Conundrum Press' edition of Crazy Chicana in Catholic City
(the first was done by Ghost Road Press)
Juliana Aragón Fatula is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, founded by Sandra Cisneros, which is a group of dedicated and compassionate writers who view their work and talents as part of a larger task of community-building and non-violent social change. Conundrum Press re-released her poetry book, Crazy Chicana in Catholic City in 2012, and Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press recently published her chapbook, The Road I Ride Bleeds. Her poetry has appeared in Open Windows III, El Tecolote and Pilgrimage. She is a three time winner of the Southern Colorado Women’s Poetry Competition, and her screenplay, Peaceful Sleep, co-written with Davon Johnson, won a Screenplay Writing Award at the Global Arts Film Festival Hollywood in 2007. Fatula has just finished writing her second book of poetry, Red Canyon Falling on Churches, and is currently working on her third book, Memoirs of an Educated Chicana. She has taught teatro and Language Arts in her community, and this year will be part of the Colorado Humanities’ Writers in the Schools Program. I had to pleasure to conduct this e-interview earlier this fall.
The preface to Crazy Chicana in Catholic City states you are a "performance artist who writes poetry." How has performance influenced the poems on the written page, and how has your college and workshop experience affected your performance?
Juliana Aragón Fatula:
Because I’m a storyteller, my poems are written with the intent of performing them on the stage. I rehearse the poems to get the timing and inflection just right; I read them out loud to hear the rhythm and flow; I use different character voices and use facial expressions, movements, and variety in volume to hold the audience’s attention. I do this in workshops as well as on stage.
I used to write vignettes for a group I co-directed called the DITS, Denver Indian Thespians, mostly comedy. I also performed with a group called HAG, Her Acting Group, and wrote herstory accounts based on Native American and Latina women who influenced their communities in big ways by being non-traditional, courageous, out-spoken warriors. I found this very rewarding and learned some herstory in the process. I also wrote stand-up monologues based on my relationships with my family and performed at Su Teatro and the Mercury Café in Denver.
In 1995 I joined the Latin Locomotions and went on tour for the Department of Defense in the Persian Gulf and performed my comedy on stage for the women and men in the military. It was a very exciting time in my life, and I was living the dream. I’ve always kept a journal and find humor in everyday events. Some of these entries ended up in my stories. The poem “Diego Garcia Island of Secrets” came from performing on an island, a military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When I returned from overseas, I went back to performing in Chicano Theatre doing comedy.
How did the creative writing workshops at Colorado State University—Pueblo and your time at Macondo influence your work?
In 2004, I returned to college and enrolled in creative writing courses; I took play-writing, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry classes. Some of my stories were dusted off and revised to fit my assignments. My professor encouraged me to choose poetry for my genre because he felt that was my strength. He also encouraged me to submit my work for publication, and his mentoring led me to complete my first manuscript.
I wrote my poems in a confessional style, never thinking I’d get published. When my manuscript was accepted for publication, I freaked. I had written some dark, gritty poems about my relatives and about myself. I read the poems to my mother, and she gave me her blessing. I figured to hell with everyone else; she was the only one who mattered. Several poems are written about my parents. I dedicated the book to her.
After getting published, I applied and was accepted as a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. I studied under a slam poet in “The Poem Out-loud: The Spoken Word Workshop.” I had never written slam poems. I found it invigorating. That workshop cast new life into my work and gave it power. The most important aspect of the workshop was working with such accomplished writers and hearing their praise for my work. It gave me the confidence I was lacking. Since graduating from college, I’ve continued to be involved in writing workshops and meet monthly with other writers to critique each other’s work and set goals. It keeps me writing and feeling less isolated since I’m part of a community.
Can you elaborate how performance influences what gets written and the process of composing a poem--do you perform all of your poems, some, none?
I perform all of my poems, but I select which poems I’ll do at my readings based on my audience. For example, when I’m standing in front of a classroom of children, I change my cuss words to things like monkey-shines, or mother biscuits, because I never curse in front of kids. Adults are fair game, however, and I pretty much use every foul-word I know including some Shakespearean insults I picked up in my research. Sometimes I ask my audience if they want a sad, funny, or nasty poem and they almost always say nasty. So if they ask for “The Colorado Sisters” they know they are going to hear the story about my mother and aunt and their friend, Rosalinda.
A friend once called my work irreverent. My sense of humor is twisted, and I’m very outspoken, so my performances can easily offend the weak-hearted. I write the way I speak. I grew up in a home with both parents cursing in English and Spanish, and it is part of my persona when I’m on stage to use colorful language.
When I’m composing a poem, I always consider my reader and how I can make them feel the emotions. Since some of my poems were originally written for the stage, I’ve had the chance to hear the feedback from the audiences. I know what works, what makes women laugh, what makes men cry, and I milk it. I live for the applause, and the laughter, that is like money to me. But when I can move grown men to tears with a poem like, “The Hat,” I feel successful as a writer. Writing has been healing for me, and I find when I perform my words on stage, they sometimes heal others as well.
If I’d never been a performer, my writing might be even more outrageous, more irreverent; I wouldn’t think or worry about speaking the words or standing on a stage in front of an audience and spilling my guts. My writing style has definitely been influenced by my background in theatre. As for composing a poem, my mind is always clicked into the idea that I am writing my own herstory and creating art that will survive long after I’m gone, that fact influences my desire to write, to tell my truth, to leave a piece of me behind for the next generation of Chican@ poets.
Let's go to the poems in Crazy Chicana in Catholic City. The poem "The Hat" centers on your relationship to your father and is an elegy to his life, character, and an homage to all Mexican laborers. Can you discuss how your father's hat led to this poem, and how as a central motif the "hat" echoes in many directions from the fact that we all wear our father's "hats" to the idea that in society the "hats" people wear are markers of race and class?
My father was an incredible man: at age ten he worked as a ranch hand herding cattle in southern Colorado to help support his ten brothers and sisters and parents. He was born in 1917 and died in 1992. He lived 76 years and wore many hats in those years. He wore a baseball hat because he grew up playing baseball; he wore a cowboy hat because he grew up working in the fields picking fruits and vegetables and herding cattle and sheep. Those were the two hats I saw him wear, but he also wore a sailor cap in the U.S. Navy and he wore a mechanic’s cap for 20 years at Ft. Carson when he worked for the Federal Government. After he retired, he continued working as a professional gardener and as a handyman.
He was unique in his style with his dashing good looks, farmer tan. He had a full head of black, wavy hair, a pencil mustache and had a gold tooth in his smile. After he fell and broke his leg, he walked with a limp, but he walked to town every day and spent time outdoors regardless of the weather. He always wore ca’boy boots and his ca’boy hat when he went to town. He was an Indian/Cowboy. He was a real tough guy with a soft side. He would pick flowers and give them to my mom for her birthday every year. And he never raised a hand to his wife or children.
He babysat for my son when I returned to high school. He’d sing and dance for my son while he cooked breakfast and spoiled him with love and food. He was a great male role model for my son. He taught him real men wear aprons and cook tortillas. My son is now a great cook and wears his grandpa’s apron. So I grew up adoring my father, and I am proud to admit I was Daddy’s little princess. I was named after him. His name was Julian but everyone called him Jack. He was bilingual and ambidextrous. I inherited his passion for life and storytelling.
Since the poem is in sections, did you write these over time and then place them into one poem or did the poem simply expand into its many sections?
In workshop I was given an assignment to write a poem about an object. I chose my father’s hat. My mother had given me all of my father’s hats when he died. It was the only thing of his I inherited. I wore his hats, and I hung them on my wall, so I could always have him near me.
The poem was written as one long poem and put into sections. It was written in the span of a week and revised over another couple of weeks. When I read the poem in workshop, a hush fell over the room and then the students and the professor began critiquing my work. It became a favorite of the class and especially a favorite of my professor. Whenever I read the poem, the audience response is palpable. More times than not, a man will approach me and tell me how it made him cry because it reminded him of his father. One man told me he hoped that his daughter would feel that way about him. It has become a requested poem at readings where the audience is familiar with my book.
Can you elaborate about the process of writing our families into our creative work and how in doing so we chronicle family history and that of Latino/a cultures?
My father had already died when I wrote “The Hat” but my mother was still living and she was very proud of this poem and of my book. He was her true love and she adored him as much as I did. He was a great man, and he is truly missed. I didn’t write “The Hat” thinking it would be published someday, but now that it has been put in print, I am extremely pleased to know that his life will be immortalized for as long as someone reads my poem and says his name.
I am writing Chicano History in my own little way; I’m telling the story of my people and what we did in our time on Earth, leaving a trace of our culture, language, history for future generations to discover. In this way, my descendants will know a man who was the patriarch of our family; they will learn about his hard work ethic, his generosity, his devotion to his family.
I didn’t have any record of my ancestors. I never knew my father’s parents or my mother’s father. I only have their stories and because I am a writer, I can leave my version of their lives; I can make sure they are not forgotten. Writing this poem is my way of keeping my father’s spirit alive.
We've discussed so many topics from performance to writing down herstory to Spanglish. You've published one full length poetry collection, Crazy Chicana in Catholic City, and a chapbook, The Road I Ride Bleeds, along with a manuscript for a third poetry collection. What advice can you give emerging writers about the writing life?
Well, I would say this about writing, write as though your words will never be read by anyone, but you. Be honest with yourself in telling your story, poem, play, song. Think about your reader as only being able to read your words after you are dead and long gone. Be fearless, shameless, guiltless, and relentless in your writing. Write as though your life depends on it. Write as though it is your medicine and the only thing that can cure your disease. Write as though it will save someone’s life. Write as though you are the greatest writer ever born and you are going to sell hundreds of thousands of copies and your book will sit in some fabulous library in some magnificent part of the world and some little girl or boy will pick up your book and read it and it will change her/his life. Write for your ancestors who have gone before you. Tell their story, tell yours, make one up; but write, write, write, write… and read, read, read, read.
Since performance is also a central part of your artistic persona, what advice can you present to emerging writers about getting on stage?
As for performing, I feel so much fear backstage that I practically pee my pants before I enter the stage, but once my feet are firmly planted on that apron and the lights shine on my face, I come to life, it’s like magic. I took improvisational comedy classes to get over my stage fright. I no longer take myself so seriously, so if I do forget a line, or a mark, or trip and fall, I can adjust myself and look right into the camera or audience or the other actors on the stage with me, and act like it’s part of the script. I tell my students who are afraid of embarrassing themselves on stage, “Hey Jackie Chan makes millions of dollars making a fool of himself, stumbling, tripping, falling and we pay money to make us laugh!” Then I trip over the trashcan and make them smile.
I have a reoccurring nightmare that I’m on stage and can’t remember my lines! I wake up and that fear is still in my bones. So I’ve decided to write my own words from now on and that way I know what I’m going to say because I wrote them. Ha! So take that Shakespeare! Seriously, when I perform in a Shakespeare play, I first watch the movie with the closed captioning on and I feel the beat of the words, the flow, the magic, and I become Shakespearean in my soul. Crazy, yes, but I told you, I’m crazy. I also type all of my lines and print them out and carry them with me in my pocket and every spare minute I have I am memorizing those lines because fear comes from being unprepared and if you are prepared, you can be fearless. You can make up your own lines if you forget the playwright’s lines because you know what words he would have used, because you have gotten into his mind and heart and know his words so well.
And finally, publishing. You have a book out, a recent chapbook, and two full-length collections in the works; are there any pointers you have about the publishing world?
Never in a million years did I think I would be asked for my advice on publishing. I was a high school drop-out and pregnant at fourteen years old. I grew up in a 90% Caucasian community with no Chicano role models other than my parents and their friends who all had sixth grade educations. I grew up with the Bible as the only book in the house. When I went to school and to the public library, there were no Latin@ writers on the shelves. I didn’t learn about Chicano history until I went to college in Denver.
So I’m this small town Colorado girl living in a town with only one high school and one movie theatre and where everybody knows everybody, so what do I do when I get knocked up? At age 15 with my boyfriend, I move to San Francisco and have my baby and get my school of hard knocks diploma. I learn everything the hard way. But what those hard knocks taught me was that life is hard but the choice between life and death is a no brainer, I choose life. I am the person I am because I took chances, went on adventures, never passed up an opportunity to travel, to meet new people, to enroll in college, to read, read, read.
I was published the first time by a small publishing house in Denver called Ghost Road Press because my college professor gave me a recommendation to the publisher and asked me to submit my manuscript as part of my independent study course with him. I never imagined anyone would publish it. The second time I was given a publishing contract was by Sonya Unrein who left Ghost Road Press and moved to Conundrum Press. She contacted me to ask if I would be interested in republishing my book with her and breathing new life into my book. It got a beauty make-over. New cover, new ISBN number, and the wonderful author blurb from Sandra Cisneros.
Caleb Seeling, the publisher of Conudrum Press, recently made my book into an ebook available online and I am thrilled to know some person with a Kindle or Nookbook will be downloading my book and sitting on some beach or on a bus and reading my poems. That happened because I agreed to do a reading at a conference in Denver and took a chance and trusted my publisher. It was because of my network of professors, publishers, editors that I was published.
So my advice is to rub shoulders with anyone who can help you, go to readings, meetings, parties, and introduce yourself to the people who can give you publishing advice or know someone who can get you started. That’s what I did. I shook hands and introduced myself to some great writers, and they in turn helped me in big and little ways to get started and to believe in my abilities as a writer. I also literally put my book into their hands and offered it as a gift to them from me. I took chances and was shameless in promoting my book with the authors I love and respect. The way it works is to help someone else once you get your foot in the door and build a community of writers in your neighborhood, village, school, etc. I have tried to be a good Macondista and share my knowledge and to be part of a socially engaged community of writers who work to help the underserved.
The chapbook, The Road I Ride Bleeds, was published because I invited some women I know to join a women’s writing workshop I created, and the Steel Canyon Women’s Writing Coalition, aka Sexy Bitches, was born. One of the women, Kyle Laws, has a small press in Pueblo, Casa de Cinco Hermanas, and she asked if I would submit some work for a pull out chapbook for her literary magazine. I hesitated because I don’t know anything about chapbooks and asked my good friend and mentor, Maria Melendez for her advice, and she said do it, because publishers like to see your work has already been published even in a chapbook and therefore might be tempted to snatch up my new manuscript. So I gave Kyle, the publisher and editor, my manuscript and asked her to choose the poems for the chapbook. I have trouble with things like that and I am grateful for editors who know what they are doing and make great choices for me. The result was this beautiful chapbook, The Road I Ride Bleeds.
You’ve successfully interwoven your writing, performance and life; there doesn’t seem to be a separation between who you are and your art.
My sister, Irene, told me that I would be blessed someday for being so full of love and forgiveness. She was right, of course. She is my guardian angel that sends magic to my pen and helps me to become the person I was always meant to be, but didn’t know it. I’m the first and only sibling of ten children to graduate from college. So I am one of the lucky ones. I got out of my hometown and saw the world and came back to that same hometown to give back to my community. To teach cultural diversity and tolerance. I can finally say: I am a writer, I am a poet, I am a playwright, I am a storyteller, I am an actor, I am a director, I am a teacher, I am a mentor. I am a Crazy Chicana in Catholic City.
Adela Najarro’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and can be found in the University of Arizona Press anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. She chairs the Cabrillo College English Department is on the board of directors for Poetry Santa Cruz. Her extended family’s emigration from Nicaragua to San Francisco began in the 1940’s and concluded in the eighties when the last of the family settled in the Los Angeles area. She makes her home in Santa Cruz, CA.