Sunday, July 28, 2013

Interview with Sheryl Luna

"Lead me into temptation.
My blood is mercurial."

                                       ---Sheryl Luna

1.     You divide the book into seven sections headlining the seven deadly sins with their seven virtues counterparts. Can you tell us more about this choice to include the virtues? Did you decide to divide the book into seven sections before writing the poems, during, or after? You gave them prominence by headlining the seven sins/virtues in Spanish. Can you tell us more about this choice also?           

I divided already written poems into themes and ended up with seven sections. I began to see a pattern in the poems about human emotions, human errors. Initially I thought it was a lot of sections, but I had written, at the time, a number of poems about numbers, so the number seven seemed most interesting. “Universal Kiss,” for instance was originally titled “Three.” I also had a poem titled “Six” which is essentially the number for human imperfection biblically, and of course “Seven” which is biblically considered a perfect number. I also played with ideas of numerology and various meanings for numbers. “Forty Days” was originally titled “Forty.” I also had a poem titled “Nine” which later became “Small Defiant Gods.” After thinking about the number seven in regards to the seven sections, I came to see a pattern of sins and virtues and looked up the deadly seven sins. I rearranged the sections in terms of the sins and virtues, and I did this loosely and playfully because I saw the strict interpretations of “sin” and “virtue” as not always straight forward absolutes. This is one reason I included the virtues. I felt it was more layered and interesting to have sins and virtues play off one another and against one another. Everything depends on context. I did like how themes of greed, rage, and their counter-parts generosity and peacefulness work together. I didn’t include all the number poems in the book or ended up changing the titles, but the concept was working. The book is essentially about the thin line between the seven sins and virtues in light of abuse that can instill a sense of shame if one sees chastity as an absolute. It’s about how seemingly opposite things are connected and interdependent in nature.

I also had a fantastic editor and publisher, Andrea Watson, from 3: A Taos Press help me re-order some of the poems. Her advice was sage-like, and I am grateful for her insight.

Originally the section titles were in Latin, due to the fact that the Latin names were what I stumbled on when I went googling “seven sins” and possibly my Catholic upbringing. As a kid I attended mass at a monastery where mass was performed in Latin. I associate sin with Latin. Later I thought about putting them into English to be more straightforward, yet they seemed boring if presented only in English. I decided to go with the Spanish because a number of poems deal with conquest and conquistadors such as “Mortar,” “Ouray’s Eyes,” and “Cabeza De Vaca’s Horse.” Plus my editor suggested Spanish would work better with the manuscript as a whole. I agreed with her. Also poems such as “El Paso Women,” “Born In The Southwest,” and“Chico’s Tacos,” and others, explore the attempted colonization of various people, and for me Spanish was the better choice.

2.     I was interested in the animal imagery in the poems. In “Cabeza De Vaca’s Horse,” for instance, I found the following line surprising, “When I open my mouth,/ bats emerge.” One of my favorite poems was your second opening poem “Equus” in the voice of an unruly horse. Another image that stood out was “The cut worm/cannot forgive the plow” in “A Contentious Woman Speaks.” Can you tell us more about your connection with these particular animals or the function of animal imagery in your poetics in general?

I had never thought about the prevalence of animal imagery in my work, but I have an interest in how nature works—the Yin and Yang of the whole thing, the way life and death intermingle in nature, how one is necessary for the other. Life requires death and death requires life. The paradoxes—the way opposites are always interconnected and interdependent in nature has always interested me.

Animals I suppose mirror what we ourselves are—animals. We too are at the mercy of death, suffering and life. We too are driven by instinct, the need to flee or freeze or fight when faced with trauma.

The bats emerging from the speaker’s mouth deal with darkness, chaos, the mad fluttering of existence. When I was a child, my family went to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and the caves are full of bats, which emerge at sunset. They have always had a place in my poems as they are creatures of the dark with mysterious nocturnal behaviors, strange things like bloodsucking and hanging upside down. They are ugly, and even when fluttering in a man-made cave at the Denver zoo they are fascinating in that they simply flutter among one another in strange synchronicity behind glass.

The worm cut by the plow is lifted from Proverbs in the Bible. Here for me is the fact that being cut or hurt in some way is often met with a resistance towards forgiveness. Not to mention the worm itself is associated with death and decay.

The horse imagery has come up in both of my books. I did grow up in the Lower Valley in El Paso, Texas, near Ysleta where neighbors had horses. I couldn’t help admiring them. In “Bucephalus” I was influenced by Al Wadzinsk’s sculpture of a horse rearing up, and the sculpture is at the Anderson Center in Minnesota where I was lucky enough to have a residency through Letras Latinas. It is made out of junk, yet it was majestic and ominous.

Whether it is aggression or beauty, animals have moved me, or perhaps unnerved me in some way about existence.

3.     I liked the turns and emphasis in poems, such as in the striking poem “The Photograph”

for decades the camera shot, me
            asleep in a drug-haze.

And the stanza turn in “Our Throats Like Fire”

            When I die,
            I will imagine his brown eyes. I will die
            Again and again at 19, shouting out, “My life! My life!”

            “Am I sexy?” he asked dark faced beneath the sky’s
            moonlit pond. He was sexy like a poem.

Can you tell us more about these turns and emphasis? Were they conscious choices, inspired, or both? Are there any particular poets or poems whose turns you admire?

for decades the camera shot, me
            asleep in a drug-haze.

The turn above in “The Photograph” was due to my wanting to explore traumatic dissociation and the forgetting or repressing of traumatic material.  Although the incidents written about in the poem occur in a drugged state, the effects of those traumas extend this drugged or fogged state to decades. Initially it may not have been intentional, but in the end it was an intentional choice. People who experience trauma also often engage in substance abuse to deal with pain. I wanted the numbing experience of PTSD and how it can devastate lives to be shown. The camera shot, although it occurs just once, leaves a record, a memory, a wound in this case which lasts.

            When I die,
            I will imagine his brown eyes. I will die
            Again and again at 19, shouting out, “My life! My life!”

            “Am I sexy?” he asked dark faced beneath the sky’s
            moonlit pond. He was sexy like a poem.

Originally “Brandy Down” and “Our Throats Like Fire” were a single poem. The turn here between the two stanzas comes out of my subconscious. The internal reflection followed by the external memory came together for me. I like to let my unconscious thoughts come out to play, and where it goes is often a surprise. I never did shout out “My life! My life!” but it was and is a state of being—the preoccupation with the self. Following that up with the voice of a character is appealing to me. I like surprising juxtaposition in a poem. I enjoy being surprised myself as I am writing.

I admire surprising turns in work by John Ashbery, Forrest Gander, Jorie Graham,
Charles Simic, Joy Harjo, Cynthia Cruz, and many others.

4.     One of my favorite lines in the poem “Kitchen of Grief” was “Lead me into temptation./ My blood is mercurial.” This line reminded me of something a curandera once told my mother—she said, “There is a thin line between love and hate,” which made me think perhaps there is a thin line between virtue and sin or one cannot exist without the other. What do you think of this interpretation? How does virtue and sin function in your poetry?

Yes, there is a thin line between rage and patience. Sometimes rage is necessary, and
sometimes patience is a mistake and so forth. Chastity is valued by society, yet for
rape victims and victims of childhood sexual abuse the concept of purity or chastity
can do great emotional damage and cause a person to feel shame. I tried to pick quotations about both the virtue and the sin, which showed sometimes both are necessary and the Yin/Yang association returns over and over again in the poems.

5.     Can you tell us more about the poem “Small Defiant Gods?” I was struck by the dark beauty of the imagery and wondered at the meaning of the lines, such as, “Some say the end of my journey is God” and the reference to the number 9.

“Small Defiant Gods” was originally about death, a personification of death. At some point in the revision process, it was titled “Nine.” There were nine circles of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Nine expresses an ending, and I associated that with death. It is the highest single digit and that also meant in my mind it was something that drew a conclusion to things.

When I wrote, “Some say the end of my journey is God,” I was thinking possibly about death being a journey which ends with a God, that ideal perfection, but the speaker seems to imply that death is simply death.

6.     Writing or the poem appears prominently in your collection. In the poem “Crazy Ted Talks to La Virgen De Guadalupe,” for instance, you write the funny and perhaps metafictional stanza:

He writes novels about God’s corporation
where he’s the CEO and sells a zillion t-shirts
of Jesus doing push-ups
to fans in sold out stadiums.

It’s all about the marketing, he insists,
even a poem or a God.

What role do you think marketing plays in the creative act or in writing? Do you think this affects the kind of poetry being written or being published?

Yes, the poem, and several poems in the collection deal with writing. This poem, as well as others does appear to be metafictional, in that it consciously reflects upon itself. The book took me a long time to write, in part, as my creativity was stunted due to thinking too much about marketing and how in many ways that opposes the act of creativity. So yes, marketing affects poetry.  Much of poetry, as well as life today, is steeped in self-promotion rather than in art or the things that really matter. It is my hope to approach marketing and networking in a genuine manner, rather than a forced or forceful one. Due to marketing and networking strategy, some bad poetry receives positive attention over interesting work. Therefore it is necessary, but there’s a way to do it with grace.
7.     Speaking of marketing, having worked as copy-editor, I couldn’t help noticing the beautiful cover from the book, which I must confess got me excited about reading the collection, in addition to the title “Seven” and grazing through the divisions/quotes. Were you satisfied with how the book turned out as a visual artifact? Was this a concern for you at all? Can you tell us more about the artist Brooke Shaden, whose art I googled and found utterly amazing, and how you came to work with her? Was this a choice you made or did your publisher arrange it?

I feel fortunate to have the cover by Brooke Shaden. She is an amazing artist. I had been looking at a number of artists for the cover as I had been given a free and open choice, and Veronica Golos, a stellar poet and acquisitions editor for 3: A Taos Press, suggested the work of Shaden, and I spent some time narrowing things down to 3 artists, but the piece chosen seemed to me to best reflect the concept of trauma and the masks those of us who have  undergone significant life-threatening trauma wear. I thought it might be nice to link to her webpage, so others can see the type of work she does.

Thank you so much Lynda for asking these wonderful questions. It is greatly appreciated. Also a big thanks to Letras Latinas and Francisco Aragon.

Sheryl Luna’s first collection, Pity the Drowned Horses, received the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press. It was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Colorado Book Award. Her second collection, Seven, was recently published by 3: A Taos Press. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the Anderson Center and Ragdale, as well as the 2008 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award from Sandra Cisneros. She is a CantoMundo fellow.

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