Interview by Lara Lillibridge
In Esteban Rodríguez’s debut essay collection, Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press, Sept. 2021), a young boy emerges from the valley of childhood memories, curious and seeking to understand a world that is violent, uncertain, and as full of loss as it is of life from the people who inhabit it.
Here, the pages unfurl with uncles engaged in physical conflict; dogs roam neighborhoods and alleyways; a dead bird is used as a play object; and our protagonist, through observation and conflict of his own, begins to make sense of the impact he and his body have on others.
Lyrical, engaging, and always honest, Rodríguez’s memorable collection reminds us that the past is never beyond language’s redemption.
Interviews editor Lara Lillibridge spoke to Esteban about his writing, process, and more.
Lara Lillibridge: Okay, so my first question for you is about the ordering of the essays.
Esteban Rodríguez: Yeah. So, I actually started writing these essays kind of in the middle of grad school, when I was doing my MFA program down in the Rio Grande Valley. I went to the University of Texas Pan American, now called University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV).
I started writing the essays I think around 2013. And then I just kept writing for about a year. So, the order of the essays is the exact order that I started writing the book in, which was a really interesting for me, because I didn’t know this was going to be a book. My concentration was in poetry. The essays started off as writing exercises that I would do. And then they kind of just became something I would habitually do.
There were certain lines, for example, between “Buster” and “Pallbearers” that I really wanted to connect. They didn’t originally appear that way, but in shaping them, I made it so there was a cohesion to it as well. But I knew that I always wanted to start with “After the Pyre.” That’s where the project originally started.
LL: I want to ask you about your opening lines because they are so immediate. For example, your first line in the book is, “I wanted to kill my stepfather.”
ER: “I wanted to kill my stepfather” was a line that I thought would provoke a certain sense of shock, but not necessarily so much to where it would distract the reader or turn them away. I hoped it would actually invite them to feel a more primal feeling at the end of the sentence. And it wasn’t like it was my father — stepfather is a little bit different from the traditional father/son or father/child narrative that is out there.
LL: Yeah, I feel like in the United States, at least in Disney movies, there’s such a cultural meme of the evil stepparent, so that’s a little bit safer, if that makes sense.
ER: [laughs] Yeah, I’d say there’s a little bit more of an acceptance.
LL: Sorry, this is probably the strangest opening to an interview ever.
ER: Yeah, we’re definitely not inviting anybody to kill anybody—no violence whatsoever.
But yes, this is a feeling that I don’t think was fully fleshed out in my younger self, but that I think shows up on the page in order to express the frustration that I had during that phase of my life.
LL: And very quickly in the essay, it’s understandable, right? Like, we don’t have to wait long to figure out why you felt that way. And when I look at these essays, your first lines are very compelling and immediate, and provoke curiosity and have tension in them.
And I just kind of wondered if that’s just how you think? Or do you do a lot of trimming in revision?
ER: Certain ones yes, for example, in “Pallbearers” which after rereading earlier, is one of my favorite essays in the collection. It opens with the line, “I thought the wailing would never stop.”
I really loved that line. It started that way, but there are lines like in “Elegy” where I went back and forth trying to figure out what worked best. I think the first line in “Elegy” started off in the present tense and then it changed to the past tense and then went back and forth.
“Elegy” opens with, “The crow was dead, so we pushed open the office door and flung it in.”
I reworked that a little bit. I think originally it was just, “The Crow was dead. We pushed open the office door.” So, I went through a few variations. But it really depended on the essay and on when I was writing it.
Again, I started off chronologically. And when it came to revision, it was the last essay “Duel” that got the biggest trimming. It was actually supposed to be three parts. The whole essay was called “Confrontations,” and each section was about various confrontations that I’ve had throughout my life. But I decided it would be better if I just focus on my cousin, Eddie, and I had to refocus myself in order to go back into the mindset of when I was writing these essays. I reworked those first lines and that first paragraph, and then I started revising the entirety of it, until it arrived at its final form.
LL: You are well established as a poet, and that’s your primary focus for writing?
ER: I got my MFA in poetry. I started writing poetry after I completed my undergraduate studies, which was in Latin American studies and anthropology. Neither of those majors have anything to do with poetry, but I really, really loved poetry. After graduation, I didn’t really know what to do, so I started working at a coffee shop and just spent all my off time at that coffee shop writing poetry. But yes, that’s primarily what I write. That’s primarily what I read. Although I’m not opposed to fiction, nonfiction, memoir— I try to read as much as possible.
LL: So, it’s funny that you mentioned “Pallbearers” being one of your favorite essays because that was the one that really lingered the most for me. And something I thought that was really interesting was that you kind of came in sideways at times. Like you talk about the sofas, but you show us kind of the whole room.
The sofas were like the ones at my stepfather’s funeral, and just as I had studied them back then, I studied these particular leather cushions now, certain they carried the scent of lint-speckled pants, jeans, shirttails, jackets, peacoats, black pantyhose, different sized hands resting and pushing off of them, a whole history of temporary sitters that took a break from the ritual before getting back up and fulfilling the role they were expected to fulfill.
And that to me was just such an interesting way to set a mood through a sofa. And I wondered if that was sort of like a poetic lens?
ER: Oh, definitely, but also, I absolutely love Thomas Pynchon. His second book, The Crying of Lot 49 is absolutely fascinating, and I riffed off of one particular paragraph specifically —let me just find it right here. Excuse any language because this is a little bit dated here, but I’ll read it verbatim. Oedipa Maas, the main character, is married to a disc jockey who used to be a used car salesman, and the way that this paragraph describes the used cars is so utterly compelling to me. Without reading it all, it goes:
Yet at least he had believed in the cars. Maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bringing the most god awful trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in the shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust–and when the cars are swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things have been truly refused…
And it keeps on going. The whole paragraph is just a few sentences. And I’ve always been fascinated with the poetry of this passage. Not that the whole book isn’t poetic, but this one just really stands out. It’s just describing these used cars, which absolutely mean nothing, at least not in our daily lives, but Pynchon makes it so important. And when writing “Pallbearers” I wanted to make those sofas so important as to be memorable, not only to me, but hopefully to the reader as well.
LL: That’s a wonderful paragraph, and I can see the parallels from that passage to the sofas.
You give us a mood, you give us a scene, you give us a history, but all from this different vantage, and you did the same kind of thing when you talk about casket makers.
Casket makers didn’t factor in how my grandfather would call my mother, the oldest daughter, a puta, a whore, a slut who wanted to go to college only to fuck and to fuck around, because what the fuck could a college ever teach her that she really needed to know, that my grandmother hadn’t already taught her, that his demands hadn’t already enforced?
And the only way I can think to say it is like you come in sideways. You’re giving us the information like around the corner in an unexpected way that I found really, really compelling.
ER: Thank you. The new editor in chief of the Florida Review, Jake Wolff, who is a novelist, had a tweet that went viral:
Creative nonfiction writers be like:
I first ate a hotdog when I was six years old. I remember the taste, the scent, the summer.
Hot dogs were invented in 1693 by Steven Hotdog. According to Scientific American, the hotdog is
— Jake Wolff (@Jake_Wolff) November 10, 2020
Not that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in fiction or other genres, but creative nonfiction can be very poetic, but also kind of rigid in its delivery, almost clinical in a way to get across facts that might need to be there.
And I thought of the way I was trying to express my sentiments more through a poetic lens. I absolutely don’t like doing research but I’ll do as much as possible in order to make sure that I get the language right. I don’t want to be too rigid or so clinical that it feels like I’m giving you a lot of information. I want readers to feel something, while also learning something.
LL: Yeah, and I think that that’s something that we all struggle with, or maybe it’s just me—the ability to convey information in a way so that the reader will stay with you, you know, because it can be dry.
LL: And you wrote these essays back in grad school, how did they become a collection now?
ER: Last year, I had been teetering on and off with it, and I had wanted to finish it by adding, as I mentioned earlier, two more sections to the last essay. It was originally titled “Confrontations,” and it was supposed to be three separate sections, the first one that you see there, and then each of the sections was supposed to be named after a boy that, in my youth, I had a confrontation with, mainly a physical confrontation. Eddie was one of them. My good friend, Bobby, back in the day, was another. And then another was about a boy named Chris. Looking back on it, I really regret everything that occurred during that confrontation. I unfortunately got in a fight when I was a junior, and he was a freshman, and it was when we were both on the basketball team. It became a really big thing at school. Nevertheless, I wanted to finish that off, and then realized that maybe I don’t have to—I can just do some reworking of the first section, title it something different, and I can maybe leave those other two sections for something else
And when I saw the page count, and I saw that, hey, this is going to be around the 120 mark, which is specifically what I was hoping to hit, I thought maybe I have a collection in my hands, and I started working vigorously to edit it. Before I submitted it to Split/Lip,I submitted it to another publisher, too. But Split/Lip, thankfully took it first — but I remember just sitting in the living room, and my wife was asking me what I’m doing as I’m trying to edit this because there was a deadline and just going through all the essays once again and rereading it — I think had shelved it for almost about a year — and it felt complete.
It felt good to actually go back and look at the essays knowing that so much time had passed, and knowing that I was still drawn to them. I knew that I could make a little bit of tweaks, and obviously it needed some editing. But I was happy with its overall purpose and its approach to the subject and to the language, and to hopefully what it conveyed for readers.
LL: I have heard several writers extol the benefit of letting work breathe, and they say, you know, after you finish something, don’t look at it for several months. I’m incapable—I’m an impatient person. But that’s interesting to me that coming back to it sort of gave you the perspective to finish it off.
ER: Yeah, that’s not necessarily how I operate with poetry. Part of the reason I like poetry so much is because of its length. You get satisfaction after you read a page of poetry. And collections are super quick to go by, I mean 70 to 100 pages. But for this, I mean, it’s not that I don’t necessarily consider myself a nonfiction writer, I consider myself a writer in general. But it was a different mindset I had to enter, a different approach that I had to take, and I think letting it sit really helped me get into the collection that is today.
LL: So I looked you up online. You have these three poems on The Rumpus from 2019: “MacGyver,” “Ink,” and “Onan.” But when I was reading your essay collection, you have a tendency to write really long sentences. And then when I looked at your poems, it sort of made sense to me, it was almost like the structure of your sentences was almost like the structure of a poem. I don’t know if that’s a leap too far to make.
ER: No, it’s a great leap.
LL: And I thought that was really interesting. I personally think that reading poetry strengthens my writing more than anything else, even though I can’t write poetry. But, you know, I thought, structurally, it made me curious about your writing process and what makes something material for a poem versus what makes something an essay. I felt like your poetry and your essays are friends. And I could see a collection with them together.
ER: That is actually really interesting that you say ‘together’ because I think there might be a few presses — and Split/Lip does this as well — with hybrid collections. And for a moment I thought I could make this into a hybrid collection, maybe using “After the Pyre” and “Pallbearers” and perhaps another essay and combine it with poetry. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out, but I do see them as friends in terms of sentence structure, and the poetic aspect I’m trying to instill in them essentially. But yeah, I do like long sentences.
LL: It seems to me like your poems are like a microscope, like a very tight, tight focus. And then the essays are a wider view, encompassing the larger picture. But I don’t know, I’ve only read three of your poems. So I can’t really say definitively.
ER: I think, in my earlier work, specifically, with the first book, I was really interested in, or I had more poems that had these longer lines, but also had plenty of room for the reader to breathe. But I got really interested over the past few years of just making a long poem only using commas in order to offset the pauses, and seeing how I can attach all these phrases to it in order to keep the momentum going. And then with the essays, or with the nonfiction or any prose, even when I write reviews, I tend to just do these longer sentences that I really like.
I’m also a really big admirer of the Portuguese novelist, António Lobo Antunes. And he has these long works that display his elegance in writing one hell of a sentence. I think his earlier work, you might call it Baroque, but he just has these very long one-sentence paragraphs, and they’re just beautifully written. And they go into the detail of a particular scene—a sofa, house—and I wanted to capture that as well.
LL: I have found since the pandemic that my writing has changed. Where I used to write, you know, 2000 words at a sitting now it’s like 300, and it’s more fragmented. And I wondered if anything has changed for you in terms of your work in the last year or so?
ER: Yeah, I was writing poetry quite consistently. I mean, I was pretty much almost completing a poem every week or two. And then I would shelve it and come back to it, shelve and come back. I had a lot of ideas for projects that I’d continue writing. And there’s one in particular that I have shelved at the moment titled, “The Cities where Where the Moon Says I Love You,” a riff off of Frank Stanord’s book-long poem entitled “The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You,” but thematically, it’s about the cities my wife and I have traveled to, whether from our trips every summer, and from those places in-between those cities. So overall, I’ve been productive. I write my poems on my phone, in the Notes app, but I don’t write any prose or creative nonfiction on my phone—I have to do that all longhand first and then transfer it over.
LL: Oh, interesting.
ER: Yeah, it’s really strange, but if I look at a screen and try to start writing, I’ll get too anxious and I’d have to write it down by hand first.
LL: That’s interesting. I’m always interested in the mechanics of writing — what medium or technology people prefer.
Um, let me ask you a question. You have a lot of hard material in this collection, but it never crosses over into self-pity or despair or even with the anger, we get spaces to breathe. And I know that a lot of writers of all levels really struggle with writing about abuse or death or the darker side of life.
And I wondered if you had any advice for people, whether it be about keeping your own perspective while writing it, or whether it be about any craft techniques, or, you know, just any comments, because you do have a lot of really heavy material, and to present heavy material and have it not become overwhelming is a real skill. Do you know what I mean? To have the reader not drown in it is, I guess what I’m trying to say.
ER: In terms of advice, I work as a high school counselor at a charter school, which is pretty small. My job is to help students — seniors, specifically, and we only have about 80 seniors — through the college application process. I’m in charge of about 28 kids, and we have to work on personal statement essays as part of their applications. The prompt for these personal statements asks students to write about a challenge or unique opportunity that they had in high school that has shaped who they are as a person.
I go through the whole writing process with them, but I always ask them, “What have you learned?” What am I supposed to gather as a reader that shows me that you’ve learned something from this challenge or unique opportunity? And I think that’s the best advice I can give — what have you learned about the subject matter and about yourself as a writer, about yourself as a person, that can be conveyed to the reader?
And that can come across without just being mere description, or mere self-loathing or pity or whatnot. But hopefully, I can connect with you in a moment, even though I might not agree with you, or I still don’t like you as a speaker or as a writer, because you don’t have to like any writers – everyone lives different lives – but you can respect them. And I think if I can see what you’ve learned, if I can see that there’s something that has transformed you in one small way, then I think you’ve done your job as a writer, and I applaud you for that.
LL: That movement, right? Ending in a different place than you begin.
ER: That’s a really good way to put it — movement. Yes. And it doesn’t have to move a whole bunch. I think traditionally, we think of the narrative arc going from A to B. But if you’re going from A and then just put a random stop right before B, but we move the needle a little bit—I like that.
LL: It doesn’t have to be big growth.
ER: Show some movement — it doesn’t have to be like the largest movement, but show something.
LL: No, I think that’s brilliant. I was listening to a flash editor say that even in a flash piece, you need to end somewhere different than you began, otherwise it’s just a scene, a glimpse. Perhaps in poetry, you can do that.
ER: Yes, that’s the intent of poetry — how can I do something — unless you have like a book-long poem — but how can I do something so short, and show that transformation from the first line all the way to the last line? And I think it takes incredible skill for poets to do that. And to do it so briefly. You’re inviting me momentarily into this thing, and you’re showing me something about the speaker there.
LL: The brevity, and the conciseness of language, and the precision of poetry is something that I wish I could do. I mean, it’s like just the distillation of writing.
You wrote about drawing and how much it meant to you as a child and that poor velociraptor that then got thrown away, which was heartbreaking, right? But I was curious, do you draw now?
ER: So first off I love velociraptors, and it’s so funny you mentioned that because a few people I’ve shown the book to have said that that was their favorite essay out of the collection, or at least the most relatable.
I used to draw quite a bit. I don’t draw anymore, but I lament that I don’t draw. It’s pretty tough for me to not actually draw or feel like I don’t have enough time for drawing, or just art in general.
I went to University of Texas at Austin because I wanted to be an art major. I had a counselor in high school who was helping me set up a portfolio. I took AP art and ended up winning some metals for some drawings at state competitions. I was really into art, and wanted to be an art major, but unfortunately, my parents dissuaded me because they felt that it wouldn’t be as beneficial to me in the long run.
And so I obliged and ended up majoring in something else. But perhaps I got the last laugh because I ended up doing something that makes even less money than art, and that is poetry.
But my mom’s super proud of the poetry. I don’t draw as much as I’d like to anymore. I have ideas, but unfortunately, I just don’t have the time for it. And I’ve also felt like I’m too far into this writing thing that if I take a pause now, I might lose it or I might hinder what more I can do in the future.
LL: Yeah, it’s like you have to pick a path sometimes. There’s just isn’t enough time.
ER: Yeah. And there are artists who have been able to accomplish multiple things. I think of Derek Walcott, who was a beautiful poet, but also a beautiful watercolorist. I mean, this is his work right there, which is amazing, right? [shows cover of book] His art comes out on his Collected Poems and on a few other covers.
So hopefully, I think, if I do get the time, I will get back into art and do more with it.
LL: So how did your cover come into being?
ER: There were a few options. It came down to two —one was a grassy field with an abandoned house, and a blue sky. And it really reminded me specifically of one of the essays that featured an empty lot and a house right next to it. I originally wanted to go with that one, but there was a silhouette of a boy that looked a little bit too cartoonish. Not in a bad way, but just in a way that I feel didn’t fit the overall feeling of the essays, and then it was a little bit too bright—I prefer covers that are a bit darker. I’m thankful to have a few books under my belt, and there has emerged a consistent theme in terms of darker colors, darker covers and I think I want to keep it that way.
LL: So did you think about your other covers when you were designing it? Or is it just more your aesthetic?
ER: No, no, I was thinking about the other covers. I even sent the cover designer all of my other covers and let him know the thematic approach to those. I wanted to keep it consistent as well.
LL: That’s interesting that you think that way, and it’s great that they were able to take that into consideration.
ER: Yes and this is an amazing cover. I absolutely love it. I think we had changed a few things in terms of the lettering and just the brightness of the font. But ultimately, it looks really beautiful.
LL: I’m looking at it on my computer right now, too. And what I love about it is the sky/land balance—it really feels as if you’re looking up, you know, which makes the earth feel very heavy to me.
ER: Yeah, and I think that’s what we were talking about. There were a few options that were presented—I think the text might have originally been on top, but I thought the title, Before the Earth Devours Us, made a lot more sense at the bottom, placing below the silhouette of the trees.
LL: That’s cool. So what are you reading now?
ER: A lot. I’m reading Grace, a novel by Natashi Deon, and I’m getting an ARC of her book, The Perishing, which is due out in November — I have a scheduled interview with her for Eco Theo Review, where I’m the Interviews Editor. She’s judging our fiction contest, and I can’t wait to interview her about her upcoming novel and Grace, which is an amazing book, somewhat reminiscent of Beloved, but definitely it’s own unique novel, an intergenerational saga that takes place during the Civil War and right before emancipation.
I’m also reading the new and collected poems of W. S. Di Piero called Chinese Apples. A few months ago, I had the privilege of actually introducing him for AGNI, where I’m the Associate Poetry Editor—he read for our launch. He sent me a great note saying, ‘Thank you for that beautiful introduction,’ and it was one of the highlights of being an editor. I’m also reading The Inquisitors Manual, a novel by António Lobo Antunes, centered around Salazar and the end of the dictatorship in Portugal. The novel has little to no periods, and it’s reminiscent of The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. A really interesting read I cannot recommend enough.
Before the Earth Devours Us is out now with Split/Lip Press. Esteban Rodríguez is the author of the poetry collections Dusk & Dust, Crash Course, In Bloom, (Dis)placement, and The Valley. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, Tri- Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the Interviews Editor for the Eco- Theo Review, an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for [PANK] and Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.