5 Questions with Joaquin Zihuatanejo

by Betsy Gomez


“This week’s feature needs a place to stay. Can he crash at your place?” With those words (or some approximation of them), Joaquin Zihuatanejo and I ended up become fast friends, spending many an hour discussing everything from slam to comic books to movies to a shared love of fried chicken. I didn’t know his work before he stayed at my house, but I pretty quickly learned that Joaquin is every bit as compassionate, fearless, inspirational, energetic, funny, and wise as his poetry is. There’s that old nugget about talking the talk and walking the walk — I’m pretty sure it started with Joaquin Zihuatanejo.

1. I’ve been know to Facebook stalk my friends (what? it’s totally healthy), and I noticed you’ve been taking a lot of selfies in front of huge audiences in places like Wisconsin, Utah, and Oklahoma. What’s the story? Are you actually a Kryptonian who is going to save the world with poetry?

Kryptonian, no, trying to make poets everywhere I go, yes. My new agent has been great about getting me out on the road in front of audiences over the last couple of years. It’s exciting and there’s even talk of getting me to Alaska soon, which is the only state in the U.S. I haven’t performed or taught in yet…selfies with students in Alaska, that’s my next goal!

2. All someone has to do is spend one minute with you to realize that your wife and family are closest to your heart. What role does your family play in your art?

They are my muses, and all the traveling and writing and performing is for and because of them. Last year my book and CD, Family Tree, happened because I kept having conversations with people about my family and theirs and just what that word “family” means to all of us. I’ll likely read one, perhaps two, from that book, and I will have copies of the book and CD with me at the show as well.

3. Your work is strongly influenced by your identity as a Chicano, but Chicano literature is under attack in places like Arizona and even now in your own home state of Texas, where the State Board of Education is busy fighting over a proposed elective (!) Mexican-American studies course. How does this conflict affect your work, and how do you think art can be used to overcome the opposition to Mexican-American studies?

I once did a show with Saul Williams. He asked me where I was from, I told him Texas, he said, man, don’t ever leave. I asked him why, and he said it’s the job of the poet to keep the small-minded in check, and if there’s any place that needs poets to keep small-minded people in check, it’s Texas. I think being on the front line of this battle inspires me — to write, to challenge, to inspire. I’m very proud to be a Latino living in a border state, and it is evident in my writing that I find so much inspiration in my history and culture, and that will never change. Maybe Saul was right and wrong, maybe not all Texans are small-minded, but it is the job of the poet to battle those that are.

4. Apparently, winning slams is one of your superpowers. You’ve won the Individual World Poetry Slam (2008), the World Cup of Poetry Slam in Paris, France (2009), the Ill List 7 (2010), and innumerable (well, more than I can count on both my hands) slams around the country. Is there a victory that stands out to you? 

I think coming in second in the iWPS in 2006 because of a one-second time penalty on a perfect 30 poem to Mike McGee and then winning it in 2008 with a perfect 30 in the final round and being handed that trophy by our host that night, Mike McGee…that was about as close to perfect as it gets.

5. OK, now for the hardest question of them all: You’re headed out to dinner at Babe’s (that sweet, sweet mecca of deep fried meat in Frisco, Texas). After your 3-hour wait for a table: fried chicken or chicken fried steak?

When you’re at a chicken shack like Babe’s, with all due respect to the chicken fried steaks of the world, you gotta go with the fried chicken. You bite into that deep fried goodness, and you instantly turn into Matt McConaughey because words escape even the most poetic of you, as all you can utter into the universe is “alright, alright, alright!”

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