ritual (and most rituals of the Caribbean syncretic tradition) was about specificity, I should incorporate my mistake into the written version. I decided to add this gambit of not changing the text after the 7 days, so I decided to not change what I had written and keep the blank pages. In edits, me and the publishers decided we would include “(page left intentionally blank)” because by adding the text there, we connected those blank pages to the poem around them. I realize now that the word “intentionally” is a bit of a half-truth, since it was originally an accident of the ritual! I think the pages are nice, though, because they add a really big breath in the middle of the long poem. That poem is slow, but steady, continually moving somewhere, but in those blank pages just totally stops and inhales and then starts again.
Rituals are meant to be useful, they’re meant to do something. And I frame the ritual of “Abrecaminos” by giving it a certain activist strain, saying it is about opening paths of resistance to war. I describe it as a “useless” ritual because, well, it really only exists inside the book. What I’ve done is taken a ritual that is bodily and spiritual and religious, performed it myself, and then taken it into the realm of discourse and of writing. I think that means I’ve taken its usefulness out. I’m not sure I want to get into the whole issue, but I don’t think poetry is useful or does anything, in the sense of creating realizable physical change in the “outside world.” That means that when I write poetry framed through activism, which most of my work is, I also see it as a simulation of activism. That’s how I think of most poetry, as a simulation. When I write about my emotions, it’s a simulation of my emotions. “Abrecaminos” does include a real event, a ritual I actually did, but the poem is a simulation of that event, not really a record. So, suddenly, the ritual that was there and available is only in the realm of thought. I hope I’m explaining myself well in this. For me, “useless” is not a bad phrase. I put it at the start of the poem to say, here is something you can play with on your own and look at and read and participate in, but I make no claims that this will save your life. Nor do I make the claim “this poem will end war” as some would, instead I am saying that this is about simulating the opening of paths to resistance, it is not the paths themselves. As I said before, “Abrecaminos” is an experiment in intention, not in the actualizing of those intentions.
I was saying today to someone that I think of the first long poem of the book, “Limpias,” as the theory, and “Abrecaminos,” as the practice. In this case, I mean the theory/practice of a certain philosophy of what the politics of poetry are and what poetry can do. But that’s a sort of awkward joke too, because “Abrecaminos” is full of theory, in the sense of critical theory, and “Limpias” is more about lived experience. So I guess they’re both theory/practice. But I say the former to say that “Limpias” is a framing of a certain philosophy about what poetry does and can do under crisis.
Oil & Candle is available for purchase here through Timeless, Infinite Light.