Joaquin Zihuatanejo radiates enthusiasm. When I was introduced to him at a poetry reading two weeks ago, he looked like a kid who just got a great present. In fact, he did: Zihuatanejo won an artist residency at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which pays for him to live in Albuquerque for a month and work on his various artistic projects. Not only did he perform the night we met, but, serendipitously, he’ll be here during the Southwest Shootout regional poetry slam (see “BANG BANG!” above.) Zihuatanejo spoke by phone about the irons he has in the fire and his plans for the slam.
“I submitted a three-pronged proposal,” he says, referring to his application to the NHCC. In it he described what he would work on if given the residency. First up is a collection of elegies called 400 about the femicide that is taking place in Juárez. The focus is on 1993 to 2003. “It’s very difficult for historians and social activists to put a number on the women who were murdered in that first 10 years, but the general consensus seems to be around 400.”
Zihuatanejo says he’s wanted to write a poem for the people of Juárez for a long time. When he began doing research for it, and he came across the first descriptions of the women who were murdered, the adjectives reminded him of his own 18-year-old. “Every passage that I read, it seemed like this could be my daughter: petite, pretty, short brown hair, shoulder length, almond eyes ... it was like I was researching the death of my daughter,” he says. “I kept thinking, My God, what if that was my daughter, and how would I feel?” Another spur for Zihuatanejo was discovering that there’s a statute of limitations for murder in Chihuahua, the state Juárez sits in. “The first murders are falling off the books now. It’s like those families who’ve lost their daughters are losing them all over again. It’s like they’re vanishing into thin air.”
“Every chance I’ve been given to read, I’ve been jumping at it.”
Zihuatanejo is also working on a quasi-autobiographical novella, called Güero. He says he’s enjoying the longer form after writing short stories for a while. His third project is a one-man show called Barrio Songs, based on a CD and chapbook he made of the same name. He’s not limiting himself to poetry, either. He says he wants to include choreography, transitions, stories, projected images, sets, music and lighting. “It’s something I think would be really stunning if I can get it together,” he says. None of these daunting tasks will be finished this summer, though. “My goal in being here for the 30 days, at the NHCC,” he says, “is not to complete any one of the three, but just to get as much work done as I can.”
“This is the first artist residency that I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve enjoyed every single second of it.”
The National Hispanic Cultural Center brought him here to write and occasionally teach, but Zihuatanejo is finding as many ways to get involved in aspects of the local arts scene as he can. “Every chance I’ve been given to read, I’ve been jumping at it,” he says. He’s been reciting at poetry nights, and even at dinner parties his local friends take him to. When he discovered the Southwest Shootout was happening, he contacted some of the buddies he’s met over the years on his slam travels. These included local poets Don McIver and Eric Bodwell—two key organizers of the Shootout—and they invited him to participate. He threw a team together of poets from around the country, including his writing partner from Dallas and a friend from Baton Rouge. Their group’s name is Team Wolf Pack of Joy, and Zihuatanejo thinks the moniker perfectly represents their positivity. His residency ends June 27, but Zihuatanejo says he’s making the most of his time here. “This is the first artist residency that I’ve ever had in my life,” he says, “and I’ve enjoyed every single second of it.”