Nefelibata: Interviews with Latina Writers
curated and conducted by ire’ne lara silva
(n.) lit. "cloud walker"; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination, or one who does not obey the conventions of society, literature, or art.
Installment #2: Jessica Helen Lopez
1. In the first and titular poem, you write:
“the cunt is not a rude house guest
soiling the kitchen towels, sneaking
bacon scraps to your arthritic dog
the cunt is not a rapist
nor a necromancer
because Webster says it so
cunt is the most disparaging word
in the English language
it will make men
both want to fuck you
and bash your face in
because of this they are fire engine
because of this
you should wear it
like a good perfume on
the soft side of the wrists”
I’m interested in this conflicting, push-and-pull vision of the cunt you express in this poem and all the ways you seek to reclaim how the cunt has been disparaged. Though the collection is titled Cunt.Bomb., the first poem states, “the cunt is absolutely/not a bomb/it will not hand-grenade explode/ your skull open like a cantaloupe.” What compelled you to reclaim the word, cunt, and how did the Cunt.Bomb. concept help to inspire and organize the rest of this collection?
I think the push and pull of the poem and the word Cunt itself is rooted in how it is viewed in today’s society (and the past too, of course) – with confusion, fear, awe, therefore belittlement and degradation. The degradation and abuse is directed at the woman and (our biological beings/our spiritual vagina/our ability to mother) and the word cunt becomes an easy bull’s-eye. The cunt is a bomb. It incites immediate fear, panic, censorship, and hatred. The hatred is directed at the female body and the multiplicities of our sexuality because it cannot be controlled. And if it cannot be controlled then it must be bridled, destroyed, and shamed into submission. It is also a detonator for radical paradigm shift. I love the word cunt. It is explosive, but still, yet only a one syllable word, and truly not a bomb at all. I am both immensely angered and amused when individuals lose their shit over the usage of the word cunt. For that matter, over the usage of FEMINISM, VAGINA, LESBIAN, WIFE, MOTHER, DAUGHTER, SISTER, and WOMAN. I understand that a dialogue should and must occur, especially when the conversation can happen in a safe space. Especially when that conversation includes mostly, if not all women. Sometimes there is a generational gap regarding the use of the word cunt, maybe even culturally. Or perhaps a woman has heard the word cunt only in the context of being deeply insulting. But isn’t it sad that cunt, synonymous for vagina, is considered the worst anyone can ever be called in the history of insults? Also, I don’t necessarily want my male allies to start sprinkling their everyday conversations with the word cunt. Not yet. Not until all things perceived as women are elevated to a safety that reflects true awareness, equity, respect, and non-violence. However, I certainly don’t want allies to cringe either at the wonderful jewel of the word that is cunt. After all, how can men and women alike be appalled at a poem that is working to promote feminism and yet not rise from their seats when they hear derogatory lyrics on popular culture radio airwaves? It is about a reclamation of language and identity. It’s about reading between the lines. It’s about radicalism that should be a display of everyday common sense, compassion, and humanity. It’s about taking back the cunt.
2. One of my favorite poems is “Thought Woman.” It’s a gorgeous creation song:
“…She named me Xilonen.
Thought Woman sang me into this world—
to let me cry, to bleed,
give babies to this land,
invoke dream stories,
to inscribe the world with
My something is bone song.
is holler woman.”
The inclusion of Thought Woman, Xilonen, Tonantzin, and the filth eaters in this poem and other made me wonder what drew you in particular to invoke these feminine deities or these aspects of the feminine divine?
I wanted especially, “Thought Woman” to be included in this small collection. Without Thought Woman there would be no Cunt. Bomb. Thought Woman is Cunt. Bomb. Without realizing it, when I wrote Thought Woman, it became the impetus for this collection. I wrote this poem during a series of workshops that I hosted two years ago titled, “La Palabra: The Word is a Woman.” The workshop went on to become a collective of women and gender-identified women writers. We support one another in not only our writing endeavors, but also how we navigate this world as women. The feminine divine is creation, destruction, creation, and so forth. I am forever a seeker and this poem soothes me when I feel displaced. Sometimes, my identities clash (teacher, mother, daughter, writer, rebel, cochina, pocha, feminist, chicana) and I feel a dissonance that leaves me reeling with anxiety. This poem is a prayer. It helped to settle my fears when I wrote it. Still now, when I re-read it, the poem calms me further. I included the different aspects/traits of the feminine divine because I sought to portray the multiplicitous nature of woman. She is child bearer, yes (of babies, ideas, poems, etc.) but she also knowns when it’s time to kick some ass. She can imbibe the filth, therefore cleanse the spiritual palette. She is keen in sensing acrimony and working to restore the balance. She also understands that harmony comes and goes. When I say I am a seeker, what I mean to say is that I seek to invoke Thought Woman, Tonantzin, Xilonen, and the filth eaters through my writing. However she may manifest is up to her.
3. In “A Poem for My Breasts,” “Kissy Kissy,” and “Wednesday’s Wife,” there’s clearly a struggle between the narrators’ ideas about freedom and feminism and a conflict w/ relationships, specifically heterosexual relationships. What were you working out in these poems? Additionally, I think these lines pulled at me because I’ve always been obsessed with wondering what freedom looks and feels like—what are its real, physical dimensions? Why is it so difficult to see freedom in these ways and so difficult to live our concepts of freedom?
I don’t remember how old I was when I realized that being a girl somehow equated to being “less than” (which is to say I feel like I must have always felt that way growing up). Sexism and misogyny was ingrained within my family dynamic and societal culture, both local and global. I was always and will be forever aware of it. That being said, I felt rebellious from a very early age. It couldn’t have always been like this, could it? In fact, I didn’t think I was less than, (not innately) but I was troubled that others did. I witnessed women succumb to traditional subservient roles within my immediate and extended family. I saw it on television, in advertisements, in my very own classroom, in church, in the workforce, in politics, within romantic relationships, and the whole damn world, really. I became a hyper-sensitive. Writing helped me sift through my troubled feelings. It allowed me a freedom that I could not express in daily life.
4. I found Cunt.Bomb. to be ferociously honest—it exalts womanhood and freedom but at the same time is willing to expose both compromise and fear—especially as related to the roles of ‘mother,’ ‘daughter,’ ‘wife.’ How does the woman as poet make her peace with these roles?
I think by making peace with both the complimentary and contradictive nature of mother/daughter/wife roles is to recognize one’s own survival skills. When you add writer and traveler to the mix it becomes even more complicated. Becoming a mother doesn’t mean that personal goals should dissolve. It does not mean that our personal passions wither and must play second fiddle to the role of wife or even the role of mother. This may sound selfish to some. But, I view it like this: I don’t want my daughter to abandon her wild woman instinctive nature once (if) she weds or mothers children. In fact, I hope that as she matures she acknowledges her sexuality and preferences without shame and with the innateness that is attributed to it. At the same time, it is important that she know too, that there are those who will want to abuse it. Men, lovers, media representation, society, family, and even the academe. I want her to be as prepared as possible for all scenarios that may come her way that could potentially compromise her freedom. I do not live in fear and I hope that my daughter does not either. However, I hope for her the survival skills of the pragmatic, ever-creative woman.
5. My favorite poem, “Diana the Huntress” written from the point of view of the woman vigilante who killed at least two bus drivers suspected of kidnapping/delivering young women to their brutal deaths in Juarez. I want to share these lines:
“The newspapers jabbered like angry bees
and the AP wire was alive with the
electricity of my name
Diana the Huntress
and I fear no moon, Lady of Wild Creatures
La Cazadora worshipped by the womanly
My sisters are frightened mares
Some might say I will perish in hell
with the rest of them
the men—adept at removing women’s faces
removing their breasts like too-soon petals
the milk of their skin, the floating
flotsam peeled beneath the killer’s knife
They like to leave behind bite
marks on the buttocks
They like to leave behind dead babies
cradled within eviscerated wombs
Decomposed flesh resting inside decomposed
And should I burn in the seventh layer
it is of no consequence to me
place me in hell and I will kill them all
As Xicana women, even those of us far from Juarez, it is necessary to speak our concerns and outrage for women in danger there and everywhere—but also because we must refute the spiritual and psychological harm done to us when violence like this can exist and go unpunished in the world. What drew you to writing this poem as Diana the Huntress?
A friend told me of Diana the vigilante one late afternoon as I dwindled away in a dusty college office. He emailed me the newspaper link. I was immediately drawn to the article and began a four hour research frenzy. The incident in which “Diana” had successively shot one bus driver and then the next had only happened a few weeks before. Both men were known as notorious sexual perpetrators and were said to have assaulted the Mexican women who worked in the borderlands factories in Juarez. I was inflamed with anger. This was nothing new, because as to date, thousands of women have gone missing or turned up murdered along the border. Rather, I was incensed in a way that I had not felt before. I felt a spiritual tremor deep in the pit of my gut. I realized that I approved of these acts of murder. No, I do not call them murders. Though some might. I call them desperate acts of necessary self-defense. I call them cunning because the shootings had to be clandestine. This act of retaliation, justice, woman-warrior, and self-defense is the stuff that corridos are made of – like Joaquin Murrieta or Pancho Villa. Diana the Huntress es la soldadera. I draw comparisons to the groups of Hindu women who are referred to as the Gulabi Gang (Pink Sari women). These women are activists and work as a team to deflect and prevent violence against women. They threaten men with their laathis sticks until they stop beating their wives and daughters. They fight back against rampant rapists, corrupt officials, and men who prey on girls or seek child brides. It is my hopes to create a series of poems that focus on women warriors both past and present. I would like to write (perhaps personal pieces) a collection that speaks to the stories of Amazonian spirits, guerrilla female soldiers, soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution, and the Kenyan women of Umoja who live in their own village of only girls, women, and young boys that they raise not to harm females. It would be wonderful to have the luxury of time and the ability to research thoroughly this collection. I have started, but as a blue-collar writer, busy mama, day and event teacher, it is slow coming.
6. There’s a gorgeous forward on the website that’s not actually in the chapbook. I wanted to share it with our readers and ask you if you wanted to comment further:
“These precious jewels of epiphany continue to guide me as I uncover for myself women, gender-identified women and allies who advocate for equality, who fight against the oppression and pillage against women and of course who dive whole-heartedly into the vastness and mysterious complexity of unbridled sexuality. Yes, I love the cunt. Yes, I have one. And yes, I will continue to use the word because it is not disparaging but rather has been wrangled into submission for hundreds of years; only to be used against women and girls as a tool for abuse and means of brutal capitulation. For those who recoil at the thought of the title of this humble chapbook, I invite you to sit and listen/read for a bit. The poems included are but a small journey stitched together to create my life as a mother, daughter, sister, poet, and woman of color. Woman. Cunt.”
Thank you dear ire’ne for sharing my forward. It was not included in the first batch of Cunt. Bomb. chapbooks but is now. My editor at Swimming With Elephants Publications graciously added it upon my request.
7. After releasing a full-length poetry collection (Always Messing with Them Boys, West End Press, 2011), did you feel there was more freedom/flexibility with writing/publishing a chapbook with Swimming with Elephants Press? How do you feel that your work—both your publications and your work as a slam poet have meshed with the position of Poet Laureate of Albuquerque? And lastly, what are you working on now?
I write this response to you as I sit in a small internet café in Granada, Nicaragua. I am overlooking a lovely, lush courtyard and in about two hours I will be sharing several poems from Cunt. Bomb. and my third newly released title, “The Language of Bleeding: Poems for the XI Festival Internacional de Poesia.” My mother, Gloria Lopez, helped to translate my poems into Spanish. I say “helped” but, as a pocha, what I really mean to say is that she worked very hard to translate ALL of the eight poems in my new small collection. The collection was created specifically for the festival but it will be carried at some local Albuqueque book stores, online at SWEP and Amazon, and also at the Albuquerque Museum where I will read and book sign upon my return. I am currently teaching 6th grade at Native American Community Academy. I run the poetry program there and at night I teach a University of New Mexico Chicana Studies class, “Borderlands Poetics.” As the volunteer coordinator for the upcoming Women of the World Poetry Slam National festival/tournament, I have been extremely busy. This leaves very little time to write but I have managed to eek out a few pieces here and there. I am currently in my “roll them sleeves up,” mode and I am working hard toward these goals that I feel, once complete, will satiate my need to coordinate safe spaces for others to write and share their stories. By the summer I would like to retreat unto myself for a bit and focus on my personal writing. Until then, I know I must work hard to prove myself as a more than adequate poet laureate. I am a woman. I am used to working hard. That old adage is true about women having to work twice as (thrice or more if you ask me) than men in order to gain the due credit and recognition within their respective fields. I juggle much. But that’s okay. On days when I feel the world become too slippery to grasp, I channel the power of the multi-armed goddess, Kali. Or I have a good cry in the privacy of my shower or in my bedroom. Just like our planet, a good rain storm is very cleansing.
I come from slam poetry. I am a slam poet. I am also a poet laureate. I am the poet laureate of Albuquerque. I am a mama. I am a teacher. I am a lover. I am a warrior/llorona/chingona/mentirosa/storyteller/chismosa/poeta Xicana.
I’m all kinds of other stuff too. But this is how I feel today.
Jessica Helen Lopez has recently been named the City of Albuquerque Poet Laureate. She has also been a featured writer for 30 Poets in their 30’s by MUZZLE magazine. Lopez is a nationally recognized award-winning slam poet, and holds the title of 2012 and 2014 Women of the World City of ABQ Champion. She is a member of the Macondo Foundation. Founded by Sandra Cisneros, it is an association of socially engaged writers united to advance creativity, foster generosity, and honor community. Her first collection of poetry, Always Messing With Them Boys (West End Press, 2011) made the Southwest Book of the Year reading list and was also awarded the Zia Book Award presented by NM Women Press. Her second collection of poetry, Cunt.Bomb. is published by Swimming with Elephants Publication (2014).
She is the founder of La Palabra – The Word is a Woman collective created for and by women and gender-identified women. Lopez is a Ted Talk speaker alumni and her talk is titled, Spoken Word Poetry that Tells HERstory. You may find some of Lopez’s work at these sites – thebakerypoetry.com, newmexicomercury.com, and asusjournal.org. Her work has been anthologized in A Bigger Boat: The Unlikely Success of the Albuquerque Slam Scene (UNM Press), Earth Ships: A New Mecca Poetry Collection (NM Book Award Finalist she was also a co-editor), Tandem Lit Slam (San Francisco), Adobe Walls, Malpais Review, SLAB Literary Magazine, Courage Anthology: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls (Write Bloody Press) and Learn then Burn: A Modern Poetry Anthology for the Classroom, Second ed. (Write Bloody Press). Lopez is the Volunteer Coordinator and planning member for the Poetry Slam Incorporated (PSi) 2015 Women of the World National Poetry Slam Tournament to be hosted in Albuquerque. She is a book reviewer for World Literature Today Magazine.
ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, TX, and is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press, 2010) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award and flesh to bone (short stories, Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the 2013 Premio Aztlan, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for Foreward Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. In 2015, Aztlan Libre Press will publish her second full length collection of poetry, blood sugar canto.
ire’ne is the recipient of the 2014 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, as well as a Macondo Workshop member and CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.