“The Language Is the Thing”: Professor Octavio González on Poetry and Teaching

Associate Professor of English Octavio González
Author  Josh Idaszak
Published on 

Associate Professor of English Octavio González has been writing since childhood. His first work was a love letter to a girl in the Santo Domingo neighborhood in which he grew up, in the Dominican Republic.

“The story there is that I was being bullied for being ‘gay,’ meaning not macho, in the Dominican context,” González said. “So I realized that writing a love letter to a girl in the neighborhood would save my reputation! How’s that for Machiavellian?”

The letter worked. “It was such a romantic letter, it threw everyone off the scent, so to speak,” González said. He sees a throughline from that letter to his current work, as an established poet and academic with two books under his belt and two more in progress. “For me, writing has always been a form of survival and a mode of shaping personal experience and the aspects of self that are a part of who I am, in my own voice,” he said.

González said he uses both his scholarship and poetry to explore his cultural identity as a Dominican American. In his first collection of poetry, The Book of Ours, he uses versions of Spanglish, Spanish, and English to help demonstrate what he described as “the creolization of my identity as a hyphenated American, whose first tongue was Spanish.” González also sees his poetry as an avenue to explore issues of queerness and his relationship to it. “In The Book of Ours, the later poems that deal with sexual and romantic desires are unequivocally queer,” he said.

González is currently at work on Limerence, a collection of poems that continues to explore these themes. “‘Limerence’ itself is a term drawn from psychology, and the focus on that collection is indeed romantic love between men,” González said, “but also other kinds of love, including familial.” The collection includes poems about his parents and their relationship. “The homophobia in Latinx and Dominican culture, especially, has been with me from childhood, as my first ‘love letter’ suggests, but also the beauty of my family and my ancestors inspires me to reconcile the conflicting emotions that are born of love and belonging,” González said. He describes this reconciliation as an ongoing process, one that has been made more difficult by the recent loss of his parents. His father, stepfather, and mother all passed away in the past five years, his mother most recently, from COVID-related complications in July 2020. González views his work as a way of keeping their bonds alive, and also as a way to explore and heal those bonds.

At the heart of Limerence is a nearly 25-page poem entitled “Conversations with My Fathers,” the longest poem González has yet written. “The poem is an elegy for my father, my stepfather, and my mother,” González said. “So ‘Conversations’ is a way for me to process my grief and conduct the work of mourning, fashioning the poem as an elegy as well as a queering of memoir and poetry.”

This questioning of categories has long been a part of González’s artistic approach. “Choose a category for Mr. González at your own risk,” wrote Maria Melendez in her editor’s note for The Book of Ours. “One of the things I most admired about Mr. González’s work, from the start, was the poems’ refusal to take any category for granted. The family poem becomes the city poem becomes the love poem becomes the spiritual poem becomes the mouthful of desire poem.”

The pandemic has intensified González’s questioning of strict aesthetic boundaries. He feels it has changed his relationship to language and has led him to explore a looser writing style. “I feel the constraints of lineation no longer appeal to me,” González said. “I think my poetry speaks in prose, and I think COVID-19 has somehow put pressure on my subconscious to go past the decorum of traditional verse, to unleash the power of words with the speed of prose and adopting a storytelling approach. The language is the thing, not the shape it is poured into.”

González incorporates this approach in the classroom, and in his course design. While he is on sabbatical this academic year—he is a 2021–22 Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Center for Diversity Innovation at the University at Buffalo—he is planning a new course on the history of the musical Cabaret, an idea that came about after he taught Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin alongside director Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of the novel in his course on the modern British novel. González has since become interested in the intertextual resonances among the novel, play, musical, and film musical, as well as Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood’s memoir of his time in Berlin, and a later film adaptation of that memoir. “Such a web of intertexts reveals a lot about how art and literature can be molded and reshaped while the material remains somewhat the same,” González said. “And the jump from one medium to another is also fascinating.”

González is also planning a creative writing workshop focused on poetic form. What kind of advice might students considering the course expect?

“I think it’s important to read as much as write, to listen as much as speak, to discover one’s voice on the page, or the stage, for spoken-word poets,” González said. “Read widely, read older work, but not only contemporary poetry. Read Shakespeare too, and Marlowe and Donne. Read poets from your cultural community. And then write what you will, but experiment with received forms, and make that form your own. Don’t simply follow the formula. Follow your own language even if experimenting with older forms. And above all, write from your own experience, while trying to voice that experience in a lyrical or explosive or peculiar way: a way only you can articulate. And that process takes years, more than the four years at Wellesley.”