This interview with poet, Vincent Cooper, is part of a series with Latinx authors. Cooper is a Xicano poet from Los Angeles, CA, now living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of Infidelis, Zarzamora, and the chapbook, Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die. He is a former United States Marine. His work has appeared in Acentos Review, Ban This! The BSP Anthology of Xicano Literature, Big Bridge Magazine: Refreshing San Antonio, and La Voz de Esperanza.
González: There is an underlying tension that permeates through some of your poems. As a reader, I get the sense that poetry was cathartic but at the same time like a punching wall. Can you describe the role that writing poetry has played in your life?
Cooper: My poetry writing started at age 12, when my uncle Jody passed away from the AIDS virus while incarcerated. I had gotten more attached to him in the final year of his life. His death really affected me. It was jarring to see him at his rosary memorial service looking like a completely different person. I thought—what a hard life he lived. He was ruthless, and violent, but gentle towards the end of his 37 years. Most of his life was spent fighting, confrontations, and destruction.
When I went back to California, after his death, my mother and I were really deflated. Plans were made… everything seemed rushed. My mother chose to move us to Vegas as her dream-come-true city to live in. The previous plans we had made with Jody to get an apartment in Alhambra, California, were over; so moving from Alhambra to Vegas was especially upsetting for me. I left behind those plans with my tio as well as friends and family for an unknown life in Vegas. The upset led to me writing heavy thoughts in a notebook. I wrote short stories about Jody and tío Tony who also died. They had been from what I call “the golden era” of the Rivas family. An era I caught the tail end of and often write about now. I wrote it all out back then and it would help me feel accomplished.
I read poetry books and classics from school like Catcher in the Rye, poetry like Howl and other volumes of Ginsberg’s poetry. After, a cousin asked me if I’d read Jimmy Santiago Baca or Luis Rodriguez, he handed me their books Working in the Dark and Always Running. Reading them completely floored me.
I can recall the great sensations of reading about familiar areas I lived nearby and to read books by Chicanos in those books. Then I read Charles Bukowski. I was completely sold into poetry by this point. Bukowski’s poetry got me through those Vegas years. Between you and me and our readers, I had hoped to fall in line with Fante and Bukowski.
In regards to writing poetry, I would have liked to become some LA writer with gritty stories from a Chicano’s perspective. Poetry was easy for me to read and start writing in my youth. I filled notebooks with hundreds of poems spanning from the late 90’s to 2005. I still have some of them. I have experiences through poetry and writing has helped me through tough times. The hard-luck stories are there in my narrative.
Our ancestors were oral storytellers and healers and I look at my poetry this way. I share personal experiences in the hopes that each poem is meaningful for those who read them or possibly heals from them
I’m a Chicano-poet-Marine—yes, in that order.Vincent Cooper
González: The military is a place of conformity, yet your poetry screams of individuality. In what ways is your poetry a form of conformity and a place of individuality?
Cooper: Once, I posted poems at my desk at work while I was in the Marines. I covered the whole wall with my poems. I’d be in the back of the office getting toner for the printer or paperwork, and when I returned, there would be Marines reading them. They’d look at me like I was disturbed. It was hilarious and I felt different from them. Perhaps they thought that poetry was not allowed or was for the weak willed? I’m a Chicano-poet-Marine–yes, in that order. The Marines never liked my convictions.
In Infidelis, I highlighted myself and blurred out the Marines—when for so long I blurred my own identity about being a Marine. It took years to heal this far and with the support of my wife, Viktoria, I am able to write poetry about my individual military experience. I think my narrative can be a kind of unifying read for gente who have never read such experiences, and especially as someone who was an outcast while in the Marines Corps.
González: Your audience for this collection seems to include an array of populations. Which audience do you want to reach the most?
Cooper: While I was writing this material for Infidelis, I could only think of Vietnam Veteran Chicanos. As the years passed and the manuscript was completed, my wife, Viktoria stated that the book’s audience should be high school and college students. She was right, as usual. I believe the book, even as poetry, is a good read for a young adult audience. It is my hope that they will think twice about joining the military.
I remain friends with people from my time in the Marines and am very grateful to those who have supported me along the way. Infidelis is how I feel the Marine Corps and a few other Marines view me along with bleeding heart patriots. Semper Fidelis, or Semper Fi is supposed to be said with some grit or pride. I never felt that. When my uncle Rich, Vietnam Vet, saw me, I just never matched that grit. It was like a boomer to a Gen X’er, awkwardness.
For those who are already judging the work as an anti-american military story, I can’t change them. It’s too late for them to recognize or care about the injustices. As a matter of fact, several of my own gente will defend the Marine Corps over me. I’m telling the world about my experience which doesn’t start with a sad guy who had to go to another country to possibly shoot other people or catch a bullet, only to return jobless with PTSD. My generation and older hold those servicemembers in higher regard because they actually risked their lives and my story is dismissed in some way.
I hope everyone reads the work I put out. I wanted to write the story of my family.
González: Images are interspersed throughout the collection. Can you explain why you made that creative decision to include pictures and art?
Cooper: I want great Chicano art in my books. A few images in Infidelis did not make the final cut, but I intend to use them in further promo for the book. My brother-in-law, Cayetano Valenzuela, illustrated an Infidelis logo as I was writing the book. He is a great artist in Syracuse, New York, and a Chicano artist. I also asked legendary Chicano artist/ musician, Jacinto Guevara, to paint a piece inspired by two poems in Infidelis.
I believe it is crucial to add artwork by Chicano artists to help push the Chicano narrative further. I had images placed in the book to show myself as a reversed way of popularizing the outcast. For many years, I hid from the Marines logo, the oorah’s and Semper Fi’s. I was deliberate in those choices. I added a scan code in the back of the book which links to a Spotify playlist that follows the order of the poems in the book. The music list features my favorite punk band Bad Religion, which punk music itself is for outcasts. I put some cadences and Lou Reed to honor our great friend, Chicano veteran poet and playwright, Gregg Barrios.
I just want to be surrounded by this I love and love me.Vincent Cooper
González: Your perspectives on war seemed to go through different phases, such as in “A Chicano During Wartime.” Does your perspective on war change as you write as well? Or is the process of writing about war more about capturing the moments of your past?
Cooper: That poem was supposed to be in the vein of The Talking Heads song, “Life During Wartime.” I remember someone in a film saying, “the 60’s were awful with a great soundtrack.” Vietnam Veterans have a soundtrack like “The Letter from the Boxtops” or “Paint it Black” from the Rolling Stones. It’s wild how that happens. I felt like Talking Heads were closer to my vibe–even though that song is about something else.
When a person enlists during peacetime, war never crosses their mind. When it does, then scenes from Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now tend to flash through your eyes. This romantic idea is preposterous in hindsight, but I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about the idea of war. We were young and thought we wouldn’t have to go. We didn’t fully understand politics or care about the Bush Regime. Looking back, it was pretty much a guarantee that Cheney & company wanted a war. They wanted Saddam. They wanted Bin Laden and I aint got time for that now. I was damn good looking and going through such drama during my stint.
Then comes 9/11. I feel awful for those affected by 9/11, and at that time it still hadn’t clicked to me that I might have to get an M-16, go to the middle east and do something–anything “heroic” like in those military films. When I saw the higher ups making plans to benefit financially, I was sickened. When I realized I wasn’t going to war because the higher ups wanted me to suffer for being a nonconformist. I began begging to go to Afghanistan, just to get away from the BS happening to me on base.
My uncle Rich, whom “Goodnight Vietnam” is dedicated to, has PTSD. I’ve seen it and it’s awful. I have a soft spot for veterans from the Vietnam and Gulf war era. I grew up in awe of my uncle. He was a westsider, Veteran, and the best cook I’ve ever met. As a kid, he was definitely a giant and a hero. He calls me every now and then but I don’t answer the phone. I despise war and patriots. I cringe at all politicians. We’re in such a critical time and there’s no way I could ever encourage war or killing. Call me soft, or what you want, but all I want now is peace. I just want to be surrounded by those I love and love me.
Follow Vincent Cooper at https://poetvincentcooper.wordpress.com/.