Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Nayelly and Sara at Squaw: a conversation

Nayelly Barrios
Sara Borjas

I think Squaw is the wild and mysterious stranger who pulls you out on the dance floor whether or not you know how to dance. It takes you out whether or not you are too scared to dance. I think you end up dancing with your poetic apprehensions and insecurities. We get in tight with them, feel the warmth of their breath on our temple, and step on each others’ toes in the process of really getting to know what we’re really afraid of and why we fear this.
                                                         —Nayelly Barrios

Since I’ve been back from Squaw—I have been writing things I would never feel were acceptable before. The other day, I referred to my body as “two gallons of infinite milk” in a poem, thinking of those two-packs you can buy at Costco. This may not blow anyone’s mind, but for me, it is a huge leap to say something that is not literally true, or to use something as strange as a gallon of milk to approach some fantastical truth about my life.
                                                       —Sara Borjas

Several weeks ago, Nayelly Barrios shared with me how her experience at Squaw Valley this past summer was very valuable. Specifically, the poetry workshops held there every summer. Barrios also mentioned that, in addition to having a productive week at the poem-a-day week-long gathering, she met Sara Borjas, a poet from Fresno who completed her MFA at UC Riverside this past spring. Having in mind that Nayelly is set to complete her MFA at McNeese State University next spring, Letras Latinas Blog pitched the idea of a conversation between these two MFA-ers*—specifically, about their experience at Squaw.

Among other attendees at the Squaw Valley workshop, in recent years, have been: Angel N. Garcia, Ruben Quesada, Marcelo Hernández Castillo, Blas Falconer, and Javier Zamora. Are we before a case of a well-kept secret among Latino/a poets? Whatever the case, I think you’ll find Nayelly's and Sara's charla engaging and, in a way, moving. Here are two poets not shying away from articulating what many artists often experience as they move through the world, but perhaps aren’t so ready to admit.

Regarding that asterisk: Letras Latinas Blog is posting this conversation the same week that the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative (one aspect of it, on Facebook) has launched. Both Nayelly and Sara, in their capacity as MFA candidate, and recent MFA graduate, respectively, are part of that gesture, as well. In fact, this very dialogue you are about to read embodies what the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative aims to foment: spaces—both virtual and physical—of mutual support and risk-taking, where the practice of art is concerned—among those Latino/a writers who have entered the academy to further their training.

—Francisco Aragón
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame


Nayelly Barrios:
Have you been to other writing conferences/seminars/residencies/etc, besides Squaw Valley.?

Sara Borjas:
AWP is the only other conference I’ve been to, both in Chicago and Boston. Both were exciting but also a bit intimidating. There were so many people who were interested in doing the same things I was! I learned about Squaw Valley in my graduate program at UC Riverside. I’ve been interested ever since, especially with staff poets like Sharon Olds and Robert Hass. I also thought it was the Squaw Valley that was close to Fresno (where I am from). I was planning a family & poetry trip if I got accepted. Wrong Squaw Valley.

What other conferences have you been to? Did the word “community” come up there? And if it did, how did you feel about it in those contexts?

Nayelly Barrios:
I have participated in three conference/seminars, two of those while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA). In the summer of 2007, UTPA held a three-week writing seminar that consisted of one week of intense poetry coursework, discussion panels, and readings (8 am-8 pm daily, for a week). The last two weeks consisted of independent study, at the end of which one was to complete a small chapbook of work. It was the first time I did something like that and it was exhilarating, to say the least. During the seminar, I studied poetry with Emmy Perez. By that point, I had just started my study of poetry (fall of 2006), so, as great as it was, it was also intimidating. Given the busy schedule the first week and the independent component the last three weeks, there was not really a sense of community at this seminar, though there was more dialogue between participants during the reading and craft sessions.

My second conference experience happened during the summer of 2008 when I had the opportunity to attend the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. This was a three-week conference and the sense of community with the other ten fellows was amazing, especially since we all workshopped and attended craft sessions together on a daily basis. We even went to lunch, breakfast, and dinner together at the university cafeteria. I am still in contact with a handful of the fellows even though five years have passed since Bucknell.

During the summer of 2010, I attended the Juniper Summer Writing Institute held at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst where I workshopped with Matthew Zapruder, whose work I really admire. The craft talks were out-of-this-world brilliant and it was a great learning experience. Another great aspect was that the readings were not just poetry, but fiction and memoir, as well. It was nice to break the reading routine up with the varying genres. I did get to bond with my roommates during the institute, but I am no longer in touch with any of them. Overall, every single residence/conference that I have attended has been extremely beneficial to my growth as a writer.

Squaw could not have happened at a better time! I have been having an extremely difficult time writing the last couple of months, so much so that it has made me weep many a night :( While at Squaw, we had to write a poem a day in order to workshop it the next morning. There was no way around it. Write a poem or show up to Sharon Olds’ workshop empty-handed like a loser. Plain and simple. I had no choice but to write _something_. Anything. I surprised myself by writing things I didn’t feel needed to be burned at the stake. I mean, they weren’t poems to write home about, either, but they were pieces I could live with for some time and make better over time. So worth writing for me. On the first day of the conference, Robert Hass delivered a very motivating introductory speech. What stood out the most to me was his encouragement to take risks in our work that week. He told the group that we were all here to read each others’ first drafts and that is what was expected. He said this and I believed him. This took a huge load off of my anxieties. During her craft talk, Sharon Olds also encouraged us to write every poem that comes to us. Otherwise, how will the poem under that one ever surface? That question really struck something in me. Even if we don’t mean to workshop or otherwise share a poem, it must be written. These two simple, yet very meaningful, pieces of advice helped me jump into my notebook fearlessly.

Sara Borjas:
I completely agree with you about the apparent excellent “timing” of our attendance. It seemed like I was destined to be there, just having graduated from an MFA program the week prior and feeling ruled and consumed by my thesis. I was making a transition to a more solo style of writing life.

And to be honest, the first few days of Squaw were difficult for me. All I wanted to do was write those poems that would fill the holes in my manuscript’s narrative. I wanted to fix things that already existed-- I was not interested in creating the new. When everyone was talking about experimenting, and like you said, taking risks, I was like, ‘what for? I have a book to finish! Help me with that!’ I did not understand what everyone was so happy about. Poetry was serious to me those first few days. Too serious.

But after about three workshops, where writers were calling their fantastic and heartbreaking poems “experiments,” and calling my half-alive poems “new, naked, and ready,” I not just realized, but remembered, how beautiful and satisfying process is. Before, I was objectifying poetry and my poet self, placing value on end products and my own imaginative abilities, or at the time it seemed, limitations. But that was because I was so deep in my own head in the months leading up to Squaw. Not to say that the final form of poems are not important and what often drives me, but that’s not everything for a poet. The best poems take you with them, they struggle. I had to re-accept that struggle. At Squaw, everything created was somehow “correct”-- either mystically, emotionally, or spiritually. They were raw and full of possibility. I do not think Squaw could have come at a better time for me, or-- if I could have come, the way I was, at a better time for Squaw.

So I wonder now, was I ready for the Squaw experience? Or is Squaw an experience that pulls you to the poetry dance floor no matter who or where you are? And who or what do you end up dancing with?

Nayelly Barrios:
I think Squaw is the wild and mysterious stranger who pulls you out on the dance floor whether or not you know how to dance. It takes you out whether or not you are too scared to dance. I think you end up dancing with your poetic apprehensions and insecurities. We get in tight with them, feel the warmth of their breath on our temple, and step on each others’ toes in the process of really getting to know what we’re really afraid of and why we fear this.

Personally, that is my biggest struggle. I can study and read all the poetry and craft I want to, but in the end my apprehensions are the ones holding me back from writing. I can learn all the dance steps to all the dances, but, all too often, I am too scared to go out onto the dance floor. I think Squaw is perfect for anyone in this situation, but not limited to such individuals because of the diverse writing styles and writing processes of the writers in the workshops/houses. My housemates, for example, all had a different writing process, but we all worked together beautifully. Some of us sat in the hum if each others’ silence in the open kitchen, dining, and living room area, while others preferred to write in the privacy of their rooms, and emerged at midnight to share their work (it was our custom to share aloud what we wrote on a nightly basis). It was lovely, lovely, lovely.

I love what you said, “The best poems take you with them, they struggle.” What brings about the struggle between my poems and I is my insecurity. My apprehension has always been that I just can’t or shouldn’t write a poem, either because I am not a good enough writer to be writing or because a poem will not be accepted by an audience. I don’t allow the poem to take me with it, its crevices, its landscape, to its universe. At Squaw, the daily deadline forced me out onto the dance floor that is my notebook, the landscape that is the workshop, where I was face-face-to face with these insecurities, and the nurturing environment was reassuring. Really the nurturing environment in the workshops at Squaw are what made me feel comfortable writing out of my comfort zone and taking those risks that Robert Hass encouraged on day one. As I am sure you remember, the environment in workshops was nurturing and positive. For example, most workshop leaders focused on what the poet and poem were “doing right” and only focused on “what to fix” as a secondary discussion point. I feel I heard enough about what my poem was “doing right” to know what direction to continue into, and enough about what needed “fixing” to know where to bring out the monkey wrench...but not so much to where we were beating the poem dead (I dread over-workshopping poems).

How do you feel this nurturing environment influenced you/your work? Or maybe you don’t feel it was as nurturing as I felt it. What was your experience with this aspect of Squaw?

Sara Borjas:
Since I’ve been back from Squaw-- I have been writing things I would never feel were acceptable before. The other day, I referred to my body as “two gallons of infinite milk” in a poem, thinking of those two-packs you can buy at Costco. This may not blow anyone’s mind, but for me, it is a huge leap to say something that is not literally true, or to use something as strange as a gallon of milk to approach some fantastical truth about my life. That is because of Squaw.

The workshops encouraged us to go there, then, to really go there. And like you, most of my struggle comes from my apprehension to call myself a writer, or feel like I have anything real to say. I did not grow up believing I could become a poet or a writer. My father was a math teacher and I grew up watching my mother be a housewife. And I vacuumed and dusted after school. I scrubbed the bathrooms on the weekends. I always felt that was what I was going to do, keep the house like my mother and all her sisters. And honestly, I still struggle against feeling that way. I still doubt whether the value of my experience, or my mother’s experience, is so that someone would read it and feel something-- love, disgust, fear, anything. I still doubt whether I have the language or a life valuable enough to write about and call myself a poet. But at Squaw Valley I was sitting in a circle with twelve people every morning that were step-parents, grandfathers, absent mothers, lawyers, yoga teachers, hairstylists, aging, in their prime, fighting their children to practice their piano while they were gone, hoping their husbands would not be buried in a pile of pizza boxes when they returned home, feeling guilty, still, for not saying goodbye. They helped me to realize that what I tend to shy away from writing about-- my life as someone’s daughter and sister, working at McDonald’s and doing drugs in a fig orchard in Fresno-- was not dull or banal. It’s real and it is interesting. It is “a gallon of infinite milk.” It is their life, at some point, in some way, also.

It did not matter if it made sense, intellectually (which seemed to be a large hang up for workshop participants in most of my experience). If a line of a conceit made sense spiritually, or emotionally-- it could be true. I could be invisible-- a penny stuck in our brown carpet at home-- and so could the wealthy Silicon Valley start-up guy with the wife who paid more attention to her yoga classmates than him. The workshops at Squaw encouraged me to use my imagination and ever since, I’ve trusted it more. I find myself sitting down to write, without expectations, and with excitement. Feeling proud almost to just be there. Weird!

This makes me think about how it feels to be a Chicana poet. I always feel a little like I’m avoiding my responsibilities as a Chicana by immersing myself in poetry. By loving it so much. I feel that kind of love is reserved for family. What did you want to be when you were young? How did you feel the first time you told someone you were a poet? How was that different from introducing yourself to others at Squaw Valley? Who was the person you were most surprised to vibe with?

Nayelly Barrios:
When I was little, I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I can’t see myself teaching tiny kids now, but I do love to teach. So that is what I do, and look forward to continue doing, for a living. What I actually want to be is an accordionist, but, since I don’t even know how to play an accordion, I doubt that will ever happen --sigh--. I don’t think I have ever told anyone I am a poet. If a writer asks me if I am a poet, I say I write poetry. I don’t feel comfortable referring to myself as a poet, at least not yet...but, honestly, Squaw made me feel somewhat comfortable with the idea of myself as “a poet.” I have always felt apprehensive about calling myself a poet, but seeing all these poets, like you mentioned, from so many different walks of life and so incredibly talented, I felt safe, but in a freeing manner, like I could take risks in my writing, as opposed to a too-comfortable-to-want-growth manner.

When I was leaving Squaw that last day I remember telling myself, “From now on, when I am too afraid to write freely, I will write for an imaginary Squaw. The Squaw that is in my heart. The Squaw where I will write a poem just because I can, and because I will share it with my housemates.” It feels good to feel like that about a writing space. It is important for the growth of my work. That is the main thing I took from Squaw.

Sara Borjas:
“The Squaw that is in my heart--” you’ve said it exactly. That’s also what I left with when I got on the bus to leave. I left with a new place in my heart where there is no fear. A trusting place. And everyone from Squaw and everyone I’ve ever known is there now.

I went to a reading by Red Hen Press last night at The Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica. Brendan Constantine hosted beautifully. The night was sea themed, and at the end, Brenden reminded the crowd that poets will never make a ton of money from poetry and we write knowing that. He talked about memory and how the sea mimics it. He said “The sea's most enduring token is what it carries away.” Thus, the best thing we can do for other poets is go up to them and tell them that their words will stay with us.

So I think that’s what I am trying to do. I’m trying to tell you, Nayelly, and everyone else I had the pleasure of listening to at Squaw, that I have carried your words back home with me. It is the most enduring and most endearing--as Brendan said-- thing I could have asked for.


Nayelly Barrios is a Rio Grande Valley native. Her work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Puerto del Sol, The Paris-American, and elsewhere. She attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers this past June where she wrote poems and made friends.

Sara Borjas is from Fresno, California. She recently received an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Highway Review, Verdad, Other Poetry, Yes, Poetry, and is forthcoming in The Packinghouse Review and The Finger. She is the editor for Juan Felipe Hererra's LoWriter of the Week poetry series, a bartender in Baldwin Hills, and soon to be instructor at La Sierra University. She lives in Los Angeles.

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