In early January 2018, the first official days of his two-year tenure as San Antonio’s poet laureate, Octavio Quintanilla began to publish poems in Spanish adorned with simple monochromatic doodles, posting them to his social media accounts.
He enjoyed the exercise, but he didn’t know yet that he had begun a sizable project in visual poetics that would draw on his own history and offer up his creative process as an example to others of the kind of day-to-day practice that life as a dedicated creative requires.
Every day since, for 21 months and counting, Quintanilla has created and posted a new entry in the series he came to call the FRONTEXTOS project, with increasing artistic complexity, both visual and poetic. The term is a blend of the Spanish words frontera (border) and texto (text).
Some recent highlights from this creative endeavor are on exhibit in the Southwest School of Art’s Urschel Gallery through Dec. 29.
On Monday, Sept. 30, the downtown art school will host a reception for the exhibition that will feature readings by Quintanilla and fellow poets Joshua Robbins, Gerard Robledo, Natalia Treviño, and Alfredo Avalos.
Quintanilla’s visual poems blend text with aspects of abstract painting, emotive ink drawing, and aimless doodling. Standing alone as unique pieces of art, they take on new gravity given the gallery treatment. For this exhibition, Quintanilla said, he chose mainly works from later in 2018, when the FRONTEXTOS started to get more colorful and even, in some cases, larger than the 3½-inch-by-5½-inch notebook pages on which he began the project.
Born in Harlingen in 1973, Quintanilla moved with his parents to a small town called Magueyes in Tamaulipas, Mexico, as a baby. At age 9, he moved back across the border, without his parents, to live with his grandmother and attend school in Weslaco.
He graduated from high school in 1992 and earned undergraduate and masters degrees at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, then called the University of Texas-Pan American. After a stint teaching high school, he pursued a doctoral degree at the University of North Texas.
In 2013, he moved to San Antonio to teach literature and creative writing, as he still does, in the graduate program at Our Lady of the Lake University. His first collection of poems, titled If I Go Missing, was published in 2014 by Slough Press.
The experience of moving across the border at such a young age, of “leaving behind literally everything [he] was,” Quintanilla said, proved transformative and continues to affect his creative output today.
“A lot of my new work, in many ways, taps into that migration, that dislocation in terms of geography and family and emotion,” he said.
“… Ever since I was a kid I have been curious and creative, and spent lots of time living in the worlds I created in my own imagination.”
He points to the time after he moved back to Texas as the moment when writing in particular began to carry a special power for him.
“I didn’t feel comfortable speaking English, but I could express myself in writing, so that became a powerful way for me to show myself and to communicate,” he said.
Quintanilla also maintained an interest in drawing and painting and said he “knew that eventually the visual and written aspect would come together,” as they have in the FRONTEXTOS project.
“With the FRONTEXTOS,” he said, “I get to explore poetry in a different way … kind of move away from the strictly lyrical poem or the strictly narrative poem. … It’s not always the words, it’s not always the visual aspect – but both of them working together.”
The project started as a personal commitment to carve out time every day to write something. Despite his poet laureate duties, other literary engagements, and the day-to-day bustle of teaching, Quintanilla wanted to lead by example.
“The FRONTEXTOS project I see as connected to my tenure [as poet laureate],” he said.
“I’ve been posting these things on social media … and one of the things I wanted to do is not just talk about poetry or the creative life, but to actually practice it and let people see it. Especially for young people, I want them to see that writing poetry, doing creative work, is a process. You’re going to create some things you really like and some you don’t, but the important thing is to do it consistently and to stay engaged in the process.
“The more you do it,” he said, “the more all your senses open up.”
Although Quintanilla is fluent in Spanish, he has written and published almost exclusively in English. Writing the FRONTEXTOS in Spanish allowed him to evoke distinct worlds, experiences, and selves.
“It’s two ways of being, it’s two ways of experiencing life,” he said. “… It’s two way of experiencing yourself and the other. For me as a writer, also, it’s two ways of experiencing language.”
Quintanilla feels that writing in Spanish “opens up very specific ideas about subject matter and motifs.”
“When I’m writing in Spanish the work becomes more autobiographical because I’m thinking back through the years in Mexico when I spoke Spanish only,” he said. “… It brings back memories of my parents. It takes me back to before I crossed the border.”
Aside from community and personal significance, Quintanilla acknowledges that there’s a political aspect to the project that seems heightened in light of the recent attention given to immigration issues and rise of anti-Latino sentiment.
“I realized that writing in Spanish is a way for me to relearn a language that was suppressed or repressed as soon as I came here, when I was told never to speak Spanish in school,” he said. “That in itself is political … trying to recover something that was repressed by the system, in this case, for me, the educational system.
“But now with all this anti-Latino, anti-Mexican rhetoric against the people and the language … where people are being verbally abused or physically assaulted for speaking Spanish … I think it’s especially important for me to have this platform and say, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m going to stand against that. … Spanish is part of our culture, part of our everydayness.’
“… Writing in Spanish is important for me because maybe in a small way it can counter that.”