A Conversation: Francisco Cantú y Gabriel Dozal @ 5 Points


Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Francisco Cantú is a former Border Patrol Agent and a 2017 Whiting Award winner. A 2016 graduate of the University of Arizona MFA program, his work has since appeared in Best American Essays and This American Life.  His book The Line Becomes a River will be published by Riverhead Books in 2018.

Gabe Dozal is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona.  From El Paso, TX, he writes about the code-switching, camouflage, and chameleon nature of the borderlands.

(Competing with car horns, and police sirens on the patio, Francisco’s dog Walt, newly from the vet, has a cone around its head.)

 G: You were just here at Five Points this morning?

F: Yeah, every month I have breakfast here, with a group of so-called “desert rats,” writers and naturalists and other friends who share an obsession with the Sonoran desert. .

G: There’s a lot to congratulate you on but I’m most impressed with your “This American Life” piece. I like where the essay starts, with a scene of Border Patrol trainees on stationary bikes, sort of a metaphor for what their role might be like.

F: It was great to be on the program. The piece I read is sort of a hybrid—all of the writing is from the book that will be out next year, but some of the scenes were written years ago before I started my MFA and others much more recently. That’s one thing that’s cool about the book, it’s comprised of all these vignettes that are easy to pull out and present on their own. An earlier version of what I read on This American Life appeared in Best American Essays 2016. But that bicycle scene was one I remembered and added to the manuscript much later. It’s funny, when I was recording it the producers kept telling me to read “more flat” for radio.

G: You have these poetic flourishes that come at the end of these vignettes that I like a lot. As a poet, hearing you read made me want to explore my own writing in more of a prose style while exploring a border culture, but through code-switching.

F: Ocean Vuong gave a reading here recently, and during a Q&A he was arguing that as writers we all have our own innate voice, and that it’s just a matter of finding it. There’s also that old cliché about Michelangelo, that when he looked at a chunk of marble he saw the statue within it, and only had to work to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff around it. Maybe it’s similar for a writer as they find their voice.

G: Territory, in which an essay of yours appears, is a literary journal about maps, it’s run by former University of Arizona grads right?

F: That’s right, it’s run by Thomas Mira y Lopez and Nick Greer. I love Territory, I wouldn’t have written that piece if they hadn’t asked me to come up with something for that issue, an issue they were doing all about the state of Arizona. It’s a piece I had been wanting to write for a long time, and I was happy to have the occasion to write it.

G: The MFA program here at the U of A is on fire right now: Alison Deming was just named a Regents’ Professor, Taneum Bambrick won the inaugural Yemassee Chapbook Contest judged by Ocean Vuong, Jos Charles won a fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and has a new book of poetry, and Ander Monson just won a Gugg.

F: Yes, it’s great to see the program on such a roll. I was lucky enough to be in class with everyone on that list. Alison was my thesis advisor, and she has an incredible way of focusing you on your project and making sure it takes shape as a book. She’s also incredibly good at helping you make the right connections so that your work finds a home in the world. And with Ander, if I was struggling with an essay in workshop, I was always amazed at how he would throw out all these different ideas, some that might seem incredibly particular, others that might seem crazy, but there was always a golden idea in there that would really help you narrow in on something unexpected and focus the essay on the most interesting and uncommon aspects of your topic.

(More static noise distracts for a bit before we continued to talk about writing and the border, writing about that liminal space.)

F: You know, you mentioned your poetry earlier, and I really like how in many of your poems the border is named, it’s not just something in the background, I like all the ways it gains shape to become a character.

G: I want it to embody things and make it do things. I would replace the I’s in a piece of writing with the word “border” so there’d be sentences that sounded like: “Border need to drink less coffee” and “Border love that movie.”

F: I’m interested in the idea that we can direct anger and emotion towards the border itself, not just mince words over policy but distill an emotion and direct it at this dividing line.

G: I like how you put that because when I lived in El Paso, I felt like I was always negotiating these different worlds: my Grandmas, the Texans, the Tejanos, 2nd,3rd,4th, generation Mexican-Americans, military people (Fort Bliss), Chicana, cholo, Chicanx, tías, primas, fobs, and all with varying stratified experiences.

F: That makes a lot of sense. There can be a lot of simultaneous cross-over and division among all those groups. I always get confused when the generations start. I guess I’m 3rd generation, my grandpa crossed over as a boy during the Mexican Revolution and my mother grew up here.

G: Me too, I’m always balancing the generations in my family. On one side my great-grandparents came here and had my grandma in west Texas, so I have deep roots there. You lived in El Paso too, right? What was your time like there?

F: I was only in El Paso for 8 months but I’ve always felt close to West Texas. When I was a boy my Mom worked for the park service, in the Guadalupe Mountains, and we would go to El Paso to get groceries and stuff. After we moved away we would return every once in awhile. One of those trips is the prologue to my book, a trip I took to Juarez with my mother when I was an undergrad. I wanted to go to the border for an essay project in one of my classes.

G: Now that you’ve won the Whiting does it change the scope of future projects?

F: The Whiting has a done a few things for me. First and foremost, in how I think about my own work, how I think about my career, it’s extremely legitimizing, it’s a huge confidence booster as far as someone saying: “Hey, keep on this path that you’re on.” It’s very affirming which sounds like it’s not that big of a deal, but in the context of the financial and professional risks you take to be a creative person, it really means a lot. That’s also one of the best things I got from the MFA experience, the confidence to consider myself a writer in the first place.

G: Right? Like, is all of this writing I’m doing just terrible? We were talking about 2nd , 1st generation so it’s cool to see that you’re moving into a different kind of crossing narrative. I remember telling you in Patagonia (Arizona, more on that in a bit) that at first I didn’t want to write about the border. Everyone I knew in El Paso was writing about it so I didn’t want to, I felt like it was too common, too easy.

F: You know, I grew up in Prescott, Arizona. It’s a pretty white town, four and half hours from the border and I had a totally American upbringing. My mom didn’t speak Spanish around the house, she hadn’t grown up speaking it either, so I never really felt like I was that different from the kids I was going to school with. But I remember when I was going into high school my dad was like “Hey, you should probably learn to speak Spanish because with your name, people are going to expect you to speak it.” That’s when I first really began to think about my identity and my background. But growing up, and even today with most things in my life, I’ve had all the privileges of a white man. I look pretty white and I’m usually treated like a white guy, so it’s been interesting for me to see who my writing resonates with. When I first started writing I didn’t think about myself as a Latino writer. But then I began to realize that a lot of people have a story like mine, a lot of us have Latino heritage and still feel totally American except for these brief moments when we have to stop and say “Oh no, wait. There’s something else here and I want to get to the bottom of it, investigate it.” Writing gives you a way to do that, and even if you’ve been living in a white dominated world and never before thought of yourself as a writer of color, you gradually start to realize that you’re part of something more complicated.

G: I learned to speak better Spanish working in a German bakery after high school in El Paso. The owner was German but everyone who I worked with in the kitchen spoke only Spanish. My parents grew up speaking English, growing up and listening to Elton John and Jim Croce, so when they had me and my brother it was easier for them to just speak mostly in English to us.

(Car horns and other noise interrupt us for a bit, before we continue thinking about how we both grew up. Francisco and I also lived in D.C., though not at the same time, before coming to the U of A. Some writer-ly, Latinx paths. Our conversation returns to the Whiting.)

F: The other thing about the Whiting that’s inspirational is that there are ten other winners and you get to spend time with them and their work, and it’s inspirational to be in a new cohort of writers outside of the MFA program. I’ve been reading plays from some of the other Whiting winners—James Ijames, Claire Barron, Clarence Coo. So in a way I’ve discovered a new literary genre through their work, you know? Maybe you’ve heard of the poets who won—Simone White and Phillip B. Williams—incredible poets and thinkers. So it’s nice to be in a tiny community with these people, to experience the award together, because as writers we spend all our time expecting to get rejected and never hear back, but all of a sudden we’re receiving this attention together.

A nice thing about the Whiting is that it isn’t political—the judges are anonymous, you don’t know who nominated you, so it’s not like in many MFA programs where you’re competing against your friends and colleagues for awards and funding. The money is great, of course, and one of the most beneficial things is that they organized a three-hour financial seminar for us, from an accountant who sort of showed us from scratch us how to file taxes as a self-employed writer. It’s so hard to build a sustainable writing career—most of the time you need to be teaching and you’re not sure when you’ll get an opportunity to just take time for your writing.

G: I’m looking forward to working with you in Patagonia for the The Southwest Field Studies program. Can you tell us a little about it?

F: Yeah, the Southwest Field Studies will explore how arts and culture contribute to understanding and responding to challenges of climate change, border issues and social justice. I’ve been lucky enough to coordinate the program with Alison Deming and Susan Briante. We’ll be bringing three MFA candidates, (you, Raquel Gutierrez, and Abby Dockter) for a two-week immersion trip in the Patagonia/Nogales region to work on research and writing projects. The project is made possible by the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice and we’ll also be partnering with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Corps to engage a group of local high schoolers in writing, storytelling, and oral history to talk about the unique ways they are coming of age in a place where environmental and social justice issues are so intertwined. The idea is for the MFA fellows to mentor these students in creating a shared portrait of the border.

G: And…when does your pup get its cone off?

F: He had an allergic reaction and scratched his head and neck up, so after all his cuts heal, I guess. Gotta keep him from pawing at those wounds.

(At this point, maybe “El Chico De Apartamento 512” by Selena starts playing over the patio speakers at 5 Points. Maybe me, Francisco, and Walt, break into a dance we choreographed the night before where we lead his pup in an array of Zoot Suit inspired dance moves: the rhumba, zumba, y el danzon. Walt was having trouble negotiating the cone. Maybe patrons were staring, a little shocked, but seemingly enjoying our mini-flash mob.)


“Unbury What Has Been Hidden”: An Interview with Dana Diehl


Credit: Jellyfish Highway

Recently, Sonora Review’s Web Editor, Eshani Surya, had the pleasure of talking with Dana Diehl, a former Sonora contributor whose short story collection Our Dreams Might Align debuted December 2016 from Jellyfish Highway. Diehl’s collection moves between spaces: locations, dreamscapes, wild worlds. Together, the stories create a collection that explores humanity, intimacy, and the natural world.

So many stories in Our Dreams Might Align deal with humans and animals encountering each other (and I phrase it this way because I believe the animals in your story often have as much agency as the humans do). How do you view the animal/human relationship? Are animals and humans alike or do they only intersect at times? 

I grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania, my neighborhood surrounded by deciduous forest. Animals would come and go through our yard: groundhogs, rabbits, birds, squirrels, frogs, garden snakes, deer, foxes, and occasionally a bear. I spent a lot of my childhood watching these animals. My family taught me through example that encounters with animals are special and that we should be kind to the animals that share our space. If a bird laid eggs in the hanging basket on our front porch, my parents insisted that we use the backdoor for the rest of the season. If a herd of deer paused in our yard to eat from our apple trees, my parents would call me and my brother from whatever we were doing, we’d turn off the lights, and we’d press our noses to the window to watch until the deer moved on. This way of seeing has carried into my stories, and I absolutely consider animals as beings with agency, beings that take up space and have value.

I think animals and humans are alike, but that many of our non-physical similarities are subjective. Humans have historically anthropomorphized animals and turned them into symbols that reveal more about the symbol-maker than the animal itself. While writing this collection, I read a lot of ancient mythology and was struck by how attitudes towards animals varied wildly culture by culture. At one point in history, whales were seen as ferocious, peaceful, monstrous, or harmonious depending on who you asked. Animals become reflections of ourselves. In my stories, I wanted to use my characters’ evolving perceptions of animals to track how they see themselves and their relationships.

What lessons do your characters gain from the natural world, if any? Are these lessons tapping into an inherent knowledge that humans already have, or are they teaching humans something completely new? 

I think the natural world has an ability to unbury what has been hidden or ignored. Nature won’t give you answers, but it will guide you to them. In my stories, nature reminds my characters of who they are. It reminds them that they can’t hide their true natures and that they are capable of adapting to their situations.

This book takes us from place to place–Arizona, Scotland, outer space–which is unlike some collections that focus on one area. Can you speak to your interest in diversifying spaces in the collection? How does changing locale alter what a story’s parameters can be?

Over the years I wrote this book, I traveled often and became used to the feeling of displacement many of my characters experience. As I started to write about some of these places I visited, I realized the unfamiliarity I had with these settings made them more fun to write about. These places still had an element of mystery and magic to me.

Every setting comes with its own set of possibilities, its own dangers. I love taking an idea or character I have and dropping it into an interesting locale. It makes writing so much fun to ask myself questions such as: What if this girl’s dealing with the death of her mother, and also she is in the-middle-of-no-where in the Sonoran Desert with her dad’s snake collection? or So what if you were having issues with your sibling, and also you were in the belly of a whale?

Our Dreams May Align has some characters that are scientists or keen observers of the natural world. However, much of the book also deals with magic. How do science and magic operate in the same sphere? Are they complementary or incongruent? If the latter, what interests you about that tension? 

My parents and many of their friends were geologists, so I grew up around science. When my brother and I were kids, my mom and dad would take us on drives through the Pennsylvania countryside and point out how valleys or hillsides were formed. They’d explain why moss grew on the north side of trees or why the river currents moved the way they did. I loved how science could help me to see beyond my own senses. Science could give me x-ray vision and let me see back in time and take me to the bottom of the ocean. Science was magic. In my stories today, I think I’m trying to capture that joy and wonder I still feel as an adult when confronted with the science of the natural world.

I love the title of this collection (as well as the cover!). My first instinct was to say it indicates uncertainty, a thread that does seem to show up in your work as characters try to discover their place in the world. Could you talk about where it came from? 

The phrase, “our dreams might align,” came from my story, “Burn.” It was actually my partner, Will Hoffacker’s, idea to use it as the title. He was editing my manuscript for me, and I asked him to share any phrases he came across that sounded like titles. When he suggested “Our Dreams Might Align,” it felt just right. I think you’re right that it captures my characters’ uncertainties. It also points to my theme of dreams and my characters’ struggle to connect with the people they care about.

Intimacy or lack of intimacy seems to be an issue in a lot of these stories, and maybe a push for a lot of these characters to move out of the home space and into the natural world. Is there then a contrast between the domestic/home and the natural world/wild? Is it possible for those spaces to meet? 

This is a complicated question for me. Symbolically, there is a contrast between the domestic and the natural world. In my stories, I use the forest and the ocean as a metaphor for characters letting go of the social constraints that make them unhappy. In our culture, the natural world is a universal metaphor for “wildness” and “freedom,” which is why we see so many narratives about people retreating into nature to fix or clarify their lives. And though I am definitely restored by nature and think there’s endless value to experiencing it, I think that in our real, actual lives, it’s unfair to think of nature as the only place we can be wild. To me wildness is living and acting honestly. The home is the place where you can do what you like without worrying about what your friends and coworkers think, a place where you can be sad and show your sadness. When I imagine these two spaces (the domestic and natural world) meeting, I imagine a place very different my current home in central Tucson. I imagine a home with a big backyard where you can transition from domestic to wild by opening the door, a home that coyote and javelina pass by in the night.


Credit: Melissa Goodrich

Dana earned her BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. She received her MFA in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Dana has served as editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Susquehanna Review. She is a Blog Interviewer for The Collagist. She has taught Composition, Creative Writing, and Humanities at Arizona State University, Florence Prison, the National University of Singapore, and BASIS Tucson Central.Her honors and awards include a Completion Fellowship from Arizona State University, as well as Piper Enrichment Grants to attend the Port Townshend Writers Conference and the Rutgers Camden Summer Writers’ Conference. In 2014, she received a Piper Global Fellowship to teach Creative Writing at the National University of Singapore. She has been awarded a Glendon & Kathryn Swarthout Prize in Fiction.

Are you a former Sonora contributor with a recent or forthcoming book? Interested in getting a review or interview on this page? Email us at sonorareview2@gmail.com! 

Barnstorm and a Bullet: An Interview with Rachel Mindell

By Jon RiccioRachel Mindell Author Photo

Rachel Mindell is a writer and teacher from Tucson, Arizona. She works for the Montana Book Festival, the Missoula Writing Collaborative and Submittable. Individual poems have appeared in Diagram, Pool, BOAAT, Horse Less Review, DESTROYER, and elsewhere.

JR: Like a Teardrop and a Bullet opens with a ten-line poem, “Chile Ancho,” that commences at “4:30 p.m. Friday.” Do time and dimensionality set the tone for what’s to follow?  

Rachel Mindell: Interesting question. I think I began with “Chile Ancho” hoping it would embrace what follows: small instants, loss, heat. So in a way, yes, perhaps a tone is set for one moment being all moments, one door being all doors. These poems are a couple years old now – what I sense in the writing retrospectively is a willful push towards the precipice, something my friend Crystal Hartman intuited through her cover art. 4:30 p.m. Friday is what we jump off of.

JR: “Diamond City Ghost” explores the brittle courtship between outlook and environment –

Need brought us
this collapsing mine, rising dust and an aerial photograph
of what never was thrive, who’s to say
faith we haven’t and we won’t.

followed by “What luxury to simply up and leave our specter/ there’s so much cheap land still permissible.” How did moving from Tucson to Missoula change your definition of the word thrive?

Continue reading

An Interview with Anselm Berrigan


Anselm Berrigan will be judging Sonora Review‘s 2017 Poetry Contest. Deadline 4/1.

His recent books of poetry include Come In Alone (Wave, 2016) and Primitive State (Edge, 2015). He is the editor of What Is Poetry? (Just kidding, I know you know): Interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter 1983-2009, due this spring from Wave Books. He is the poetry editor for The Brooklyn Rail, a former Artistic Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, and Co-Chair, Writing at The Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts. Degrets, a chapbook from an ongoing series of combine-like poems, is due out from Couch Press in Portland, OR.

Gabe Dozal: In doing research for this interview I re-read the interview you had in Poetry with Bethlehem Shoals.  This was an awesome conversation.  I wish we could just reprint that conversation for Sonora.

Anselm Berrigan: Well, I’ll tell you that it was little J.A. who compared me to Sarah Palin. Does that qualify as a scoop?

GD: Are you writing separate poems or one long poem? Like, do you see your work as separate entities or one long epic poem?

AB: I like the feeling that it’s all one long poem — not an epic, but some kind of ludicrously scaled quilt. But in the writing the separate poems take their specific shapes, usually with very particular attitudes, and that feeling isn’t really there. So the long quilt feeling is probably more like self-hypnosis, though I have a tendency to write a lot of poems that go together as individual poems while being parts of long works.

Continue reading

2017 Contests Open for Submissions!

Today we announce the opening of our 2017 contests in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction!

Each year, three prizes of $1,000 each and publication in Sonora Review are awarded to a poem or group of poems, a short story, and an essay. This year, our judges are:

Poetry: Anselm Berrigan
Fiction: Brian Evenson
Nonfiction: Irina Dumitrescu

We accept submissions of four to eight pages in poetry, up to 6,000 words in fiction, and up to 5,000 words in nonfiction. The contest will be open from February 1st through April 1st, and all entries are considered for publication.  Entries are accepted through Submittable for a $15 fee.