In the Spotlight
Associate Professor, Our Lady of the Lake University
San Antonio, TX Member Since: 2016
About: Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014) and the 2018-2020 Poet Laureate of San Antonio, TX. His poetry, fiction, translations, and photography have appeared, or are forthcoming, in journals such as Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pilgrimage, Green Mountains Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Texas Observer, Existere: A Journal of Art & Literature, and elsewhere. He teaches literature and creative writing in the MA/MFA program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.
If you could require all of your students to read only one book, which would it be?
I’d require them to read one of my favorite books: One Hundred Years of Solitude.
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
Get a notebook, and write in it every day. Write something. Draw something. Even if it’s just a word. A letter. Think in terms of process and not in terms of final draft.
What is the best career advice that you dispense to your students (information about the query process, publishing, finding an agent, etc.)?
Don’t be in a hurry to publish. Give yourself distance from your work. Polish your craft. Spend time reading. Talking about what you read and about what you write. Publication will come, and you’ll be happy you were not in a rush.
Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?
Yes, I think it can be taught. Sometimes I teach comp classes so I know I can teach different ways to write an essay. As far as creative writing, I think it can also be taught. But reading a lot, and not just any old kind of reading, but reading like a writer, is what will make a difference in the learning process.
With this said, creative writing in the academy is now part of our contemporary experience, so I think if it belongs there, it is because the academy is probably one of best places a writer can find a community of fellow writers, and also teachers who are willing to guide.
How did you come to your chosen genre? Are you working in other forms at this time?
I actually started out writing fiction. I was reading the existentialists and the Russians in high school, so my dream was to write thick novels. I also wrote short stories, but then right after high school, I started focusing on poetry. I wrote a novel in 2003, and I am thinking I should take a look to see if anything there is salvageable. Give fiction another try.
Are there ways in which poets should prepare themselves for the business side of a writing career?
I think so. I think it is helpful to talk to your community of poets and writers to find out what their experience has been with the "business" of writing. It also depends on the poet. The thing is that many of the poets I know seldom think about poetry as a "business." With this in mind, I'd suggest poets get informed about the ways you can navigate the business side of writing and maybe even get paid. But probably the most important thing you can do is to value your art.
What are you reading right now?
Recently, I participated in the festival Poetry at Round Top, and I picked up a few books. I am reading Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval, Marie Howe’s Magdalene, Major Jackson’s Roll Deep, Sherwin Bitsui’s Dissolve, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s The Last Cigarette on Earth, Natalia Treviño’s Virgin X, and Forrest Gander’s translation of the lost Neruda poems.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
I’d like to meet César Vallejo. Not sure what I would say to him, but I’d probably ask him to recite “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca.”
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them?
Depends. If the book is signed by the writer, then I try to take care of them, and I take notes in a notebook. If the book is not signed, then you’ll see notes, marginalia, coffee stains.
When do you find time to write?
I make time to write. Since January 1, 2018, I have been writing every day. Because I teach full time, I hardly had time to write during the long semesters. I take the advice I often give my students: I buy notebooks. Carry them around. Write in them every day.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
I used to be influenced by what my peers did to a degree. Not anymore. Or rather, I am inspired by my peers, but I don’t do what they do. Or try not to. I have my own interests, and recently, I have been working with visual poetics.
What do you do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
I just give in and watch movies.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
I get them from Facebook friends/contacts. They often post what they are reading and, if it interests me, I read the book, too.
Describe your writing process.
My process is simple: read every day, write every day. Since January 1, 2018, I have been writing a poem a day, usually a visual poem, what I call a FRONTEXTO, a blending of the Spanish words “frontera” and “texto” (border/text). This activity has been shaping my writing process, and by this, I mean that I am now constantly thinking about the world outside of me and the world inside of me. About art. About combining text and image. About different ways to write about what I know and the ways I can explore those things that I do not know. I write longhand. I usually write in silence.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
At moment, I am working on the FRONTEXTO project I mentioned above. But I am also working on a new poetry manuscript that is becoming a memoir. It focuses on my experience coming to the US from Mexico when I was nine years old. My parents and siblings stayed behind, and I came to live with grandmother in Texas so I could attend school. I have been piecing together this experience of separation and loss with poetry, prose, and photography.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I teach in the MA/MFA program at Our Lady of the Lake University, so I have membership through the institution. Of course, if that had not happened, I would’ve taken it upon myself to join by now. I enjoy reading The Writer’s Chronicle.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
My favorite conference was the second one I attended, in Washington, D.C. Met a lot of writers I admire and met up with friends.