Seldom do we read a work of poetry that resonates with us on a personal level and leaves us gutted with its beauty. When we do, we know we’ve found it because it draws us back–line after line–trying to decipher a new memory, a new breath. In a world composed of journals, blogs, and social media poets, the search for poetry returns immediate results compounded by the archetypal sad girl, wounded lover, or queer with a bleeding heart. We’re all here for it.
Never has the art of poetry had more healing power than now and when it comes to poetry as a means of healing, there is much to be said about Gustavo Hernandez, a poet from Southern California whose debut collection Flower Grand First will release on March 22 from Moon Tide Press, but pre-orders are shipping now. Gustavo’s work moves through the complex roads of immigration, sexuality, and loss. These poems are points plotted on maps both physical and emotional—the rural landscapes of Jalisco, the glimmering plains of memory, the busy cities of California, and the circular paths of grief. The collection goes beyond the queer experience and dives into the intersections of identity, blending family, history, and resilience–often hard-hitting, but always with a subtle refrain.
Gustavo has also created a Spotify playlist as a companion to Flower Grand First. The playlist is the soundtrack to the poet’s life, including songs by Cat Power, Tori Amos, Los Cadetes de Linares, The Cranberries, Los Rieleros del Norte, and dozens of others that form the fabric of influence for Gustavo.
Prior to his forthcoming book, Gustavo’s poems have previously been published in Reed, Acentos Review, Sonora Review and other publications. His micro chapbook, Form His Arms, was released in 2020. Last year Gustavo was a featured reader as part of the Tom of Finland Foundation’s Subversive Ink poetry series and will be part of the impressive line-up for West Hollywood’s WeHo Reads “Exploring the Landscape of the Gay Rights Movement” on April 7.
Gustavo is not only a poet who captivates with the written word, but is also a scruffy bear who turns looks with his infamous cutoff t-shirts and short shorts. From his Tom Selleck moustache to his colorful tattoos, Gustavo is the guy you wish you hadn’t ghosted. If you’re lucky, he will also grace you with a recycled Joan Rivers joke or his expert-level trivia of X-Men comics or Final Fantasy. That’s right, he gives the children what they want! His DMs are wide open, gays!
I met Gustavo Hernandez a few years ago through a mutual friend who we now consider our fairy hag mother. I was immediately smitten by his wit, his impeccable taste in music, and his kind heart. Most importantly, I found a role model that I didn’t know I had been missing my entire life. As a queer Latino in a community with predominently traditional ideals, it was not always easy to see myself in the workplace, in the classroom, and much less in media and literature. I realized quickly how much we had in common–mutually growing up in Santa Ana, California, music, art, and comedy served as our coping mechanisms for escaping reality. Meeting Gustavo, made me understand how important it is to cultivate quality friendships within the LGBTQ+ community and to celebrate one another every chance we get. Not to mention it has heightened my use of text message GIF reactions by 1000%.
In preparation for the release of Flower Grand First, Gustavo and I discussed the inspirations behind his debut poetry collection.
DAVID LOPEZ: When did you first discover that poetry was an outlet for you?
GUSTAVO HERNANDEZ: I’ve been writing verse in one form or another my whole life. I have memories of writing poems when I was in elementary school. Kids in class used to pay me (usually in Ninja Turtles stickers) to write poems for their girlfriends. I can’t honestly point to one thing that prompted me to start writing poems—it just always felt natural and made me feel good. I’m a big believer in things being passed down through generations, and I think somewhere in my bloodline there must have been someone who thought this would make a good gift, that it would help make my life a little better.
DL: Who are some of your personal and artistic inspirations?
GH: My foundation as a writer was built by musicians. I grew up in the 90s. Introspective lyrics were everywhere, so artists like Tori Amos, Liz Phair, and Kristin Hersh had a big impact on me. As far as poets, the work of Joy Harjo and Ada Limón helped me find my way around when I first decided to start writing with an eye toward publishing. I am constantly inspired by people who create or shape. I’m awed by graphic artists, fashion designers, and landscapers.
DL: What was growing up as an immigrant, gay man like for you?
GH: It was such a multilayered experience. As an immigrant, even as a child, there was this awareness of space for me—the spaces my body currently inhabited, the ones my body had traversed, and the ones I’d left behind. There was always a question around the concept of belonging. Realizing I was gay brought more of that. Both things made me hyper-conscious of geography, both physical and emotional, and that has become a big part of my writing and a defining aspect of Flower Grand First.
DL: Tell me about Flower Grand First. Where do these poems come from? How long has it taken you to put this collection together?
GH: I’m a big fan of the bildungsroman. The journey from childhood to adulthood in books like Alice Munro’s “Lives of Girls and Women” is so appealing to me and always has been. This book is my own poetry bildungsroman. The poems are about my journey as an immigrant, as a gay man, and as a member of a family. In fact, family plays a huge part in this collection, bigger than I initially thought it would. The experiences I write about are framed by the lives of those around me. I found that it was impossible to tell my own story without telling some of theirs. The book is also my attempt to reconcile what I consider my two homelands. I was born in Jalisco, Mexico and came to the United States with my family when I was six. In a big way I feel like the U.S. is my home, but so much of Jalisco was kept alive through the stories of my parents and relatives that it is hard for me not to feel like I belong somewhere else, a place that claims my body on a cellular level. I think that is reflected in this book.
DL: There are a lot of beautiful themes and imagery in your book, but there is also a lot of pain, where do all of these mixes of emotions come from?
GH: I always wanted the collection to be beautiful and to have vibrant imagery, but there was never a plan in regard to how much of that beauty and vibrancy would come from joy as opposed to pain. As I wrote more and more poems for the collection, I started to realize that I was naturally grieving through writing. I was grieving the child I once was, time gone by, the death of my father. I gave the writing some space to change along the way, but it never did. I didn’t force it. I wanted to respect my need to grieve, and I’m glad I did. I had a lot to work through.
DL: What was the inspiration for your piece Zak Spears Bartends at the Faultline?
GH: This poem’s body is rooted in one particular day—my friend Rudy Garcia and I were at The Faultline (a gay bar in Los Angeles), and, like the title says, porn actor/gay icon Zak Spears was bartending, much to my delight—but the poem’s spirit is a little more expansive. Rudy is someone who took me under his wing and showed me around lots of queer spaces I never knew existed. He and I come from very similar upbringings—many parallels in our families, our homes, and our neighborhoods. Growing up, we spent a lot of time cloistered in our rooms dreaming about finding a place in the wider world, so this poem is about getting there, about feeling the world start to expand, and about the little twinge of uncertainty and homesickness that comes with that.
DL: In your poem Third Shift, you allow the reader a peek into a hook up night that possibly should have never happened, can you share the story behind this?
GH: Yeah, this poem is about being unfaithful to someone. I wrote it very quickly, and it was one of those rare instances in my writing where I knew exactly what I wanted to say. It’s messy in a lot of ways. It’s an apology, a declaration of struggling romantic love, but there is also such a heavy-handed romanticizing of the act of cheating through the setting, the language, and the imagery. I remember I was obsessed with Joanna Newsom’s album Ys when the events of this poem happened—in fact, I specifically recall listening to it in my truck as I drove home—so I’m sure that played a big part in the flowery way I chose to write about a one-night-stand in a cheap hotel room.
DL: Your piece Along the 15 Near Baker mentions ‘the reminder to be careful’ what are you referring to here?
GH: That is definitely about the hurt that carries over from past romantic relationships. I think sometimes we are so informed by past trauma that we don’t allow ourselves to enjoy the current moment and the person we are with. Every parallel starts to feel like an admonition.
DL: Do you think you have changed at all during the process of bringing Flower Grand First to fruition? If so, in what ways?
GH: Honestly, I could write another coming-of-age book just based on the writing of this book. Flower Grand First helped me fully embrace adulthood and my place in the world in a positive and constructive way. It showed me just how important it is for our stories to be recorded, whether it be by passing them down orally to the next generation or by writing them down. I felt like I did my part as one of my family’s historians by writing this. The book has also connected me to so many amazing people in my local community and the world’s poetry community. It has made me feel valued and loved and has helped me move forward while holding on to the lessons, the beauty, and the importance of the past.
DL: What is your advice for people, specifically LGBTQ+ folks, who need help finding an outlet to express themselves?
GH: Be gentle with yourself in the process of finding that outlet. Sometimes it takes a while, and that is perfectly okay. If you can, take a couple of days to focus on what has brought you joy and satisfaction in the past. When you find that outlet, don’t wait to start sharing what you create (if sharing it is what feels right to you). I remember hearing someone say that you should wait five years (oddly specific) before you start sharing your art with people, and I think that is absolutely ridiculous. Self-expression doesn’t have to be perfect. As long as you stay true to who you are in it, it will resonate with someone.