by Gideon Gonzales
“Don’t go hungry for my dark skin.
Don’t go hungry for a homeland.
You ask why you must love a country
That doesn’t love you back…”
– Octavio Quintanilla, from “Don’t Go Hungry for my
An accomplished poet and educator, Octavio Quintanilla resides in San Antonio, Texas, teaching Literature and Creative Writing at Our Lady of the Lake University when he’s not writing. Born in Texas and raised in Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley, Quintanilla earned his English bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas-Pan American, teaching at Harlingen High School before making the move to Our Lady of the Lake. His latest collection of poems, If I Go Missing, tackles themes of loss and identity through the lens of immigration. Communicating via email, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to ask Quintanilla a few questions about his life, his work, and the intersection of the two.
Gideon Gonzales: What was your first creative endeavor? How old were you?
Octavio Quintanilla: My first creative endeavor had to do with listening, specifically to family elders tell stories. I was a kid. Five, six years old. I remember visiting my grandparents in Mexico, in a ranch where electricity had not yet arrived. There was no television, so after supper, people would sit around and talk politics or anything that made its way to them as news. This is the time when I first heard stories about lechuzas and the supernatural. I would listen and the stories filled me with wonder, stirred my imagination. Not just the stories, but the voices that made their way out of the dark into my ears. Sometimes it was so dark that all I could see were the red eyes of cigarettes. This image has stayed with me, and it might as well be the starting point of my endeavor to write, to tell stories.
GG: What’s your creative process like?
OQ: Nothing special, I suppose. I mean, I read a lot. And the reading helps me think about what I’ve lived and it gives me ways to tell my own story. But I do take a lot of notes before I start writing. Because I teach, sometimes it’s hard to find the time to sit down and dedicate my whole self to the process. When I write poems, for example, this is what is required of me—my whole self, and sometimes I can’t deliver. So, I take a lot of notes. Everything is fragmented before I sit down to write. Sometimes some of these notes make their way into my poems or stories. Not always, but it’s a way to warm up to the real work of creating something new.
GG: How would you define the literary scene in Texas?
OQ: It’s great. There is so much going on. I just got back from participating at UT-RGV’s Festiba Literary Festival. And a few days later I participated in the 2nd Annual Sin Fronteras Independent Book Festival. These two events took place in the Rio Grande Valley. In April, Our Lady of the Lake University will have its Literary Festival. It usually lasts a week. This year it will run from April 4 through the 9. Throughout Texas readings are being held. I’d argue that San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley are testaments to the vibrancy of the literary scene in Texas. What’s exciting for me is that new literary voices are rising and being heard.
GG: What works have you enjoyed recently? Anything you think deserves a wider audience?
OQ: So many great books. Right now I’m enjoying Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. I have just finished reading Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. I also read Nick Flynn’s and Hayan Charara’s new books. I started reading Ana Castillo’s new work, Black Dove. Read the first pages, and I can’t put it down. I’m writing a review of Rudolfo Anaya’s most recent poetry collection, Poems from the Río Grande. I’m enjoying that. I’m also reading and really digging two recent books in Spanish I recently picked up. One is a short novel by Carlos Aguasaco titled, El Viejo y el Man and the other is a book of poems by Ramiro Rodríguez titled, Íngrima la ciudad.
GG: To build off of that, who would you define as your key influences, be they authors, musicians, or even just influential figures?
OQ: Influences: too many to name, but I will tell that you that I enjoy reading poetry, fiction, philosophy, and essays about literary translation. I like to translate, so anything I translate will probably have an influence on my work. Also, my influences change all the time. In terms of poets, I reread Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Nicanor Parra, Tino Villanueva, Aleksandar Ristović, Audre Lord, C.K. Williams, Charles Simic, Alberto Rios, Henri Cole, and others.
GG: A good amount of your work tackles immigration issues, a topic that’s only become more heated in the past few years. Have you seen a change in the role authors play in activism in this time?
OQ: Lately, I’ve been writing poems that are concerned with issues of social justice, immigration being one of them. It’s an issue that has been getting a lot of attention due to the current political climate. With this said, I think writers have always played a role in social activism. Think of Ernesto Cardenal and Pablo Neruda. Or, in our contemporary American literary scene, think of Claudia Rankine and Juan Felipe Herrera. These are voices that, in their own way, bring to light issues that concern all of us. Voices that call for change. For many of us writers, activism is at the heart of what we do and write.
GG: What can we expect from you in the coming years? Anything to keep an eye out for on the horizon?
OQ: I’m working on a new book of poetry and doing some translation work. That’s my main focus right now. So, look for that in the near future.
GG: Finally, do you have any nuggets of advice for aspiring writers?
Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014). His work has been anthologized and has appeared in literary journals such as Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Arcadia, The Bitter Oleander, Fugue, and elsewhere. Reviews of his work can be found at CutBank Literary Journal, Concho River Review, San Antonio Express-News, American Microreviews & Interviews, Southwestern American Literature, Pleiades, and others. He is a CantoMundo Fellow and holds a PhD from the University of North Texas. He is the South Texas regional editor for Texas Books in Review and teaches Literature and Creative Writing in the M.A./M.F.A. program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter: @OctQuintanilla