“Because I love you, I have given up on the idea of love.”
---Felecia Caton Garcia
1. I am interested in the title poem “Say That,” and particularly the positioning of two seemingly traumatic events; the first alludes to disappearances and army violence, followed by exile and possibly abortion. Was the second dependent or correlated with the first?
Many of the poems are told from an imagined version of a family member or friend. It’s one of the reasons I think people should be reluctant to befriend writers. We just scavenge the personal experiences of the people we know and pretend as if it is somehow normal. The speaker in this poem falls into this category. It is written from the point of view of a woman who finds herself pregnant after having just escaped the Pinochet regime in Chile as an exile. The woman on whom I based this speaker intended to abort the pregnancy, then, on the way to the clinic, changed her mind. I don’t know why, and I never will, but as a writer and as a woman who has had to choose whether or not to have children, I wanted to imagine what was embedded in that moment.
Essentially the poem engages that rather timeless question of why and how so many of us choose to keep living in spite of all the evidence that humans are horrible. Why keep on? Why have kids? When you’ve seen people burned to death, when you’ve seen infants plucked from the arms of their dying mothers, when we see the absolute devastation we’ve wreaked on the natural world, when we live in a nation that uses drones to kill Yemeni children, why do so many of us who have the option to choose, choose to keep having babies? I think it’s a valid question, and I think the only answer is that we remain a stubbornly hopeful species. In this instance, the woman decides to have this child. Not because of some moral stance on abortion or birth, but simply because in the face of the horror, in this particular moment, to have that child is an affirmation of individual hope that may or may not turn out to be collective.
2. The poem “Midwest Ranchera” tantalized the reader with a delightful devilish character in lines, such as, “And who didn’t want to touch that tail?/ Black-feathered, hypnotic, a winged serpent moving in time/to the accordion.” What was your inspiration for the title and character?
The inspiration for that character was a folk tale that exists in various forms across the entire Southwestern United States. Although the permutations are many, the essential narrative is about the devil showing up at a dance hall and a girl subsequently disappearing. It’s a very straightforward cautionary tale intended to police female sexuality, and I suspect similar stories can be found around the world. My father told a version of it to me as a child, and it always fascinated me. By the time I wrote the poem, I was interested in the ways in which these stories do as much to seduce us as they do to frighten us. Or at least that’s always been their effect on me. Who wouldn’t want to find La Llorona in a ditch? Who wouldn’t want to win the devil’s attention? For me a world free of demons, angels, and ghosts would be a sterile, terrible place.
3. Some of my favorite images relate to bees and the beehive, such as in “Anaphylaxis” with the line, “Bees, after all, are distilled devotion: small, hot bodies of sacrifice … a swollen caution against abandoning the hive, against trust in the body, against the solitary desire.” Another appears in the opening poem, “Entomology” with the line “Bees dance in their sweet cells,” and in the poem titled “Sarah in the Nave” with the line “Now I want to lean into her heart and feel that angry hive/thrum against my lips.” Can you tell us more about your interest in bees/the beehive and if they function as an intended parallel to humans in these images?
I’m terribly self-conscious about all of the bee references in the poems! I have an allergy to bees and wasps, an allergy that I inherited from my grandmother. Because I grew up in rural Missouri, the world of my childhood seethed with bees, wasps, hornets, ants, and many other insects and arachnids. When “the bee” as an image exploded in American pop literary culture, I almost abandoned all of my references. In the end, obviously, I chose not to.
I grew up on a family farm with all of its attendant awareness of ecology. Bees were revered as an essential part of our world. And they are beautiful. At the same time, they could, at worst, kill me, and at best I would spend days lying in my bed with a swollen, stung foot in a bucket of ice water, hallucinating from antihistamine and fever in 90+ degree temperatures. And then, though I always survived, the bee always died. I think it’s impossible not to have something like that become an extremely powerful image in one’s personal vocabulary as a writer.
4. Some of your poems explore the world of nightmares and the dead, such as in “Animal Nightmare,” “Dreams of the Dead (Invitation Declined),” and “Hex” with great lines, such as
Or if they will be the nightmares where the hand
reaches to the windowsill to place an apple,
again and again, and all the while you know
something horrible has begun.
Nightmares seem like a vast pool of poetic imagery to explore or exploit. Do you draw inspiration for these from your own imagination, experiences, or authors from other genres?
I dream often and vividly, and I remember my dreams in great detail. I’ve always been struck by the sense that dreaming seems to be such a direct conduit to mystery, which may be precisely why it is so difficult to remember. Like poetry, dreams are somewhat uninterested in cause and effect and narrative cohesion. The section of the poem that you reference comes from an actual nightmare I had repeatedly as a child. The details of the dream were quite unremarkable and banal, but the sense of something being horribly wrong was so intense I would wake screaming. The actual terror of the dream, I think, came from the illusion of normalcy covering my absolute certainty that there was something awful happening. In many ways, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that contemporary American consumer-life is pretty similar.
5. The title for the poem “El Mozote, El Salvador, 1992” seems to hint at a historical event. Can you tell us more about the particulars?
This poem was written directly from having read journalist Mark Danner’s book The Massacre at El Mozote about a massacre that took place by American-trained soldiers in El Salvador in 1981. The book details the excavation of a mass grave, and I found the description impossible to forget—as I should have. Years later, after I’d forgotten nearly all the details, but retained the sense of horror, I wrote the poem.
6. The relationship between parents and children is complex in your poetry collection. In thinking of part III in WHIRLAWAY, for instance, with lines, such as, “I think of the rest of my children waiting at home, the youngest, only twelve, nothing but freckles and teeth. And, for a moment, I hate them.” The children also seem to thread between childhood and adulthood as if they’re forced to mature early, such as in the devastating ending of “Yesterday Mark.” It seems to me that in Latino culture children are forced to grow up early for various reasons, especially economic reasons. I wonder if a similar reversal might be true, that parents are forced to grow up early in their responsibilities towards children. Can you tell us more about how you explore these complicated family dynamics?
Those poems, and many of the poems in the book are heavily autobiographical and deal with my mother’s family who are Anglo and from the Midwest, which is also where I was raised. I am not at all sure that the experience of having to deal with incredible personal and emotional difficulty is in the province of any one culture or experience, though I certainly think that the nature and quality of the experience is often shaped by elements of race and class.
Family dynamics, I think, are nearly universally complicated. I have always been much more interested at stepping into those conflicts and complications with as much empathy as possible. What we do for our children and our parents out of love is generally so much more beautiful and terrible than anything we could ever do out of anger or hatred.
Felecia Caton Garcia was born in East Los Angeles, grew up in rural Missouri, and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her two daughters, two dogs, three cats, and occasional chickens. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. She holds a joint appointment in English and Cultural Studies at Central New Mexico Community College. Say That is her first full-length collection of poetry. She is currently at work on a novel about love, betrayal, domestic spying, particle physics, and translation.