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An interview with David A. Romero author of “My Name Is Romero”

March 23, 2021 14 min read Public Intellectuals

David A. Romero is a Mexican-American spoken word artist from Diamond Bar, CA. Romero is the author of “My Name Is Romero” (FlowerSong Press 2020). Romero was the second poet to be featured on All Def Digital. Romero has appeared at over 75 colleges and universities in over 30 different states in the U.S. Romero has opened for Latin Grammy winning bands Ozomatli and La Santa Cecilia. Romero’s work has been published alongside poet laureates Luis J. Rodriguez, Jack Hirschman, Alejandro Murguia, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Courtesy FlowerSong Press

Sari Fordham: What are a couple of your favorite poems from your collection “My Name Is Romero?”

David A. Romero: My favorite poem in the book is the eponymous, “My Name Is Romero.” It was the first poem to be written of all the poems in the collection and it gave shape to everything that followed. “My Name Is Romero” pays homage to Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez’s seminal work, “I Am Joaquin.” “My Name Is Romero” succeeds because it’s something that people from almost every culture can relate to: responding to the ignorance of others, and having pride in one’s family and culture. My Name Is Romero discusses racism in a way that is humorous, and celebrates Mexican heritage and our accomplishments, all the while promising greater things to come. 

The last poem I wrote for the collection, “Lili’uokalani,” is another favorite. It was written as a tribute to my late brother-in-law Tim Broad. “Lili’uokalani” is an historical epic written in the form of an epistolary poem. It is based on the historical figures Queen Lili’uokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii, and her friend and ally, Julius A. Palmer, Jr. The poem is written as a letter from Julius to his brother George Herbert Palmer, describing the fall of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii, the rise of the Republic of Hawaii, the failure of a counter-revolution, and the imprisonment of the queen in her people’s official residence for heads of state, Iolani Palace. Lili’uokalani is one of the most sentimental poems in the book, and the one with the lines, that, if placed in another poem, would be cheesy; however, in telling the story of a woman losing her freedom and a people losing their sovereignty, it felt necessary to take a page from the real historical figure, who wrote some of the most enduring Hawaiian songs of all time some of which, while in captivity, (including, “Aloha ‘Oe”) and give it the pathos it called for. The poem ends with my version of Palmer speculating whether Hawaiian independence would be restored (it would not be, the Republic of Hawaii was annexed to the US in 1898) and wondering if Lili’uokalani’s songs would become popular in the United States of America, (Aloha ‘Oe has appeared in dozens of American films and tv shows). My version of Palmer hopes Lili’uokalani’s songs will endure “for as long as a single flame burns at the center of Kilauea.” The poem merges a political yearning for freedom with a metaphysical one. 

Sari Fordham: Was it difficult deciding how to structure your book? What went into selecting the order of your poems?

David A. Romero: The poem “My Name Is Romero” became the guiding force in understanding how I would structure the book. The themes of the book would be identity and familial history and legacy. The motif would be names and their meanings. My first name “David,” according to the religious themed card placed over my bed at an early age, translates to “beloved” in Hebrew. It became clear that a section, “Beloved,” would be a good place for some love poems and poems about heartbreak. My middle name, “Anthony,” means “flower,” in Greek. A section called “Flowers,” became a place to populate with historical epics, like the aforementioned “Lili’uokalani,” poems that would tell stories about moments in history that aren’t well known. The poems are offerings to the forgotten. The book kicks off with a bang with “My Name Is…” which is mostly populated with bold, declarative, and often, very political poems. The book ends with a section consisting of a single poem, “Etymology.” It’s up to the poem to give meaning to all that came before it. The book opener “My Name Is Romero” teased details of my family’s history, but instead, focused on Romeros that have become household names, while the book closer, “Our Name Is Romero” actually gives the fullest account of our family’s history, in brief, that we have. The book opens with poems in which I wrestle with my identity as a white-passing Mexican-American, however, at the end of the book, I reflect on the fact that this is not just because, “Mexicans look different,” but because my Spanish ancestors are prominent in our family’s bloodline. Those same Spanish ancestors may have directly participated in, and benefited from, acts of extreme brutality towards indigenous peoples. So, it’s not just pointing fingers. It’s accountability. It’s accepting guilt. I return to the idea of placing flowers on a grave. This rhymes internally with other references to flowers and graves in the book. It gives the book a sense of completion. Birth to death. Cliché, but tried and true. Reading and re-reading the book becomes a ritual; like placing flowers on a grave. 

Sari Fordham: You mention your uncle, the artist Frank Romero, in your introduction and you write about his art in the poem “Micro Machines.” Have you collaborated with him? Is that something you would like to do?

David A. Romero: My uncle Frank is a legendary Chicano artist. He was a member of the art collective Los Four with Carlos Almaraz, Robert de la Rocha, and Gilbert Luján. He painted a mural for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles on the 101 freeway and his art is featured in the Smithsonian, among many other museums. I have had the pleasure of being invited to exhibit at my uncle Frank and his wife Sharon’s annual Christmas party and sale a couple of times. It was a wonderful opportunity. Frank and I have never had the pleasure of working together on a creative project. He is fortunate enough to live and work about half of each year in France and is always in demand when he’s in the states. I hope that one day circumstances will allow us to collaborate. 

That being said, Frank’s daughter Sonia Romero, the cover artist of the book, is a legend as well. Sonia has created permanent murals and art installations for Metro stations all throughout Los Angeles, the most recent of which, “Hecho a Mano,” at the Mariachi Plaza Station, features an image of our grandparents. Both Sonia and I were moved by the passing of our uncle, Jerry, and the passing of my father, Richard.  We were both left with a profound urge to memorialize them, and our grandparents, through our work. Sonia has been a huge supporter of my poetry from the very beginning. She invited me to exhibit at her studio when it was based inside the Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, arranged for me to have a book launch in the main gallery space of the studio, and has directly, or indirectly introduced me to, Gustavo Arellano, Lalo Alcaraz, Gabriela Garcia Medina, and Ernesto Yerena. I really hope I can help her someday, just a fraction of how much she has helped me.

Sari Fordham: How has your expertise as a spoken word poet influenced this book?

David A. Romero: All of my poems, even the ones that are not thesis poems (as most spoken word poems are), still have to have a flow to them when I read them or perform them from memory. This is whether the poems are meant to replicate the bang of an explosion, or the whistling of the wind. Poems have to have a musicality to them. If my tongue keeps getting tongue-tied when reading my poems, I know that I am probably putting in too many qualifying statements, or have written in too many clichés. In that case, a part of my brain is overwhelming my motor functions to tell me it doesn’t approve. Typing, without saying the words aloud, doesn’t give you that same effect. Your typing voice is often a lie and a liar. It breezes over words you would most likely stumble over and breaks lines with pauses you would never feel comfortable performing. It’s most likely someone else’s voice. Your actual voice, maybe strange to you at first, like listening to a recording played back from a voicemail, is something you have to get used to. Your voice has its own tone. Its own cadence. You should learn how to write to it. Writing and performing spoken word has helped me to understand this.

Sari Fordham: Tell us about FlowerSong Press and how you got to know the press.

David A. Romero: Based in McAllen, Texas, FlowerSong Press nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands. FlowerSong is literary, lyrical, and boundless, and they welcome allies that understand and join in the voices of people of color and their struggle, truth, and hope. FlowerSong was founded by David Bowles and is currently run by Edward Vidaurre; himself a phenomenal poet.

FlowerSong includes a host of poets laureate and had an explosive 2020 with record-setting sales for the press by poets Matt Sedillo and Gris Muñoz. FlowerSong books are featured in a host of lists of up-and-coming Latinx poets and must-read Latinx books. FlowerSong was also recently featured in Poets & Writers Magazine. 

I was introduced to FlowerSong by Matt Sedillo, my best friend and comrade in poetry. He introduced me to Edward, who has been incredible. The enthusiasm Edward has for the press and for its poets is infectious. His work ethic is legendary. He, and the small, yet mighty, team with FlowerSong, do the work that dozens would do at a larger publisher, with social media, designing promotional materials, sending out press releases, and nominating books and individual poems for prizes.

Thanks to Edward Vidaurre, one of the poems in “My Name Is Romero,” “Gorilla Arms,” is nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It’s a first for me.

Sari Fordham: What’s next for you?  

David A. Romero: I have recently finished my manuscript for “Diamond Bars 2,” the sequel to my first full-length book of poetry. My Name Is Romero took almost a decade to finish. “Diamond Bars 2” was, for the most part, written within a month or so. This is a book that is inspired by as wide-ranging of influences as Gustavo Arellano’s “Orange County,” James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” Atmosphere’s album “When Life Gives You Lemons…,” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks and Clerks 2.” I don’t know if any poet has ever been crass enough to literally add a “2” to the name of a previous title, if not, let me be the first. I am, after all, a graduate of USC film school. However, I think this book will surprise people. I liked to think of it as “the next great American novel in the form of a book of poetry” as I was writing it. It’s nostalgia, it’s frustration, it’s regret, it’s a love letter, and it’s a desire to preserve a place in amber. 

Much in the same vein as “Diamond Bars 2,” except with a much darker focus, both thematically and stylistically, will be my first novel, “The Enemy Sleeps,” about a series of murders in a suburban town in Southern California. I describe it as “To Kill a Mockingbird” meets “The Shining.” The novel will be based upon a screenplay I completed about two years ago. Typically, the adaptation process goes from novel to screenplay, but I am determined to break convention. A novel in the horror/suspense genre, this is by far the grimmest thing work I have ever written as a professional. I’ve worked out problems in earlier versions of the story by outlining the major story beats (didn’t do that the first time) and am about halfway through my first draft currently.

A few years ago, I was one of the most successful touring poets in the country. At the same time, my creative output had screeched to a halt. Now, in the middle of quarantine, and while working a full-time, labor-intensive job, I may be in one of my all-time creative peaks. It’s truly incredible. So, let that be advice to anyone struggling out there, keep striving. Last year I transitioned from packaging a book, to promoting pre-sales, to selling, to soliciting for reviews (both domestic and international), to writing another book of poetry, to submitting poems from the new book for publication, to starting a novel. There have definitely been hard times in all of that. Real moments of doubt. However, every sale I made, every response I got, every poem I finished, every story beat I worked out, brightened my day, and kept me going. 

Sari Fordham is a writer, professor, editor, and environmental activist. She grew up in Uganda and Kenya and has lived in Austria, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States. She’s fascinated by place and how it shapes all of us. As a teacher and editor, Sari is a champion of each person’s story and the power that comes from getting the exact detail right. She received a BA from Southern Adventist University, an MA from Iowa State University, and an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Chattahoochee Review, Brevity, Passages North, and Best of the Net, among others. She received a grant in nonfiction from Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and a fellowship from Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Committed to being kind to the earth, Sari writes a monthly newsletter “Cool It: Simple Steps to Save the Planet.” Each letter focuses on one change we can make in our personal lives and one systematic change we can request from government representatives or businesses. Sari teaches creative writing at La Sierra University and is the faculty sponsor and editor-in-chief of The Roadrunner Review. She lives in Riverside, CA with her husband and daughter.

Read the full interview here.

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