Raymond Zachary Ortiz was first inspired by poetry as a child while listening to his grandfather recite poetry in the shade of a willow after chores. Poetry has been an integral part of his life since then, initially as he continued listening and reading, then as a student of literature. He received his BA from the University of Notre Dame, then lived in Costa Rica while volunteering as a social worker. He then continued his formal education at the University of California Berkeley (Boalt Hall) where he received his JD.
After clerking for New Mexico Supreme Court, he practiced law for over twenty years, first as an associate, then as a partner in the same firm. In late 2005 he was appointed district court judge by the Governor. Long before becoming a judge, he found his voice as a poet. Even with a demanding law practice, the hour before dawn would often find him at a table in a dark part of the house, writing out poems in longhand by candlelight. He continues his poetic endeavors, although at shorter intervals before dawn. Over the years, his poetry and short stories have been published in regional journals and anthologies. We Had More to Say is his first book.
He lives in Santa Fe with his wife Margaret who is also a graduate of Notre Dame and is a psychotherapist in private practice. Their only child Zachary likewise graduated from Notre Dame, received his MD from the University of Arizona and recently began his first year of internship/residency in Family Medicine.
1) What is the ghazal form of poetry and what is it about that particular form that draws you to it?
I was drawn to the ghazal because the form lends itself to rhythm and cadence, to the shifting of context which can emphasize a theme as well as to the use of images to help convey meaning. As to rhythm, in a ghazal, a word or phrase is repeated in each stanza, often at the end. Sometimes, in the hands of a master, what is repeated is a long vowel or concept. As a result of this repetition, the ghazal form evokes a kind of song or chant, which is not surprising since early ghazals were, as with most early poetry, often recited or sung and were passed down in written form much later on.
In a ghazal, each stanza is essentially a short poem or meditation unto itself, somewhat akin to haiku. But a word, phrase, sound or concept is repeated in each stanza in a totally different context, with a different but related meaning. As a result there is a shift, an elevation in meaning between stanzas, somewhat akin to the volta or shift that occurs between the eighth and ninth lines of a sonnet. Instead of only one transformation as in a sonnet, a ghazal gathers itself, weaves itself through as many levels or contexts as there are stanzas in the poem. The power in a ghazal flows not only from each stanza but from the unusual connections between each stanza and the sequencing of the stanzas.
In addition, the power in a ghazal also arises from the shifting imagery that the form lends itself to as well as to the dream-like quality that the form can evoke. A ghazal invites the reader into a world of images, and once you are into the poem, invites new images that may arise in the reading. Occasionally, reading a ghazal is like remembering a vivid dream. In this sense, a ghazal can also become allegorical.
The ghazal evolved and reached its height in fourteenth century Persia, with Hafez as the master of the form. In its ancient form, it consisted of couplets containing thirty six syllables each, ranging to about ten couplets per poem, although some are longer. In more modern times, the ghazal form has been modified from a series of long couplets to stanzas consisting of three lines of twelve syllables each. The basic reason for this is that most U.S. publishers are unwilling to print longer lines that contain eighteen syllables. In the early part of the last century, Federico Garcia Lorca introduced the form to the Spanish speaking audience. More recently in the United States, the ghazal has evolved in form to six stanzas under the influence of Robert Bly. He is one of the current masters of the ghazal and is responsible in large part for re-introducing the form and popularizing it in this country.
Since it is a difficult form to learn, the ghazals in my book such as “Journey Around the World” and “Gazing Towards the Horizon Of Hope” only involve the repetition of a word or phrase. If I ever get past the intermediate beginner stage as a poet, maybe I will move into the repetition of long vowels, other sounds or concepts. For your readers interested in the modern form of the poem, I would recommend two books by Robert Bly which collect his best ghazals: The Night Abraham Called To The Stars as well as My Sentence Was A Thousand Years Of Joy. Still, the master is Hafez. There are plenty of collections of Hafez poetry available, including his ghazals. Among the best, which also includes commentary on ghazals as well as the life and work of Hafez, is The Angels Knocking On The Tavern Door by Robert Bly and Leonard Lewisohn.
That was a long answer to a short question. I promise that the others will be shorter.
2) Do you write any other forms of poetry, or do any other type of writing?
Many forms of poetry are represented in my book. At the suggestion of Garrett Hongo (one of my poetry teachers and a fine poet) I have experimented with other forms of poetry to lengthen and vary my line. It was becoming too predictable since I was primarily working only with free verse. So there are other poetic forms represented in the book besides the ghazal and free verse. Examples of these include the sonnet (“My Son Is Coming Home”), the prose poem (“First Train To Chicago”), narrative (“Finding My Father”), the number poem (“Blessings”) and the odes are, well, the odes.
Other forms of writing are attractive as well. In particular, I have also written a number of short stories related to the time that I lived at my maternal grandparent’s home with some of my younger uncles and aunts, who really are more like my brothers and sisters. These stories, taken together, are a type of memoir of my earliest days living out in the country, although each story can stand on its own. There are a number of images which arise even in these stories, but they are in the context of a narrative so they are more restrained. There was also some letter writing. When I was younger, I used to write some involved letters on occasion, get into these long exchanges in longhand, but this is becoming a lost form with email and the internet.
Then there is legal writing of course: orders, decisions and opinions, all of which take up a portion of my day and which must be much more linear and analytic than any other type of writing mentioned here. I won’t say more precise though because good poetry must be every bit as precise as good legal writing, where the choice and positioning of even a word or phrase, a comma or any other form of punctuation can significantly impact the intended meaning.
3) With your busy career as a district court judge, when/how do you find the time to write?
Finding the time for creative writing, poetry in particular, is very difficult for anyone with a demanding career or job. As a judge, I deal with tragedy and conflict in numerous cases on my docket so my days are quite long and intense. There is not much creativity floating around at the end of the day. More than that, because of the nature of legal analysis generally, during the day I am immersed in the linear, analytic frame of mind that is necessary for me to work effectively and efficiently. This frame of mind is at complete odds with writing poetry which evokes a more free-flowing, free associative frame of mind where images come together, unrestrained by the normal conventions of daily life. For these and other reasons, I keep my judicial career and my poetic endeavors as separate as possible.
So my poetry comes in the hour before dawn, after the previous day’s tensions have been cleared out by rest, reconciled by dreams. I begin writing by candlelight at a small table in the darkest part of the house, while still in a dream-like state. It’s important visually to have the outside world shielded by darkness so that I can focus only on the inside world. I try to stay inside the emotion and the story of the poem long enough for images to arise, then try to outline hints of those images with a few words in longhand. Capture is too strong a word since if I try to corral the image or thought, it quickly dissipates and is very difficult to recover. In a sense, writing poetry in this way is a type of meditative or spiritual practice. By the time that the light of dawn begins to flow into the room, I am slowly drawn away from the images into the outside world again, so I put my pencil down and move on.
When I first took the bench and folks would ask about the unusual juxtaposition of law and poetry, if the conversation was brief, I used to try and sum it up by saying that I’m a judge by day and a poet by night but this doesn’t fully describe either the substance or the process that is involved.
4) What comes first, the poems or the collection? Do you have a theme in mind that you write to, or do you just write and find common threads among your poems later?
The poems always come first. At times I begin with a feeling, at other times it is an image or series of images and on occasion a key phrase or even the title of the poem comes to mind and I work from there. I’ll work and re-work a poem for a week or so, sometimes much longer, try to get it into as clear a form as I can. Then I put it down and, if inspired, move on to another poem. Eventually, I come back to those drafts and read them with fresh eyes and make further revisions as necessary.
It is only when I decided to pull together the manuscript that I put some thought to a theme to build it around. Pilgrimage of course came to the fore since there were certainly images of pilgrimage and suggestions of trying to find a new path in many of the poems. In the end, although each poem must stand on its own, I also tried to tell a story by the sequencing of the poems into what became the four chapters of the book: awakening to a new way of being in the world; reflections on various landscapes that had inspired me; looking back at various points along the way through imaginary letters sent home; and finally passage into a new way of being in the world.
5) Your poetry is so personal. You write about your life, your loves, and your losses. Is it difficult to put yourself out there, or do you find it necessary for your sense of well being?
It is both. Certainly it is very difficult in the first instance to even express emotions clearly. It is all the more difficult because of my position as a judge to put my poetry out in the public forum. The image that comes to mind is of being behind a microphone, first in the courtroom and then at a poetry reading. As a judge, I am in complete control, of the surroundings, the presentations, even the outcomes for the most part (except in the case of a jury trial). As a poet giving a reading it is completely the opposite. I am vulnerable in expressing deep emotion, in revealing some of my innermost thoughts, vulnerable to the audience and its reaction, vulnerable to emotions that may well up in the reading of a particular poem. All of this of course was magnified with the publication of my first book.
To answer the other part of your question, writing is indeed necessary for my sense of well-being. It is a way that I try to make sense of the world, to try and understand what is going on beneath the surface, to reconcile conflicts and emotions that arise along the way, to try and work out certain issues. As I stated earlier, writing poetry is a meditative, almost spiritual practice for me. In a sense, it is also a kind of therapy, except much cheaper since I don’t have to pay for a therapist or a psychiatrist!
6) Now that you’ve published your first book, has anything changed in how you view yourself as a writer?
Of course I’m happy to have the book published and gratified by the positive reactions to the poems, especially in light of all the effort that went into the writing. What has also changed is a sense of accomplishment in having my poetry move out beyond the scope of readings in small poetry groups. Bringing my poetry out to a broader audience also provides opportunities to interact with more of the public and more poets, to talk poetry, compare reflections, hear about new poets or poems that I should look into.
Although some things have changed, others remain constant. I didn’t write these poems with an eye towards publishing. The purpose was to name and describe perceptions and emotions as clearly as I could as a means of working through them, of reconciling myself to them. That has been the dominant purpose behind my poetry and remains so. So once a poem is completed, there is still that sense of accomplishment, without regard to whether it is published.
7) I have two favorite poems in your collection: “Ode to My Shovel” and “Floating.” What is your favorite poem in your book?
Every poem has a story behind it. It is very interesting that you should mention these two in particular. “Ode to My Shovel is the very first poem I wrote that appears in this volume. My mother died in January, 2000 and it took me a number of months to begin to reconcile myself to her loss. In October of that year, I went back to writing poetry while at a conference where I met my other teacher, David Johnson, who is a retired professor and a fine poet. I had completely put poetry down in August of 1977 as a means of allowing more time for dealing with the rigors of law school in particular and the legal profession in general. Trying to write about my mother’s death led me to memories of the death of my maternal grandfather Ramon who in many ways was like a father to me from the time my own father was taken from me at ten and placed in a Veteran’s mental hospital. This was for treatment of a service connected disability attained in the front lines during the latter months of World War II. Thus, “Ode to My Shovel” was born, with its many layers of sorrow and remembrance.
“Floating” was the last or certainly among the very last poems that I wrote and it is very comparable in the sense of layers of meaning that I tried to convey through all the difficulty of the emotion that I was holding while trying to convey the meaning of what my uncle meant to me and my family as a whole. It is also memorable because of it time it took to write. That poem went through quite a few drafts such that I had my doubts whether it was ever going to come into this world.
Your question is similar to asking a parent which child is the favorite. Grandparents I suppose are slightly more inclined, or able, to answer that question because of the longer view that they are able to take. I’m not quite there yet. Each poem has its own personality, its strengths and shortcomings. Certainly “Ode to My Shovel” and “Floating” are very close to my heart because they represent the beginning as well as the completion of a beautiful and intense writing journey. But every other poem was part of that journey, the remembrance of that journey, so they are all close to me. I will also say that I left quite a number of poems out of the manuscript so in a roundabout way of answering your question, the ones I picked are my favorites.
8) Which one was the hardest to write?
It was “Floating,” on a few levels. During the years that I wrote the poems in the book, in a sense I was pulling up tragedies and wounds, joys and dreams, trying to make sense of them one at a time. Each reconciliation built upon the other such that I was finally able to write about my youngest uncle. Because of the situation with my father, my uncle was not only like a father to me, he was the brother I never had, as well as my friend. So the poem was one of the hardest to write in that it involved going back to such deep sorrow, not only dealing again with the sudden and tragic nature of his death but trying to comprehend what it meant for all of the family. We all took it very hard. After he died, my grandfather cried for weeks, so loud and mournfully that you could hear him across the courtyard from my grandparents’ home. Shortly after my uncle died, I got sick with rheumatic fever and was in bed for an entire year, had to miss the entire fifth grade. That was not coincidental.
The other part of the difficulty was in selecting the proper form, strange as that may sound. I had started out to write a prose poem in order to facilitate the drawing in of detail that the prose poem facilitates, but it was not just hanging together. In the first drafts, detail was getting in the way. Then I tried the sonnet but the requirements of that form were not only too strict for that poem, I just couldn’t condense it to fourteen lines. So I went back to free verse because of its flexibility, still trying to preserve some of the vibrant, rhythmic tones.
9) What’s next on your writing horizon?
Writing more poems, as they come. For the moment, I am writing only episodically, as I have on some occasions in the past. There was a time when I first started writing again back in 2000 that I would write virtually every day. I had been away from writing poetry for so long that in a sense it was a new world. At some point after a year or so, it seemed to be writing just for the sake of writing and the poems became somewhat stale, so I stopped. It may well have been lack of true commitment or lack of ability to take my writing to the next level. But at the time, I began to appreciate the fallow periods. It was about putting down the pencil, just being in the world and appreciating that inspiration for a certain poem comes in its own time.
The ultimate test is to be able to consistently do all of this in a single day, on a daily basis. With a long enough time away from writing, skill and technique, even the ability to view the world through a poet’s eyes, begins to erode to a certain extent. So it is all about trying to find a balance between the demands of daily life and the demands of a writer.
Although some readers have encouraged me to write poetry full time—which is of course very gratifying—I’m not ready to give up my day job just yet. That I suppose is one of the signs of true and complete commitment as a writer. William Stafford, one of the fine poets in English of the last century, was an advocate of writing every day. While I’ve been able to manage this in spurts of a year or so, there is clearly much more to learn.
10) What is your favorite dessert?
My favorite is called capirotada, sometimes referred to locally here in Northern New Mexico as sopa. It’s a recipe I learned from my grandmother and is basically a pudding made with toasted pieces of bread, with brown sugar, water, cinnamon and butter boiled into a broth and poured over the bread that has been layered in with some longhorn cheddar cheese and a few raisins thrown in for good measure. Then I bake it for an hour to create a taste of home as it used to be when I was very young and living with my grandparents.
Raymond, thank you so much for stopping by! You can read my book review here.
I’ll be giving away a copy of Raymond Z. Ortiz’s book We Had More To Say. To be eligible, leave a comment below by August 7, 2012 12:00pm PST. The lucky winner will be chosen randomly and announced on August 8, 2012! Sorry…I can only ship to US addresses.