Volume 134, Issue 3
Mission District Scribe to Speak
By Kevin Davis
Although he calls writers "mundane conversationalists" Martinez recently discussed his craft and opinions on writing fiction in an era dominated by journalism and pathography.
He illustrated some of the markers of frustration and honor on his tenacious climb to earning the label, "writer," the value and detriment of bilingualism, and the world of big publishing. Martinez feels passionately that creative writing both as a craft and for its aesthetic resonance, what it contributes to the world, is superior to memoir, biography or historical narrative.
He compares fiction to advanced calculus versus the more elemental nonfiction. "The beauty of fiction is the layers," he says. "Fiction is the bedrock, the top of the pyramid. Good writers put together things that amaze themselves. There's something mysterious operating in their minds, apart from them, the ability to abstract." He calls people who label fiction not true, "lumpen" and "naïve." Martinez has penned two other books since the release of Parrot (a two-year effort for which he received a $6,000 advance), so far unpublished due to what he calls political and economic considerations. Publishers rejected a story his agent promoted around the time of 9-11 about angry, disaffected young Mission District struggling artists. "'The country is in pain,' they said. 'We don't need any more.'" He cautions about the issue of prescience and timeliness when submitting stories about marginal or disenfranchised people, expecting a warm reception. However, Martinez claims that his Chicano outsiderness gives him a privileged and unique perspective. "An outsider can tell you a lot," he says. "For a writer, that's advantageous." He surmises that in a shaky and vulnerable culture the publishing world wants nonfiction.
"They know that people want to feel safe," he says.
So that work, plus a second about a mystical college student's nervous breakdown, sit on the back burner while Martinez focuses on completing Parrot's screenplay which he calls structurally easier that fiction writing, finding that it springs innately and efficiently from his original book. But, adds, "The screenwriter is the least respected person in the movie business."
Martinez, who counts among his friends, the Chicana writers Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street, Woman Hollering Creek) and feminist Ana Castillo, makes a sustained effort not to live a publicly writerly lifestyle. "When people ask what I do, I don't say 'I'm a writer,'" he says. "I tell them I drive a truck, I wash dishes, so people aren't suspicious of your motives, or put a spin on their relationship with you."
Martinez writes six hours per day in his apartment near 24th and Mission Streets that he shares with his wife, Tina Alvarez who works for the Department of Human Services. "I get in a groove, a routine of writing," Martinez says. The big business side is distracting. I don't want to deal with the treadmill: appearances, revisions. People call, my routine is broken. He advises aspiring writers, "You must have an incredible predilection towards it."
His parents met in a labor camp and raised Martinez in a housing project on the west side of Fresno. His father gained increments of economic stature, ascending from farm worker, to cotton compress operator, welfare department clerk, and relocation specialist in that agency, while his mother kept a keen eye on report cards. Of the 12 Martinez children, 11 hold BA degrees or higher, including a doctor-sister, an engineer and several teachers.
The object poet Ranier Maria Rilke's letters to contemporaries like Gide, Pasternak and Rodin provided fertile soil in which the young Martinez's writing blossomed, a mirror where he saw his experience reflected. "Letters get you thinking like an artist," he says. "Rilke had incredible sensitivity about his experience."
Martinez attended Fresno State University where, guided by mentors like poet Gerald Stern, his writing voice attained clarity. "My professors were hard," he says. "They red-penciled or commented on my papers, 'This is inciteful, interesting Š be careful with split infinitives.'"
He recalls Central Valley grade school incidents of despair and triumph. One early frustration occurred when a high school teacher read the first poem he ever wrote, crumpled it up, tried to throw it in the wastebasket, missed, and remarked, "It's so bad even the trashcan won't take it." His next poem, 27 lines about his grandmother, took six weeks to write. "I learned more about my grandmother in those 6 weeks, things I took for granted before." Later, a teacher read his commentary on Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter) out loud to his all-white class, saying, "For those of you who want to become writers, this paper exemplifies what I think is excellent writing."
Six years ago when a man called to announce his nomination for the National Book Award with the provoking words, "Mr. Martinez, sit down," when the night before, after a sparsely attended poetry reading, he confided to a friend his despondence with the writing life, makes an effective and powerful story. Of the award itself, a weighty, mounted lead crystal triangular affair, accepted at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Martinez says, "It would kill you if it fell on you."
Martinez feels ambivalently about the effectiveness of Spanish language comprehension to his craft. "It's a romance language," he says on the benefits of knowing Spanish. "The syntax, the use of modulation is more valuable. My uncle said, 'I wouldn't have fallen in love without Spanish.' English doesn't sustain sounds. "Spanish uses the same words in different contexts. I would realize that Neruda (Nobel prize winning Chilean poet of leftist struggle whom Martinez has translated) repeats some words. (Gabriel Garcia) Marquez (Love in the Time of Cholera) had to go back in time and pull out archaic words. English is a rich language to have at your disposal- three times more words than French. (Vladimir) Nabokov knew too many meanings. He obfuscates the words. He sounds like he was always behind a dictionary
Martinez hopes City College students will find useful his poetry, which he describes as a stylized and baroque mix of metaphor and imagery, and which theater actors have performed as monologues in the past. Martinez estimates that spoken-word poetry is an ego-driven, performance art invention of the young. "Kids want to talk about themselves," he says. "Their world is emotional, not intellectual," he says on the topic of the youth fiction market, but which could equally apply to the urban-style poetry slam rant. "That's why they're innocent and uncompromising. Later in life they're more civic-minded."
Victor Martinez reads and speaks Wednesday October 16 from 1 to 2 p.m. in room 301 of the Rosenberg Library and Thursday October 17 from 11 a.m. to noon at the John Adams Campus in room 202.