Gabriel Dozal’s “The Border Simulator” Brings the U.S. Border to Life with Poetic Theatre [INTERVIEW]

Gabriel Dozal is from El Paso, Texas. He received his MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona. His work appears in Poetry magazine, Guernica, Bomb Magazine, The Iowa Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Literary Review, Hunger Mountain, The Volta, Contra Viento, and more. Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: The title of your book, as well as the opening lines of the first poem “Border Vs,” signal that this will be different from a typical collection of individual poems. Your book opens with:

"'The Border Simulator' (like the real border) was made up of narratives that passed inspection, ports of entry÷ poems that have artificial rivers have brother and sister stream down holographic mountains in an attempt to reach the lower valley's work floor.'

How did you construct the conceit for this book?

Gabriel Dozal: “It sort of worked in reverse, James. In a weird way, it’s chronological, but in reverse. The first section of the book is actually the newest work, while the last section contains the earliest poems I wrote for this ‘Border Simulator’ journey. ‘Border Vs,’ the first poem, was one of the last poems I wrote for the collection. I wanted to give the reader an entrance into this world and these characters as effectively as I could. 

“It’s not a fiction book with fully developed characters. It’s not a deep character dive. The figures are more like broad sketches. But I wanted that framework because I have a love for short fiction. I’m influenced by the likes of Amy Hempel and Yannick Murphy, who come from the American short-story school, particularly the Gordon Lish approach. There’s a speed in that style that feels like poetry to me. I love the idea of giving the reader characters and a narrative to hold onto as they go through the book. I wanted to provide as many footholds as possible for the reader to enter this world.”

James: “The Border Simulator” is built around multiple characters: brother and sister Primitivo and Primitiva, the border and the simulator, the fence, Customs, Crossers, and more. In “Through a Designated Lens a Deathfilter is an Effect” you write:

"Customs has the ability to appear in dreams and attack the dreamer.
A sorting algorithm of morality, no, mortality!"

What was your approach to constructing these characters, to finding and crafting their unique voices? 

Gabriel: “Voice was really important to me. I borrow a lot from Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian playwright and novelist. She has a huge influence on me. All of her plays and novels are very voice-driven; it’s like a collage of voices, sort of like you said. I wanted each character to have a specific, colloquial voice that’s off-the-cuff but still has a lyrical quality.

“I also wanted readers who might not usually read poetry to be able to access it. Voice is one way, or one trick, I use to connect with readers who don’t usually read poetry. For instance, I kept thinking about my Theo Alberto, my uncle. He didn’t graduate high school and was a groundskeeper his whole life, but I want him to be able to pick up this book and connect with it. Crafting the voice in this specific way is one method I’ve used to try and achieve that.”

James: Billy Collins commented at a talk I attended in San Francisco that as soon as a poem has more than one or two people involved, he stops reading it. Yet, your book features multiple characters without overwhelming any individual poem. Did you think about balancing the collage of characters across the arc of the book? And were you conscious not to overload any single poem with too many characters, or did it just work out that way?

Gabriel: “Well, I think it worked out that way because the book also operates through repetition, recycling, and remixing of phrases. So yes, there are more characters than usually found in a book of poetry. But I believe the playful language helps the reader stay engaged without getting confused about what’s happening or where they are. Or even if they are unsure, I set up very similar platforms for each situation and each character that gets repeated and remixed. So in that way, it kind of all balances out.”

James: Many books are translated into multiple languages. However, “The Border Simulator” features its Spanish translation right alongside the original English, almost as if the spine of the book acts as a border between the two languages. What motivated you to use this approach?

Gabriel: “I have to give credit to my editor, Nicole Counts at One World. Honestly, when I graduated from my MFA at the University of Arizona, I hadn’t envisioned it as a bilingual book. It was Nicole who proposed that idea. I contemplated it for a few weeks, given it wasn’t how I initially imagined the book. But, I had never expected a publisher like One World Random House to pick up my work. That was beyond my wildest dreams. I had hoped a small, niche press might be interested, and after years of reaching out, One World was the one that decided to take it on.

“The more I thought about Nicole’s idea, the more I embraced it. Why not add as much depth as possible? My poems aim for depth, always trying to introduce another layer or give readers a new perspective, whether it’s through wordplay or other methods. So, it made sense to include both languages.

“There was a lot of deliberation on how to present the two languages. Initially, we considered a split book format. But the visual metaphor of having English on one side and Spanish on the other, separated by the spine, was too compelling. It allows readers, regardless of their language proficiency, to toggle between the two. They can observe the linguistic transitions, see how things transform in the Spanish version. Natasha’s translation is phenomenal in creating parallels in Spanish, mirroring the puns, language play, jokes, and nuances.

“Growing up in El Paso, on the border, I was always immersed in both Latino and American cultures, frequently code-switching between the languages. The book’s layout reflects that experience. It’s like its own border simulator. I’m incredibly proud of the final product, and I believe the spine-as-border presentation provides a unique, interactive reading experience.”

James: The border, its contractions, the anti-immigration politics, and US dependence on undocumented workers are all reflected in this book. You’ve managed to capture these themes through the eyes of Primitivo and Primitiva while doing so with wit and winks to the reader. In the short poem “You Love Emblems and Flags, Don’t You, Primitiva?” you write:

"The flag of the border is its fence!
It's the longest flag you've ever seen,
rippling across the border. 
Where do all your fences live?
All my fences live in Texas."

How did the voice and tone of this book emerge through the editing and revision process? 

Gabriel: “Absolutely, James. As you know, any book of poetry or prose has a whole team behind it. For me, that team started at the University of Arizona’s MFA program. I had written the phrase ‘border simulator’ in a practice poem, and one of my mentors here, Ander Monson, circled it and said, ‘This is a really cool idea. Follow it.’ So, from there, I began developing an approach for writing ‘border simulator’ poems. Initially, there were no characters, and the poems were either in second person or directly addressed to ‘you.’ The last section of the book, ‘The Only You Left in the Border Simulator,’ contains those early poems.

“Then, around 2016 or 2017, I started incorporating characters and fleshing out the world they inhabit. I wanted to include the winks to the reader you mentioned, like the pop culture references—such as changing ‘All My Ex’s Live in Texas’ to ‘All My Fences Live in Texas.’ Language play and voice were important to me because they reflect the reality of the border as I know it. If you only hear about places like El Paso or other border cities from the news, you’re likely to only hear the negative aspects—the hardships migrants face, or how Juarez was once the murder capital of the world, for instance.

“But what I wanted to capture was the playfulness, the vividness, the life, the jokes, the puns, and the wordplay that also exist on the border. So that’s how the voice and tone emerged. They’re part of my attempt to show both worlds—both the challenges and the vibrant culture—that coexist on the border.”

James: “The Border Simulator” has a surreal quality, a border that both is, and isn’t, a place. In “There Are Plenty of Places Where the Border Doesn’t Exist” you write:

"Primitiva was only interested in creepypasta stories about the Border. 
But what was so creepy about the Border Simulator?
It was creepy because of how quickly the definitions took refuge in the crossers."

What was your thought process about when to be concrete and when to be surreal when crafting this narrative?

Gabriel: “Absolutely, James, and thank you for your close reading of the book. On the surface, yes, this book is about the U.S. – Mexico border. But there’s also a hidden ‘Easter egg’ theme about how we live our lives through screens. I’m 39, born in 1984, and I remember a world before cell phones and before our experiences were so mediated by screens. For me, that’s part of the ‘simulation’ aspect of the book. It’s about the tension between the world as it exists on our phones and the world as we know it in real life. Sometimes they align, but other times, you see things online that don’t match up with your personal experience.

“So, I think that’s where the book finds its freedom to be surreal. It allows for moments that step outside of the believable, and then it can return to telling a very grounded and intense story about immigration or crossing the border.”

James: You use a variety of forms in “The Border Simulator,” including free verse, concrete poetry, long prose poems, and lists. How do you think about form as a tool when crafting your poetry? When does that come into play? In my case, I capture images as raw material and then figure out what I’m going to do with them. A.E. Stallings, who I spoke to last year, views form differently. She decides on the form upfront as a way to take a decision off the table, and then fills it in. How do you approach form? Does it emerge organically out of the poem, is it a deliberate choice upfront, or something in between?

Gabriel: “It’s really interesting to hear about how you and A.E. Stallings approach form. I admire her work a lot. For me, form is more of an organic process. It’s a bit like a happy accident. I have pages upon pages of Google Docs where I riff off of ideas, use language I’ve heard, and remix language that I’ve found. Initially, it’s all laid out on the page in more of a prose format. It’s a bit like sculpture; I chisel away at the language until it takes a form that looks and feels right to me. The movement on the page evolves organically.

“I have several ways that I like a poem to look on the page. Take the Hydra poem, for example, which is playful and looks almost like a map. In that one, I was trying to outline Texas, from El Paso down to the south. It sort of resembles the border between Texas and Mexico. So, it’s an organic process where sometimes I want the form to look neat and clean, and other times I want it to be more spread out. I hope that this adds another layer of depth for the reader, and perhaps even resembles something like a topographical map.”

James: Many people, I suspect, aren’t aware of how much research goes into the creation of a poem, excepting poems crafted purely from lived experiences. What research tools and sources did you use to enrich “The Border Simulator”? 

Gabriel: “Contemporary news events play a big role in my research process. I follow a wide range of news outlets, from conservative to left-leaning like MSNBC or Democracy Now. I collect narratives and stories from these outlets, which is something I’m naturally inclined to do anyway.

“I don’t rely heavily on archival research; that’s not really my approach. And I think the book argues that it’s okay not to be the definitive voice on the border to write about it. I was born there; it’s in my blood. So a lot of my research comes from these media outlets.

“But it’s not just serious news outlets. There’s an Instagram page from El Paso called Fit Fam that I also find fascinating. It’s not a traditional media outlet; it’s more about memes and surface-level social media content that reflects both funny and serious aspects of life at the border.

“My process involves mining contemporary news about the border and often incorporating that language into the poems. I use it to show the absurdities or inconsistencies in the stories or to highlight elements that I know to be true. So I’m constantly weaving in and out of these media narratives.”

James: Media and contemporary news stories are indeed fantastic raw material for found poetry. I recently interviewed Daniel Ash from the band Love and Rockets, and he uses a cut-up method to create poetry from headlines, specifically from sensationalist outlets. It’s quite intriguing.

The titles of many of the poems are mini poems in themselves. “Customs are Waiting For Me With Their Lassos and Zip Ties” and “Dear Crosser, Did You Know That You’re Not Your Body?” are two terrific examples. How do you craft compelling titles for your poems, something that can be a struggle for poets?

Gabriel: “My process for crafting titles is actually quite simple. Often, I start writing a poem without a title, and the first line ends up becoming the title. So in that sense, they do feel like mini poems or individual lines of poetry.

“I had a moment of realization when I saw the table of contents for the first time in the book’s preview. Reading the titles in sequence almost felt like reading a separate poem, and I got a kick out of that.”

James: There are moments when the surreality gives way to anger, from “You Can’t Un-Latino Me” you write:

"The border is a tactic and a symptom. It accuses
you of committing the crime it's committing. You of landing
what it's lording. There's a border and then there's a hidden border
one I can only access through murmurs."

There have been many poems written about migrants, and immigration, and how countries police their borders, that are visceral, that are howls. You have, for the most part, woven that anger into the poetry without being explicit. How did you approach the balance of crafting poetry and communicating the challenges issues at the core of these poems?

Gabriel: “That’s a great question, James. That particular poem you mentioned is very personal to me, even though I generally don’t consider myself an autobiographical poet. I was just discussing this with my wife earlier in the week. The poem expresses a sort of defiance, a feeling that no one can take away my Latino identity, regardless of how American or un-American I might be perceived.

“In terms of balancing the craft with the subject matter, I always aim for each poem to have some element of playfulness, even when dealing with frustrations or anger. This creates an interesting tone and allows the poetic elements to shine. Daniel Borzutzky, a poet from Chicago, has been a big influence on me in this regard. He combines dark humor and intense situations with playfulness, which is a note I’m also trying to hit.

“Another poet I admire is Ilse Aichinger. She writes about dark subjects like Austria’s Nazi history in a playful, lyrical manner. It’s that friction, the clash of these two worlds, that really excites me. It adds another layer of complexity and allows the poetry to make a deeper impact.”

James: I’ve interviewed several poets who have crafted books built on rich characters and a narrative foundation, and wondered what it would be like to re-craft or perform the poems as a play. Have you thought about how “The Border Simulator” could potentially be staged?

Gabriel: “I’m so glad you asked, James. I would absolutely love for that to happen. I often think about Elfriede Jelinek, and here I go mentioning her again, but she’s had a major influence on my own translation process. She writes these dense texts that are technically plays, but there are no set characters and not even line breaks. It’s all paragraphs. She gives total freedom to the dramaturgs, playwrights, and translators to mold and shape the language into characters as they see fit.

“So, in imagining ‘The Border Simulator’ as a play, I think it would be something similar. I would encourage those adapting it to divvy up all the voices and perhaps even create a new narrative based on them. I’ve often thought of the poems as monologues where characters voice their experiences and perspectives. While I’m not sure if the work has the type of narrative arc typically needed for a play, since that’s not my forte, I would be incredibly interested in seeing it adapted into a theatrical performance.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Gabriel recite selections from The Air in the Air Behind It along with translator Natasha Tiniacos.

Natasha Tiniacos is a Venezuelan poet, literary translator, and scholar living and working in the United States after being granted political asylum. She holds an MFA in creative writing in Spanish from New York University and is currently pursuing a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center, investigating Latinx and Latin American literature, sound, and art. She has published two books of poems in Spanish, Mujer a fuego lento (2006) and Histo­ria privada de un etcétera (2011).

Leave a Reply

Up ↑