The Creation of “Heroes, Villains, Clouds,” Christian Bale, and Time Capsules: A Conversation with Andrew Navarro


Poet Andrew Navarro sits down with Shenandoah intern Derek Qu, to discuss the creation of  his piece, “Heroes, Villains, Clouds,” featured in Volume 73.1 of Shenandoah.


Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


D: All right. I guess we can start with you reading Heroes, Villains, Clouds, if you’re willing.


A: Yeah, I’ll start off with the reading. So here we go: “Heroes, Villains, Clouds.” “General Santa Anna / years after losing his leg / to the French at the battle / of Veracruz had his leg dug up / and reburied with full / military honors. To salvos, / poetry recitals, and touching / speeches, Santa Anna wept / as he lowered his limb / encased in a crystal container / into the earth. Weeping / so softly he transformed / into wind. His uniform, / with its swaying tassels, / left abandoned in the chair. / Today, there is not a single cloud / in the sky. They have all been buried / in the fields beside the fattening / crops. Given time the clouds will grow / into the heroes and villains of another / generation. Heroes and villains born / in towns much like the one / I am walking through; / where a young man stands / before the baker’s daughter, / his hat held in his hands, / and a butcher scrubs blood / off rubber aprons and gloves; blood / and white foam mixing / in the street gutter a drunk / inadvertently steps in, his barefoot / caked in mud. En la calle San / Sebastián where statues keep vigil / of pigeons and a shattered glass bottle / contemplates the day. I could say / I am map of what we were; / a thousand years condensed / into a breath. How between / each joint in my body / lies a space as dark and cold / as the soil in a field of grass / where the bodies of soldiers lay, / their eyes reflecting the sky. / Place your ear to my chest / and listen— / the field of grass / rippled by wind.”


D: All right, sweet. It’s always a treat hearing poets read their poems. So, thank you for that.


A: Hopefully, it matched, you know, your expectations.


D: I guess let’s just get straight into the questions. And if you don’t like a question, or if you want me to reword it, just let me know.


A: No, no, no, hopefully you’ll find that I’m easy going. So, whatever you got.


D: Okay, okay. So, my first question: your poem seems to be about many different things and ideas. One thing I’m always interested in is how poets choose to write what they write about. So recently, I’ve really enjoyed poems about a single moment, like “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop, if you’re familiar with that one. But your poem doesn’t seem to be about one specific moment, which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy yours. Could you tell me a little bit about how this poem was born?


A: Yeah. So, I’ve read plenty of poems like you said about specific moments, but the kind of poems that I’ve always been drawn to are ones that I’ve always heard referred to as poems that leap. I kind of just go about one subject and whatnot. So, this poem started off with just kind of my fascination with the whole situation of Santa Anna and the thought of someone taking his leg and burying it. And if you know anything about Santa Anna or historical figures, I should preface this by saying I’m a history teacher. So, I like taking interesting facts or moments like that. And then basically, in this case, reading about the whole ceremony given to his leg. That was the starting off point, right? And then at that point, it was just really trying to figure out where the poem wanted to go, like the turn, you know? I was like, “Okay, I have the opening, there’s Santa Anna, and then what?” And then, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, here in California and maybe the west coast, but there’s these winds known as the Santa Anna Winds. So, with that, my mind naturally went to the thought, “Okay, he’s crying, and then he gets transformed into wind.” And then from that point, like I mentioned, it was just a matter of trying to figure out, “Okay, where do we want to go from here?” And if I recall correctly, writing this poem, it was just a lot of trial and error of the next leap, you could say, until finally I came across the line, “Today there’s not a single cloud in the sky.” And then we started kind of unfolding, “Okay, now I’m dealing with clouds. What more can I say about clouds?” And then, we got to the field right where they’re being grown with crops. And then, from that point on, in my mind, we were in this small town in Mexico where my mom’s side of the family’s from: Michoacán, Atecucario. And then from that point I’m like, “Okay, I’m in this town.” And then things just start unraveling. Whether, you know, per actual moments that I witnessed to, “Okay, I’m listening to the poem.” And then just leaping from that point on. So, it’s just the way I go about writing, really, it’s just that leap.


D: Okay, okay. Thank you. That was super interesting and detailed. I appreciate that. Okay, so the second question: so in this poem and, “Simón Bolívar” … , I noticed that there were a few similarities between those two poems. Specifically, each poem begins with a discussion of a historical figure. And then the poem begins to leap in a different direction as you just said. So, I haven’t read very many poems that incorporate history into them. And you just mentioned to me that you’re a history teacher. What do you think incorporation of history into your poems does for them?


A: I think the incorporation of history gives me a launching pad, a starting off point. And then they kind of just mesh well, because having a poetic mind, it’s helping me build, I don’t know if the term is like motif, but the central theme to a lot of the poems I’m working on, which is: history and the reality we live in is, almost feels, like theater, like one big stage. Like what Shakespeare said about “All the worlds of stage, and all the men and women merely players.” So, incorporating history for me, it’s just a good access point to that. And then, I wouldn’t say necessarily that I’m a surrealist, but I do like joking around in my poems, right. If you look at the Simón Bolívar poem, he starts off with that line, “Governing is hard,” which, if you know Simón Bolívar, at one point he gets exiled by the people he’s governing, and he had this dream of a unified Latin America and he gave up on it. So, incorporating history is just a helpful way for me to—I don’t want to say be cheeky—but I guess my voice feels comfortable using these characters and then tying them back to me or my experiences and what I go through, if that makes sense.


D: Okay. Yeah, that’s great. I guess I hadn’t really ever considered the idea of history providing a launching pad for poems, and I guess what you said about the world seeming like theater sometimes, I guess I can kind of see that in today’s political climate, not to get political here, but…


A: You’re right, 100%, like the political climate, the wars, social issues, it’s just all…That’s one thing I’ve tried to incorporate with my students, but trying to teach seventh graders history is a little tough. But, yeah, you do see the comparisons. So, it just creates a lot of thought to chew on and digest, and hopefully [it allows me] to come up with a poem. At least for me, right, it helps me create stuff.


D: Yeah, okay. So, I have a bit of a follow up question. So, poetry seems to be a discipline where practitioners are free to take really any creative liberties that they want, maybe more so than any other discipline. History, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to leave room for these kinds of creative liberties, like the facts are the facts. So, as you bring history into your poetry, do you take any creative liberties with those little bits of history? Like maybe you change facts a little bit, or maybe do you prefer to stick as close as possible to the true historical accounts?


A: I’ll play with facts. [There are] other [poems] where I might misquote someone, or obviously so and so never said this. I had this one poem that dealt with the country of Paraguay and the creation of vampires, but I’m blanking on it now. But yeah, I don’t mind messing with facts. It’s funny how you said history is fact driven, which you’re not wrong. But some of the poets I follow or that I read—I’m thinking of one right now, Eavan Boland, hopefully I pronounced her name correctly, but she’s an Irish poet, and she’s really big into history. She makes a comment about separating history from the past. For her, history is what’s taught in classrooms with statues, heroes, and whatnot. Well, the past is a little bit more, I don’t want to say the truth, but the forgotten stories. Hopefully I’m not going on a long-winded response here, but I guess even though history tries its best to, and historians try their best to, stick with facts and whatnot. I’m going to butcher it because I just read this in a book about the philosophy of history. But what changes is interpretation, you know what I mean, about a historical event. And an interpretation of a historical event could be the foundation for one generation, but then it changes, because now we interpret it differently. And this is my way of saying, “Yeah, I don’t mind steering away from historical facts” or adding a little change here or there because I almost feel like we do it already… Incorporating history just gives me a lot of wiggle room. I don’t feel so restricted because I don’t want to come off as a textbook, and I guess there’s times and places where it’s okay.


D: Okay, the next question. So, when I was reading your poem and rereading, I kind of divided it into four sections. That just kind of made sense in my mind. So, correct me if that wasn’t the intention there.


A: No, you’re good. There’s no corrections. It’s all up to however you interpret it and read it.


Derek: Thank you. So, you’ve got this first section that discusses the historical account of Santa Anna. And then you’ve got the second section, which I interpreted as maybe the thesis statement of the poem about the heroes and villains. And then the third section is the imagery of a town. Then that final section is this really personal turn and this addressing of someone. So, that’s how I saw it. And my next few questions are sort of questions about each section. In that second section, I mentioned that thesis statement of sorts, specifically the lines, “Given time the clouds will grow / into the heroes and villains of another / generation.” In terms of thinking about history [through the lens] of heroes and villains, could you elaborate on that reflection? Is that a view you personally hold, or is that kind of an idea meant for the purpose of writing this poem?


A: I think the poem reveals things that you might [only sometimes] think or you don’t think about too much. Cause I remember when I came up with that line and I just sat with it, I was like, “You know what, like, yeah,” as if I’m having a conversation with a poem, “like that makes a lot of sense.” Going back to how history, or the stories we tell, might be cyclical: every generation, we have our hero, we have our villain. And then when we pass, there’ll be other heroes and villains. So it is, I guess you could say, an idea I hold, and it is central to the poem. And like I said, to the series of poems that I’m working on right now, I was taking notes for myself on that one: “So our heroes and villains are myths made of or stuffed with clouds.” And then for the longest time after writing that line, I was really intrigued by clouds because I feel like that’s a whole nother rabbit hole of interpretation you could dive into: how people look at clouds and [how] clouds could look like something to you, but something else to me. And then that’s kind of interesting too, right? If you think about historical figures, to some people an individual is a hero, but to the other person a villain. But most importantly, I think that line rings true to my overall thought about how, at the end of the day… everything is fleeting, transient; nothing’s permanent. So, it’s definitely something that I agree with, and [it’s central to] my work that I’m currently working on.


D: So, in that third section of the poem, that description of the town: how did you decide which images to portray? And now, thinking back, I’m realizing that you kind of addressed that question a little bit earlier when you mentioned that it was a town that your mom’s side of the family had grown up in.


A: So, once I identified that I was in this town, memories kind of just surfaced. And one thing that I’m trying my best to do now when it comes to poetry is just going with [my] intuition… But one struggle that I found in the past when I was going through my MFA program and whatnot was like, “Hey, go through the logic, follow the logic of the poem.” Whatever conception that you have, throw it out the window and just be open to what comes up. So, with that in mind, different images were coming and going, [but they] didn’t really feel right. But then what really stood out to me was the first image of a young man standing before a baker’s daughter, which I remember seeing when I was driving back; we were coming back from the big city and we’re just coming to the town. And I want to say the young man, I saw him earlier, he’s a mechanic, and he was still in his mechanic gear, but now he was, I think, going to go take this girl on a date. And I just thought it was a sweet moment, seeing him with his hat in his hands; clearly, he was nervous. So, from there, once that image settled and it felt organic, it was easier to come across the other images, like the butcher. And then it landed on the butcher and then blood. And then I was stuck with the image of the gutter with the white foam and the blood. And then we kind of lead into a little bit of fabrication or imagination. Cause then I just thought, “Oh, it just makes the most sense to me.” [Then came] the thought of a foot just breaking that puddle, and then going from there. Hopefully that answered your question.


D: No, that was great. I like the fact that you really elaborated on that image of the mechanic, because I actually underlined those three lines, and my note said that this was such a simple line, but it’s filled with so much power. You can make a pretty good guess as to what’s happening from only three lines, and I kind of saw it as a love story in three lines. So, those are probably my favorite lines from the poem, and I’m glad you elaborated on that. Okay, so in the last section, that was probably the section that confused me the most. It seems deeply personal and intimate. And that might be the reason why it was confusing, because I wasn’t connected to the relationship that’s being described here. Would you mind explaining what’s going on here? And again, since it does seem to be personal, you don’t have to go into great detail.


A: Imagine I’m equally confused. Just kidding. I’m not going to say that. But hopefully you’ll see that a lot of the [poets], and I can’t speak for all poets… But [with] the poets that I read and would follow up on and read their essays, you really find that it’s a partnership between the poet and the poem. So with that statement, when I got to that point, I’m thinking, “Okay, this village, Santa Anna, clouds, heroes, villains.” I was sensing or feeling how all of this is ultimately what we’re made of, right? Like this huge fabric of human story and reality. So, I felt that’s where the transition [led me]: “I could say I am map of what we were.” Then saying, “This is who I am, this is everything that I am.” And even though I say “I,” I feel like we could, in a sense, say “we”, what we are, right? Because we all have our own towns. And actually, just as I was rereading this poem, I was thinking about how I’m drawn to this [one] novel. I’m blanking on the guy’s name. Well, I’ll find it right now if I can. Oh, here it is. It’s called “Pedro Páramo.” It’s by Juan Rulfo. It was brought to my attention because it was considered [to be] one of Mexico’s finest novels, and one thing that was interesting was the fact that it deals with a ghost town; it deals with a son going back to visit the town that his mom’s from, and it’s just filled with ghosts as he’s trying to find his dad. And I was just thinking about how, as a Mexican-American—and I’m sure other cultures feel this way—a lot of my family members here are drawn to, well, they just have a lot of memories of their hometowns. The towns that they had to leave to come here. And like I said, I’m pretty sure that might be a universal sentiment. But I just thought it was interesting that this novel that’s important to Mexican literature centers around a ghost town. I think that’s where it seemed the right shift to turn personal. Cause this town is what I’m made of.


And then, from there, I was thinking, “How could I articulate that?” So then it just seemed: “a thousand years condensed into a breath.” And I feel like breath made sense, especially since we’re talking about how fleeting humans, and everything that we stand for, are, which goes back to our heroes and villains being made of clouds. And then at that point, I’m not gonna lie, I remember being stuck. I’m like, “Okay, where am I going to go from here?” And then going back to [the] substance that we’re made of, I know I wanted to discuss soil and dirt. And then that was [me] really trying my best to push myself, just seeing where I could go. And then thinking about my body led me to the spaces inside my body. Specifically, as it says they’re like joints. And then that just kind of led to a field. And then I think maybe I thought of soldiers because I’m dealing with Santa Anna and he was a general… and then I thought about how this ghost town, this field, and everything that’s decomposing in that field is making who I am. I guess those lines just made the most sense. And then, it’s funny, I even thought to myself, breaking down that section, [about] that specific line, “their eyes reflecting the sky.” I felt like that’s also building off of the concept of how impermanent we are. Or how reality is always at a length from us because all we have left is just [a] reflection of a sky, not even the sky. And then we get to that part, “place your ear to my chest.” And then everything I had in my head just disappeared. And I was just left with the image of a field of grass. And then I thought it was interesting, even myself, as I was rereading the poem to prep for this, how we’re back with wind, and I even wrote the question down: “Oh, is this the wind that Santa Anna became?” Or I even thought, “Well, maybe he didn’t even become it, but the wind that took him, because all we end up becoming, maybe, is wind.” Who’s the sci-fi author, Ray Bradbury? And that made me think, in preparation for this [interview], that he has a short story that deals with the origin of wind. He describes the wind as an entity or a monster just made up of humans, and the main character is a guy who uncovered the secret of the wind in the Himalayas, and then he’s hiding in his house because the wind’s coming to get him. Anyway, that was a tangent, but that came to my mind right now, thinking about what I was explaining. But hopefully that shed some light to that last part.


D: No, that’s really helpful. I feel like things for me are starting to come together.


A: And mind you too, at least with poetry, your interpretations are also valid too. So, if you experience something else with the end of those lines, that’s good too.


D: Well, thank you for supporting me in that way.


A: Yeah, of course. Yeah, because I’ve read poems and I’ve had my own interpretations. And then either because of what my professors said, or maybe reading an interview with the author, I’m like, “I didn’t get that.”


D: So that was kind of the last question where I’m asking you to break down the poem, so I’m going in a more general direction now with these last few questions here. What’s your favorite line from this poem or maybe the line you’re most proud of?


A: My favorite line? Oh, that’s interesting. I’m like, “Everything.” Come on, Derek. Imagine, it’s so hard. I’m just kidding. Going back to the section that you refer to as the thesis, I guess the sequence I really enjoyed was the whole concept of burying the clouds into the ground and the fattening of crops. But ultimately, “Given time the clouds will grow / into the heroes and villains of another / generation,” because that just kind of builds off of where my headspace is, in terms of the work I’m kind of drawn to and whatnot. So, I like that one… And then also, [on] the side note of practicing leaping: this is kind of weird, but I patted myself on the shoulder [with these lines]. Like, I did a good job. But I enjoyed [going from] the joints of the bones to the soil. Like, that was just a nice—I don’t wanna say poets are doing tricks, [and] I don’t skateboard at all, but I’m assuming it’s the equivalent of a kickflip. That’s a move, right? You pop a kickflip and you land, and you’re like, “Oh heck yeah.”


D: Sweet. Thank you for that. I guess I told you my favorite lines were the image of the young man before the baker’s daughter.


A: No, that’s good too. And it’s funny; I’m like, “I know, I like that too.” But yeah, no, I genuinely did though. I like how you worded it, that it’s just a love story.


D: Yeah, I guess bottom line is [it’s] a great poem overall. Okay, so who are some of your favorite poets and what are some of your favorite poems?


A: All right, favorite poets—that’s tough, just because I find that that kind of changes a lot, but I will say, poets that stick to me or have stuck to me, like the poet Larry Levis; he’s really big, especially in terms of leaping or transitioning. He’s a poet that does that quite often. So, I’ll go to his poems if I’m stuck, and [ask] not what would Jesus do, but what would Larry do? Like, how might Larry turn here. So, I enjoy Larry Levis. From the historical perspective, like I said, Boland, is really a poet I started reading maybe two years ago. She’s really big on history and specifically looking at Irish history and writing it from the women’s perspective. She was the one who broke down the whole, “There’s a difference between the history and the past and I’m interested in the past,” and I was like, “Damn, that’s really good.” And so I like that and her lens in that regard. And then, just to throw out schools, there’s a moment where I was really big into Polish poetry and literature. I like, hopefully I’m not mispronouncing anyone’s name, Czesław Miłosz. Looking at my bookshelf, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski, Wisława Szymborska. So there’s that, and then a bunch of Latin American writers too. Right now I’m currently really into Chilean writers, both fiction and poets. And then favorite poems, man, it’s tough too, because I feel it’s almost like, I don’t know, when you’re growing up, you have a favorite toy, and then eventually you let go of that toy because you move on to another toy, you know? So, there’s always poems that are really important to me, then I move on. But let me see. Well, you know what? I’ll say the first poem that made me want to be a poet, which is by William Butler Yeats, and it’s “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” And it’s actually funny how I came across that poem. I don’t know if you like sci-fi, but you remember that movie with Christian Bale? It’s some dystopian world where no one’s allowed to read literature, no one’s allowed to feel, basically. And you take medicine, you take pills to suppress your emotions. And he’s part of basically this squad that hunts people who are trying to resist against the government. Does that sound familiar at all?


D: Um, I’m just not a big movie guy.


A: Well, anyway, there’s a scene there where, I want to say it opens up the movie, he finds his teammate or his partner in the restricted zone of the city, and it’s a church, or it might be a library, and his partner is reading a book of poems, and he references the last lines to the poem, which are, “But I, being poor, have only my dreams; / I have laid my dreams beneath your feet; / tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” And it’s William Butler Yeats saying that to someone that he loves. I remember—I think I might have been like in seventh grade or eighth grade when I saw that movie—then he looks up to it and then he just keeps reading the poem while Christian Bale executes him. So, at that moment, I was just like, “Well, what’s this guy reading, that he’s just willing to, you know…” So that poem is important because you could say started my interest in poetry. That was a long rant, sorry.


D: No, no need to apologize. I feel like it’s hard talking about things you love. And plus, it’s interesting to hear from my perspective, so thank you. So, my next question is: in the single poetry class I’ve taken here at college, I learned that poets used to enjoy prominent positions in society. Not like prestige-wise, but symbolically, people often looked to poets to provide this wise commentary on society. For example, we learned that Tennyson was very famous during his time for sort of occupying this role. So in today’s age, where maybe poems and poets don’t really occupy a very high role in people’s minds, what do you think is the value of reading and writing poetry? Should there be any other value besides pure personal enjoyment?


A: Oh, I think for me, it just helps make sense of the world. Going back to Polish poets, I think it was, Zagajewski, hopefully I’m pronouncing that correctly, Adam Zagajewski, but he had a line when I was watching an interview with him that all poets are just failed philosophers and all philosophers are just failed poets. Which is interesting because outside of poetry, I like to read philosophy too, and I could see what he means. Cause both groups are dealing sometimes with the edge of knowing, like what do we know, like trying to describe the indescribable. So, for me, the value of reading poetry is more spiritually enriching and [it] helps me make sense of the world. A lot of my buddies, and not to say that I don’t suffer my own existential crises, but what oftentimes grounds me is literature. I want to say that, historically speaking, that’s one reason why people turn to poetry, why poetry is always going to be a thing. And I want to [say], don’t quote me on this, but the first forms of writing were poems, even if they were religious texts. But all poems aim towards that, what’s the phrase, [the] ineffable or the indescribable. So, for me, I think the value of reading poetry and writing is it orders the world. Not even orders, [but] at least from my head, for me, it gives me purpose and a sense of belonging.


D: Yeah, that’s great. I guess there have been a few times where I’ve read a poem and then I get to the end or a certain line, and I’m like, “Oh, wow, that’s, like, a really cool and interesting way to think of the world.” Okay, so, we’ve finally gotten to my last question, so thank you for being so engaged with me here.


A: Oh, no, man, this is a pleasure for me.


D: My last question is, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? I know I told you I don’t write poetry, but I’ve thought about it. So maybe your advice to me would be, “Just go and do it.”


A: Let’s see, things that would help out. Well, one is read a lot. Also, I feel like this is applicable to any form of writing, whether it’s a novel or short story, right? Writing is a partnership. Let’s just stick with poetry. So, when I write, the poem is using me to come up with what’s trying to be created. So, the more I have for the poem to play, like references—which is probably one reason why I love incorporating history—because then it becomes like a big toy chest, you know of ideas. It’ll even increase your vocabulary. Sometimes, I get excited when I read a word. It could be silly words, not even like big academic words. I want to say, going back to “Heroes, Villains, Clouds,” it dawned on me that I never used the word pigeon. I was just like, “Oh man, I could incorporate a pigeon right here.” So, you should read, because by reading, there’s more for you to use in your work. And then, for me, writing is more of self-exploration than self-expression. I think that’s also big because maybe some people might think “Oh, what am I going to write about? Who am I?” But it’s not necessarily like, “Oh, you’re going to come up with your own statement,” but it’s like, “Hey, but are you inquisitive? Like, what do you want to uncover? What questions keep you up at night?” and just contemplate that. For me, some of the poems and poets I’m drawn to are just the ones that, by reading their poem, make you feel that you’re in their head and you’re following their train of thought as they’re breaking down their dilemmas or their problems or their thoughts. So read more and self-exploration. And it’s important for people to realize that you could get up and you could write and tell your story. Everyone has stories to tell, right? Everyone has loved ones that are here or that have passed that, I’m sure you want to tell their stories, right? So, writing, sometimes, is just the best time capsule, if that makes sense. So, keeping you and your loved ones, mainly your loved ones. I don’t necessarily write in the hopes that I stay alive, but I don’t want my loved ones to disappear. And even if I write about myself, I think more about my daughters and being able to read about my experiences with them and my experience of life in the now. So, if we could just condense it to three bits of advice: read, self-exploration, and time capsule. You get to make yourself a little time capsule. Who wouldn’t want that? I’m just kidding.


D: Well, Andrew, thank you so much for meeting with me and answering all of my questions. This was a real treat for me. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to have this in-depth of a discussion with a poet before, so that was super cool. Thank you for that. And congratulations on being chosen to get published in Shenandoah.


A: Thank you.


D: Thank you. It was nice meeting you, Andrew.

Andrew Navarro is a Mexican-American poet who lives in Southern California. He received his MFA from the University of California Riverside's Low-Residency Program, and works as a history teacher in the Inland Empire. His work appears in ZYZZYVA, Poet Lore, Air/Light, and Michigan Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife and two daughters.