Exclusive Interview with Vincent Cooper: April 26th, 2019
1. Zarzamora explores the ins and outs of your family and the role they play in your identity. How would you describe that time and place, what was your world like growing up?
I was the weirdo of the family. I was a Cooper. I wasn't born in the westside, a rough streetwise kid like everyone else was. I was born in 1980, which was toward the end of a renaissance in my family. My opinion is the decade of the 70’s was the best of times in my family. I was born in Los Angeles due to my mother’s quest to be away from San Antonio. Briefly, I lived in a house with my parents and brother. Around 1983/1984, I was relocated with my grandparents here in San Antonio and some land they had just south of the city. It was one of my favorite time periods. It looked like farm, blue skies, all silent generation relatives were still alive. A propane tank in the backyard, humid, and while other cousins on the ranch were probably playing with toys I once fell asleep in the grass on grandparents ranch. When I woke up I was covered in ants, burnt red from the sun. I saw things that didn't seem right, almost as if it were drug induced. Growing up with the original westsiders who were artists, athletes, and local heroes who never made it big. They had long hair and great smiles with beer breath. The elders were in guayaberas, slacks and stacy's everyday. Eventually, I would live in Las Vegas. This was like that splice or alternate 1985 in the film Back to the Future We were out of place there. Chicano didn’t exist there. Las Vegas has absolutely no soul whatsoever. My heart always longed to be here in San Antonio as if it was 1985. It seems like this was a banner year that comes up in several poems I’ve written. The skies were blue/orange. Everyone was beautiful.
2. Throughout Zarzamora, the reader is given glimpses of your life. How did you go about selecting those experiences?
This manuscript was twice as long. I had more letters and a short story in it. When I made the decision to move back to the westside, I wrote everything I saw. I rode the bus a lot. I wrote what I saw in the moment to satisfy the nostalgiaholic in me. Maybe I’m just lucky but I happened to be at the right place and the right time I guess…to witness desmadres, deaths, and some beautiful things as well.
These are the eulogies I never got to say for my relatives. From the year 2009 to 2015 I wrote the majority of what would become Zarzamora. I wanted it to be Westside San antonio focused but the mourning for my relatives took over. So those poems and the grief of that period is what took over.
3. Many of these experiences are brought to life with little details, such as the sunny side up egg breakfast with your tio Jody. When you wrote those moments, what comes to you first, as in, where do you begin writing?
I felt like those memories were key moments and I remember them so well. I can still smell those eggs and see him in front of me. I think we all have moments that are truly huge moments in our lives. We keep them stored like photos in our phones or a box of important paperwork. It could be a song or a picture that will transport me to that moment. There’s a suitcase or two that an aunt of mine has. It contains pictures of my family going back 50 years or more. I’ll never have that suitcase. I only get to peek every now and then. If I hear doo-wop music it reminds of these times as well. That is something that actually happened but how I remember it was actually from a dream. So when that happens, I re-remember it and it plays over and over again in my head. So when I had the dream, I was the looking at the memory from a different angle and I remember details that don't normally come out, other than him cussing at me. Like the color of the kitchen, his mustache which he never had really. Not seeing my mother's face but only hearing her voice from the stove, remembering that my grandparents were in the other room, they were having conversation, and being reunited with my mother. I begin writing from the memory.
4. Change plays a big part in the book, from the gentrification of Zarzamora, to the loss of the older generation, and shifting attitudes towards community and culture that lead to a new normal. This change comes gradually to a point where you eventually question the reverence you had for some members of your family and your idealization of the past. How important is it to document this shift in attitude and culture, and does writing about them serve a purpose?
Gentrification is rampant here in San Antonio. There have been fundraisers all over to save restaurants and bars because they are about to become some hisprt location. One of my coworkers started naming off places that he used to hang out at on Zarzamaora. Even a place like the Malt house that was made into a gas station... I don't know what the city is going to do with these places but for artists or poets we dive into them and keep the memory of those places alive somewhere. We must write about them. We must write our stories. Often, people will tell me that I should write their story. That their story is really great and better than mine. I don’t argue that. I love it when families are proud of their last names that they tattoo it on their bellies or as a sticker on their car. I love their Sunday funday’s. There is something sacred about that. I grew up with toxic males. I, too, have been toxic. In my rehab, I put in that nostalgia. I simply write my own lived experiences.
5. I’ve found that while it’s easy to talk about the past, it’s hard to write those moments down. What advice would you give aspiring writers who want to write about their experiences, but find it hard to begin, or feel as though they haven’t lived anything worth writing down?
1980 was the bridge and the end of many things. Millenials and Zenialls should not be upset they grew up in these times but what a time to document through social media. I missed out on plenty and I’m almost 40. Don’t ever force yourself to write if you’re looking to write some kind of masterpiece. It’ll come to you when it's ready. Insta-writers or social media helps with documenting the memories etc. We must use them. I know big brother is watching…let them watch you and read you and fear you. Our current era in America is flooded with racism, hatred, war etc. The new nostalgia for some is domestic terrorism-laced. We have an obvious white supremist president. There is plenty of material to write about so you can be oldschool with a pencil and paper and write what you see, hear, feel, sense, or do it on an app on your cell phone. You can make it multimedia and look back on your work over time. If you feel there is a story there that needs to be published and put out into the world then you have to write the best material you can. The writer you chose to be is strictly up to you. If you want to tell just friends and family your story that's great. If you want to become an academic and write then there is a whole process for that that I never went through myself. Do not feel pressure to seek publication. I didn't publish anything until I was almost 33 years old because I had the butterflies in my stomach feeling when I was writing in notebooks for myself.
6. Throughout Zarzamora, there are poems that go into something very close to magical realism, where the story feels very natural and real, but at the same time the direction you take has risen it to something more fantastic. From the dreams and nightmares weaving in and out life, to the presence of La Llorona, the devil, and ghosts of the dead, what inspired you to go in this direction, and how did you manage to balance the gritty reality of Zarzamora street with the magical so well?
I love chicano/a’s. We are cosmic. We fuse it all together and carry on with our day. We can talk in different dimensions simultaneously. It is truly a gift that other races can’t have. San Antonio is Spurs, Selena, HEB, breakfast tacos, Donkey lady, ghost tracks, la llorona, freestyle music on military drive. Or…like the movie Coco the boy goes to the other side and meets his grandfather so he goes to that world which is accessible. He can walk and talk with the dead. This is not absurd to me. It makes total sense. When I write, I write with reality, all those myths and cosmic happenings each time. This technique is what my wife, Viktoria Valenzuela, calls Chicano-surrealism.
7. How big of a role does emotion play in the creation of your poetry? T.S. Eliot wrote about how emotion is one of the original truths, something that everyone can relate to. And to quote Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When you wrote of Zarzamora street itself and your family, did you rely more on the emotions of what happened, as opposed to a more fact based this is what really happened, or is there some mix of the two?
There is definitely a mix. I'm very emotional about everything I write about... whether it be about family, friends, chicanismo, politics, gentrification, or climate change. The process started with coming up with the title of this book. I wrote a chapbook called Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die and some of that material is included in Zarzamora. So the title of this book had to mean something and say it all. My wife suggested Zarzamora for all these reasons and the fact that it started with the letter Z and what it means to her. So then I said I want to know everything about Zarzamora street all the way until it was just dirt and blackberries. In that research, I found it to be very depressing and I did want to include more history in it but stuck with the theme of eulogies for now... So, it's definitely a mix of facts and emotions.
8. Your tio Danny, has a writer’s voice, but he doubts himself, asking why anyone would want his advice. How would an aspiring writer who wants to write about the experiences of a grandparent, parent, tio/tia, or maybe a friend, go about getting their story, and is this a story that should be told? And if so, why?
I was in high school in Las Vegas when I heard that Danny was in jail. I made a decision to write him a letter because he wouldn't be coming out in a very long time. I don't remember what I wrote to him but I do have the first letter he ever wrote to me in the book. Maybe it's that weirdness about me that wanted to reach out to the uncle in prison as entertainment, instead of going on dates. Danny used to sing when he talked. He had music, natural music and was pretty damned funny. I am assuming in the letter you refer to, he was giving a lot of advice. His response was to my many questions for advice but his doubting is followed with him saying something really profound. Their story absolutely needs to be told. They all have tons of stories and it's just as simple to ask for their story. I love sitting down with elders and listening to their lives, stories, and adventures that they've gone through in the city and deep down I think they like it too. I've learned that no matter how bitter or insane a relative might be they still want to be heard in some shape or form. I've been discredited by older relatives because of my age and that I can't possibly write about their time because I didn't live it, so my response is "You should write about it." They will usually respond with they don't have time or education as in I've got too much shit to do than sit around and write a book of poetry. Then they'll say, "...you write it." and I'll say, "Tell me everything".
9. Do you have any advice to aspiring writers you would like to give, or something else you would like to say?
Yes. The greatest feeling I ever had was writing and filling up notebook after notebook of poems and thoughts. There was no other exhilaration I could think of other than good sex. It's sacred. When you decide to take that step to share your writing with a zine or press or journal just know that is a process but a decision you have made for yourself. I never attended college and that is a huge regret of mine. So if you are in school, see it through. Listen to your teachers. Learn from them. If you're not in school, write it all, write everything. Keep the tradition going.
10. Finally, I would like to end by saying your book Zarzamora, Poetry of Survival is an autobiographical soul searching through the Xicano experience, a hundred years ago your book would have had very little to no chance of being published. It took the Chicano Rights Movement of the 1960’s to really get the Xicano voice out there in the world. Times are changing, but slowly, and I can say that growing up in the Texas public school system, I never encountered any books, or stories similar to yours, where I could relate to the characters, Zarzamora felt real to me. I wanted to say congratulations, and ask how does it feel to have your poetry published, and where do you go from here, as in, when’s the next book coming out?
Thank you for your kind words. It is still overwhelming to know that something I wrote is published and out in the world for people to read. I remember the first poem I got published I jumped up so high I almost hit my head on the ceiling. I read poets as a teenager, Bukowski, the beat poets, and it took me reading everything I can get my hands on but when it was time to go to college I thought I could skip it. I joined the Marines and after it seemed like the idea of going to college went away. I fucking blinked and now I’m 38. I am pleased with Reckless and Zarzamora. The next book will chronical my time in the marines, pre and post 9/11.