Marcelo Castillo discusses the ‘undocupoet’ experience at Helen Zell Visiting Writers Series

Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 6:46pm

NOSELL

Elizabeth Yoon

Last week, the Zell Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, featured Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, a renowned poet and graduate of the University of Michigan who recently published his first memoir “Children of the Land.” During the event, which took place over Zoom, Castillo shared his work, talked about his career and answered questions for the public in an hour and a half long talk with faculty, staff and community members.

The meeting opened with a heartfelt introduction from Castillo’s editor, Sofia Groopman, who told us how the two had met. When she first read his poetry, she felt the fundamental trust that exists between a writer and their editor — an unnamable reliance as mysterious as it is strong; she knew she had to work with him.

Castillo possesses many laureates: He is a graduate of the University’s Master of Fine Arts program and is the first undocumented student to have done so. He is the founder of Undocupoets, a group of poets who support and advocate for other undocumented poets, and a published author. His award-winning poetry was also recently adapted into an opera and now most recently, his memoir was published. This latest work, which has been nominated for multiple awards and praised heavily, tells his story of being an undocumented immigrant crossing the border to becoming a celebrated modern poet.

Following his introduction, Castillo took some time to read a few excerpts from his work. Even though he sat alone in his room, his enthusiasm and charisma could be felt from miles away. Every pause in his reading, every extra emphasis in his voice, all served to illustrate the complex and vibrant picture that was his poetry. He began with the titular poem from his first book, “Cenzóntle.”

An emotional piece, it can only be summarized by a quote: 

“Because the bird flew before

there was a word

for flight

years from now

there will be a name

for what you and I are doing.”

These were the opening lines to the poem — each line that followed grew more ethereal, packed with yearning, loss and emotions too complicated to name. Although the audience could not be viewed from Zoom’s speaker setup, it was clear they were enraptured (I know I was). Sometimes while watching a performer you can see their passion for their work in every move they make, and you know that this is what they were meant to do — this is how it felt listening to Castillo.

He then read an excerpt from his memoir: a chapter detailing what it was like to send his mother back to Mexico as she self-deported. Taking place 12 years after his father was also deported, Castillo and his siblings had to experience the pain and sorrow again, but this time in the new, bitter context of knowing they were sending their mother to be alone with her abusive husband and they may never be together as a family again. Beautifully written, it was clear from every twist and quiver of the words that this heart-wrenching story was written by a poet. 

Following his readings, Castillo entered a Q&A session with Nadia Mota, a current graduate student at the University. When asked about his graduate experience at the University, Castillo reminisced on the invaluable community he found in the writer’s program and has since returned to his alma mater as part of the Zell Visiting Writers Program to teach and advise current students on their writing.

When asked about how he had reached this point in his career, Castillo explained that writing poetry was the first step he had to take before he could share any other part of his story. His poetry became the embodiment of struggles like coming to terms with his identity as undocumented and queer and coping with childhood trauma. He couldn’t move on or write anything else until his poetry was done and published, but it was hard. Writing about himself as a bad person, as someone who made others suffer — that kind of writing takes something from deep within oneself and thrusts it into the light. It is intimate, personal and can very well have negative consequences like straining family relationships.

One of the things Mota brought up in her questions that really struck me was the idea of taking up space. As a writer, it can be hard to unabashedly take up space and be personal in your work. For Castillo, publishing his poetry was a way of overcoming this notion, to the point where he actively welcomes the openness: While before he couldn’t conceptualize himself through the use of pronouns and other gender-affirming pratices, his new projects, free of restraints, will be even more personal.

With his poetry finished and published, Castillo was able to change trajectories and pursue his memoir. Now he has multiple new projects in the works, an experience he says he’s never had before.

Castillo’s book can be purchased from Literati Bookstore here, and the rest of the Zell Writers Series can be found here.

Daily Arts writer Hadley Samarco can be reached at hsamarco@umich.edu


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