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Interview: At Least This I Know by Andrés N. Ordorica

AFRESH | We speak to poet Andrés N. Ordorica, whose debut collection At Least This I Know navigates his own story from childhood to adulthood. Learn more about his poetry, and relationship with the form itself, below.

What draws you to poetry as a form?

I have always seen poetry as an opportunity for personal reflection. When I sit down to write a poem – or more so, when the poem comes to me – I am likely in the midst of working through some personal understanding of ‘the self’. I often use poetry to write reactively, or in response to whatever feelings I am harbouring in the moment, almost like a personal archive of my existence. Often this will come from a need to unpack identity, such as how I feel about my identity or how I feel the world is challenging or uplifting my sense of self. The poems that move me – like the work of Edwin Morgan, Danez Smith, Nina Mingya Powles, Natalie Diaz, and Mary Oliver – often are teasing out very universal questions: where do we belong? what is our place in the world? how do we capture this moment in time for our future selves? All of those big questions lure me to the poetic form.

What is your own story with poetry? Has is always been a presence in life?

I have always loved reading. Growing up my best subjects in school were always English and Drama, and poetry was always there from such a young age. I remember being seven or eight and hearing Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. Something about that poem stuck with me and at age twelve I remember buying a collection of his poems.

I would say poetry has been a friend that has come in and out of my life at the times I needed it the most, but I did not confidently start writing poetry until my mid-twenties. I trained as a playwright, and I think the lyrical nature of theatrical dialogue was an appropriate steppingstone to becoming a poet. I think for both forms, language needs to be economical, unless of course you are attempting to write the next Iliad. For me, what I need to say at this time in my life is best said through poetry and I think that is why our relationship has blossomed. So, while poetry has been a constant, its presence in my life has grown from mere acquaintance to something much dearer and vital in the last few years.

“[Poetry’s] presence in my life has grown from mere acquaintance to something much dearer and vital.”

Your collection is called ‘At Least This I Know’ – what does the name represent?

For me the title is declarative, a means of stating my piece, but also there is a timidity to it. That qualifier of ‘at least’ is what interests me the most because it speaks to where I exist in this world at this moment in time. This collection is about sharing what I know of living within marginalised spaces. In a body that in many ways society has tried to do away with through homophobia, xenophobia, and racism. It is also a collection for those of us just learning how to use our voices, to push back, to lay claim to who we are. Perhaps in the next collection, I will feel no need to qualify what I know of this world, and instead loudly state my understanding of this world. But for now, I appreciate my caution in making a claims of knowing anything profound or important.

How did you approach writing your debut collection?

So many of these poems came to me during the tumultuous year of 2020, and as the year unfolded, I think the poems started to reveal a common theme of making sense of where I belong. So, I guess it was more about pulling together the collection than actively writing it (if that makes sense). Between the poems I was writing at that time, and those from a few, or quite a few, years earlier, I started to understand this collection was attempting to make sense of the unknowable. It was a means of turning the question “where do you really come from?” on its head and instead ask, “where can I truly belong?” A lot of the work came in shaping the collection, choosing what poems to include and which to cut. My approach to weaving the poems together was very much how I used to approach my playwriting – I never liked the traditional three-act structure. I always wrote very episodic plays, and so in the same way, I really thought about how each poem (like a scene) spoke to the next poem. I focused on what I was revealing to the reader and what was the overall narrative I wanted to build until the final poem (the theatrical reveal).

“This collection is at its core a love letter for anyone who is working through their own understanding of the self.”

What, and who, inspires your work?

I am inspired by the work of creatives, activists, and community organisers in my immediate and wider communities who have embraced and challenged me to continuously learn and grow. From booksellers, who are friends, at Lighthouse Bookshop, to my fellow writers in the Scottish BAME Writers Network, to writers like Hannah Lavery, Joelle Taylor and Jackie Kay who create nurturing spaces for a new generation of poets. All of these people have encouraged me, directly or indirectly, to dream of a better, fairer world and contribute to that realisation.

I am also inspired by the bravery of my four grandparents who immigrated to the US at a time of deep racial tension in the 1960s and who built a life for themselves in what was the complete unknown. That family history colours many of the poems in my collection and the final poem “Mis raíces” is written as a means of honouring their bravery and laying claim to where I see myself as being rooted.

I am also deeply inspired by my parents who have always shown me through their actions the importance of giving back to community and standing up for the most vulnerable. In particular, through the work with their local church to assist young migrants and asylum seekers from Latin America who are currently fighting an insidious immigration system in south Texas. This spiritual calling to give back and uplift has informed the writer I have become, it has informed what I choose to write about and the sort of spaces I choose to join.

Could you tell us about the stories behind some of the poems in your collection?

“By the seashore” is a very special poem as it commemorates the life of a very dear friend of mine who sadly passed away in spring of 2009. She was one of the first friends I met when I moved to Okinawa, Japan at the start of high school. We were in second year of university when she passed away, and her death came as such a shock. At nineteen I was finally confronted with my mortality, and it became an obsession of mine, something I could not stop thinking about. This poem is how I came to articulate that deep sense of loss, capturing the transformative power of hearing the words “she’s dead.” I can still walk you through, with vivid clarity, that warm May evening when I was standing next to the East China Sea, and I bumped into the friend who shared the news, “Each word pummeled me, ripped skin, broke bones – crash.”

As a response to that poem, I choose to include “Untitled [May 14th, 2010]” which I wrote at age twenty, a year on from that first May evening. It is almost verbatim to the poem I wrote while sitting on a porch in Ithaca, New York processing the year since losing my friend. Loss features in many of my poems and although it can be harrowing, I think poetry is a powerful medium for working through the death of a loved one.

What do you hope readers take from your debut?

This collection is at its core a love letter for anyone who is working through their own understanding of the self. Its ultimate goal is to say, “You deserve to feel rooted wherever you are happiest and most loved. If that terrain does not exist, then create it yourself.” I hope readers will lay claim to whatever rootedness means to them at the end of reading my debut and share it loudly with others.

At Least This I Know by Andrés N. Ordorica is published by 404 Ink.