“Duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive… The duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation” Federico García Lorca.
By the age of 16, I had more dead friends & relatives than I wanted to count. Rory killed himself, James overdosed on meth, Ashley died in her sleep, Grant was hit by a car, Arif was shot, Tio Tonio overdosed on cocaine, Abuelo Papo had a heart attack, Abuelita Ana was just old, the list goes on… I lost too many people in my life, too young.
When starting grad school at NYU, I told my professor that I could not write poems like all the other students. I told her that I came from a death culture- a place where death was always lingering, where time felt like scarcity.
The other students would spend weeks, months, meditating over their poems, contemplating the smallest revisions. But not me. I always wrote as if I were next to disappear, as if I would be gone, mid-sentence… And that’s how I held my poems, as if they were in the process of disappearing... And that’s how I held my lovers, as if we were in the process of disappearing… As if they would be in my arms one second and then gone in the next. And for me, so much of my writing, feels like one big sloppy shout—an attempt at telling you, “I’m here! We’re here! And we’re dying!” Fuck.
I think about some of the viejas that I met, who refuse to cry. They would attend funeral after funeral, and keep their jaws clenched tight. They had no space to shed another tear for death. I think about the moment (at age 16) when my dog died and I began to laugh. I thought that God was playing a joke on me… God had already taken away all of the people that I love and all I had left was this mangy dog. Dead dog. Stupid joke.
There is this poem that I wrote called “DEATH NEVER GETS EASIER JUST MORE EXPECTED.” I threw it away. Nothing good lasts... I’m sorry but my mind is starting to spiral... Let me tell you a bit more about death culture, as it pertains to poetry.
When I speak of death culture, I am not talking about docupoets-- poets of documentation who reference artifacts and attempt to record various histories. When I speak of death culture, I am speaking about A FRAME OF MIND, a sense of one’s mortality, and NO this does not accompany some sweet feeling of relief or freedom. Death culture produces a deep and silent pain, a feeling of injustice (cuz we should not be dying like this, so easily). Death culture is not the state of disenfranchisement, it is a byproduct of disenfranchisement. Death culture makes poets produce in a survivalistic frenzy... Death culture is not my current state, I have gotten much older and more privileged now. I have food, safe housing, a college degree, and no funerals to attend. (Death culture is something that I am slowly slipping away from). Hopefully.
Death culture means that the expected trajectory for your life is much shorter, that you do not have the privilege of meditating on “craft” or its exportation. Your poems are not attempting to be timeless. Your poems are visceral, vital, dying as you produce them. Your poems are one big sloppy shout. You understand that each person is built from a million dead stories. Each poem is built from a million dead words. In death culture, you are never given the chance to live. You die so that others can live, beautifully, and write beautiful poetry. You die in the empty bullring so that their performance has an element of risk. Your poems are shitty so that theirs can be “well-crafted.”
Death culture informed the work that Silla wrote, after her brother died, after her other brother got incarcerated, and her father got sick. Death culture informed the work that my friend Gezi wrote, in all those years that he feared deportation, all the times that his mother would not let him go outside (because she feared immigration officers would take him away)... These poets, and other people living in death culture, are not in most literary cannons. They never had the opportunity.
When I think of death culture, in relation to duende, I am talking about two separate but interacting entities. For me, I think of duende as a spirit and I think of death culture as a FRAME OF MIND. I believe that people who live in death culture are more vulnerable to experiencing duende. (Death culture surrounds people with constant rupture, vulnerability, and exposes them to duende)... Yet, people who live outside of death culture can still have a relationship to duende, they can still experience death (without being entrapped by it).
For me, duende is contingent upon its relationship to survival. Duende is only beautiful because the artist can taste death, can barely elude death. Duende is beautiful when death makes itself most present, when the artist appears to be on the verge of breaking. But who gets to survive? Whose survival gets celebrated? Not death culture. That miserable FRAME OF MIND (the incessant pain). That poet, who holds everything frail and undervalued. That poet who lives, day to day, one moment away from their own disappearance.