Few men wear their vocation as literally as David Tomas Martinez wears his. There are the words homme de lettres on his neck, the quill pen and the sword on his arm, the logo of his publisher, Sarabande, on his wrist. Lest we fail to read his ink, he also arrived at our photo shoot in a belt buckle emblazoned with the word “poet.” The general unwillingness to dissociate self from style comes across in his work, too, as in “To the young,” wherein he offers what’s likely the most lyrical catalogue of clubwear available in the English language: “To the young/black male dressed/like a punk rock/hipster club kid/with teddy bears/tied to his sneakers/you too are split/down the middle.”
Given that it’s the 37-year-old University of Houston PhD candidate’s first impulse to talk about mixed identities through personal attire, we thought we’d do some especially lazy lit-crit and have him tell us what’s written on his body. You can hear Martinez read from Hustle, his forthcoming debut, August 3, as part of Public Poetry’s summer series.
What are you wearing?
Like myself it’s an amalgamation of things. The fitted jeans are probably more punk, the cowboy boots are an homage to being Chicano, and at the same time Texas. This is ridiculous to say because you can’t get out of your own thing, but: I like and don’t like irony in clothes. I like a little bit of irony but I don’t like when people don’t take themselves seriously.
How has your style evolved?
I’ve always been into clothes. Always. When I was younger, when I was a kid growing up in inner-city San Diego, I wanted Jordans, I wanted British Knights, and whatever was the newest kind of kick. It was more gang-related in high school and more urban-based later on, baggy jeans and jerseys. As I started to get out of my own milieu, my clothes started to get more fitted.
How did you come to poetry?
I had a kid in high school, worked at a shipyard, got fired, went to the navy, got myself kicked out, then I went to Job Corps to paint houses. I went to junior college to play basketball, which I was serious about. And I applied to a master’s program in poetry because I didn’t want to teach high school.
Is there a subject you keep returning to?
My youth, thinking about my past. I think a lot of poets start that way, with their family, some sort of traumatic event, something that centralizes everything they’re talking about. My whole book is about all of those things, but I have been writing it for long enough that I’ve been able to move beyond them. When I write a dad poem, it’s not just a dad poem. I have this intersection of past me, present me, future me, all coming in and collapsing on itself.
How did Hustle change while you were writing it?
Well, it’s been a long process. At the very beginning, when I was getting my master’s, I went through stages where I didn’t want to write about my past. I didn’t want to be ghettoized—“oh, there is the white Mexican guy that grew up in a black neighborhood. Look at that exotic bird.” I didn’t want that kind of deal at all.
So you resisted your best material.
Oh, without a doubt. I went through a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E phase, wanting to be a young Rae Armantrout, just for a little bit. And the people around me were like, “don’t do that.” It’s not my skill and my kind of deal. One of my professors told me, “You have a wealth of history and experience. And most people that are coming to poetry do not have that. And that’s a waste of a natural resource that you have.”
Tell us about the sleeves.
As I was getting my master’s, which took five years, I was like, “I can get as many tattoos as I want. It doesn’t matter in my profession.” It’s representative of who I am, major themes in my life, like being Chicano.
What’s Chicano, specifically? The Day of the Dead stuff?
Yes, but if you look closely, though, it’s Día de los Muertos, but look at the novia and novio—he has a pistol behind his back and she has a knife behind her back.
And his clothes are very fitted.
Yes. Yes, they are.
What do you wear when you’re writing?
Nothing, obviously. Naked. It’s a symbolic gesture. I’m baring my soul!