Monday, May 5, 2014

Birthing Genoveva: A Conversation with Barbara Brinson Curiel

CantoMundo inaugural fellow, Barbara Brinson Curiel is the author of Speak to Me From Dreams (Third Woman Press, 1989) and Mexican Jenny and Other Poems (Anhinga Press, 2014) selected by Cornelius Eady as the winner of the 2012 Philip Levine Prize for poetry.

Below is a very brief excerpt (which was first published here courtesy of the McNeese Review) from “Mexican Jenny”--a narrative poem based on the life of a prostitute “convicted of killing her abusive husband” in the gold-mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1913 and which serves as the cornerstone of this collection:

I say it’s the same as being married.
            When they want it
            you give in or risk
            a twisted arm or a punch.

You let them do it
            to claim a roof,
            a meal you cook yourself,
            the wool for a winter coat.

Married or prostitute alike--women know how to cook, and how to sew, and specially how to suffer, and that, that they know how to do very well...or so (for the most part) history--echoes of masculine voices--would have us believe.

But what do we know of Jenny? What do we know of these “daughters of Eve” condemned to be feared for what they might say and to be silenced for what they say?

He married me and I became Jenny.
            Only a few people here could utter the sounds
            of my birth name: Genoveva,
            and I’d left that old self far away.

In Mexican Jenny, Barbara Curiel--in what former San Antonio Poet Laureate, Carmen Tafolla, called “bare and beautiful” language-- offers a sweeping exploration of the so-called “domestic sphere,”--cage and vault, bastille of our common and not-so-distant past.

Nothing is left unturned or unexplored by this poet, from fairytales to tamales, to a spoon, to a simmering pot of menudo; all is fair game for the poet to deconstruct--brick by brick--that bulwark separating the kitchen from the artists workshop; and history--those mutilated echoes of the past--from the voices of our own mothers. And who, like Genoveva, could whisper to us across time:

            I have a leather thimble
            improvised from the sole
            of a worn-out shoe.

I make my own panorama
under a stone-grey sky
dark with sparrow’s wings.

I invent flowers,
dogs, and horses
to replace the ones I knew.



Lauro Vazquez: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I’ve been looking forward to talking to you for some days now. Let’s start with the title. Who was “Mexican Jenny”? And I suppose I am also asking a broader question: that of who are the"other Jennys," as the historical account or "story" of "Mexican Jenny" is one that is both fragmented and conflicting.

Thanks Lauro for the chance to talk about the book. Jenny Wenner was a historical person, an infamous woman also known as Mexican Jenny.  In 1913 she killed her husband/ pimp after he beat her up for not bringing home enough money.  Very little has been documented about her life, outside of the court case that ended in her conviction for first degree murder.  Jenny also exists as a legendary figure because according to the Colorado quilt collector Eugenia Mitchell, Jenny made a crazy quilt in prison from her streetwalker clothes, which included the embroidered portrait of Jenny's dead husband. I learned about her first through the legend of the quilt, but when I discovered the existing historical record, it opened up more questions and contradictions than it solved.  For instance, according to the lawman who tracked her down in Mexico after she fled Cripple Creek in order to avoid arrest, Jenny came back willingly to face trial, and yet, he also enlisted the help of a fugitive from the law to bring her back into the U.S. There are contradictory portraits of Jenny as an innocent abused woman, and also as a seductress who tricked men into marrying her and then took advantage of them in different ways.  In the poem I wanted to render the difficulty of knowing who this woman really was, since her story is made up of shards and fragments of her life, as well as of the cultural narratives about prostitutes and other discredited women.  Somewhere in the gaps between these various stories, between the various versions of Jenny's life, and in the life stories of other women like her, we might get closer to the truth of her story. 

LV: I am by no means an expert on early human societies. But from what I know of those societies, it seems like the earliest works of art—cave paintings, woven objects, baskets—were likely made by women rather than men and / or at the very least those objects were assembled in the domestic sphere.

In the closing section of the book “Ars Domestica / Art of the Native” you have poems such as “Recipe: Hinterland Tamales,” “Note to the Owner of the Restaurant Where My Daughter Works,” and even an ode “To the Spoon.”

Do you see these poems as deliberately blurring the line that separates the domestic sphere from the world of art or was your intention behind those poems different?

I don't know who crafted domestic objects in ancient times, but in our own time, these objects are associated with women.  I chose the title "Ars Domestica" because, as you say, poems in this section reference arts that are considered the traditional work of women, and these are associated with the home.  I love to write about cooking and food, and foodlore. These rituals I think are at the heart of cultural experience. But "ars domestica" also references the domestic in a national sense, hence "art of the native," the other part of the title.  If we think about the "domestic" it's a space where women and colonized people, and our arts, are also marginalized or contained.  I want to turn domestic space inside out in these poems, and to challenge the distinctions of between the domestic and the public sphere.

LV: Poet and critic, Diego Baez, in describing the sectioned poems in the “Mexican Jenny” series choses an apt word: “stitch.” Jenny’s life is stitched from “historical records and scholarly sources.”

Your biographical sketch also describes you as a “textile artist.”  What role do the textile arts play in your poetry, how do these compare to your craft as a poet and what do they teach you about putting together such an intellectually complex, and well-researched poem like that of “Mexican Jenny”?

I have always been a needlewoman, I learned to sew, embroider, crochet, and knit early in my life, and these activities have always been pleasurable and meaningful to me.  About fifteen years ago, I started to quilt.  In quilt making, you take what are often leftovers of garments or other other fabrics and piece them together into a new whole, and the fragments carry with them the echo or the memory of their original use, so quilts made in this way are like archeological pieces with layers of memories stitched together.  I found this process to be both deeply fulfilling, as well as a respite from my constant preoccupation with language.  In the visual arts, I found a place virtually outside of language, and this was deeply satisfying.  To find a space where I could set words aside was a big relief, and at the same time, it reinforced a lot of what I already knew about writing, about setting one word next to the other, one stanza or image, one page, infused with the echoes that are ingrained in language, to create a whole. I feel like, even when I wasn't writing much, by quilting,  I was engaged in a similar process of creation.

When I first read that Mexican Jenny had made a crazy quilt in prison, I knew she was a woman engaged in the act of storytelling, I recognized what she was doing as a life-documenting process, and that became my entrypoint into her story.  As as quilter, writing about a quilter, I was confident I could make a narrative from the fragments of her history I was able to scrape together.  It may not be the way others would tell it, but I could piece something together that had integrity as a reflection on Mexican Jenny's life.  I could write a poem charged with the complexities and contradictions inherent in her story and still find coherence and unity. Just like a quilt.

LV: I have two more observations / questions regarding the title poem:

She--Jenny--was also an artist, a storyteller and craftswoman in her own right; wasn't she? at least in the narrative that you built but also as evident from her own crazy quilt:

When I learned to sew in the prison workshop,
other women gave me clippings
from their own finery.
Little by little I dismantled those dresses
into scraps that told my story,
beginning with flor de jamaica,
with swallows, and butterflies....

And she--Jenny--is also very cognizant of her craft and of the power of her craft which is a very feminine power, a power that is also often overlooked by men--perhaps because it is thought of as no more than “small and inconspicuous:”

The needle is never a threat.
Small and inconspicuous,
its sharpness isn't considered deadly.
Ubiquitous as air
no one would suspect
what a needle might do.

Do you want to comment on this?

I absolutely feel that there's a language to the textile arts, that in making her quilt, Jenny was speaking her story with the materials she had at hand.  The quilt she makes is an echo of the embroidered silk shawl she sees, and later steals, at the beginning of the poem.  She recognizes that the shawl is an item people value.  It's imported from China, brought to Acapulco as part of the long history of trade between China and Mexico via the Philippines.  The shawl invokes for her a story of travel to distant places.  It plants the seed of her eventual journey to Colorado. 

Until recently I viewed Mexican Jenny's quilt as a legendary object.  Although, as I write in the note that accompanies  the poem,  the quilt was exhibited in Colorado in the 1990s,  in my research, I was unable to locate any other record of it.  There's a database of significant quilts housed at the University of Nebraska, the Quilt Index, and the quilt isn't listed there.  I had figured that the origins of the quilt could not be substantiated, and so it had been quietly stored somewhere as a historically insignificant object,  but after Mexican Jenny and Other Poems was published, I heard from the woman who currently owns the quilt.  The quilt's current owner is the granddaughter of Eugenia Mitchell, a quilter and quilt collector, whose original donation of 100 quilts was used to establish the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.  It turns out that Mitchell never donated Jenny's quilt to the museum because she couldn't part with it, and when Mitchell died in 2004, the quilt passed to her granddaughter.  The point I'm trying to make is that the quilt definitely spoke to Eugenia Mitchell, a woman who, from what I've read, also struggled.  She worked during her life as farmer and as a domestic, through two difficult marriages.  Only after the 1970s did she receive some attention as a folk artist and collector, but before that, she was a woman, like many, who'd struggled to make a living and to express herself.  My feeling is that Jenny's quilt spoke to Eugenia Mitchell, and that she related to the story it told, a very common story of feminine struggle. 

LV: Regarding the selling of the quilt--how did you as an artist react to this fact, and how did it affect your artistic rendering of Jenny's crazy quilt? You write:

I was sorry to see the quilt go,
but the money bought me
a train ticket to El Paso,
then on to Ciudad Chihuahua.

What could I do
but go back to the life,
sick as I was?

Would it be too out there for me to suggest that the selling of the quilt--as necessary as it was for raising funds--was also another form of violence?

Yes, definitely.  It is also another way of commodifying the labor Jenny, and other women, perform as domestic workers, as sex workers, as married women with household obligations.  It's just another step in that process.  Women's work has economic value, even as women are poorly compensated for their labor.

LV: In Mexican Jenny and Other Poems there are a set of poems preoccupied with fables and mythology: “Beauty Sleeping,” “Goldilocks,” “Little Red,” and “Lady Bountiful,” how do you see these poems fitting within the larger themes of labor, art-making and storytelling (the recording of historical memory especially as it relates to women)?

These poems, especially the first three, are my remaking of important metanarratives of my childhood: fairy tales.  As a child I internalized the structures of these stories, but as a feminist, I wanted to remake them to render more critical insights about gender, race, and social class.  So Little Red's grandmother is the hero of that poem, she wields the axe to fight off the wolf, and then passes that lesson down to her granddaughter.  Goldilocks becomes a cautionary tale about early pregnancy and marriage, and Sleeping Beauty is a girl who can't sleep because of her growing consciousness of the violence in the world that's directed at women and girls, and especially toward girls of color.  These poems are also critical reflections on the experiences of women I know, and of my own life.  They register a dissenting view of the ideals of womanhood that many women are taught by culture as we grow up.

LV: Twenty-five year separate the publication of Speak to Me From Dream and Mexican Jenny and Other Poems, can you share a little with us regarding what kept you going during those twenty-five years? Who are some of your most enduring influences? What pushes you through that infamous wall and can’t no longer write?

Between the publication of Speak to Me From Dreams and Mexican Jenny and Other Poems,  I wrote some, but I stopped sending work out, and I became disconnected from any writing community.  However, I was thinking.  And I finished a Ph.D., and established my academic career.  Although I wasn't writing  or publishing much poetry, I thought a lot about narrative, and about storytelling, I wrote my dissertation about the narrative writing of women of color, specifically, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo.  I've been preoccupied with narrative, gender, and race since my first book, which is organized around the three "Maria" poems.  I was influenced in this work, by Lucha Corpi's book Palabras de Mediodia, and especially by her Marina poems, which she wrote about la Malinche.  Early on, Gary Soto also encouraged me to write narrative poems.  I've taken his advice to heart ever since. 

In terms of writing through long silences and other barriers, I've learned to give it time.  So far, the poetry always resurfaces.

LV: And finally, can you please tell us more about CantoMundo and its relationship to your poetry? You were recently named part of that organization’s organizing committee...

I was chosen as an inaugural fellow of CantoMundo in 2010.  CantoMundo offers a small group of Latin@ poets the opportunity to learn from each other and to take workshops with Latin@ master poets over a few days every summer.   When I read the call for applications, something in me clicked, I knew I was ready to start writing more actively again.  I'd had a poetry manuscript in the works for more than ten years, but I was sort of stuck with it.  When I was accepted to CantoMundo, I started writing seriously again, and eventually, I even sent out work.  The encouragement and support  of that community has been critical to the completion of Mexican Jenny, and to me having the confidence to submit it to the Philip Levine Prize.   Winning the prize and having my book published has been the fulfillment of a dream, and CantoMundo has been a big part of creating the conditions that allowed me to finally write the second book.  Because I feel so strongly about the importance of this community, I applied to join the coordinating committee, and I will replace a retiring committee member this summer.  I am dedicated to building CantoMundo, so that other Latin@ poets can have the experience I had, and also so that we can grow  and nurture the Latin@ poetry community.


BARBARA BRINSON CURIEL is a native of San Francisco, California. She has recently published poems in the journals: Kweli, Huizsache, and The Acentos Review, as well as in the chapbook anthologyMirage. Her poems are included in the 2011 collection Cantar de Espejos: Poesía Testimonial Chicana por Mujeres published in Mexico, and in anthologies including: Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature From California; The Floating Borderlands: Twenty-five Years of U.S. Hispanic Literature; Literatura Chicana 1965-1995; and in the forthcoming Anthology of Latino Poetry. Barbara's first book of poetry, SPEAK TO ME FROM DREAMS, was published in 1989 (Third Woman Press). She published two chapbooks, Nocturno, and Vocabulary of the Dead, early in her writing career. Her 2010-2012 fellowship with CantoMundo, the national organization for Latino poets, has fostered a renewed period of writing and publishing after a hiatus devoted to family and career. Most recently she is the author of MEXICAN JENNY AND OTHER POEMS (Anhinga Press, 2014).

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