Brayan Salinas is a young Taos poet well on his way to being a global poet. He recently completed college with honors, published a stunning book of poems called "Close Contact," and next month will be starting his graduate studies at the prestigious -- and extremely selective -- Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is home for the summer getting ready to leave for Iowa in August, and sat down with us to answer a few questions.
You were born and raised here in Taos. What was that experience, and how does it continue to inform your poetry?
I was born and raised in Taos, the eldest child of working-class Mexican immigrants. I think those markers are important. There is no doubt that elements of my identity create the parameters of my poetry. It is probably impossible to write outside of your material and social conditions.
I write what I know. Shortly before I was born, my parents left the old and started the new -- I now inhabit that linguistic, cultural, political, social, economic and ultimately ideological space. I nearly dropped out of high school -- from depression and stagnation -- so in college I gave myself the permission to study whatever it was that I wanted.
One of the saving graces of attending high school in Taos was being introduced to and writing poetry. As the child of immigrants I contemplated educational pathways to "financial success" but ultimately decided that an education in history, literature and the arts was more important for my personal well-being.
Where did you go to college?
I graduated from Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts, with no majors and no formal grades. I studied critical social thought. I did in-person interviews in Havana studying the fast-changing habits of university students with the advent of high-speed smartphone service in Cuba - how the introduction of new media technologies changes culture; I studied power structures in language and the theories behind differing modes of relations to the English language; I explored key theories in anti-racist and decolonial thought and studied the oft-marginalized and erased histories of minority groups in the U.S.; I became well acquainted with the world of picture book art, writing about and researching these pictographic childhood treasures; I read widely across disciplines, from key figures in Continental philosophy to U.S. literature to economic thought to avant-garde poetry.
I will be attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop, an MFA program in poetry in Iowa City, starting this fall. I hope to complete and publish a full book-length collection of poems in the next two years. I was lucky to have my final year of college devoted to poetry and I am excited to spend the next two years breathing and living the art of words.
What inspires your poetry?
I guess I don't really have a definitive definition of what poetry is for me -- but the closest thing I have to describe what I am doing is an alternative form of storytelling. I'm talking about religion, philosophy, history, relationships with what is absent and what is present. In my poetry I don't feel obligated to follow the rules of syntax, grammar or language. I seldom work in pre-established forms. I can write about any topic that I want in any way I choose. I can be highly allusive, I can be obscure, I can be direct, I can veil, I can remain vague, I can litter it with lush greenery. The options are not finite.
Much of the work I do is in the struggle for emancipation, liberation, equity, and justice -- these are not just buzzwords for me but the concepts, lived realities and utopic visions that I strive to present in my poetry. Queering the boundaries of knowledge production and ways of knowing, seeing and feeling, and exploring the gritty underbelly of political thought. In my poetry I address some pertinent philosophical issues on my mind - primarily that of communication across difference. The philosophy of language, American cultural allusions, literary theory, biblical and psychological elements and motifs are present. I write what I learn about the world. Some of the poems in my chapbook are about local artists and cultural objects. There are images of wooden Santos, ponderosa pine carved vigas, hollyhocks, the cliffs of Abiquiú, and apricots from the trees of Talpa. I wrote a poem called "La Canción del Hombre Común" about disillusionment when I was working with my aunt one summer during high school at her food stand on Paseo del Pueblo Sur.
I write about the desire but also ambivalence toward intimacy during the rise of sadism in American culture. Some of the poems are about hedonistic behavior. I contemplate the culture of narcissism's growing influence and the possibility of progressive political projects under the dominant regimes of thought. I don't know if I come to any conclusions aside from unconditional love and the repetitious cycle that love entails.
What meaning does the name of your book, "Close Contact," hold for you?
"Close Contact" has many meanings. We tend to think of being in "close contact" as being in immediate proximity to something dangerous now … "I can't come to work I've been in close contact to someone with -- ." I like that element. I liked that a close contact had become synonymous with danger, with risk. There is always risk with desire. I also like the idea of close contact as approaching something, but not quite reaching it. And then there's the more immediate sensory being in close contact to someone or something in a romantic, sexual, friendly way. I didn't come up with the name or the theme until I had already written more than half of the poems. While the collection is a pandemic pun, none of the poems are about COVID-19. I did not want them to be. They are the result of particular ways of seeing and being in the world because of the effects of COVID. I began to ask other questions -- What does it mean to be in close contact to something? What did it mean for Agnes Martin or Ken Price to be painting/illustrating their subject matter? What does it mean for the speaker of my poem to be awed by the movement of Rudolf Nureyev's body?
I think my academic committee chair, thúy lê, put it best: "Close Contact is an entrance to the temple of the mind and an encounter with the complexities of what it means to be a bodily being full of desire and ambivalence about that desire." Many of the poems are about encounters -- with the possibility of love, touch or revelation. This collection is about love, loss and contemplation -- perhaps the most primordial of human behaviors.