Sunday, November 10, 2013

Interview Questions for Carmen Giménez Smith’s Milk & Filth

“I tried to buy a drink, but the steward
told me I was too wasted on hubris.”

                                                                    --Carmen Giménez Smith

Cover artist: Evan Lavender Smith 

1.     In “Malinché,” I found the last stanza interesting in its exploration of language as a power tool on one hand, while divine on the other.

She tells them she plans to inter our dialect
into theirs, our divinity. She wants mongrel dictions
to add to her arsenal. She wants to be lord.

Is there a correlation between the two? If yes, how so? What do “our divinity” and “her arsenal” mean?

My sense of how Malinche would have interred dialect into “theirs,” refers to the “creolization” that takes place when the New World and Old World tangle. I refer to the mongrel dictions that are born from that engagement in the next sentence. I think I’m making the most basic proposition about power when I use the word “aresenal.” Through her engagement with the New World, as problematic as it is read historically, she is given a position of power and negotiation.  She also becomes a shaper of discourse.

2.     For poems, such as “The Red Lady,” you included note references in the back. Can you tell us a bit about the process involved in transforming such historical figures? Were these inspirational figures, muses, or did you want to reconstruct/re-imagine their narratives? Can you tell us more about the dedications in the notes to Roberto Harrison and J. Michael Martinez?

I wrote a lot of poems that didn’t end up in the collection, but I think I tended towards maligned or problematic female icons or figures, those that are hard to locate in the old virgin/whore binary, and I really tried to inhabit their consciousness within a second wave feminist context, and evoke the rhetorical power of persona in each poem.

I spent a week at Ragdale in a special fellowship arranged by Letras Latinas called Ocho Poetas. Poets who also worked as editors came together to talk about the state of Latin@ publishing, and we had a lot of time to walk around the beautiful grounds and talk poetry. My dedication notes to JMM and RH are based on many of the conversations and collaborations we did during that time. 

3.     Speaking of muses, the line “Please note how much it costs/ to be muse” in the poem “And the Mouth Lies Open” caught my interest, in addition to “I pay for affirmation/ from a woman in a white noise office who/ guides me through behavior modification/ and trauma, yet I’m still only a morsel/ of authority…”

In thinking about the figures of la Malinché, la Llorona, Lolita, I think of tragic figures whose lives seem to center on trauma. Is this an idea you explore or reject? Do you see parallels between these figures and the “I” in the book, such as in “Parts of an Autobiography?

52. That childhood is why I am a poet. I planned to chronicle it. I planned
to make it cautionary and gut.

Absolutely. The main visual context I have for this book is Ana Mendieta’s distorted and “traumatized” body. The female body is a loci of many wars, cultural and political, so I wanted to reach into the legacy behind these “traumas,” traumas which really concern borders that are often breached or violated through the female body. My body and my children’s bodies (because of our indigenous roots) are likely a few generations away from both public and private degradations. I also wanted to reclaim and celebrate the power of lyric subjectivity as a political tool. The persona is a mask, a performance whose rhetorical aim is to garner connection.

4.     In “Epiphany at La Cueva,” you open with the striking image:

Soaring like a startled flock

out of the shelter of trees,

I felt what mother earth was about:

Can you tell us more about this poem? Is La Cueva referring to a specific place whether real or imaginary?

La Cueva is a real place in Northern New Mexico. I was hiking with my family and my friend, Dylan, and although I rarely write about the natural world, I thought about the female moniker, Mother Nature and how it is a particularly stark and ruthless place. 

5.     One of my favorite poems, “Queenly,” made me think of the title of the book and notice the book cover. I found the superimposition of the name across the woman’s face, and the words “Milk” and “Filth” across her breasts and vagina an interesting message ironically evoking the mother/whore complex. Can you tell us more about the cover art design and the woman on the cover?

My husband designed the book, and again, I wanted to give it a 70s feel, like a book published by a small, radical feminist press. I also wanted to pay visual homage to the work of Ana Mendieta, as well as many other feminist visual artists who use their own body in their work. The book’s title was Rosa Alcalá’s idea, and it was so perfectly suiting to the book’s ethos, and so those two ambitions came together and the visual rhetoric of the design was a thrilling result. The woman is me, the only nude picture we had when we were designing the book. The photo is nearly ten years old, and it was taken when I was a few months pregnant with my son.

6.     In “Parts of an Autobiography” what significance does the number thirteen hold in the stanza:

6. In college I was groomed to overthrow patriarchy by the capri-panted
rebel who introduced me to Our Bodies, Ourselves in my first women’s
studies class who taught us about the number thirteen and the Venus of
Willendorf. This was in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

In college I learned that one reason thirteen might be seen as malevolent was because women have 13 moon cycles in a year.

7.     This idea of being “groomed” to overthrow patriarchy makes me think of the differences between first world and third world feminism and how they vary. Can you tell us more about the use of the word “groomed” in the context of the stanza above or otherwise?

When I was in college it seemed completely normal for a teacher to attempt to radicalize her students, especially when it came to feminism. Although the academy is seen as this great liberal indoctrination machine, it’s actually quite difficult to talk about ideas because one has to be cautious of being read as radical (which used to not be such a bad word). I also felt that I was being given tools to change the world for women.

8.     # 35 in “Parts of an Autobiography” reads:

35. I write a poem in which I reveal my true feelings. The body is the
engine and the brain is the hindrance.

In what way is the brain a hindrance? Stanza # 61:

61. I am not averse to working on myself in my art.

Made me think of cognitive reprocessing through writing. What did you mean by working on myself in my art?

In both cases, I’m probably arguing for the radical value of the lyric, the dense interior space that it evokes and how transformative it can be in relation to social justice. The rhetoric of social justice for feminism and for civil rights often evoke the very real struggles of its subjects, and rather than feel shame for wanting to enact what happens to my body and feel obliged to abstract it for aesthetic currency, I’d like to return to the very essential idea of body. Experience is synthesized firstly through the body. The mind then does what it does, but I wanted to go back to what brought me to poetry in the first place, in those days when I knew and understood how I could be a part of change. The female body, mutilated by machetes, raped by colonists, penetrated by transvaginal ultrasound wands, etc.—those are the sources of my urgency, those are bodies. Again, I point to visual artists like Ana Mendieta, Nan Goldin, Yayoi Kusama, Hannah Wilke, Kiki Smith, and others who use viscerality as a source. 

Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, four poetry collections— Gender FablesGoodbye, FlickerThe City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. She teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University, while serving as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press. 

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