San Antonio’s New Poet Laureate, Laurie Ann Guerrero
chats with fellow writer and friend, Xelena Gonzalez
Laurie Ann and I met for lunch as we always have, arriving a bit breathless as though a tailwind had deposited us in our seats just in time to smile across the table. For the past six years, we’ve carved out time to meet between classes, kids’ schedules, work, writing, and miscellaneous obligations. When we first met, we were both working for Gemini Ink’s Writers-in-Communities program. She wanted to hear my ideas and share some of her own, and the exploration of one another’s mind never really stopped. The only difference is this time we’re discussing her just-announced, major honor—serving as San Antonio’s poet laureate for the next two years.
Unlike other interview subjects, there is a lot I already know about Laurie Ann before beginning: I know she will answer every single question I ask with honesty that can disarm and even alarm, as her poetry tends to do. I know that as she ponders, she will feel the eyes of her children upon her—for her children are always with her, as is her grandfather who recently passed on. Because she delves so far within and considers all of those around, I know her answers will make me sigh. And I also know that she will cry, probably more than once. Every time she does I think of my grandmother’s dicho: Todas mis hijas son lloronas (All of my daughters are criers). The saying applies to her as much as any other member of my family, because though we are not bound by blood, I know Laurie Ann considers herself granddaughter to many elders. And that she loves each of her students as fiercely as she does her own children. Laurie Ann carries a unique universal kind of love that makes her cry, and makes us sigh, and makes her write words that get noticed. And it is what makes her a remarkable wordsmith and a fine servant for our city. This interview was conducted on Saturday, March 23rd in San Antonio.
X: You said to me earlier that now that you’re being named poet laureate of San Antonio, you’re in a prime position to do what you’ve always wanted to do—share. How do you plan to do that?
LA: I’ve been thinking for a long time about what I might be able to do with my city that involves making poetry accessible to underserved communities like the one I grew up in. I mean, there are so many avenues I can take, and I have had such an outpouring of support from other local poets—both page poets and spoken word poets—including Carmen Tafolla whose done some amazing things for San Antonio as the inaugural poet laureate. (I got some big shoes to fill.) And there are so many things we can do! I know that I don’t want to overwhelm the department, the folks who will be helping and supporting me, my family, so I know I have to be very careful and deliberate and efficient with the choices I make and the time I’ve been given. I’m also a working writer, and my writing is just as much a priority for me as my city and my children.
X: Carmen Tafolla says she’s handing over the plume—how do you feel taking it from someone like Carmen Tafolla?
LA: It’s such an honor. It’s such an honor because she so loved and so honored and so respected and frightening at the same time, because she’s so loved and so honored and so respected.
X: Well, tell me a little bit about the relationship that y’all have.
LA: Oh, well, she’s like my best tia, my madrina; she’s been so supportive of my work. When she was going through treatment (I came over a few times to help out as much as I could—we made beet juice & stuff), she was so generous with her time and space. And she was so tender with me, as I was often overwhelmed with caring for my grandfather, and she was always there to offer her support. She’s got so many things going on in her life with her family, and when my grandfather was still alive, we often talked about medicine, and caretaking, and what it means to be a mother-writer—so many things in common. On top of everything, we were both trying to write. There is something about being in her space—any space with her—but specifically in her home with her, sitting at the island in her kitchen, and feeling a sense of home. I feel home when I’m with her.
And I think that has a lot to do with how deep her roots are in the land—the same way that I feel my roots are deep in the land. It’s like I imagine two trees, growing up together, even though we’re from different generations, but I do feel there’s a sisterhood—something that binds us together—and I love that. I love being around her. I love supporting her work and what she’s done with her two years as poet laureate. And I know that in my two years, I’m going to have her support the same way. And I love that, and I depend on it, and I need it. I also recognize the great privilege it is that I get to be so close to her, and I do not, for a minute, take that for granted.
X: Tell me why poetry matters.
LA: Well, we live with it every day—especially in our city, in our culture. That we still carry the sayings of our grandparents and great-grandparents, dichos, little songs our mothers sang to us—we live with poetry all the time, every day in our homes and in the city. And so, it’s really just a recognition of that, a naming of that. The same kind of comfort or the same kind of wisdom that is brought with those little dichos, or little songs, or old rancheras or corridos exists exponentially beyond our homes and city. And that wisdom and that comfort and all we get—there’s a deeper well from which we can pull. And, we have our own wellsprings and have so much of our own experiences to tap into.
I’ve always felt—and this is something that I say often, to my students, especially, and something I truly believe from my own personal experience—that poetry may not save the world: it’s not like one day everyone around the world will read poems and then everything will be perfect and happy. But, if it can change our own perspectives of certain things, then our worlds do change, because our opinions have changed, or our minds have changed, or we feel less alone, and we become more tolerant or we become more compassionate—and it’s about the individual. I mean, the same way that these little sayings that our grandmothers or grandfathers said helped calm us, poetry works that way and we if we can just tap into that well… I mean, it’s kind of like we’re working from one page in this book, and there are other pages, other books. Does that make sense?
X: Yeah, yeah! Definitely!
So, you and I both travel a lot and I imagine you will be traveling a lot more now because of the honors you have received recently, and that will surely continue to come… I always feel, and I know we’ve talked about this before, that the best part of traveling is coming home…
X: …because you have those lenses—seeing things anew and you come back with renewed senses: eyes wide open, ears, everything, all of the senses invoked, and also you just miss home.
LA: Yes, for sure.
X: But, with all the traveling that you’ve done lately, what kind perspectives have you gotten about our city, because I guess that natural comparison happens when you visit other cities. What have you learned about San Antonio? I ask this now that you’re being designated to represent us, in a way.
LA: Well, I’ll tell you, when we moved to Massachusetts in 2005, that was the first time that I was really able to see my city, I mean, really see my city. And that was because I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to finish my undergrad degree at Smith College—I will always be grateful for that—but being in such an affluent part of the country, in a city, in a school that was very wealthy, it was very different that growing up on the Southside. And here I was with my husband and kids. What I realized about my city, what I think I knew already, but maybe I couldn’t name or didn’t understand, were the divisions in class and in race. Maybe I just didn’t want to see it before, never thought to see it before, maybe I was too busy raising my babies. I mean, it’s always been an issue, and it was something my parents and grandparents talked about often—I just didn’t want to see it. Maybe I felt hopeless, maybe I felt like I had no voice, and what the hell could I, a girl, do about it?
But, I was 27 when I moved to Massachusetts, not 17. And it was in my late twenties and early thirties that I was really starting to want to change my community—while I was living in Massachusetts. It was like it became this project for me. And part of that was I was so empowered by education—especially as a brown woman—that I no longer felt helpless or hopeless or that I had no voice. At this time I also recognized the silencing of women in my community and vowed never to perpetuate that tradition in myself or in my children or in my students. And this had a lot to do with the racism and sexism and classism we, as a family, experienced in New England (and later on, too, when I was in grad school).
So, even before we moved back in 2008, it became very important that I stay in my community, in the Southside, and that my children attend public school. We—because it was my husband and I both—were doing whatever we could to affect change. And it was hard—What do we do? How do we do it? So, he went back to school to become a high school teacher in the district we both attended as kids, and I started teaching at Palo Alto College, the school where Dave and I first began out college careers. And I taught for Gemini Ink as a writer-in-the-community. And while they didn’t pay much at all, they were dream jobs for me, because I knew I could be best utilized in these spaces. And they confirmed for me the importance of the individual voice, especially in communities like mine. And that empowered me, empowered my work, and pushed me to uncover, break open my students. And not just that, but my grandfather, too. I mean, that’s when our relationship strengthened and he started opening up and of course, I was pushing him: tell me this and tell me why this, and… you know?
When I started seeing the change happening in individuals, then I knew that I was on the right path. It felt like this education that I worked so hard to achieve, both undergrad and graduate, was not just mine…I mean, I wanted to give all my students the education I had been given. Everything I learned in the classroom and outside of it. I wanted to give it to every one of my students—like all of my students at Palo Alto were going to get a Smith College education. I wanted them to learn how to empower themselves. And, I had a lot of resistance—Who the hell do you think you are? I was young, I was a woman (I had the kind of confidence they weren’t used to seeing in such a person), and there were a lot of folks who did not want to see me standing in front of the class. And that was cool—not really, it was very hard, but I learned to deal with that.
But so many students responded. I witnessed empowerment happening in my classroom, and I’m grateful for the teaching jobs I’ve been given, because, well, because of the position I’m in now. And I get to share all of that with a wider audience. I have a larger platform. And that’s important work—it’s intimidating work and scary, but why would my path have been that if not to do this?
X: You said something earlier, along these lines, about having a voice…
What is voice to you and what do you have to say in your writing?
LA: One of the things that I tell my students, whether it’s my developmental English students or my graduate creative writing students, is you have to be willing to be vulnerable, and I think when we do that in our work and open ourselves up, out truth comes out—which may not be anyone else’s truth…
LA: It’s our truth and that’s valid. That’s a valid truth. And I think when we write in that way, that’s voice. That honest voice that comes across the page cultivates itself, I think.
X: What do you have to say—your work has been described as political, no?
LA: Absolutely. Yeah, all the time! And they are—because the personal is political, right? Especially if you’re a brown woman.
X: Well it’s a new voice!
LA: It is! Exactly!
X: …in this realm, in this (literary) world, yes. I mean, you were just in Poets & Writers (magazine)! What? You know?
LA: I know, crazy, right? So, as you know, I started writing in my childhood bedroom, or hiding in my closet, and so for me, I’ve never come to the page ready to preach because I feel that I’m always learning. So I approach the page ready to document my truth. And by the time I get to the end of whatever it is I’m writing, I can recognize or name my truths. I can stand on them, and then I know how I’m feeling or what my purpose is in whatever situation prompted me to reach for my pen. It’s really just about documenting for me. And I’ve been told that I wrote poems of witness, which I know I do—domestic abuse, infanticide, racism. And it’s all just documentation, keeping a record…for my own sake, really, so that I can keep moving in the world, so that I can name my truths, and really, to discover and to be able to stand on my own strengths so I can push ahead—I’ve got three babies (they’re not really babies anymore…) who depend on my sanity. That’s the only way I know how to write, how to survive.
X: And yet, there’s a part of you that—‘cause you could stay in your closet, you can keep it in your journal—
X: …there’s a part of you that needs to share it with the larger community.
LA: Right, yes.
X: And they’re responding!
LA: I love the craft. I’m a craftsperson— I love playing with the lines as much as a potter plays with clay; I enjoy playing with language. And I think that’s part of wanting to share (“look what I did!”). But also I realize that I because I was not educated in Latino/a writing until I went to Smith at 27 years old—except for Sandra Cisneros (which saved my life)—I hadn’t read Anzaldua, Castillo, Moraga, Tafolla (who’s from my own home town!). It was then I began reading works that were cultivated in my own land, by women who were like me! And knowing how that affected me! And what it confirmed for me, and how it helped build me up, straightened up my spine—then it became more important for me to publish and to want to share my work. Because if these are the footsteps I’m following in, and I can see the work that they’ve done—for me— then maybe, just maybe…
X: It is important! And I see how that drives you to share that with other people in our community—“your truths are valid, too.”
X: So this lead me to my next question… I want to know what you’re still discovering about yourself and about the world. You know, life informs us… and you have talked with me about coming back, not just to reconnect with your roots, but to take care of your grandfather. And he passed recently. And as your friend, I’ve seen a shift in you, in your purpose, and in the way your days used to unfold and the way they are now. And I guess I’m wondering how that’s affected your writing. Has it changed in any way?
What I’ve learned, what I am learning—he died 8 months ago, yesterday— and what I know of my work is that it’s completely different—not totally, I guess, because it’s me—but what I’m learning is that I have been so chingona for so long. And having to fight for everything—even though I’m all about “be willing to be vulnerable” on the page, “get to your truths….” And while I can do that on the page, I’ve never been able to do that in my person…because I’ve always had to be fighting… for my education, for my rights as a woman, to be respected, for everything—for my marriage, for my kids—and happily so. That’s my name, I’m a warrior—that’s the way I was raised: “That’s our name” and “live up to your name.”
So when my grandpa died… I just felt weak.
And I hate feeling weak.
And all I knew was to fight that feeling of weakness. Of emptiness. I did not want to feel weak or empty.
But I did.
I do. I still do. And for the first time I realized that I need people—not just that I wanted people around me (X, you know how much I love being social). But it was so much more than that. I needed people. And I realized how much more I needed him than he needed me.
He was the one—he made everything so simple. I would go to him for everything—advice on marriage to making gravy to picking the right boots. He knew everything. I could talk to him about anything. And he helped me put my cards on the table: you do this or this or this. These are your options. He made everything so simple. You do it or you don’t do it. Easy.
And there was something about the tenderness with which he gave his advice—to me, his only granddaughter. And he so believed in me, that whatever path I chose, it was going to be right and it was going to be good because I could do it—if anyone could, he would tell me. He trusted me, he told me all the time: you’re my right hand man. He often said, “who would’ve thought that my right-hand man would be a girl?”
(Laughter) (Tears, but laughter, too.)
But he did that to empower me.
So now that he’s gone, I stand on all of those things. And I’ve had so many blessing since he’s passed—two grants, a new book contract, traveling, and now poet laureate? C’mon.
X: Do you feel like you wish he could see that? Or be here…
LA: No. No. He sees. I feel him all the time. I know he sees.
I mean, I wish I could hug him. Say thank you.
X: So your next book, a book of sonnets, you’re publishing them with local San Antonio Press, Atzlan Libre?
X: You have other publication avenues, I’m sure, why choose them—why here, why now?
LA: Well, after I published A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying with University of Notre Dame Press—which was huge, huge for me—I just felt like, like the traveling thing: it’s good to come home. And they’re a fairly new press, and they publish great stuff—Reyes Cardenas, Barbara Jane Reyes! And Juan Tejada & Anisa Onofre (publishers) are Southside, like me. Juan teaches at Palo Alto; Anisa is at Gemini Ink. We have the same love for our community—it all just makes sense.
X: You talk about the Southside a lot (that’s how you’re known)…
LA: I know!
X: Well, it’s funny, because when I hear you speak of your community, I often think Southside, but now, after April 1st, after this honor has been bestowed upon you, when you use the word community, it’s so much bigger in my mind…
X: so it must be… overwhelming? Huge, in your mind? What is that expansion of your idea of community? What is that like?
LA: Well… I feel the same way, first of all—absolutely. And, as I react viscerally to things, when I found out—not even then, I was in a state of shock for 2 or 3 days—but since then, I feel like my ribs are growing, like an expansion in my body (that’s not just tortillas), but my rib cage opening up. I told Dave yesterday that I feel like a shrimp—which is a horrible metaphor—but like my shell is so large and right now, maybe because of the passing of my grandpa in line with the poet laureateship, that the muscle of my body feels very small. My scope has widened—San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the nation. Where my focus was on the Southside, now it has opened up. It makes me think of when I’m in the classroom and I get these resistant bodies that don’t want to learn from me or think I have nothing to teach them, and so I’m scared. Because I don’t know how I’ll be received and that scares me and that’s the truth. But I also know that what I do is good and right. And so part of what I’m learning, too, is how to be okay with what I am. Who I am. And I think this is a lesson from my grandpa—that I am vulnerable, not always as strong as I think I am or want to be. And I think that’s okay. And maybe that will empower me, too.
I don’t feel like it’s overwhelming; I’m excited about my post and I’m excited to see how the muscle of my body will grow to fit my bones. Because—and this is something that I do with all my students—I raise the expectations for students—all the time. Because when I was at Smith, what was expected of me, my work was much higher than I could have ever imagined. And instead of crumbling, or withering away, I rose to meet those expectations. And when I learned that about myself, I brought that home, and I knew that in the classroom, I needed to raise the expectations for my students. So I do feel that the expectations for me in this role as poet laureate, may or may not be super high, I don’t know yet. I think I may be able to create that myself, my own expectations. But I also know that I can rise to them because I always have. And so that excites me—to see what we can do as a community, together. What I can bring to the community. I’m excited about it! And it’s scary! But what have I done in my life that isn’t, you know?
X: Well, it’s all unknown still, and the metaphor you use, feeling like a shrimp—they’re bottom-dewellers—get what you can how you can, you know what I mean?
LA: Bottom-dwellers?! You calling me out, X? (Laughter)
But, yeah, yeah. Exactly.
X: …getting fed however you can. But you’re rising and you’re going to continue to rise. It’s wonderful for those of us who have known your work for a long time to see that happening.
LA: Thanks, X.
X: I’m wondering what’s going to help you continue to rise? What’s going to help you move to…
LA: I don’t know. I don’t know. And I’ve thought about that. I’ve thought about how after A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying was published, I couldn’t write poems. And I had no idea what was going to get me going again. I was so nervous.
And then grandpa passed away five months later.
And I started writing poems.
I don’t know what’s going keep me going. But I know that something will.
I depend on that. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll take what jobs I get; I’ll keep working towards what I want for my community, my city, my family.
I have faith. I’m a writer. I will always write.
Xelena Gonzalez is a writer and children’s librarian. She holds degrees from Northwestern and Texas Women’s University.
Laurie Ann Guerrero is San Antonio’s new Poet Laureate and author of A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying. She holds degrees from Smith College and Drew University.