Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Celebration of Rigoberto González

On December 6, 2016, in New York, Letras Latinas
partnered with Poet's House, the Academy of American Poets
& the Poetry Society of America
to present

A Celebration of Rigoberto González

Co-sponsors included CantoMundo,  Four Way Books, 
the Macondo Writers' Workshop, and VONA Voices.

Below (middle square) is the video of the tribute:


Friday, February 17, 2017

An interview with Verónica Reyes


SEIS
an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)

6:
Verónica Reyes

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
VR:   Verónica Reyes

*

LLM:
One of my favorite lines from,“Desert Rain: blessing the land” is “Socorro breathed in once and inhaled México in East L.A.” What is that place for you, when you are away from it and miss it, like Socorro and México? Do you draw inspiration from your hometown, while creating work in someone else’s hometown, or in the classroom?

VR:
East LA. This is my barrio. It’s where I’m from. It’s my homegrown roots. It is my inspiration. It is my breath. This includes my sexuality and my background as a whole.  

LLM:
“Marimacha” Este poema, damn, I love it! But I am bilingual! Which brings me to my question: When editing this poem, on your last revisions, did it cross your mind that the non-speaking Spanish audience would have a hard time accessing your work? Does this matter to you as a poet? Do you tend to write with your audiences in mind?

VR:
Thank you for the complement. When I wrote that poem, it was sketched in grad school at UTEP. I originally thought, ‘I’m going to write about an academic walking down the calles of Whittier Boulevard,’ but when I wrote it, it came out the way it needed to be. It represented the barrio it was from. And the tone and language captures Carmen’s story, a home girl, aka a butch one, from el barrio.  
As for audience, the answer is No. I did not think of non-Spanish speaking audience. They were never on my mind. I trust the poem’s voice. It is my guidance. This is what matters most. The content. The voice. The experience. Clearly, it is based in my barrio roots with dyke content and all; this plays a role in shaping the poem, but the work is always guided by what the poem wants to say. I have intentions. And the poem guides them, and I guide them in revisions. So if it’s bilingual, then it is because it needs to be. It is between the poem and me, the Xicana jota poet.

I will add that I doubt gringo writers think about this question at all. “Do I write so that my audience understands the language I’m writing in?” I doubt they even consider a wider audience beyond their scope. 

As for considering audiences when writing, I think about the poem that wants to be scripted. It gets complicated. The poem exists because of the stories/narratives that still need to be told about what it means to be Chicana, Latino, lesbian, joto from el barrio in this country who keeps on killing so many men of color, from this country who accepts gun violence as the norm, from this country who keeps thinking it is okay to rape a woman and blame her, from this country that has so many engrained societal issues (racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia) it needs to deal with and avoids them or puts a bandage on it, but it is a festering wound that needs to be healed. I think about that.

LLM:
Throughout, “Torcidaness: Tortillas and me” you talk to your audiences like they are close friends, and the conversational tone/pull interested me un chingo! I really love the tone of this poem! I was with you all the way. Can you tell us a bit about how this specific and almost deliberate choice of making the poem sound “conversational” comes about? Was this an initial idea from the beginning of the creation of this poem, or was it something you developed along the way, as the poem drew closer to completion?

VR:
Thanks for the question. No one has asked about this. So, yes, the conversational tone was right there at the start. I did mention that the poem decides some key aspects about how it will come to life on the paper or computer screen. So I knew at the onset this was going to be a conversation.

A key aspect of writing for me is to trust the voice of the poem. It is in some way a spiritual connection to a narrative that the poem wants to convey. I treat it this way. So with that in mind, years ago in grad school, I wrote a line in my journal. I shared it with a fellow writer. She giggled, and said it was good. I kept that in mind. So I knew this was a poem, but it was not until years later that I wrote the poem. And that’s how it works at times. The tone was always there. I just made sure it read that way throughout the piece.  

LLM:
There is a strong presence of “longing” in your poem titled, “El Violinista.” How important is it to you to pass these kinds of stories to the next generation of writers, jotas y jotos? Why is it useful or sacred in a way, to use poetry as a medium to pour out these stories?

VR:
Yes, longing. It is the energy looming in there. I wanted to share a story. It is meant for everyone, queer and straight. I think it is important though that a dyke from East LA wrote this. We need to break the confines that Chicana lesbians are pigeonholed in. And this poem does that. I wrote it. A Mexican American butch dyke from East LA about a very Mexicano hombre, un caballero, de esos tiempos antiguos.
  
Stories of this nature need to be told. They get lost when a person passes away. They can stay saved and honored in the written text. After all the written word is valued in the western world and the reality is that oral storytelling needs to be kept up. You need to want to share the stories, and if you have no one, then the story is gone. In this mundo, it needs to be written down. I wrote what I heard and learned from many angles. And then I (re)imagined and created this poem.

Poetry is my medium. I did not think I wanted to write this as a short story although I thought about it. I wanted the whole script in one swoop. Capture the moment and lifespan in a poem. The structure/form is deliberate: block stanzas. It captures the violinist and his story. 

LLM:
Ummm, okay: So I feel there is a beautiful bond between father-daughter and your poem “Recycling: 1976” made me wonder: Do you have plans for writing a whole collection on you and your apá? I feel there is so much poignant material there to be told. We want to hear it! I feel I could read poem after poem about your personal history with him.

VR:
No. I don’t foresee a book on this topic. I have other pieces I’m scripting for myself. Still I write to be specific so the audience relates. So I do not think of it the way you do. They are snippets of life, but imbued in imagination. It is what and how I know they need to exist. For now, this is it. But thank you for the complement.

So yes, the relationship is a simple one between father and daughter. It is to say gracias. It is in some way a homage poem. For I did not think my siblings and I saw ourselves as growing up low-income. We had a home. We were Mexicanos, first generation, who lived in East LA. And I know I enjoyed life in my barrio and never questioned my family’s economic status. We lived a buena vida. Thanks to my parents. For their endurance, their frugality, their faith, and for their cariño. Each in their own way. For my papa, recycling is what we did.

LLM:
One of my favorite lines from “Cholo Lessons Por Vida,” is “Chingao, there are so many fregado things he learned from the calles!” Can you share with us some things that maybe you learned from growing up in East Los Angeles, and how they have shaped you as a poet and person?

VR
* how to listen to a story [sit behind the cortina, near the puerta, in the shadow, and listen to your elders, your familia, share a cuento from back when someone crossed la frontera, how la vida was in el rancho, how this member survived this illness, how to value la tierra, how Pancho Villa came into your pueblo, how la gente survived, how….listen to the cuentos for there is truth in them and they merit to be shared]

* how to survive the calles [this skill works wonders in academia]

* how to trust my instincts [this gut feeling keeps me afloat in academia and the writing world]

* how to believe in myself [perseverance is a necessity as a writer]

* faith [not religious, but trust in your art]

* how to fight for our rights [our voice matters as jotería, as Mexicans from the barrio y más]

* how to stand up for ethics [get up and give your seat to an elder; if a señora or señor needs help like carrying bolsas, help her or him.]

* how to value our language with all its idioms and not be ashamed. Love Spanglish. Love caló. Love slang. Love our barrio terminology. Take pride.

And so much more.

LLM:
“Super Queer” is one hell of an inspiring queer poem! Bravo. I saw it as a love letter to straight people everywhere: Can you elaborate un poco más on what it means to be “queer?” Also, do you believe art, like this poem for example, can help other members of the LGBTQIA community come out? Is it important to use your voice in support of the younger generation?

VR:
Thanks for the question on this poem. I’ve been waiting to see if anyone would ever make a comment on it. First off, I can only hope that people are inspired by this Super Q poem. I hope they feel excited and proud to be queer. And if it prompts a fellow queer to come out, it is an honor.
Still I most definitely do not see this as a love poem to straight gente. Clearly, if that is how you see it, then that’s your interpretation. But for me, it is a poem acknowledging how hard queer familia, our comunidad, have to fight to stay alive in this mundo. Sometimes we hope that some brave jota/o or Trans person stands up for our rights. Sometimes you want someone else to fight. But the reality is that in some way, if you are out of the closet, then you are that person; you are Super Queer. Because you are being you and doing it with pride. Because we are everywhere. And straight society needs to recognize this and see how our rights and lives are being subjugated. Because I and we as a community know the chingazos you get thrown at you and how much you need to fight to exist as who you feel you are meant to be. It is poem chanting, “Fight, fight, for your rights and stand up with pride: queer brown lives, to la jotería, to butch dykes, to the drag queen or king, to the gender fluid, to our communities.” This is a poem of pride, courage, bravery, and love for all our LGBTQ communities. You gotta be Super Queer in a society that sometimes wants us gone.

And while you are being this beautiful queer brown person, you might be listening to some Curtis Mayfield or another artist or song nudging you along the way and inspiring you. Because we need to take care of our bodies, our souls, our minds, our lives. We need to heal from homophobia, heterosexism, and all those isms. For the ones taken too soon, we need to keep on being ourselves, keep on dancing, keep on existing, keep on fighting, keep on loving, loving, and loving.


LLM:
Color is sprinkled throughout your poem, “Texas Twilight on the Border (El Paso, TX).” The inclusion of such descriptive language helps the poem, not only move along, but also in being more specific, grounded and concrete. It is vividly attractive! When you wrote this poem, if you remember, and through your last of revisions, was the presence of “color” something you imagined would be this successful? Did you purposefully include this many colors on the page, or was it just coincidence? The verdict is in: there is somewhere around sixteen uses of color in this poem!

VR:
Yes, color was a necessity for this piece. I lived four years in El Paso, and every evening I was mesmerized by the immense sunset and all the colores that hovered over both sides of la frontera, hugging the land. If you lived in the desert on the border (US-México), you know the gorgeous sunsets. It just pulls you in. And you are in awe. Color. We need it. The land needs it. The cielo gives it to the frontera every evening. Like a rainbow, it is a sarape of the land and the people. A layer of life on la frontera comes alive. I wanted color. As many colores, I’ve seen splashing the sky over El Paso and Juárez.

LLM:
“This is my Angela Davis Poem” was one of those poems I had to read out-loud! I really enjoy this. Did you intend for this poem to be read aloud? It looks and reads like it can be a mini-play, monologue, or a speech at a rally or something along those lines. I love it! Can you tell us a bit more about this poem?

VR:
Yes. I hope all the poems are read this way. Aloud to the sky, to the nopales, to your barrio, to your home. In a café. In a classroom. In the backyard. Poetry is meant to be heard, felt, and encompass the reader’s senses. My Angela Davis poem took a decade+ to write. I heard the tone; I felt the rhythm; I had the chorus, “This is my Angela Davis poem.” In my head, I heard it being repeated over and over. I’d add bits and pieces to it, but it was a poem that I would only say/chant to myself. It was not written down. I knew that it was not yet there. It needed time to dream. I needed time for it to dream in me. For me to become part of it. This is how it works for me. I need to become one with it. And so when I was at my first writer’s residency, Vermont Studio Center, a fellow artist mentioned to me that Dr. Davis gave a lecture, The Tornberg Lecture at “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” in 2007. I looked up that interview. Listened to it. Enthralled by it. And the poem just rushed out of me. I was so in tune with it that the high from the writing was amazing. I remember I had to stop for dinner because I had to work in the kitchen. The residency wanted artists to work jobs on site for paying part of the fee. There I was taking off to do clean up. Ate my dinner. And took off back to my poem. I was able to just jump right back in. We were one. It was sooo—exciting. The scripting/sketching of it took a few hours, but I knew when I was done, this is it. It was that type of poem and that type of intense connection. 

LLM:
I see your family tree in your poem, “The Fields.” Can you tell us a little about the birth of this poem? Is this work about your family tree? Roots? Backstory? I am fascinated by the way you weaved nature throughout the whole poem. Beautiful! And my favorite, favorite line: “Her corazón suffocated from manteca and sadness.”

VR:
I understand where you are coming from. But I’m hesitant to some extent. Family tree. Yes/no. When the poem comes to life and is on the page, something happens. It is part of something more. This is a longer conversation. It requires more inquisitive depth.

I wrote the poem because stories of this nature need to be told. It should be shared in the literary world and in our local cafes and in our homes. So I’m still thinking of your question based on “your family tree.” From a couple of questions you wrote, I noted that I think you sometimes interpret the use of my nick name or the name Socorro as indicators that this is a real story from my family. An aspect of life that really happened. At least this is what I gather from your question.

Keep in mind, it is a creative piece, obviously. But with that comes another key component: imagination. I needed to dream up images. In my case, concrete visuals. So the poem is not always all true and factual like science claims to be [and even in science, there is imagination of what something is—a hypothesis]. There is truth in the work. But it does not truly or factually represent my family heritage as in this happened this way, and it cannot be debated. I’m a poet. This is a poem. There are parts/lines/images that are made up. And there are parts that resonate truth or factuality. For the sake of the poem. For the sake of the narrative. But most importantly, it is a narrative that needs to be scripted or it will be forgotten. Lost in time. And these stories need to be recorded. They deserve it.

What matters most is the story of this nature needs to be told because many families experienced something similar to it.

As for the line, “Her corazón suffocated from manteca and sadness,” it is an image originally from a short story I wrote during an undergrad fiction workshop. I always thought that was a strong image. So when I was writing this poem, I brought a line similar to the one in an old story. The poem needed it.
 
As for use of nature, it was vital to this piece. To breathe. To exist. The poem and the narrative needed it: the land, the air, the scenery. It was all needed.



VERÓNICA REYES is a Chicana feminist malflora poet from East Los Angeles, California. She is proud to have graduated from Hammel Street School (1981), Belvedere Jr. High (1987), and Garfield High School (1987). She earned her BA from California State University, Long Beach and her MFA from University of Texas, El Paso. Her poems give voice to all her communities: Chicanas/os, immigrants, Mexicanas/os, and la jotería. She scripts poetry for the people. Her book—Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press 2013)—won Best Poetry from International Latino Book Awards 2014 and Golden Crown Literary Society Awards 2014, and a Finalist for Lambda Literary Awards 2014. Reyes has won AWP’s Intro-Journal Project and Astraea Lesbian Foundation Emerging Artist award. She also has received grants and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, and Montalvo Arts Center. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Feminist Studies, ZYZZYZVA, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, North American Review, and The Minnesota Review. Currently, Reyes teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.

LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review,CloudbankThe Packinghouse ReviewPublic Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Projectwww.luislopez-maldonado.com

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An interview with Emanuel Xavier



SEIS
an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)

5:
Emanuel Xavier

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
EX:   Emanuel Xavier

*

LLM:
“Rhetoric Of Empire” is a love letter to your father. So beautiful, sad, and tender. This poem is also about identity. Can you expand a bit on both of these themes and how they affect your voice as an artist? How much do they feed your poetic voice, and how have they shaped you as a poet?

EX:
Never having met my father has had a significant impact on my personal life as well as my creative writing. I suppose it made me rebellious by nature and perhaps rather autonomous. That doesn’t necessarily bode well as a poet when you’re expected to take part in literary circles and socialize. Anyone who has met me should be able to attest that I’m easy to get along with. I’ve never had a problem making friends and would like to think I’m funny and don’t take myself too seriously. But I’m aware I’m not as out there as I should be as far as the poetry scene. As far as identity, it’s complicated. No one will ever box me off as anything other than Latino but, breaking it down further, if you’re not 100% of one or the other it’s hard to fit in. There are Puerto Rican purists out there who will never fully consider me because of the Ecuadorian in me and vice versa. I only know the Ecuadorian side of my family and the poem was about somehow connecting to my father and our shared cultures. I’m reminded of his rejection of me every time I’m not invited to participate in specific events celebrating Puerto Rican poetry. You learn to embrace your heritage on your own terms.

LLM:
I was broken-hearted with “Becca.” I hate her! I had a Becca too. Can you shed light on how these characters of Becca can empower us Latinos and queers? These mean individuals bully colored and gay kids all the time in school; it still happens. What would you tell Becca right now, if she were in front of you?

EX:  
I suppose we all need a Becca in our lives to remind us of the ignorance that exists in the world. It’s great to be rich, beautiful and popular but you don’t have to be that way about it. If she were standing in front of me right now, honestly? Let's just say she’s just lucky she was in my life before I took to the streets and befriended all my drag queen and trans sisters and leave it at that.

LLM:
I too compare myself a bit to Jean-Michel Basquiat. And in your poem, “Jean-Michel Basquiat Exhibit, Brooklyn Museum, 2005,” you raise questions and draw-out possibilities; I love this poem! Because of the title, I am curious: Is this an ekphrastic poem? Or did this branch from ekphrastic writing? If so, are there any specific works from the museum exhibition that inspired you to write this poem?

EX:  
Totally not an ekphrastic poem though it was titled that way on purpose. It’s based on an actual encounter I had with Basquiat as an underage hustler just before he died. We didn’t actually meet but I was left with quite an impression. I am a huge fan of his artwork but had no idea who he was at the time. I love that his work is raw and rebellious. I only wish I had scored one of his original prints at the time.  

LLM:
In your poem titled, “Men Like My Father,” you repeat the phrase “men like my father” five times on the page; visually, I really enjoy what that does. Can you elaborate your thoughts on using repetition in poetry and the importance it creates in this poem? In other works? Repetition is powerful and it is alive in this beautifully tragic poem!

EX:  
I’ve often used repetition in poems to emphasize something important. In this poem, I’m driving home the point that I spent much of my life looking for paternal love in other men. The repetition is much like this ill-fated cycle. I’ve been rather masochistic in my search for my father. There’s a clear difference between using repetition to highlight a word or a sentence and just repeating something to fill up a page or your time in front of an audience. 

LLM:
“Penicillin” is not your average abuelita poem. I find myself most interested in abuelita poems, especially coming from Latino gay poets: I adore this poem, so raw yet sweet. With that said: What are your thoughts about the idea that the “abuelita” poem is long dead and overdone? Do you believe these kinds of poems are a staple for the Latino poet? And lastly, what advice do you have for the next generation of writers that will write abuelita poems?

EX:  
The first abuelita poem I published was back in 1997 with the original chapbook edition of Pier Queen which was officially published fifteen years later in 2012 by Rebel Satori Press. It was called “Abuela’s Advice” and I enjoyed reading it in front of audiences. I’ve referenced my Mamina, which is what I personally nicknamed my abuela, throughout the years in several of my poems but “Penicillin” could be considered the follow up poem to that. Both are really snarky and not your traditional abuelita poems at all. I absolutely adore my grandmother. She has always been supporting and loving and we have a very close relationship. I’m truly lucky to still have her in my life. I think most of us love our grandmothers and learn from them so there will always be a place for poems about them in literature. Perhaps some writers are not quite fond of these but they’re far from done. Why would a culturally specific type of poem that speaks to its readers and could be universal be considered long dead? What’s next? A Japanese haiku? Is it the subject matter? What about poems about birds? Trees? Whatever!
  

LLM:
You bring a current issue to light in your poem, “Anonymous.” Some lines that stood out to me: “Just don’t let them touch without permission… We can still escape.” Can you share with us your thoughts on themes like these, like abuse, rape, and suicide, among others, that make their way into our art? How can outlets like poetry change or draw awareness to certain issues happening in society? This poem had so many wonderful layers and it touched me very much.

EX:  
Your interpretation of this poem is awesome. Without revealing what inspired me to write it, I will say there is definitely much between the lines. Writing has been personally healing for me because I have been able to express things like anger, resentment, loneliness and pain to let go of these things and move on from them. It’s not the only solution to self-healing but it helps a lot to share something creatively and not be held prisoner by it. It’s all about owning your truth and, in this case, sharing it with your readers. If it helps others understand or challenges others to confront their own demons, then that’s a bonus. 
 
LLM:
Research is important if a writer seeks validity or believability. In a poem like, “Sometimes We’re Invisible,” over half of the poem reads like a list poem, stating facts and reporting events. Can you let us into your preparation for writing this important piece of writing in the collection? How did you narrow down your chosen casualties, and your world events, among others? Was some of this material, “found” material? It’s a great, cool poem.

EX:  
I researched the internet to find hate crimes toward the LGBTQ community and, once I knew the year of the incident, I tried to think of what else happened that year that made the headlines. I was already aware of most of these incidents and was surprised by how many other events I remembered reading or hearing about. The media inundates us with headlines and newsworthy items but many of these incidents were merely glossed over or didn’t quite register on people’s radar. I focused on the LGBTQ Latinx community because, as the poem title suggests, sometimes we’re invisible. I started it with Venus Xtravaganza because I was still hanging out at the West Side Highway piers when she was found murdered and that definitely had an impact on me. It simply ended where it ended but that poem could easily go on and on. My hope is that years down the road someone will pick up this book and be schooled with some LGBTQ Latinx history that isn’t taught in the classrooms. As a matter of fact, the Orlando massacre happened just about a month after the book was published and the poem took on a whole new significance. I’ve since read it at a tribute honoring the victims held at the Nuyorican Poets Café and ended it with a reading of the names of each of the victims.

LLM:
Árbol” is a classic example of how to write something without really writing it: the tree was a wonderful metaphor to focus on. I’m curious: Can you expand on, “They took one of your roots and left you scarred for life…?” What root? Who is “they?” It is such an important, almost crucial line in this poem; from beginning to end, this was inspiring to read.

EX:  
You want me to reveal what this poem is really about? The tree is a metaphor for myself. They refers to all the critics who have voiced, openly and behind my back, their negative opinions. I’m not ignorant to the fact that because I was once a hustler that made a name for himself as a spoken word artist there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge me as a contemporary writer. You’re supposed to study your craft at colleges and universities and get published by whatever online poetry journals are trending at the time and get literary awards. You’re expected to be involved in literary circles and attend writer’s conferences. That’s all great but I’ve always traveled to the beat of my own drum and that annoys a lot of people. The roots of a tree are buried underground and mostly invisible. In this poem, they represent the subconscious layers of my soul, my spirit. Writers understand how much words can hurt. Sometimes, like a tree, I feel alone and taken for granted but I still think I have something to offer and keep growing in spite of it all.

LLM:
“Beside Myself” is another love letter, but this time, to Emanuel Xavier: advice, wisdom, and adoration. What would you say to the Emanuel in times when he needed someone the most? In the times when you recall he needed guidance and encouragement? Sometimes we are lonely and scared, with no way out, with no way of seeing light in darkness.

EX:  
I think the poem says it all. It’s tongue-in-cheek but worthwhile advice and I think there is hope. I learned to be independent at a very early age. I grew up fast. I didn’t have much choice. My mom was never the warm and fuzzy maternal type and I grew up reminded every day that my stepfather was not my actual father. I was sexualized as a child when an older cousin molested me and, by the time I was in my teens, I was turned away and put out on the streets for being gay. I’ve had a pretty fucked up life and most people would be dead by now. The only reason I survived all of that is because I learned the hard way how to be tough during my time out on the streets. I have my moments like anybody else but I allow myself the opportunity to go through it and then I move on and bounce back. I think this carries over to my career as a writer. Every time I need some sort of encouragement, I think about all the ways this journey could have ended. If anything, I’ve at least proven to myself that I’m a survivor. I may not have any valuable accolades or sold as many books as others but I have met many wonderful people along the way that have been inspired by my work for whatever reason. That means so much to me and that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

LLM:
Confessional poetry can be a hurdle to tackle for some people. What advice do you have for aspiring writers, maybe specifically Latino writers, on this subject? This form of poetry is seen more and more in the community, but sometimes those that need to write confessional poetry, don’t, because they do not know how or where to begin. Because “When Your Doctor Calls To Tell You That Your Brain Tumor Is Back” made me gasp and swallow and think about my own life; it was amazing.

EX:  
Yes. That was a very personal poem. I suppose you have to be ready to share your private world publicly if you’re going to write confessional poetry. You have to be prepared to be judged and criticized. I’ve been writing this type of poetry from the very beginning because I had nothing to lose. It’s actually something celebrated in spoken word poetry and slam poetry competitions which is where I started. As writers, we could create entire universes and focus on anything from a pen to the sun. But I think confessional poetry is a style of poetics that should also be considered by Latinx and other writers of color because it is important to reflect the world we live in from our eyes and keep our histories alive. In spite of our differences, readers might find something universal in our stories and be able to relate and maybe even be inspired. Also, if we don’t share our stories, who will? A white professor from the Midwest who has been privileged enough to experience some of our culture and thinks they can speak for us. 

LLM:
I hated you as I read “Radiance,” tears blurring words against page. Thank you. I thought, I could keep reading this! Which brings me to my last question: Do you think writing a memoir is in the near future for Emanuel Xavier? I vote yes. I feel your unique voice is very much needed and the survival lessons you can bring to the table are thrilling. Your story can change the lives of many of us out there.
   
EX:  
If I were to be offered a worthwhile publishing deal, I would totally be ready to share my story as a memoir. I genuinely hope to be considered for this someday. Sorry not sorry that this poetry collection brought tears to your eyes. Thanks for taking the time to read it. It’s been almost two decades and I hope to continue doing what I’m doing along the way.



*
EMANUEL XAVIER, an LGBT History Month Icon, is author of the poetry collections Radiance, Nefarious, Americano, Pier Queen, If Jesus Were Gay and the novel Christ Like. He also edited Mariposas: A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry and Bullets & Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry. He is recipient of the Marsha A. Gomez Cultural Heritage Award, a NYC Council Citation and a finalist for Lambda Literary Awards and International Latino Books Awards. One of the first openly gay Nuyorican poets, he has been a longtime gay rights activist, AIDS activist and homeless youth advocate. He was featured on Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry, has spoken at The United Nations, was a featured TEDx speaker and was filmed for a documentary on poets from around the world. He continues to perform at colleges and universities throughout the country and his books are often included in LGBTQ and Latino Studies courses. 

 LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review,CloudbankThe Packinghouse ReviewPublic Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Projectwww.luislopez-maldonado.com

Thursday, December 29, 2016

An interview with Natalie Scenters-Zapico


SEIS
an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)

4:
Natalie Scenters-Zapico

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
NSZ: Natalie Scenters-Zapico

LLM:
The collection of poems titled, The Verging Cities, deals with trauma, border issues, personal history, memory, and marriage, among other themes. It will grab you, drag you, and put you up against a chain-linked fence; it is mesmerizing. Thank you for your work. Which brings me to my first question: Those of us that read your book can have a pretty good idea of what its about, but can you please maybe tell us, what its not about?

NSZ:
The Verging Cities is a collection sprung out of a deep and complicated obsession with the sister cities of El Paso, Texas, USA and Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, México. It is about two people who fall in love on a surveilled border that constantly denies their existence. Threaded throughout are poems based on my relationship with my husband, José Ángel and the ways the personal and political intersect. The Verging Cities is about all of the things that you mentioned above, but also about how we experience landscapes differently. How some have the privilege of seeing a desert and how others live in constant fear of how that same desert might consume them. It is about the body, the way we deny the violence our bodies commit against other bodies, how the body can become violent against itself, and how that same violence can become a part of a landscape’s body.

LLM:
Lets chat about the infamous Angel character in some of these poems. He is everywhere! As a reader, I fell in love with him by the end of the book. Could you please elaborate on how your personal relationship with him has assisted or acted as a catalyst in this collection of poems? Can you also tell us a bit about how you decided to focus so many poems on Angel and how his energy shapes the tone of the book?

NSZ:
While I was working on this collection I started writing letters to my husband, José Ángel. Later I found out that he kept all of these letters in a small box in his desk. One day, he let me go through the letters and I was interested in how when I was writing them I was thinking of a memory, even if brief, of José Ángel. None of the letters were written with him near me, so I decided to take this concept of the absent body of a loved one you are deeply familiar with and apply it to a series that runs throughout the collection. In these poems José Ángel becomes the character of Angel, one you’re never quite sure is a literal angel, or a man named Angel. This Angel character is certainly not completely my husband José Ángel, but he is a version of him. As I revised the collection the narrative between the speaker and Angel trying to navigate the verging cities became apparent, and important to the book’s structure. In The Verging Cities, Angel and the speaker are both trying to navigate their border space that is out to control and oppress their bodies, while falling in love in that same landscape.

LLM:
In A Half-Full Bathtub” (pg.16) you introduce the couplet-form for the third time in the collection of poems. I absolutely love how this form is working in this poem and how it moves flawlessly. Can you share with us, the importance of form in your work, specifically in how it serves this beautiful poem?

NSZ:
My poems go through many forms before they find the right one. In fact, it’s often the thing I’m left tinkering with the longest. I especially like the couplet form for The Verging Cities because it creates a back and forth tension similar to the tension between the two cities. Couplets can also be very romantic, because they exist like lovers on the page apart from the rest of the poem, and yet dependent on other couplets for meaning. In the poem “In A Half-Full Bathtub” I’m interested in the way the female body is policed and how that same body can create resistance. I think as a woman you walk always aware that your body can stand more pain than you’re aware of. And I don’t mean only in the physical labor a woman’s body can stand giving birth, but also for example, the recent ACLU verdict in which a woman was finally able to get monetary compensation for an invasive cavity search done by border patrol agents at a border checkpoint. How many women have gone through invasive cavity searches before her and have either been detained, deported, or let go to walk across the bridge humiliated? And while the power of these stories is important, I do think there’s something to be said for a poem springing out of an emotion and then turning that into a narrative, which is how “In A Half-Full Bathtub” started. While José Ángel and I were going through the immigration process we felt very observed, very scrutinized as people, and the threat that there was no limit to what they could investigate was always looming. “In A Half-Full Bathtub” poem sprung up from that anxiety.


LLM:
There is a lot of trauma with border agents, border patrol, with crossing the border, and being seen as “the other.” In “I Light The House On Fire And Lie Down” I see and read math, religion, sex, love, nature, identity, culture, race and discrimination: How did you manage to make this poem work, with the layers upon layers of themes threaded through the speakers mind? Its fascinating.

NSZ:
Oh, thank you. I don’t know if I have a prescriptive answer as to how I got this poem to “work.” I suppose it began with an exercise I would do and still do sometimes on Sunday mornings, when I can’t help but have the old nagging feeling I should be at Mass. It begins by lying down on my kitchen floor. At first I let myself stare at the ceiling for a bit, but then I let my eye move down and start viewing objects and the floor from this angle. I’ll be honest, doing this gives me a type of anxiety and I depend on that anxiety to give me the bravery to leap from image to image. This poem came out of that exercise in anxiety, which is probably why it’s able to encompass so much. When you suffer from anxiety your mind attempts to carry the world, and I think this can be useful to the poetic mind. Of course, the key is to make sure you don’t let the anxiety paralyze you, something that can be a dangerous game. I suppose I should also talk about why border patrol agents are such a source of trauma for me. Growing up in El Paso-Juárez border patrol agents are often seen as a hassle, but for people with loved ones who are undocumented they can be the wolf capable of devouring your entire family in a moment. El Paso, Texas for example has more border patrol agents than police in the city. They don’t just patrol the physical border, but the entire city, into New Mexico. They become a presence that is always lurking, always visible on a drive down the freeway or while eating at a restaurant, capable of unraveling any semblance of stability you might have built for yourself.

LLM:
“Its The Heat That Wakes Us” is a contemporary Romeo & Juliet! Beautifully written, thunderous, heart-felt, and longing for love. How do stories like this become poems? What is your process as a poet of writing poems that seem very personal to both the speaker and the poet?

NSZ:
Poems like “It’s the Heat That Wakes Us” become poems by being unafraid to enter places in your memory that hurt you. I’m asked often: How do you enter that place in a poem and then go about your day without it affecting your psychological well being? I don’t know that I have an answer to that because to me, like many writers and artists before me, I think it’s important to develop the capacity and mental ability to look and render that pain on the page. I don’t believe  you can live a genuine life, a brave life, without immense pain. The poem you mention above was inspired by the old tenement building José Ángel and I used to live in. It was located in the Sunset Heights district of El Paso near downtown, and the Santa Fe Bridge. The apartment had the most spectacular view of El Paso, the border highway, and all of Cd. Juárez. Of course, the view was spliced into hundreds of angles by electric wires, and the building had foundation problems so its uneven floors gave some people vertigo, and one summer our swamp cooler went out. We spent most of that summer in our underwear because it was too hot to survive any other way. What I remember most about that summer was thinking of how many people survive the heat in the Chihuahua desert without a cooler, and how unnatural these tenement buildings are to the heat. We would be much better off living in an adobe house because it’s much cooler, but most builders have stopped making adobe houses. I also remember how José Ángel and I used to ask each other if we were dead yet because there’s nothing like extreme heat to confuse your sweat for your soul rising. 

LLM:
In your poem titled, “Placement,” we read it as a kind of interview or investigation. Was this something you intended the audiences to interpret this way, or did you not think about how this specific poem would be understood? And my second question regarding this poem: You end the sections in section 7. Why? Is this a lucky number, or just a simple choice you made without really thinking about it? I am just curious!

NSZ:
When I started working on this collection, everyone had book suggestions for me. El Paso-Juárez is an interesting place too because many people from all over the country have been there and have an experience to share about the space. As I started engaging with these different books and works of art I grew exasperated by how many people were creating art to “bring awareness to the issues: femicide, the life of undocumented immigrants, the dangers in crossing the border, etc.” I find that border art that arises purely from a need to “bring awareness” is rather vapid and self-serving. Now, if you have personal experience with these issues in a sustained way, and write a poem that happens to be political, but didn’t begin in that space I hold much more respect for the work. I think, of course, writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Alberto Ríos, writers who are trying to capture their lives, and in doing so, their lives become an intersection with the political.

As for the number 7, I play with this number because it is considered to be a Godly number and I wanted it to be a subtle reminder of the angelic forces at play in The Verging Cities, even when Angel as a character isn’t present.  

LLM:
Kids are taught lies in school, and the truth is hidden from us growing up in education systems. Your poem “A Place To Hide The Body” discusses this issue. Do you feel it is important to educate your readers through your poetry? Because this poem does it. Do you believe as an artist that poems like this are/can bring awareness and social change? What are your thoughts on writing “political” poetry, or poems that can be defined and seen as social commentaries?

NSZ:
I think I’ve always fallen in the Lorna Dee Cervantes camp here: This is not a political poem. In “A Place To Hide The Body” I experienced the denial of the border history that I was living in a high school classroom. The Southwest is full of contradictions like this, in which people love the aesthetic, consumer-based beauty of the Southwest, without realizing all the pain and blood of this region. As for bringing social change and awareness through poetry, I think we’re living in a great era for this. There are so many poets that are starting serious conversations that extend into the political through their work. I think of writers like Danez Smith, Solmaz Sharif, and Natalie Díaz. But again, part of the reason that I love these poets in particular is that none of their work stems purely from a “bring awareness” lens. It’s about being personal, about being unafraid to look in the mirror and put your fingers in the open wound.

LLM:
Repetition is a tool a lot of poets love using in their works, for it brings texture and musicality to the page. In “The Archeologist Came To Hunt Trilobites,” we clearly see the use of repetition. How is repetition working here for the poem? Do you expect readers to read each repeated word or phrase as same or different? What effects did you expect to communicate by presenting such repetition?

NSZ:
Repetition is a powerful and important tool in poetry. It is important to remember that repetition was used in poetry before poetry was composed on the page. Repetition is used as a way to help someone memorize a work, guide pacing, and change meaning. Repetition teaches us not to trust our understanding of things at first glance, but instead to read, re-read, and observe what is happening around the repetition. When I wrote “The Archeologist Came To Hunt Trilobites” I had just finished reading Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning and was mesmerized by how well he employs repetition. Corral is a master at making us look, look again, and understand new ways of seeing the same image. I realized that I was not very good at doing this in my own work, and that I relied too heavily on narrative propulsion in many poems, which for a collection can make a book feel rushed, so I decided to start playing with repetition and found that this was very useful to my ideas on gaze. Thus each time the reader is forced to encounter the phrase, “The archeologist came to hunt trilobites” I hope that they understand the archeologist’s horror at never finding them, at being confronted with bones he nor anyone around him wants to discover.

LLM:
A poem is seven parts/sections. Again! “Epithalamia” spreads across seven pages. What is the importance of the blank space in every poem/page? What about the space between pages/sections? I’m very curious about the choice behind having this poem spread across so much blank space/pages; I really enjoyed the pace of this poem, and how the white/blank space looked on the page.

NSZ:
Most of the poems in The Verging Cities are very dense and narrative in style. They are action-image packed. They hardly let you breathe. They make you feel pushed against a metal fence. They make you feel interrogated. But I like collections that have a variety of feelings, that don’t just linger in one spot. So I wrote  “Epithalamia” with so much space to be the lungs of The Verging Cities. To help the reader look, with space to breathe. I also knew that I needed traditional wedding poems, dedicated to a very untraditional wedding between a speaker and her undocumented lover, who might be of this world and might not, who might be living and might not. I’m glad you enjoyed the white/blank space, and hope that it serves as a place to reflect on the inner workings of the relationship depicted on the page.


LLM:
Turns are very important and sometimes necessary for a poem to reach its full potential! You killed it with a fabulous turn in your poem titled, “Girl Curled Over A Bar Stool.” A poem about sex, violence, and femininity: Can you elaborate on how this poem became a poem? This turn at the end of the poem, in the last sentence, really makes the poem explode! We are hit with life and trauma. It is stunning. For me, I wanted to keep reading, for it felt that you opened many doors with the turn, “…I wonder when shell notice the blood caught in the groves of that bill.”

NSZ:
That poem started out as a much longer two page piece, in which I compare the woman’s body to a freeway. But the piece was too self-serving. Anytime I have a piece that is longer than a page I’m skeptical. Not because I don’t think it can be done, but because I know myself and sometimes in early drafts I’ll fixate too long on certain images that are only interesting to me. One day, frustrated at my computer because I couldn’t get the poem to work with me I opened up a new document and challenged myself to write the poem as a sort of sonnet in fourteen lines, with a boxy shape, only using whatever I could remember from the earlier draft. Somehow “Girl Curled Over A Bar Stool” came to be. In it I kept the image of the girl, but instead framed it from the perspective of a man going to a brothel. The turn at the end came to me much later. I think because I always struggle with how to end a poem. I hate poems that begin strongly and end weakly, I don’t think they have bite. So this end was a way of leading into poems that would follow that are directly about femicide.

LLM:
“Angel And I Are Both Great Pretenders,” stood out to me and I loved it for the title of a book! Can you tell us a bit about how the title of this collection of poems came to be? How did you decide on the title, The Verging Cities?

NSZ:
When I was working on the collection I spent a lot of time thinking about how I conceived of the border, my cities, my marriage, and how these things were similar or related. I started referring to the cities as one place, “the verging cities” in many poems, and when I finally wrote the title poem “The Verging Cities” it became obvious to me that this was going to be central to the book. Because while the Angel poems are important, the verging cities are what define the love and give it shape. Without the landscape of the verging cities, there would be no imagistic landscape.

LLM:
The cover is hauntingly tender and perfect. How did you choose the cover for this book? Were there other options before the current one was made official? The girl on the bed/concrete stares at every reader that picks the book up. That is so cool!  

NSZ:
The Center For Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, was amazing in the process of picking a book cover. They asked me to send them a bunch of options for the cover and I sent a selection of works from the Chilean artist Pascuala Lira. I’m a huge fan of her work and while writing The Verging Cities, I used to have the image that is now the cover hanging above my desk. Because the book has so much to do with femicide and the female body, I loved this image because it centers the woman in an intimate sphere and forces you to read the image from left to right, much like how we read. In effect, she is staring at you but you must also read her body in order to interpret that stare. I could not be happier with the cover of this book.



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NATALIE SCENTERS-ZAPICO is author of The Verging Cities (Center For Literary Publishing, 2015). She is the 2016-2017 Poet-In-Residence at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review,CloudbankThe Packinghouse ReviewPublic Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Projectwww.luislopez-maldonado.com