‘The Harmony and Cacophony of Tongues’: An Interview with Oscar Mancinas

This is part one of a five-part micro-interview series Gasher is conducting with authors of the first Gasher chapbooks. We begin with an interview with Oscar Mancinas, author of Jaula, a chapbook of poems and Mancinas’s poetic debut. Reviews/Interviews Editor Rushi Vyas conducted this interview with Mancinas via email.




Rushi Vyas: There is so much to talk about in Jaula, but I'd like to start with talking about form. Perhaps this is fitting, given the title, the form of the cage that the US empire has been deploying at the border. Jaula is expansive in its use of form. For example, some of these poems might be read in a linear way until being disrupted by a mid-poem contrapuntal, forcing readers to choose which paths to read or ignore or circle back upon. In poems that stick to traditional forms like the tercets in "Mexican American Indian Burial Groundskeeper," literal walls interrupt words blocking a singular reading of a line, splitting the reader's consciousness between, for example, "refusing death" or "reusing death." I found your wide range of form so impressive and engaging, covering so much in the short space of a chapbook. How did you arrive at the form for these poems? What are you thinking about when shaping a poem?

Oscar Mancinas: First, thank you for your thoughtful reflections on the collection.

While working on these poems, I gained an appreciation for how texts trigger multiple readings, and how a writer compels readers to make decisions. The works of poets like seitlhamo motsapi and May Swenson resonate with me for the way they unsettle and reconstruct words, images, and lines with punctuation and spacing; how a poem attempts to contain itself and its contradictions without feeling overly ambiguous or lacking definition. The poem you mentioned, “Mexican American Indian Burial Groundskeeper,” is my attempt to render and to clarify the relationships between identity, labor, and landscape in the place I call home. The form emerges from trying to reconcile how, as Indigenous people, my relatives and I become racialized via our disappearance. As Mexicans we’re reduced to our labor, particularly our manual labor; and the lands to which we feel belonging are forced to be maintained per settler-colonizer standards. Hence, for lack of a better phrase, everything comes together—contentious, fractured, poetic—in the image of a graveyard in need of upkeep by a racialized laborer.

In addition to the challenges to render and clarify, part of what informs the shape of Jaula’s poems is this being a debut work for me. Fortunately, I’m now working on newer writing projects, but while working on Jaula, my mentality was, “Well, I might not ever get another chance to publish a book of anything, so let me try some shit.” And while this might sound flippant, I’d hope other writers can relate to the confluence of 1) wanting to be deliberate in how/what we write, and 2) wanting to be expansive and flexible. Basically, I wanted to show range and build toward another chance to hone my abilities and my process, but—in case another chance never materialized—I could look at Jaula and know I wasn’t afraid to take risks.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the dope editors at Gasher who encouraged and challenged me to sharpen the different poetic forms within the chapbook. Thanks, y’all.

R: This is not a bi-lingual collection, but a multi-lingual collection. Starting with the epigraph by Carlos Villacorta Gonzales, all the way to the last poem written only in Spanish, this book resists lingual fixity. And this extended beyond the literal languages with which you write, to your attention to weaponized political language or rhetoric, such as using the alliteration in "reverse racism" as an entry point into the language of coloniality in "Previsionist." Could you talk more about the multiple languages in Jaula and what happens when they collide in your poetry?

O: Like form, the linguistic elements in my poems contribute to multiple readings. In this case, it’s non-English-Spanish bilinguals who must make choices—do you search for definitions for unfamiliar language? Do you hope you have enough context to get the gist? Or do you engage the unfamiliar on the terms you have? Even if you’re English-Spanish bilingual like I am, I hope my poetry pushes you to consider relationships between these languages: how they flow into one another but also clash and repel each other. Among those of us who are multilingual and multicultural, it’s a lovely idea to consider ourselves “the best of both worlds,” so to speak; as though disparate or contradictory cultural expressions find coherence within us. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case. As someone who was scolded by teachers for speaking Spanish in school and also has anxieties about losing grasp of the language that connects me to most of my relatives, I feel like relationships between English and Spanish merit much more scrutiny, especially in the context of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands. This, mind you before I even mention recovering the Rarámuri spoken by my paternal grandparents and relatives, and the layers of settler-colonialism that still marginalize our cultural contiguity.

The challenge becomes, then, to represent and interrogate these relationships. In one sense, I endeavored for the languages within Jaula to meet the way they do every day in my community—organic, unbroken, if at times tense. In my neighborhood, people speak Northern Mexican dialects of Spanish, Black Vernacular English, and all sorts of blended Spanglish. They celebrate, they congregate, they shout, they argue, they try to teach their kids how to navigate the world. It was only after leaving home, living in different parts of the U. S. and abroad, and studying language more deliberately that I began to appreciate the harmony and cacophony of my tongues.

Poetically, I owe a lot not only to the two poets in the epigraph, Carlos Villacorta Gonzales and Ofelia Zepeda, but also to other Latin American and Indigenous poets like Luci Tapahonso, Pablo Medina, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Alberto Ríos, and Natalie Díaz. Within works by Native poets, in particular, like Díaz, Zepeda, and Tapahonso, I find incredible dexterity for multilingualism and reflexivity. For example, in the poem, “Birth Witness,” Zepeda confronts the schism between her O’odham tongue and the colonial demand for documentation, writing: “I don’t bother to explain my parents are illiterate in the English language./What I really want to tell her is they speak a language much too civil for writing./It is a language useful for pulling memory from the depths of the earth.” She proceeds to list ceremonies, traditions, and the everyday beauty of her and her people’s relations with language before ultimately concluding: “But I don’t./Instead I take the forms she hands me./I begin to account for myself.” So, the poem builds to a rumination on the immeasurable promise of Zepeda’s mother tongue and juxtaposes it with the speaker, quiet, alone, resigning herself to the colonial bureaucracy and its impossibly reductive writing.

Recovering Rarámuri language for poems like “Córima” and “Kene Sa’Pá Mapu Goná Ne Bo’í,” I reflected upon how little I could grasp—and, subsequently, convey—of language that connects my relatives, the earth, our history, and our future. Still, these poems are as aspirational as they are resigned, I’d like to think.

R: "The City My Lover" ends, "...lured / by defiant settlements, I risk / myself yours, desert metropolis." Throughout this collection, love is palpable as a force that is never without its complications, fraught textures, and even violence but remains a driver of the energy behind the words. Whether it is love addressed to a lover, to complicated relationships with family, or "for ancestors who plundered" or "for ancestors who did not think of walls," I was stunned by how these poems throw fire at the racist colonial machine, while feeling driven by love. Can you talk a bit more about the relations and relationships behind these poems? What drives you to write and who do you hope Jaula reaches?

O: I’ve mentioned family, relatives, neighbors, and home, but these poems are as much for future readers as they are for people in and around my life. As a teacher and scholar, I appreciate the roles I play for aspiring writers, especially those who might find parallels in our respective backgrounds. As I’ve learned from elders—both at home and within different literary communities—we have much over which to feel anger, pain, and sorrow, but we also can and do imagine and act toward better realities for ourselves and for the generations following us. Returning to the idea that this was my debut, if I operated under the assumption that I could only pass on one thing, or collection of things, as it were, what would I want to say to a curious, aspiring writer/reader? What would I want them to know about my home, or our home? What got us here? What couldn’t I have the capacity to say but nevertheless encourage?

Obviously, others have found connection points within my work, and for that I’m beyond grateful. If nothing else, I hope people read Jaula and say to themselves at some point, “Damn. That’s as well put as it could be, and I wanna try to say something just like it.”

R: I had many of those “Damn!” moments when reading this chapbook! Who are other writers/artists/scholars that you think Jaula is in conversation with? Are there other collections or works, besides those you’ve mentioned already, that specifically inspired this poetry?

O: In addition to the poets and scholars I’ve mentioned, two poets and works heavily influenced Jaula: Aimé Césaire’s Notebook on a Return to the Native Land and Virgilio Piñera’s The Weight of the Island. Not only do these poems engage in dynamic, decolonial historicization, relating realities of Caribbean islands forged by their specific landscapes and constant struggles against racist, colonial forces, but they also exemplify two works in dialogue—as Césaire’s Notebook heavily influenced Piñera’s Weight. As I became more involved in research for my graduate studies, as I read more from Indigenous, Afro-diasporic, Latin American, and decolonial writers, I realized how pivotal poetry has always been for reclaiming histories and for envisioning a present and future freed from colonial violence; subsequently, I pushed myself to try to think of my own poetry as a form of anti-colonial intervention, one by which I try to recover the past and imagine a more just future. I hope to continue writing in the long tradition of Indigenous and decolonial scholars, communities, and movements.


R: What's next for you as a writer? What are you working on now?

O: I got a few things at the moment. I just started my next collection of poetry, and I’m hoping it’ll be ready for publication by next year sometime. Similar to Jaula, for this forthcoming collection, I’m trying to push myself to consider how existing documents and recurring narratives can be reimagined and reinterpreted to reveal desire and belonging otherwise obscured or erased by colonialism.

I’m also writing and publishing more fiction stories, and I hope to have a full-length, follow-up collection sometime soon. By the way, if anyone is looking to read more of my writing, they can pick up my debut collection of short fiction To Live and Die in El Valle from Arte Público Press.

Lastly, I’m in the midst of doing more research for my doctoral dissertation. I’m hoping to complete this work within the next 2-3 years, but after the past 12 months, who can really plan that far in advance, right? At any rate, I think of all my writing as interrelated since a big part of my research is mapping and analyzing significant, if under-examined, literary works and projects by Arizona’s Indigenous and Mexican-origin authors and communities. Community and the significance therein, I think, is at the heart of all I write. I’ve been fortunate to find different communities who’ve accepted me throughout my time as a writer; in turn, I want to be a responsible community member within my writing. We don’t do this alone.

You can purchase Jaula by Oscar Mancinas here. You can also purchase his short fiction collection To Live and Die in El Valle here.

Born and raised in the Washington-Escobedo Neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona, Oscar Mancinas is a Rarámuri-Chicanx poet, prose writer, PhD candidate, and teacher. His debut chapbook of poems is Jaula (Gasher), and his debut collection of short fiction is To Live and Die in El Valle (Arte Público Press).