I wanted to interview Carmen Calatayud since I first read In the Company of Spirits (Press 53) back in October when it was first released. In the Company of Spirits is Carmen’s debut collection of poems and in it we find a voice that weaves a poetry of testimonio which is—as one could expect—both personal and political but which also blurs the line between the world of the sacred and the spiritual. Here voices become a single spiritual guide that help us navigate these violent spaces which are separated by time and space but interwoven together by this single voice, voice of a multitude of voices. For me Carmen is the perfect poet to combine and blur the distinction not only of the personal from the political but also from the spiritual. And although we have never met in person, Carmen and I share similar interests as you will see in this interview. (Also, please note that Carmen will be reading on January 29, 2013 in the DC area, see here.)
Lauro Vazquez: First of all thank you for taking part in this interview. I was surprised to learn that you were born to a Spanish father and an Irish mother. What part does heritage play in your new collection of poems, In the Company of Spirits?
Carmen Calatayud: I’m honored that you would interview me for Letras Latinas, Lauro—thank you.
My Spanish heritage plays a large role in my new book. My father, in particular, raised my brother and I with a strong consciousness of Spanish culture and other Latino cultures. He traveled to Mexico and several South American countries for work, and always brought back stories, trinkets, and slides of his photographs. Through the slideshows from his travels, I became aware of Latino and indigenous cultures in other countries at a young age. I also became aware, through my father, that the U.S. had invaded Mexico and Central and South America numerous times, and that our nation had slaughtered people, taken them over, and stolen their land. I never saw any of this information in our history school books. Spain has its own horrific, bloody history of killing, taking over, converting and stealing land in the Américas. As Latinos, many of us are mestizos/as, and I was raised to see myself as one with all Latinos. My last name was originally an Arab name, and I recently learned that it was one name, among many, that was assigned to Sephardic Jews who were forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition to survive.
LV: Much of your imagination is preoccupied with the borderlands, with the displaced peoples of the Américas…. How did you arrive at this place?
CC: This preoccupation with the borderlands began when I was young. I still have the many postcards my father and godfather sent me from Mexico and other Latin American countries, but I was taken with Mexico in particular. I learned more about the Mayans and Aztecs in a Latin American Culture class in high school and I was fascinated.
When I was 31 years old and at a stage of deep transition in my life, I finally listened to the voice inside that kept telling me I needed to visit Arizona. While I was there, I got an offer to housesit by a woman who owned a B&B. “I know you want to move here,” she said. I felt that I was being called to move to Tucson. I flew back to DC, quit my writing job, sold and gave away my things, and within 6 weeks, I was living in her house. That was the beginning of my life in Tucson, getting to know the people and issues of living in the Sonoran desert, close to the border.
I saw the stark differences between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. I saw Sells, the town on the Tohono O’odham reservation. The poverty was stark and hard to take in. Even though he doesn’t write about those places specifically, Luis Alberto Urrea’s writing in Across the Wire honestly captures what life on the border is like for many who live there.
In 2001, I left Tucson and returned to DC after my father died, but I’ve never let go of the borderlands, of Arizona and Mexico, and the attention we need to pay to the people, the land, and their issues. Arizona and Mexico live in my heart daily. I sometimes feel as though my soul is still hovering over the Sonoran Desert, looking for home.
LV: The title of the book evokes the idea that poetry is both communion and communication with the ancestral, that poetry is not an act done in isolation but rather an act of communal undertaking. How do you see the title of the collection speaking to this larger theme of poetry as community?
CC: The original title of the book was Cave Walk, which is the title of one of the poems I wrote while living in Tucson in the 1990s. In her innate wisdom, one of the book’s editors, poet Pam Uschuk, told me that I needed to change the title because it didn’t fully capture the manuscript. The new title came about as I having coffee in DC with Francisco X. Alarcón and my husband Ricardo Villalobos after the end of the Split This Rock poetry festival in DC in March 2012. I was eager to show Francisco the painting that would be on the cover of the book, a painting by LA-based Chicana artist Aydee López Martínez. The painting is of a woman in a white dress walking barefoot, surrounded by skulls floating in the sky. Francisco asked me what the title of the painting was. I told him “In the Company of Great Spirits.” Ricardo said “That’s the new title of your book!” and Francisco almost jumped out of his seat, saying, “Yes, yes, that’s it!” Pam suggested I take out the word “Great” and with Aydee’s blessing, the new book title became In the Company of Spirits.
For me, writing is a communion and communication with my ancestors, and the ancestors of the land where I live and have lived. This communion comes through at times when I’m alone writing. I use meditation, yoga, poetry and brainstorming with words that appeal to me to help me connect with my own spirit and ancestral spirits as I write. I’ve also found that writing with others is incredibly powerful, so in that sense, writing in a group is a communal undertaking.
The title In the Company of Spirits, I hope, opens the door to the theme of poetry as community, as you suggest. The community, for me, includes my poet and writer friends in person and via the internet, the spirits of my ancestors and the ancestors of the land, and the spirits of writers who have gone before me, living and dead. We keep them alive when we read their work and follow their inspiration.
LV: At times there seems to be a thin veil separating the various speakers in these poems. I am thinking of poems like “A Homeless Woman Speaks,” and “Hermana in the Sky,” just to name a few examples. At times it almost becomes difficult to separate the various voices inhabiting the landscapes in this collection. The voices become a single spiritual guide that help us navigate these violent spaces which are separated by time and space but interwoven together by this single voice, voice of a multitude of voices. Was this play with voice intentional on the part of the poet?
CC: This is a wonderful question. A part of me wishes it were intentional, but I can’t say that it is. I rarely plan to use a specific theme or voice when I sit down to write. My writing is much more organic in the sense that the voice and topic of the poem is what arises in that moment. Using different voices is how I write. It’s my hope that the voices come together in the collection as you’ve described, as a “single spiritual guide.”
LV: “I have a monsoon wish:/ Let the rains wash away/ the boots of the border patrol/ so they step in flooded sand/ because I’m tired of la migra/ who walk with feet of rock.” These lines from “Border Ghost of Sonora,” can be interpreted in two ways, one in which the border patrol agents lives are in jeopardy (because of sudden rain and the possibility of flash flooding) and the other—for me—is where the rain seems to wash the feet of these harsh figures, to turn these feet of rock and the surfaces they walk on into a more tender substance by the washing or erosion from rain….Can you share some words on this?
CC: I’m glad you shared this interpretation with me, because I’ve never seen it like that, and now I understand that it can come across this way—that in the poem, the border patrol walk upon a more tender substance because of rain.
Actually, if you live in the Sonoran Desert, you know the danger of monsoon season: a dry river bed of sand can become a raging waterway within minutes. People lose their cars and drown every year in Arizona during monsoons because they think they can wade through or drive through a dip in a path or a road. This was the idea of the “monsoon wish” in the poem—that the border patrol walking with heavy boots and stepping into “flooded sand” could be taking a dangerous chance with their lives. My intention was more violent than the idea of washing or erosion from rain, but I see that I could have made that more clear in the poem.
LV: There are poems of testimonio here. But there are also poems which blur the line between the political and the realm of the spiritual, the poet “sings to hold god in [her] mouth. Even while hearts are nailed to the fence, [she] hear[s] the cadence of each beat.” By what elements of her craft (the lyric, the image come to mind when I think of your work) does the poet intersect the spiritual elements of poetry with the political consciousness of the testimonio?
CC: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the quote “The personal is political,” which became a rally cry of the feminist movement (not attributed to one person) and has since been used for different political and social movements. The reverse is used as well: “The political is personal.”
For me, the political is personal and spiritual, and there’s no getting around that. The spiritual can’t be disconnected from political/social consciousness. For example, our political vote reflects our social consciousness, that is, how we care about our society and the people who make up that society.
When it comes to the craft of poetry, you’re right—I use the lyrical and images to intersect spiritual elements with political consciousness. In a few of my poems, the narrative reflects that blending. But I find that the lyric and imagery are the best, most natural ways I can marry the spiritual with the testimonio.
If I were to write a poem about García Lorca and his execution, for example, I don’t know how I could separate the spiritual death of Lorca—what his emotional, surreal poetry and plays mean to the Spanish people—from the political/social context of his execution, which happened because he was gay and because he was outspoken about the Fascists. I would naturally weave lyric and images in the hopes of creating a spiritual testimonio, but a testimonio all the same.
LV: You are one of the moderators of the Facebook page Poets Responding to SB 1070, which was founded by this year’s judge of the Letras Latinas Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize—poet Francisco X. Alarcón. How has Francisco X. Alarcón influenced your poetry? What are some of the other literary “ancestors” found in your work?
CC: Francisco is a magical poet and soul, and I’m honored to know him and call him my friend. I knew some of his work before becoming involved with Poets Responding to SB 1070, but read much more of his poetry as I got to know him. Francisco has a way of making the spiritual manifest in everyday life, as our ancestors did, and this is reflected in much of his poetry and the way he sees the world. His poetry reminds me time and time again to return to the spiritual, to the idea of oneness, and this concept has blossomed in my own work as a result of his influence.
In addition, Francisco’s poetry and approach to life remind me that fighting for a cause can overwhelm me with frustration and anger if I don’t stay balanced by invoking the spirit of oneness and the wisdom of our ancestors.
I use a quote from Francisco’s poem “From the Other Side of Night” to open the last section of my book called “Beyond Language.” Francisco easily expresses the unspeakable and the unknowable, and this particular quote from his poem exemplifies that:
here nobody knows
nor will know
of the sea
we carry within us
of the fire
with our bodies
the other side
To answer your question, the literary ancestors or poets whose influence you may be able to see in my work include Federico García Lorca, Anne Sexton, Rosario Castellanos, Claribel Alegría, Joy Harjo and Demetria Martínez.
Then there are some of the poets I’ve been turning to for inspiration: Lucille Clifton, Cynthia Cruz, Chris Abani, Jericho Brown, and always, Neruda.
Thank you for this opportunity, Lauro. It’s a privilege to be interviewed by you.