Monday, June 3, 2019

How to Love a Country: An Interview with Richard Blanco

How to Love a Country

an interview with Richard Blanco
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

How to Love a Country offers a poetic narrative of the United States, wandering its alabaster cities and fruited plains with the spirit of a nomad and sincere devotion of a pilgrim. The scout of the reader's journey, Richard Blanco, curates small everyday episodes ranging from tensions on small-town Main Street to a cab driver's despair in sunny Cuba. Informed by the wisdom and perspective gained from his travels as the first Latinx inaugural poet, Blanco makes a compelling narrative of competing patriotic ideals within the U.S. today. In his collection, Blanco registers the impact of ahistorical and revisionist versions of American heritage fueling nationalistic propaganda.

A patriot at heart, Blanco does not shy away from describing the scope of structural injustices in American society. As a young adult whose generation is faced with solving many of these serious issues, I also believe that constructive criticism will be a much greater tool than embittered cynicism. The journey of country and self share an intimate relationship in Blanco's story, suggesting the flaws of the self as well as the country may be erased in time by increased awareness and growth. Blanco suggests that faith in a deeply divided country and activism for radical change are not only compatible, but synergisticHow to Love a Country is a deeply inspiring book, offering clarity and reconciliation for the conflicted individual and nation.
-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: American Wandersong combines your life’s narrative with the history of America. The poem finally narrows its scope to a starry night on a porch in Maine, grounding the monumental achievements of America in a singular ordinary moment in nature. Why are vignettes predominant in your style? How is your increased agency and growth as an individual represented through the reframed diction of nationality throughout the poem, resolving in a homeland within the self?

[Richard Blanco]: I consider that we live and move through three different kinds of landscapes: the physical, emotional, and natural. The relationships among these and their unique and complex intersections and divergences develop our sense place and belonging. This is what I was exploring and trying to capture in American Wandersong, namely: my personal journey through these landscapes in search of a grounding identity, which has changed over time. 

As a child and adolescent, I didn’t entirely embrace my Cuban identity because it was my given culture and therefore commonplace—it was what I knew. Instead, I sought the “other,” wanting to identify with what I perceived to be the “real” America I saw on TV. However, through a cultural coming-of-age I gradually came to appreciate my Cuban heritage and claim it, culminating in my first visit to Cuba in 1994. For years afterwards, I self-identified as Cuban, but eventually realized that the Cuba I “belonged” to was the intangible myth and memories of my parents and grandparents. I then moved to New England, seeking that quintessential America I felt I had a claim to as well. Of course, that America also proved to be a myth. 

And so, I began my wanderlust phase, travelling throughout the world carrying with me the same question of home and belonging. Eventually, I gave up—decided that to live in the question, as Basho wrote, “Everyday is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” But then the White House called and asked me to serve at Presidential Inaugural Poet. As a result of that experience I embraced America in a way I never had or thought I could. But in 2015, when I was asked to write and read a poem at the re-opening of the US Embassy in Cuba, I once again began to question my identity and cultural loyalties. All this is echoed in American Wandersong, which ends with what I have tentatively concluded: the only sure homeland is the one within the self that is connected to nature, the universal, unifying home to which we all belong.

[TK]: November Eyes juxtaposes familiarity and traditional neighborly values with affective polarization that has invaded small-town Main Street. How did you craft the litany of divisive topics like gun control and the border wall in terms of sound and overall reading flow?

[RB]: I’ve never been one to write in strict meter, but I do listen to my instinct for sound, and I’ve noticed that the anapestic foot generally dominates my lines, which tend to be ten to twelve syllables long. I think every poet parcels-out language in a particular, unique way—a result of the various influences that affect how language is imprinted in us, how we develop and come to “hear” that inner voice in our minds. For me, that inner voice was heavily influenced by the musicality and rhyme-rich sounds of Spanish. When I come to the page, I instinctually and naturally work to mimic or replicate that inner voice by employing the various craft techniques at my disposal: a complex combination of alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc., as well as line lengths and line breaks—all of which are meant to create and maintain a certain rhythm and keep the language flowing.

[TK]: From a rhetorical or creative perspective, why do you examine particular or anecdotal instances before transitioning to a broader perspective of the issue in many of your poems? 

[RB]: As the old adage goes: the universal lies in the particular. Providing specific anecdotal experiences grounds the poem, establishes the premise and my emotional authority which allows me to then draw and substantiate larger conclusions or claims. In other words, a movement from the particular to the general. Or, in terms of Aristotle's modes of persuasion: beginning the poem with first-hand experiences establishes a certain credibility (ethos); I then make an emotional appeal by responding to those experiences (pathos); and finally introduce the litany of sociopolitical issues (logos).

[TK]: Now Without Me performs a masterful blend of consonance, balancing harsher pronouncements like a clashing callous chance cosmos with more soothing sounding aspects of life, like moonlight shadows and showers. Do you integrate the sound or feel of the written word with themes you explore?

[RB]: Yes, of course. Just as with a song, the sound of the music should reflect the connotations of the words. Extending Coleridge’s definition of poetry as “the best words in the best order,’ I would say that poetry is also the best sounds in the best order. But this is an instinctual, complex, and often non-linear process. At times the theme informs the sound; at times the sounds develop and strengthen the theme.

[TK]: Another unique thought experiment I enjoyed was Let’s Remake America Great, where you envision an America according to the Anglo-Protestant wealthy narrative that is portrayed in conservative movements as an America worth returning to. You use the re-prefix extensively, the etymology of which means “once more”, afresh, or anew. If a return to America as it never really was is impossible, why do you imagine (the right perhaps) remaking America on a set with film imagery? Is poetry a more nuanced or less easily subverted medium?

[RB]: Let’s Remake America Great is an exercise in irony and sarcasm. As a child growing up in a Miami—a Cuban cultural bubble—I thought that the Anglo-Protestant, upper middle-class narrative that I saw on TV was the only “real” American narrative—the only one that counted. What’s more, I yearned to be part of it because I wanted to be an American, after all. Flashing forward, as an adult I came to understand the narrative portrayed in those TV shows was pretty much a fiction, a kind of nationalist propaganda. But it’s more complex than that: though I know better, some part of me ironically still wants to believe that such an American Dream story truly existed or was attainable by everyone. I think the Trump presidency taps into that mythic, perfect, fictional America that never was—that promise of a model America, which meant a white male America, steeped in racism and sexism. That’s essentially what this poem is trying to expose.

[TK]: Your feedback on your inmate student’s poem in Poetry Assignment #4 elevates a talented voice while also creating a poetic work in tandem. Similarly, One Pulse—One Poem imagines a collective poem written by those who survive the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre. How does collaborative and collective poetry embody the convergence of all narratives in America? How do you write an invented collaborative poem?

[RB]: Honestly, my intention was not to make such a grand statement about America. I was simply trying to frame the poems as variations of the ars poetica mode. But, now that I think about it, perhaps such a choice does indeed make an indirect statement which echoes our nation’s motto: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). As I wrote in my Author’s Note to the book: We are a populace of individual “I’s” who have consented to come together as a “we.” The challenge has been to continuously question who is (or isn’t) included in that “we” and how to redefine and reimagine it. Ideally, in a democracy no single narrative should matter more than any other—all narratives should converge and share the same importance. The poems you mentioned reflect that ideal by folding-in or merging other narratives into my own. In that light, I suppose the “invented” collaborative poem is a very “democratic” form. How does one write such a poem? Well, I would say the key is empathy—to hold a certain regard for the “other” and establish a shared emotional experience. 


Selected by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history, Richard Blanco is the youngest and the first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity characterizes his three collections of poetry: City of a Hundred Fires, which received the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press; Directions to The Beach of the Dead, recipient of the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center; and Looking for The Gulf Motel, recipient of the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. 

He has also authored the memoirs For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey and The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. His inaugural poem “One Today” was published as a children’s book, in collaboration with renowned illustrator Dav Pilkey. Boundaries, a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler, challenges the physical and psychological dividing lines that shadow the United States. And his latest book of poems, How to Love a Country, both interrogates the American narrative, past and present, and celebrates the still unkept promise of its ideals. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and has received numerous honorary doctorates. He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Wesleyan University. He serves as the first Education Ambassador for The Academy of American Poets.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Posada: An Interview with Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo

Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge

an interview with Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Posada's offerings rest in the hot sand of the U.S.-Mexico Border, desert flowers providing much-needed witness and humanity to the millions of migrants who cross in search of a better life. The collection explores the ramifications of Latinx transnational identity, discerning conflicting emotional, social, and even religious loyalties. Accordingly, Posada explores the intersecting narratives of Bermejo's immigrant family and the more recently arrived.

As a second-generation Peruvian-American, I am very grateful for the courage that my family had to journey to the U.S. For many of us, the border is of great importance to where we came from and how we got to where we are today. Inspired by her volunteer work in the Tucson sector, Bermejo treats the border as a living symbol with evolving meanings. Fostering unity and solidarity across generations of immigrants, Posada forges a link with the past, present, and future of Latinidad.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Traditionally, Mexican posadas are a central part of the Christmas celebration; they follow the Holy Family on their journey to find a room in Bethlehem. What does the word posada, commonly translated as inn, mean to you in relation to the migration of families across the southern border?

[Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo]: What happened was right before the book was to go to print as “Built With Safe Spaces,” I suddenly freaked over the title being too literal. I started going through the collection looking for a better title, and Posada popped out to me. For one, it’s the only poem in the book translated into Spanish, which I did for my grandmother. The front steps and door to her home are on the cover image and the events in the poem, Posada, happened on those front steps at her home in East Los Angeles. And two, I thought the Mexican Christmas pageant made a nice metaphor for the immigrant journey. As you mention, in the tradition, two people dress up as Mary and Joseph and process through the streets of a neighborhood knocking on neighbors’ doors reenacting the journey through Bethlehem searching for a safe place to stay the night. So I guess the word Posada represents my Mexican heritage, my version of Los Angeles, and my grandmother, which are all directly connected to why I care about immigrant and refugee rights.

[TK]: What impact did volunteering as a desert aid worker with No More Deaths have on your writing? What attracts you to the desert and Chavez Ravine?

[XGB]: Volunteering with No More Deaths gave me a center point for the whole collection. Before volunteering I said I was writing a collection of poetry, but I had no idea what it was about. After I went, I had something to focus on. Not only did it produce the social justice poems about the Arizona desert, it also helped me better understand my family history and my connection to Los Angeles as well as my connection to the desert. It gave me a frame. 

My connection to the desert isn’t something I’ve been able to fully verbalize yet. All I know is when I’m in the desert something in my spirit opens up. It’s like my spirit knows it’s home. As for Chavez Ravine, it was a moment in L.A. history that I knew nothing about for most of my life, and that shocked me. I wanted more people to know about this horrific injustice done to mostly Mexican-American people, and how the city ripped their homes away from them. Home is a very big theme in the book.

[TK]: This Poem is for Nopales makes a beautiful comparison between prickly pear cactus needles and your grandmother’s chin hairs. Nopales are a “love letter” from the land, your family, and your grandma. What does being a nopal woman mean to you?

[XGB]: My grandmother was a pretty stoic person. She didn’t speak much, she never judged anyone, and her prayers (after her family) were most important. Now, I’ll never be stoic, but I would like to be more mindful like her. The nopal is a succulent, so we know it can live in difficult circumstances. It’s got needles, so it’s a little dangerous, but it’s also quietly watching, and it’s giving. It feeds us. And most important it’s native to the Americas. I guess, I’m saying I want to be proud of who I am, and I want to gain strength in knowing who I am and not feel the need to be loud and or to prove myself. I want to have the quiet that comes with that kind of strength.

[TK]: Part III is a somewhat experimental section called Things to Know for Compañer@s: A No More Deaths Volunteer Guide. How did you mentally and perhaps physically honor those who perished in the desert? Did the original volunteer guide contain Did You Know sections?

[XGB]: When you are out in the Tucson-Sector of the border, death is kind of everywhere. It’s hard not to look out the car window as you are driving to a location, or to stop on a hike and look out over the canyons and know you are walking where someone has perished. What’s hardest are those people who will never be found or the bodies that will never be identified. I was constantly wondering who I was not seeing, and wished I could do more. How do you honor those people? I feel like I carried them with me every day I was in the desert, and then I tried to carry them onto the page with poems like Meditation for the Lost and Found and Ascension of Josseline. Those poems were my way of honoring.

As for a volunteer guide, there was no actual volunteer manual, perse. That poem was inspired by the three days of training I received before going out to the desert. We had Know Your Rights training, first aid training, desert knowledge training, and a class on the history of the area starting with the Tohono O'odham people and going through the different Administrations and how they changed the border with attention to NAFTA and The Obama Administration’s deportation numbers. That poem was birthed out of my training and the feeling I had when I first stepped into camp and went, “What did I get myself into?”

[TK]: In Our Lady of the Water Gallons, you utilize the widespread devotion to the Virgin Mary in South and Central America. to aid the migrants in the desert. Did you draw a general Virgen or one that resembled the Virgen of Guadalupe? Why does “the Virgin speak to faceless suffering” on the road?

[XGB]: I grew up Catholic, but I am not a practicing Catholic. I’m probably Agnostic, but I have devotion to the Virgen de Guadalupe. I think many Mexicans and Central Americans feel similarly. I like that she unifies us in this way and that she means something very special to many people whether they are Catholic or not. I drew a line drawing of the Virgen. You can tell it’s her because there are flowers at her feet. I guess I wrote that line because many people are suffering in the desert. It’s a very hard place to be, and I think many of those suffering are calling on her for help.

[TK]: Meditation for the Lost and Found is a concrete poem in the shape of a square spiral read horizontally. I found it to be one of the most moving poems in the book because the desaparecidos are products of unfair human rights violations. I am assuming you felt this way as well because the shape is meditative and gives exceptional emphasis to the poem. What is your philosophy on shape and content?

[XGB]: I was reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges at the time, which will do things to your mind. I’m more of a narrative poet, so I attribute much of that poem to Borges’ influence. I was thinking about what happens if you keep turning the story. First you’re this, but then no, you’re that. First you are in court, but no, you’re on a hill, but no, you’re at home. I was also thinking about the labyrinths of medieval Europe, and how they are meant to be meditative, and I was wondering if I could make something on the page that would do the same thing, make you walk someone else’s path for awhile. I like that the shape is a little confusing, a little hard to read, and that you have to focus on the words. I thought this helped create a sense of meditation. In the end, I was going for the shape of a labyrinth, but the closest I could get was a spiral. But I felt the spiral was fitting since someone at No More Deaths told me that typically when a person is lost, they walk in a circle to the lowest point. The whole thing--the shape, the turns, the words--is a meditation on los desaparecidos.

[TK]: I see beautiful continuity in Posada within the love for your third and second immigrant generation family and the care you show to those who are recently arriving. It is a selfless contrast to xenophobia in the United States shown by those who have similar or higher degrees of immigrant ancestry. How can we combat xenophobia? How do you hope your poetry will help someone understand the migrant crossing?

[XGB]: Thank you for that. I’m happy those connections came through. From a young age, I understood that my parents were immigrants and that immigrant was a dirty word to many people. It’s what has drawn me to write about immigrant and refugee issues and what drew me to the desert. What I tried to do was inspire a sense of empathy in the reader by inviting the reader into these stories and experiences that maybe they’ve never seen first-hand. I also wanted to offer comfort to those who are suffering and to celebrate our stories. I wanted to honor my family. When I do talks to teens and college students, I always like to say the coolest part of being a poet is being able to celebrate my loved ones and to put them in a book and take that book across the country. I’ve been able to share my grandmother’s little Boyle Heights home with people in Seattle, Houston, Washington DC, New York City and more, and that’s meant everything to me.



Xotchitl-Julisa Bermejo is a first generation Chicana born and raised in San Gabriel, California. Most recently, Bermejo was chosen as the first “Poet in the Parks” resident at Gettysburg National Military Park in partnership with the Poetry Foundation and the National Parks Arts Foundation. She is a former Steinbeck fellow, Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund/Money for Women grantee, Los Angeles Central Library ALOUD newer poet, and her poetry received 3rd place in the 2015 Tucson Festival of Books literary awards. She has received residencies with Hedgebrook and the Ragdale Foundation and is a proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Endeavor: An Interview with Cynthia Guardado


an interview with Cynthia Guardado
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Endeavor is a tender and sorrowful work, opening old scars and healing them with love and retrospective wisdom. There is a respectful and appropiate sense of nostalgia that permeates the narrative; for Inglewood, CA before gentrification, for innocence, and freedom of days gone by. It does not grieve, rather it treats Latinidad, womanhood, and abuse survivors with compassion and understanding. Guardado offers sincere meditations on injustices that affect women every day. Ultimately, the reader is renewed, and finds a sense of freedom in remembering these lived scars. 

Reading this as a Latina woman, I was affected by how immersive and engaging the collection was. Guardado treats unfortunately common traumas that women suffer through silently in their relationships with candor and solidarity. Guardado is a poet to be reckoned for her authenticity and balanced masterful storytelling, maintaining space readers to project their own emotions from shared experience on the page.
-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Endeavor partakes in the sorrow of women caused by the many injustices perpetuated upon them; including domestic violence, sexual assault, classism as well as racism. In many ways, it is their endeavor to resist depression from oppression. What is the significance of love and worthiness in this bleak narrative to you?

[Cynthia Guardado]: The first section of Endeavor is full of poems about women’s experiences in a world that is machista and possessive. Many of the poems are about my experiences as a woman because I too have been diminished and hyper-sexualized. For example, each moment of sexual harassment and assault described in the poem “To All the Women You Say You Love,” has actually happened to me. In the poem I really wanted to convey that every time this happens to a woman it stays with her. 

I don’t forget being twelve years-old and riding the bus home from school. A grown man sat next to me and kept hitting on me. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I finally said loud enough for everyone to hear “I’m twelve!” and he immediately stood up and moved to another part of the bus.

I had to learn early in life, that I needed to protect myself from men. And so, I got tough and which is why the audience for some of these poems are men, because I want to make them uncomfortable. I want them to think about how their behavior impacts the women in their lives. 

And I am completely aware that this impact is overwhelming which is why I intentionally began the book with “How Women Grieve” because I wanted to show the immense weight that women (including myself) carry every day. Our experiences something we’ve carried for generations. And that’s why I wanted to remind women to love themselves as completely and fully as they can when I wrote, “only you can love you like this.”  

[TK]: The poem Endeavor: Inglewood Just Another LAX Flight Route tackles issues of white supremacy and the environment. The space shuttle Endeavor, for which historic trees were cut down, is at once a symbol of success after the Challenger tragedy, and a sinister reminder society’s devaluation of nature. What led you to investigate Inglewood’s past and how do you believe your findings shed light on Inglewood’s future?    

[CG]: I am originally from Inglewood and when the Endeavour space shuttle came through Inglewood I was living there. Plans for the Endeavour space shuttle were released and it was obvious to me why they had chosen to take the space shuttle through Inglewood and South Central. These were neighborhoods where residents would have little to no access to information about the space shuttle’s route. I was opposed to the space shuttle coming through Inglewood because I knew the city had agreed to cut down all of the trees on Manchester Blvd that were along the route. 

There even were a few protests, and someone even chained themselves to a tree. On the night the Endeavour came through Inglewood, I felt I had to witness what was happening in my own neighborhood. My friend and I rode our bikes to a local laundromat that used to be a Wonderbread. I remember it was 3AM on a Friday or Saturday night, and we (childhood friends) were surrounded by hundreds of people. The streets were full of cars with out-of-state license plates. 

As I watched what was happening I thought, since when do people care about us? And it was that feeling that inspired me to write this poem and to really reflect on the land I lived on and how the city I grew up in was founded.  

[TK]: What does the word "Endeavor" mean to you? 

[CG]: I chose Endeavor as the title of the book because an endeavor is a journey you do make it through. No matter how much darkness you had to fight through, how much grief, you’re still standing at the end (even if you are not whole). 

[TK]: Alcoholism casts a dark cloud over many of the poems. As you say in Inheritance, we carry this addiction in our bones, Loving an alcoholic and knowing the self-destructive quality of the disease on all the other alcoholics in your life takes a large toll. What were your thoughts about writing in such an intimate space about something that can undermine even love?

[CG]: When I first started writing these poems about love and alcoholism, I didn’t realize I was writing a collection of them. I just kept writing about the alcoholism prevalent in my family and life. I don’t think alcoholism is a problem for the Latinx community in particular but I do think that alcoholism is a huge problem in our society as a whole. 

My poem “Inheritance” asks readers to take a closer look at what they inherit from their family. I wrote “Inheritance” after the death of my uncle who died due to his alcoholism. I explore his death through a series of poems in my manuscript Cenizas, a collection of poems centered around El Salvador. 

Many of the poems in Endeavor, were written as a way for me to process my daily interactions with the alcoholics in my life. The alcoholism of my partner became a central focus. There are even several poems that I wrote while I was still in the relationship and I think these poems show how alcoholism undermines love. 

My poem “Please” begins with the lines: Heal me with your love, I want to tell you this/every night I lose sleep over what I've already lost. I literally wrote this poem in the middle of the night while my ex was passed out drunk. Earlier we’d had a fight, I don’t remember if we were both drinking (but it’s likely we were). He was always a black out drunk, and I was beginning to understand that what was happening between us was not love. I’m still writing poems about him, I guess I’m never really going to be over how alcoholism changed our lives.

[TK]: How do you discover the rhythm of a poem? All of them translate beautifully to the stage. They are unapologetically forceful with almost no barrier between reader and author.

[CG]: When I revise my poems, I always read them out loud to myself in order to find the rhythm of the poem. I allow my voice to guide how my line breaks. For example, in the poem “This is Terrorism” each line is forceful, and each line reveals new information. The beginning reads: 
News of mass murder in Charleston, North Carolina finds me in another country. I read about another enraged white man with a gun, who was protected by cops with a bullet-proof-vest. 
I wanted the reader to read each of those lines slowly and to feel the power of each of those words that unveil a reality of white terrorism in the United States that is so often glossed over by our media.  

[TK]: Your El Salvadoran parents’ cultural heritage formed your earliest conceptions of family, love, and womanhood. What are some uplifting and perhaps damaging beliefs that you have discovered within their culture? What values do you see from your upbringing surfacing in your poetry?

[CG]: The poems in Endeavor specifically tackle misogyny but I do approach misogyny from a more global point of view because we woman have to confront machismo and patriarchy at every turn. I think I am hyper-aware of this because I was fortunate enough to come from a family with really strong women. I’d even dare to say that we are a matriarchal family. My abuelas and vis abuelas were very strong women and most were single mothers. They instilled their strength in both my parents. I do think this strength has impacted my life tremendously as I was raised to be strong and independent by my parents. And I even push them now, to think beyond what they thought was normal or expected. It is this speaker who appears in “What Nature Intended” when I write, “I will no longer bleed for humanity./I will not procreate. I am not here for/what you say I’ve come here for[…].”  

[TK]: Poems with subjects such as love, El Salvadoran heritage, and accounts of family interweave together in the work. The concluding poem, Hope, proclaims, “we breath—this is our endeavor.” How is your vision of peace and joy for the people who inspired you realized in your poetry? 

[CG]: Honestly, I always say I’m not a very hopeful person. But whenever I say that people point out all the work that I do as a poet and educator. I’m always trying to make a difference, give voice to something important, create a relatable moment. So I guess the end of the book is the moment where I’m saying if after all this we are still alive and surviving then we obviously have some hope.  


Cynthia Guardado is a Salvadorian-American poet and Professor of English at Fullerton College. She is the managing editor of LiveWire: A Literary Arts Journal at Fullerton College. She received her Masters of Fine Arts from California State University, Fresno and her debut poetry collection, ENDEAVOR was published in 2017 by World Stage Press. In 2017, she was the winner of the Concurso Binacional De Poesía Pellicer-Frost (UTEP/S-Mart). Cenizas is a collection of poems centered on El Salvador and grief, and it is currently under review.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hands That Break & Scar: An Interview with Sarah A. Chavez

Hands That Break & Scar

an interview with Sarah A. Chavez
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Hands That Break & Scar recalls touch, the human contact that echoes through the mind, changes the trajectory of our bodies, and imprints their memory on the page. Sarah A. Chavez reaches beyond the written word to touch our mind and our hearts, a bonding of text to flesh. She chronicles the formation of  her identity through moments of sensibility in the Californian Central Valley of her childhood. The sensation of carnal embodiment, transmitted through language, informs who we are, how we perceive ourselves, and who others believe us to be. 

As a biracial person myself, half Peruvian and half Caucasian, it was powerful to encounter another mestiza with similarly complex racial self-identification. Understood relationally, race often forces those of mixed race into a liminal understanding of their own ethnic identity. Hands That Break & Scar reminds us of our shared fundamental humanity: to touch and be touched, and to love and be loved, regardless of the characteristics of the physical body we inhabit.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Hands That Break & Scar uses tactile anecdotal descriptions to illustrate your transition from childhood to young womanhood. What did you edit out of the collection? How does the perception of touch change in this youthful transition?

[Sarah A. Chavez]: While many (most?) of the poems in the collection are based on my personal experiences growing up, I certainly would not call it nonfiction. A professor in an advanced poetry workshop I took at Cal State Fresno once—sort of callously—told a student defending her poem in workshop (“but that’s how it happened”) that the factual truth is irrelevant in poetry, it is the emotional truth which the poem must serve. That really stuck with me, because our emotional responses to life do not necessary translate in the exact recounting of a situation. There is too much context missing. That being said there are aspects of my life I did not mine for this collection and poems that got left out because they just didn’t quite fit with the arc of the book. 

For instance, I have a poem, “When Dana Was About to Be Raped,” which appears in the anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence that was originally included the early manuscript. The poem is based on an experience I had teaching in which I was triggered by a student’s reaction to the rape scene in Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred. The poem’s present moment is the speaker teaching at the front of a university classroom, but the bulk and heart of the poem takes place in the past when she was a teenager. The speaker (and me in real life) were assaulted by a much older male co-worker and details of that assault and how visceral those tactile and scent memories are, even many years later, are expressed in the poem. The book overall addresses themes of gender violence, sexuality and being sexualized, as well as working class spaces, but because the present of the poem was a speaker in a career, in a space outside the Central Valley, it didn’t seem right in later edits.

Also, in regard to the reception and perception of touch that you mentioned, poems I have which explore or illustrate similar situations as to that in “When Dana Was About to Be Raped” where the act of touching is not nuanced, but rather experienced as expressions of violence, I did not feel ultimately fit with the tone and representations that became central for the collection. While there are dangerous and hurtful situations depicted in the poems, most of the touching in the collection ends up primarily to be positive and hopeful in amidst difficult and dangerous situations and spaces. I wanted to maintain those threads of happiness and empowerment because of and in relationship to pain. Moments of touching in the collection are primarily done with affection, even if as the speaker ages, the type of affection transforms. For example, a poem like “When She Asked Was I Afraid of Needles” or “The Day the Alligators Feasted on Time” are the girls touching and tattooing one another as a way to bond and have a sense belonging. Later in the collection, poems like “On A Summer Afternoon” and “My First Tattoo” show the ways in which touching has moved from friendship affection to sexual encounters. The touching itself is not necessarily more sexual in nature, but the perception and possibility of it is.

[TK]: Tag is an incredibly symbolic poem where the children point trigger fingers at each other and wage racially charged insults at each other. What inspired it, and what do you think it says about parental/societal influence on children? How does the repetition contribute to the poem’s theme?

[SAC]: That poem is derived from a real memory. I went to a Catholic school where I’d say the breakdown of students might have been around a third students of color and two thirds Anglo students (in my very specific class). That third maybe included six Mexican Americans students, one Asian American student, and only a few Black students. One day at recess a boy called me “mess-in-a-can.” I don’t remember how I reacted, nor do I remember him having a malicious tone, but I do remember him saying, “you know, cuz you’re Mexican. And I’m pork-n-cheese, cuz I’m Portuguese.” But kids said other cruel things to each other all the time, mocking someone’s ethnic name, their body shape or size, skin color, their perceived masculinity or femininity.

In this way, I suppose the poem is a commentary on where discrimination begins that felt clearly connected to this childhood member. I initially wrote “Tag” for a forms class I took with the poet Grace Bauer during my PhD program at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. We were tasked with either specifically a villanelle or at least to write in one of the primary forms utilizing repetition. I’ve always liked the turning structure of the villanelle, it made me think about moving in a circular fashion toward something without coming at the heart of an idea directly, almost talking around it until you are able to understand what is at the heart of what is meant or said. I had also been thinking a lot about race and ethnicity and the relatively monocultural environment of graduate school. In some ways, grad school, and the academy more largely, follow the kind of circular structure of discrimination that children learn in school. If you make something a game, then the rules change and hurtful things can be said with a sort of immunity – I was just kidding, or we were just playing. In the academy though, it’s always in the guise of tradition or intellectualism. It’s not personal, it’s an intellectual exercise, or that’s just how things have always been, or such and such group just isn’t creating the kind of art/scholarship that is meritorious by whoever’s standards. The same kids getting picked on during recess are often the ones being marginalized academically: writer/scholars of color, women, queer folks, the working class, and people with disabilities. These are also the same people with higher rates of depression, suicide, incarceration, and death at the hands of police and the judicial system overall. And where do people learn those behaviors? In school, with parents, from families and the actions and words of their neighbors.

We don’t have to look hard to see those behaviors forming in the play of children. Even if someone wanted to argue that a child may not have full cognition of the implications of using the term “gay” as a derogatory or demeaning another’s race or ethnicity, the end result is the same. They learn that word is bad and the person who embodies that identity is bad. It’s never just “boys being boys” or “they don’t know what they said.” Children grow up with those ideas and parents and institutions of education do not correct them and often times are where the ideas are learned. Then those kids grow up to be police officers, judges, social workers, grade school teachers, and college professors and administrators.  

[TK]: What is your primary and secondary sense you remember memories in? How does this affect how you write sensory poems? How did feelings and writing interact in your childhood? What were your favorite childhood books/stories growing up and do you see signs in your past that you would become a poet?

[SAC]: I suppose my primary sense would be touch, followed by sight. I am sometimes surprised at how clear and visceral the memories I hold in my skin are. Whether it’s the feel of the bumpy, burning asphalt on the soles of my feet or of the pressure on my lips of that first kiss, it’s as if my body has stored these sensations. After that, I think I am able to visually recreate in my mind what time of day it must have been and where the sun would have been positioned coming in which window, and what the living room looked like or what someone was wearing.

In regards to writing as a kid, I definitely used writing as an outlet. I didn’t feel as though I could freely share certain kinds of feelings, like anger, desire, fear, and resentment. I felt such an overwhelming longing sometimes, whether it was to be in households like my classmates’, wishing my body looked different, or that someone would feel about me the way I felt about them. Writing those feelings in a notebook helped me be able to communicate somewhere, to get it out so I wasn’t carrying the weight of those emotions all day. I honestly don’t even remember where I got the idea to write in a journal. I certainly didn’t see myself as a writer or write to try to improve or really to communicate with others; it was primarily for me; writing things down felt cathartic. In fact, writing as a kid felt private, like a secret, something personal and selfish. I assume I must have gotten the idea from a teacher or a character on TV or in a book, maybe I was mimicking a behavior I thought would help me be like someone else. I also loved to read, so I think I would sometimes try to extend the feelings I got from books by writing.

I suppose there were signs in my past, though it took me longer than some to see poetry writing and writing more broadly as something that would dominate my life and something I could make a living involved with. It sounds a little cheesy, but Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabelle Lee” and a number of his other poems, like “Alone” and “The City In The Sea” were fairly influential to my love of writing and use of poetry as something comforting to turn to. It wasn’t just the musicality of the trochaic octameter, but his focus on grief and the speakers trying to hold on to something. I read a lot of macabre growing up, like Stephen King’s short stories and novels, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice. That was between the ages of 11 – 14, but before that I loved the book series Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark and Goosebumps. I joke with my students that all poets are goth kids in their hearts, and they think I mean dramatic (or melodramatic) and “angsty,” but what I really mean is preoccupied with loss, often manifesting as a focus on death. This doesn’t have to mean the body’s last breath, but the small deaths that happen every day: the death of a romantic relationship, the death of a job opportunity, of a friendship, of an idea you had about someone, the death of a previous version of the self. 

As a kid, it was sometimes hard for me to mourn or grieve losses, because they were rarely happening to just me. There was always someone else crying or scared or depressed, or I was (partially jokingly, sometimes very seriously) told to “suck it up.” So often I did not grieve, because it didn’t feel like there was room. Things still needed to move forward, whether that’s going to school, cleaning the house, helping care for a friend or family member. But in Poe’s poetry, that grief or loss could be redirected. His speakers are not just consumed by loss, but they communicate it and channel it into something beautiful. Reading and hearing the sonic melodies created by his use of repetition provided a kind of meditation on grief, those lines big and roomy, pressing out the air around me, making space. Eventually reading wasn’t enough, I started to write out my grief/feelings too, attempting to mimic the rhyme structures, create my own space between words and lines. It would never have occurred to me then to call myself a poet though.  

[TK]: Is the California Central Valley, the primary setting of the collection, important to your identity? How important is location for your body-focused poetry? What is your strategy for creating a story arc? Which poem are you most proud of and why?

[SAC]: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it as a central aspect of my identity, but I suppose if not central, undeniably one of the defining characteristics. This is partly because if I had been raised in any other location, under any other circumstances, my understanding of self, family, community, and world would be very different. I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t a kind of core sense of self (though many people believe there isn’t, I lean, at least at this point, toward maybe there is), but location is essential in identity development in that region shifts how someone is viewed and treated based on appearance, socioeconomics, and (dis)ability. I didn’t come to understand that as fully as I did until I left California and moved to a small college town in the Midwest. 

My partner is originally from the Midwest and still had/has family there and sort of warned me that people would probably say things, like “when you did you move to the U.S.” or “when did you learn to speak English.” At the time I thought that was hilarious, because here I am, this ambiguously ethnic-looking pocha who in California was often having to defend ownership of my Mexican heritage. I mean, pretty regularly people used to ask if I was Native American, Spanish, Indian. My sister is lighter than I am and people often assumed she was Armenian. And while ethnic mixing is not by any means the majority in California, it is certainly more prevalent than in the Midwest (and of course the Latinx population there is significantly smaller and less varied), so while I could run often under the ethnic radar in Fresno, in Muncie, IN, it was like wearing a big brown neon sign. I didn’t change my appearance when we moved and in fact, if anything, my skin inadvertently lightened due to less sunlight annually and from the change in how I spent my time. No more swimming or working outside, I was holed up in an office inside studying and writing. So while I had always been aware of my body: its size and shape, its color, the ways it didn’t meet conventional standards of beauty depicted in the media, I had never felt/been treated so ethnic. All of a sudden, I was the darkest person in the room, the one with the most ethnic/racial social capital.

Experiencing this shift in how others saw me definitely contributed to my thinking about the ways in which understated nuance belays someone’s reading of another’s identity; a theme I explore in my poetry. These are all political issues, of course—race/ethnicity, gender, body type, sexuality, (dis)ability, but for me in poetry and literature more broadly, overt didacticism in addressing these issues isn’t usually as successful as a means of communication and discussion as is narrative. It’s that narrative that I think you are referring to as “understated anecdotes.” What’s more compelling, saying life is hard for immigrant women or telling the story of a young protagonist trying to understand her abuela’s deformity? The one approach can end up being othering or exclusionary (as in, “you don’t understand this, so you have to listen to me”), while the other, I believe, takes the opposite route—if you have a family member you love whose life you are invested in understanding, we have a place of commonality. These grandmothers are not the same, their struggles are not, but I believe that common ground can be a bridge to carrying people toward an attempted understanding of difference. 

That example being used, I’d say one of the poems I am most proud of is “El Traspatio de mi Abuela.” That poem began while I was reading Vine Deloria Jr.’s theories on Native American spirituality and the construction of indigenous spirituality through Western understanding of religion. In “Sacred Lands and Religious Freedom,” Deloria talks about the divide between Western Christianity’s placement of the sacred indoors and the buildings of cathedrals and monuments, whereas in many indigenous cultures, nature and naturally occurring structures are the “houses” of spirituality. This made me think of how much I love my abuela’s backyard and how it does function as a sacred space for me. I wanted to try to root that feeling of family alongside history of the area to create a poem that scratches of the surface of the complexity of connections to place. I think it does that.

[TK]: The Language of Stories reveals that you do not speak fluent Spanish. Section 1 opens with a quote from Gloria Anzaldua: “I remain who I am, multiple and one.” How has your experience and comfort with Hispanic and Caucasian culture differed? What have been some of your struggles with biracial identity?

[SAC]: My lack of fluency in Spanish has/does often weigh fairly heavily on my heart, “[p]ena,[s]hame,” as Gloria Anzaldúa refers to the complicated emotions surrounding the relationship between language and ethnic identity. In the section, “Linguistic Terrorism,” (in Borderlands/La Frontera) she writes that, “Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. The attacks continue throughout our lives.” In the context from which she is writing, she is referring not only to a divide between English and Spanish, but also between variations and dialects of Spanish: Chicano Spanish, Castilian, Proper vs. working-class slang, etc. In my case (and in the case of a growing percentage of third generation Mexican Americans), English is my “native tongue” (though both English and Spanish in the U.S. and Mexico are the languages of the colonizers—which provides further historical complications) and it is both that language and Spanish in which I feel pulled and pushed. 

In some ways I feel discomfort in both due to the complications of socioeconomics and gender expectations. For example, while I was privileged enough to attend private Catholic school (on scholarship and with financial aid) where we were taught to speak Standard English, I grew up in a mobile home park where the majority of residents were undereducated white folks, but the area surrounding the park was primarily low-income apartments populated by people of color. Every day, just getting to and from school I passed through three dialects of English and pocho Spanish. The demographic of my friends was reflective of this environment even in silly ways, like when I was with my friends of color or Mexican American cousins, we listened to rap and hip hop and used culturally-specific slang, but when I was with my white friends we listened to grunge and alternative and cussed, but mostly as punctuation to Standard English. In the company of my friends of color, there were often times when the frustrations of racism and microaggressions would arise and it was a space to complain about the oppression of white culture. And while I too was the recipient of this kind of treatment, at least in childhood it wasn’t at nearly the prevalence which my darker-skinned/haired friends experienced it. I would feel a kind of internal embarrassment at remembering racist comments my white conservative grandfather told me and the cultural privileges I saw my white mother receive. But in the same token, almost half of the people I loved most in the world were white and I had almost equal experiences of discrimination from mi gente. 

In this way, to get to the heart of your question and my experience and comfort with both cultures, I’d say that often times I wasn’t comfortable in either. I felt like an imposter, a poser. Neither white and financially comfortable like my school friends and not a “real Mexican” like my friends whose parents were both of Mexican descent and spoke conversational Spanish. Code-switching is a term that is relatively prevalent now, but I didn’t hear it until graduate school. I had no idea that my lifetime of continuous fluctuation between linguist paradigms was an issue experienced by generations of people in the U.S. It just felt lonely, as if not belonging to this or that, I belonged to nothing—not even our parents could really understand how my sister and I were treated by strangers and family members from both cultures.

As open as I think most people want to be to difference, there is still comfort in identification and belonging; unfortunately belonging has been defined in ways that encouraged exclusion. I think this mindset is changing though. For example, Chipsters = Chicanx Hipsters. It’s a silly term and one that is often used to make fun, but it’s a thing. Skinny-jean wearing, slouchy beanies in not cold weather, listening to music like Mumford and Sons. Hell, vegetarian Mexican food! I shouldn’t even begin talking about that, this answer will get obnoxiously longer. Those cultural engagements are clichés of course, but I see even in my students greater tolerance/acceptance for varied performances of Latinx identity. Even the almost common use of “x” instead of the binary “o/a” is a movement toward a hopefully more accepting cultural environment for those of us in the third space of identity.

[TK]: My First Tattoo tells how you “long for the heat” of the “tattoo proof “that the tattoo artist touched you. What is the connection between your poetry and tattoos, especially in the first tattoo memory and the playground tattoo (When She Asked If I Was Afraid of Needles)?

[SAC]: My tattoos and poetry share the connection of expression. By which I mean, both are expressions of my emotions and life experiences. Both are also representative of my translation of those events and emotions rather than being a kind of “autobiography.” For example, “When She Asked If I Was Afraid of Needles” is based on tattoos my friend and I gave each other when we were like in fifth grade, but the brother in the poem was based on someone else in my life not related to the IRL friend in the poem. But the emotional truth of gang presence, fear of omnipresent violence, and a desire to belong are all very real. 

People get tattoos for a lot of reasons, but mine—the two alluded to in these poems and the other half dozen or so I have—function for me as reminders of milestones in my emotional and intellectual life. For example, I recently commissioned Dia de los Muertos-inspired portraits of my cats who passed away. I had these tattoos done half on and inside both shoulder blades, almost like emotional sentinels guarding the area around my heart. My cats, Scratch and Talulah, were with me for basically my whole adult life, through some of the most difficult times I’ve ever experienced and unquestionably through the beginning of my writer life. They were at my feet, on the desk, or trying to walk on the keyboard through every poem I wrote and revised, through hundreds of submissions, and the writing of my dissertation and two published collections of poetry. I certainly don’t need these tattoos to remind me of my sweet gatitos, just like I don’t need the tattoo on the web of hand to remember the love and connection I felt for my friend (which is good, because we did a terrible job and those tattoos faded away probably within a matter months, maybe weeks).

For me, my poetry feels like the embodiment of experience on the page and tattoos are my body having the experiences literally scarred in. It’s like I have these feels so viscerally, it brings me comfort to have visual and tactile evidence of the pain and joy.

[TK]: Positive and affirming female friendship is a prevalent theme throughout Hands That Break And Scar. What advice do you have for feeling comfortable in your body and has writing body, touch-focused poetry affected that?

[SAC]: What’s sort of funny about this observation of the poems depicting positive and affirming female friendships is that in my real life, my most contentious relationships are primarily with woman. Women and female friends have caused more pain and long-term hurt in my life than any male relationships I’ve experienced. Growing up in the 1990s I think was an especially strange era for girls growing into women and learning how to engage with one another. There was that sense of women/girls needing to look out for each other (a kind of shallow, pop feminism), to get each other’s backs, but there was also fierce competition for limited resources. All of the friends in the collection are based on real relationships and incidents from my life, but they are only a snapshot of much more complicated dynamics.

For example, the friend Tracy who recurs in the collection is based on one of my childhood best friends. That character gets the most development in the book I think because the relationship gets complicated between the poems “In the Time of Alligators” and “Doing Laundry.” Tracy and the speaker are completely intimate and loving to each other when they are younger and not wanting to part, but in the latter poem, their bodies are compared by others (the boys, the adults), which creates tension between the two. Even women who love each other—and I’d say especially teenage girls— shame each other’s bodies and romantic choices as a way to learn how to understand where their own bodies fit into (hetero)normative society. In real life, even though Tracy was my very first best friend, she would make fun of my weight and I would tell her at least I could lose weight, but she couldn’t do anything about her face (this was a taunt my mom taught me). It borders on funny as I write it now, but at the time, it felt incredibly serious and cruel. We attacked the characteristics we knew the other one was most self-conscious about as ways to mitigate how other people were reading our bodies in relation to one another. Who’s the “pretty one,” the smart one, the fun one, etc. Of the friends and friendships alluded to in the poems, only one of those has remained close.

Along with the pressures of (hetero)normativity, the friendships depicted in the poems are also very much influenced by socioeconomics. Working class people—I would argue women and people of color in particular—are forced to rely on one another, which creates the kind of tender and vulnerable moments that I chose to focus the poems on. The real life situations are always more complicated, but I made a conscious decision to focus on the ways in which we supported and loved one another, as well as depicting realities of young female friendships. You asked if I had any advice about feeling comfortable in one’s own body, I don’t know how helpful this will be to others, but what helped me (of course, I still don’t always feel comfortable in my body) was looking at my body. Just looking at it. It’s only now thinking about this question that I am remembering the first broadside I made. It was for a mixed media art class in college. I think the title of the poem was “Trying on Jeans.” 

I had been taking Women’s Studies classes that were challenging the narratives regarding fat and women’s bodies in advertising and I must have been trying to internalize what I was reading. In the poem the speaker is in the dressing room of a clothing store trying on pants that are too tight. Rather than getting upset (which is probably what I would have done in real life at that time) she begins to notice the rolls of fat around her middle and the ways that the fat moves while she is pulling and straining to button the jeans. I don’t remember exact lines from the poem, but I know the fat was described as resilient and pliable, rhythmic as if it were dancing. The poem ends with the speaker jumping up and down to watch the movement of her stomach and then stripping and dancing around the dressing room allowing her fat to move freely. It’s a joyful poem (if a bit on the nose). I think that early attempt at writing through the body was not only a precursor to this preoccupation in my writing now, but also helped me understand how to see literal bodies differently, like a painter or a photographer. This is one belly. There are many bellies. This is one set of hands, one foot, one curve of a hip. I think reading widely writers who have different bodies than our own provides this perspective for us. If we read broadly, then we can write the body with an understanding and respect for difference. If allowed, literature, poetry in particular (writing and reading it), has the potential to change the toxic relationships many have learned to have with the body.


Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the poetry collections, Hands That Break & Scar (Sundress Publications, 2017) and All Day, Talking (dancing girl press, 2014), selections of which were awarded the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Xicanx: Mexican American Writers of the 21st Century and Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzalduan Borderlands as well as the journals Brevity, North American Review, VIDA, Acentos Review, Atticus Review, and The Fourth River Tributaries Series, among others. She recently joined the faculty at the University of Washington Tacoma where she teaches creative writing and Latinx/Chicanx-focused courses. She serves as the poetry coordinator for Best of the Net Anthology and is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.