“To say your name is to bless myself.”
--Celeste G. Mendoza
1. In the poem “Tío Chucho would have you believe” you explore language as a barrier or wound between the family dynamic as in the line, “Our English a wound so deep/ between us.” Can you tell us more about the role language plays in the poem, the family section, or the collection at large?
The poem was inspired by someone’s story about how in their family there was a real fissure between those relatives whose English was “perfect” and those who had difficulty with speaking and writing English because Spanish was their dominant language. So in the family there were the “have-English” and the “have-not-English,” those who did not master English were looked down upon by those who did. They also were not only perceived as unintelligent but incapable of intelligence, as if there was no hope for them to survive in the world because of their perceived lack of mastery of English. Paradoxically, the Spanish speakers looked down upon those in the family who were English-language dominant because they had no mastery of Spanish; the Spanish speakers saw the primary-English speakers as being “less Mexican,” and “Americanized.” When the two groups interacted with one another you would barely be able to perceive how one group discriminated against the other, they were family, but it was there in a subtle way, and would slip out like it does in the poem, this sense of “us versus them.”
This type of discrimination based on language proficiency is rampant I think in Latino families and creates some real fissures solely because of how we speak or don’t speak one language or the other. So in the poem I wanted to allude to how we use language proficiency to rate one another (or ourselves), codify one another, and cast one another away, or vice versa how we use it to assert ourselves (or one another), distinguish ourselves, and many times discriminate against one another for our own benefit or gain.
2. You create an interesting cultural landscape where windows are covered over in foil, lawns are bleached to yellow, crocheted doilies are coasters for beer, and Malibu Barbie sits next to Baby Jesus—it seems like this landscape is endowed with a tender humor celebrating difference. Was this an intentional approach to the colorful world you present the reader with? What other approaches did you have in mind when creating this landscape?
I am reminded of a writing exercise that Sandra Cisneros would have us do in her workshops; she would ask us to write down 10 things that distinguished ourselves from a family member, then from a coworker, then from a friend, then from the person sitting next to us. By the end we had this list of things, ideas, etc, that made us singular, that defined who we were in some ways. So what you refer to as “landscapes” represent my voice, my experience, some of what I grew up with and what exists in my barrio in San Antonio, Texas.
Actually, for me, this entire collection, is a love-song to San Antonio and to who I was/am because of my home-city, to all of those specific landscapes with which I identify, celebrate and in many ways venerate, like the foiled over windows, the yellowed lawns, the doilies and the juxtaposition of our holy relics with our toys. These landscapes are a part of me, my voice much like a golden carp, a farm road, or a wheelbarrow is for other writers.
3. In part Two: God, you delve into heavy topics, such as violence in the poem “Saint,” loneliness in “About faith.” Were these topics difficult to write about? Was it a cathartic or challenging experience?
Violence is a topic that comes up in my writing frequently; I’ve experienced violence, both physical and sexual, and definitely identify as a survivor in this context. I’ve also witnessed violence and in some instances have been able to do something about it, stop it and in others I’ve not had that power or opportunity; it happens so fast.
My second collection, which I’m now working on, is an exploration of violence. The poems in the next collection were actually pulled from this manuscript so the poems you refer to in this collection are the birthplace of my next book.
I don’t know if I am able to talk clearly about the difficulty of writing about violence because as someone who has experienced it first-hand I think I have a certain type of relationship with violence that those who’ve not experienced it corporeally or viscerally can’t understand in the same way I do; so perhaps for me it is less difficult in contrast to someone else or more difficult. I don’t know.
I can tell you that violence appears in my poetry as it appears in my memory and on a certain level I’m sure in my subconscious; and I don’t find it cathartic when it appears in the writing. I just write, continue the line, the stanza, the poem. I don’t think about the transformative nature of the writing when I’m writing or revising; I’m thinking about the work not me. The transformation, the healing happens separately from the writing for me. The writing is definitely part of the working it out but I don’t know if I will ever be free from the memories of violence that my mind and body still harbor. And to be honest, it is not important for me to be free of them as much as it is important for me to be as humane as I can, with others as well as myself, as they continue to walk with me through my life.
You know, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be pure and many times that pressure to purify is where violence is born.
4. I am interested in your exploration of faith in the second part of your collection. You show us the effect faith has on the believer, how it affects their life in real ways, such as the physical branding of the tattoo in “El sagrado corazon,” and the reflective question in “About faith”—Every day was for God. If it hadn’t been/ who would I be? Ending with Believing in the one thing/ far enough away to not hurt me. Given the prominence your collection devotes to the topic, are there any thoughts you would like to share on your perspective on faith and how this relates to your aesthetic portrayal of it in poetry?
Incidentally, faith and violence are the two major beings in my second collection; it’s interesting to me that you pulled them out from this manuscript. I can only talk about my personal relationship with faith and won’t make any general or broad arguments as it is such a personal matter, distinct for each individual.
My faith was greatly influenced by the following: Catholicism, the religion in which I was raised and I still practice; “Survivalism”, the way of living that my maternal grandmother instilled in me; my readings of philosophy and poetry; what would probably be categorized as curanderismo; and “new age” spiritualism. My faith is a hybrid like any one else’s structure for living. I believe that if I did not have this faith, this way of living, I would not be here in this current state of living; I would have succumbed to the violence I experienced and become a very violent person. I’m certain about this sobering fact and it has nothing to do with where I was raised or my family or my barrio; it has everything to do with how I internalized the violence I experienced, the level of anger and rage I felt toward myself and the world for most of my life, so much so that many times I didn’t care what happened as long as I got to get the emotions out of me.
It is a life-saver that I had my faith to help me mitigate the violence that I had come to think was “just me,” my nature. It’s also interesting that I chose to become an actor and be on the stage—a safe space to get enraged, “It’s part of my character,” I would say. But I know that my faith and my dedication to my faith is what supports me and gives me the strength to do all that I do and to be closer to the true me, the one that is not violent, the one who chooses to care for others and embrace them, rather than take a rock to their head. And though it has been years, and believe me, I have worked on this aspect of my self, there are still times when I know that I need to close my eyes, meditate, pray, just get myself out of that place that will suck me down into another life. It is easier now than it has ever been but it is not so easy that I don’t recognize that it’s work.
So in many of my poems up to now where there is violence there is also faith that counters it. I can’t give you a Freudian reason why this occurs but I can say that it is part of my aesthetic.
5. In poems, such as, “La Pisca” you make varied use of white space and line arrangement. Thinking about how this poem would read if it was arranged in the conventional block form, it seemed like your choice was more interesting. Can you tell us about the process for this choice? Was it something organic, or did you experiment with arrangement before deciding on this particular one? Were there other factors, besides the visual arrangement that led you to try this approach?
The line breaks and arrangement of this poem were part of the generative process, which doesn’t always happen when I’m working on poetry as much as plays, but for this particular poem I had a clear vision for what I wanted the poem to look like on the page and so I went with that while I wrote it. That process actually helped me with the crafting of the poem as well; so some of it was organic, the initial idea, and then some of it planned as I saw that it could work and continued with the format.
6. Reading your poetry, I couldn’t help thinking of Gregory Orr’s “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry,” beginning with music in “Lookin’ pretty,” story in “Marriage: Hunger,” structure in “Marriage: Multiply,” and imagination in “Marriage: Break.” Between music, story, structure, and imagination, which temperament would you say figures most strongly in your work and can you give us a little background on why you think this is so?
Personally, I think “music” figures most strongly of the four though perhaps story would be a strong second place. As I revise my work I observe that I write by sound; the next word I use comes from previous words I’ve used because of the sound they make when read aloud. I’m a singer, dancer and musician so I think my body and mind are just trained to hear and create music unconsciously, so what I say usually comes out in rhythm and what I write follows suit.
Story also plays heavily in some poems because I’m a natural storyteller (I was raised in a home of storytellers) so I think I’m always telling a story that usually has some kind of conflict and always a reason why I am sharing it. For example, I enjoyed writing the marriage poems because I think it is worth exploring the institution of marriage, as well as human relationships and the nature of love—all of which are not necessarily part of every “successful” marriage. Story lets me explore what I perceive as a rather complex aspect of our human nature.
In third and fourth place would be imagination and structure respectively. I’m a rather logical person though I’m rather imaginative but I do believe that the jumps in imagery don’t happen for me in my first and second drafts of poems; that interplay is something I will add in later in my revision process but always making sure it makes sense with the particular logic of the poem. Personally, I think structure is the greatest weakness of my poetry overall and something I would like to improve. I know that working on “limiting” forms like sestinas and villanelles will help me build confidence in this area, so I’m working on that aspect of my work.
7. Beginning poets, like myself, sometimes struggle with creating collections that cohere. As a poet who has created a cohesive collection, can you share any tips about the process? Was it easy for you in some ways or challenging in others? If challenging, how did you deal with these challenges?
The initial manuscript contained most of the poems from my Master’s thesis; it was much longer and to be frank was not cohesive. It served its purpose for my thesis requirement but was not a collection that I felt was of publishing quality. Plus, it seemed to me that many of the poetry books that were and are being published are less a collection of individual poems and more a series of poems that are bound together by some element, whether it be theme or argument or symbol or imagery or language. I wonder if gone are the days when you put together a book from all the poems you’ve published in journals the past couple of years as some of the more canonized poets did.
Anyway, I sent the manuscript as my thesis to a few contests and publishers but received no response; I worked on revising it but still all quiet on the western and eastern and northern and southern fronts. So I just let it simmer for a few months.
I will share that right before I graduated with my MFA in 2007, I read Lorna Dee Cervante’s, DRIVE, which was published by Wings Press in 2006. For some reason the structure of the book really spoke to me. So, as I contemplated what to do with my manuscript I went back to her text, studied it, and decided to try to divide my manuscript up into sections or themes, as an experiment of sorts to help me try to get out of revision rut. I also read T.S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land, which Cervantes says was her inspiration for her book.
As I read and reread my work I came up with the four “obsessions” from the poems I had written: family, land, faith, and love. I took out all the poems that didn’t fit into any of these categories and then got to writing some to fill in what I felt were gaps in some of the sections—gaps in voice or perspective, or character. It was helpful to have a guide and Cervantes and Eliot were stellar ones. Right now as I’m working on my second collection, which is actually a book-length poem, I’m doing something similar in the sense that I’ve been and continue to read as many book-length poems as I can to see how others have worked with form, voice, rhythm, and language.
My only piece of advice is to read other people’s work and witness and think about their choices; then read your own work with as much attention and intent and then feel your way through it. The order will appear. Order always somehow does.
Celeste Guzmán Mendoza is a native of San Antonio, Texas. Her poems have been published in Poet Lore, Borderlands, Salamander, and other journals. She has also had essays and poems appear in the following anthologies: This Promiscuous Light: Young Women Poets of San Antonio (Wings Press: 1996), Floricanto Sí!: A Collection of Latina Poetry, (Penguin:1998); Red Boots and Attitude: The Spirit of Texas Women Writers (Eakin Press: 2003), and Telling Tongues: A L@tina Anthology on Language Experience (Calaca Press: 2007), among others. Her chapbook of poetry, Cande te estoy llamando, won the Poesía Tejana Prize from Wings Press. Mendoza received her bachelor's degree in English literature and Theatre from Barnard College. She holds a MFA in Poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a Certificate in Spanish from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She has received writing residencies from Macondo Writing Workshops as Hedgebrook for Women Writers. She is a co-founder of CantoMundo, a master workshop for Latina/o poets. Mendoza is also a playwright. Her original play, Burnt Sienna, won the 1996 American College Theatre Festival's Ten Minute Play Award. Her plays have been produced by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and Teatro Vivo. Mendoza lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband. She currently works as the Associate Director of Development at LLILAS Benson of the University of Texas at Austin. She has more than fifteen years of fundraising experience.