From the CD The City Within (2006), featuring poets from the City College of New York.
an interview with Sheila Maldonado
by Ae Hee Lee
Note: There is a peculiar energy in Maldonado’s poetry that had me hooked. The speaker in one-bedroom solo does not hesitate to laugh at or lament about the circumstances and instances of (simply) life. To translate words and voices. To structure and challenge structure. To have one mouth speak in one, two, three genders. Personally, I find nothing more enjoyable than reading a book that shows not only how much thought went into the writing, but also delight.
1. In one-bedroom solo you write deeply personal poems, many revolving around the theme of family. There are poems that present family members being detached from each other, poems about the speaker being connected to her family, and poems that sing of an identity apart from family that keeps developing in the city, the one-bedroom space (ex. “Homebody”:
I squeezed out of there before I got smothered.
Let them say what they like, their words roll off
my shell. It’s safe to be tender, naked
Could you share with us your thoughts on family culture and its relationship to individual identity? How do you find these things appear or are explored in your poetry?
I think of the book as fragmented biography, like I am concealing and revealing but perhaps I am concealing a lot less than I think. I do want to make the bio strange in some way, which I think a lot of writers do, and particularly for Latino poets, I think there is plenty of family and personal history at play. I don’t think I would write personally though if the form didn’t work for the content, if it weren’t shaped in some way that I think works for the poem or for me. It is an odd angle or perspective I am aiming for, not just a revealing of personal information. It is only when I find that shape or those words that I feel comfortable revealing. My perspective is one versionof a personal history, shaped yet incomplete. I am interested in making a version of that history that surprises me as well as a reader, not just the same old story I have in my head or a story that might be expected of me.
I do want to detach from family certainly in many ways, writing-wise and life-wise, individuate, yes, but they were the first world I learned to analyze, the first world I observed. I am still attached to them in many ways. I live in the same city and visit every week. I am from a small family, a small people overall, and we tended to isolate from neighbors and the outside world in general growing up, so my family filters my worldview. There is no writing around them; it is writing through them. We were some of the very few people from our part of the planet, Honduras, Central America, on that block in Coney Island, in that borough, Brooklyn, in this city, New York that was Puerto Rican if it was any Latino, that was then Dominican, and now Mexican, that was never us, although the Mexicans now do remind me of how I grew up, apart, withdrawn, never dealing with lo ajeno, only dealing with your own. I can do what one is told to do when they write, write from what you know, and I felt I knew best all the complex ways my family works and doesn’t. You can’t be so isolated with each other and not feel a tremendous burden to be too many things to each other. It was hard enough being myself but then to be dutiful daughter and star student and virtuous virgin, it’s a lot to take on and that is the plight of many of us and writing takes well to plight. Since the plight can be common, I do again want to make it odder, funnier, flip it around and look at it another way. And my version is just mine right now, not necessarily the story, say, someone in my family would tell, or even a version I would tell in the future.
2. There are many instances of not only code-switching in your book but of translation. I enjoyed every one of them because of their ludic approach to sound and language, while at the same time they touched upon the subject of gain and loss in/through translation. In “Cabo de Gata” and its translation “Girl Cat Cape,” although the sounds repeated in the two poems are different from each other, the feel of the poem is reproduced to a certain extent in both Spanish and English through alliteration. However in the poem “Bubbles of Love,” the song by Juan Luis Guerra is translated by the “girl, deep in the recesses of Brooklyn,” who though gets most of the song’s meaning, does not understand what “en vela” is in the context of “pasar la noche.” I am curious to know more about your translation process. That is, when working on a translation, what elements of language and verse do you pay attention to? What do you think can translation do for a reader? What can it not do?
I can be very literal when I translate, especially myself. It’s crude but I might be crude. I am glad to be an adult and mock the torture I suffered as a U.S.-born, quickly English-speaking grindia (gringa-india, term coined by my father, he was always so proud of it) growing up with family who were all born in another fully Spanish land. They were relentless about how terrible my Spanish was and I am much better at it now but also understand that I can mock their English in retaliation. Of course, that is where their mockery came from, their insecurity about not speaking English as well as I did. I lived with my Spanish insecurity. It was dueling language insecurities. I was reading in English very early and just swam in it, really loved it and had a good time with it and they were not having such a good time. I had Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton to teach me and my father was happy to see me take it up with such ease but my mom perhaps not so much. She was and still is, dark and hilarious in Spanish, just cutting, and I am looking to get that sense into some of the poems too, like the culo poem where she is just giving it to me, making fun of me and the words. Being in between all these experiences of language makes translation a really complex thing for me and I want a reader to go through the kind of awkward joy and turmoil that was and is my life between languages. I am into immersion that way, I want a reader to feel how I feel about language, which is pretty much every way, not just some type of way, as the children say, but all the ways, tragicomic, comitragic.
“Girl Cat Cape” is play on the name of a place in Spain where I went for a writing residency a few years ago. I know I was little more than a brute in that language homeland so kept my talk simple. “Maldonado” also plays on that old pronunciation training, “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain,” messing with all the language hoops I have had to jump through. I usually sing “Bubbles of Love” and with the Spanish I stick to the original song as close as possible, try to keep it delicate and romantic. The English is deformed andabsurd when I sing it. I want to convey living between those tones, what that experience is, kind of excruciating, but also a hilarity, a relief.
3. In “The Negative Representation of Sheilas in the Media” you seem to address the tremendous power the usage of language has and how it can influence identity and expectation of an identity. In this poem’s case, “the/ popular portrayal of my name and/ all its hookerish connotations.” Similarly, in the poem “Maldonado,” the name’s denotative meaning (“my name in spain/ means mainly that I’m lame ”) affects the identity of the speaker. In what other ways would you say language and words, English and Spanish, have shaped your identity as Sheila Maldonado and a Latina writer?
I’m glad you ask me about my identity as me as well as my identity as a Latina. The title for “Negative Representation” is a play on the idea of Latinas as negatively represented in media, of course, the classic representation of Latina as a pretty sexualized being, the J.Los and all (who I must say I adore and can do no wrong for me as long as she shakes it, she can shake away horrible moments in her career like Bordertown and working with Iggy Azalea; I like to say I am professor of J.Lo studies). I used to work in media representation of Latinas at a commercial publication and I am interested in that discussion as serious and ridiculous as it can be. What I most learned from that is when I’m writing I speak for me more than I do Latinas but our issues overlap in serious and ridiculous ways. I know I will always be asked to speak for Latinas in some way because that is what happens to writers of color, women writers etc., but I want to take some moment to say I live my particular experience in my name, in my skin and that is what makes me want to write, that particularity. And I happen to have a first name that is somewhat odd for a Latina, it’s somehow both Irish and Black at the same time, it’s also basically the word for chick or girl in Australia. I’ve met women with this name who have felt the same sexual connotation I’ve felt from it over the years and I think it’s fun to overlap that with the idea of a Latina as temptress. It’s a good angle with which to work. It’s etymology and definition, the most basic idea of you and I like working on that small level. Working on the level of “Latina,” of that large amorphous mash-up American identity, has not always been as satisfying or trustworthy. I feel grounded working from me and who I’ve been. I know I have a Latina experience but I also have a Sheila Maldonado one, hija de Mando y Vilma, Coney Island and Honduras, Pisces and late ’70s/early ’80s tomboy.
“Maldonado” was drawn directly from a dictionary of Spanish names I looked up in Spain and it was like I found a little key to my family’s sense of themselves, especially my father’s sense of himself, a cursed sense. It is a name as a curse. Poorly endowed, poor in many ways. It creeped me out to learn that ancient idea of failure and poverty might lurk in our name. Being from Honduras feels that way at times as well, from the time of the Maya on, this idea of being from a continually failing place gets under my skin and again I am interested in that overlap between this larger cultural sense of identity and a personal one, how an individual lives with it. A friend of mine suggested I write a reverse of the curse and that is why the title “biendonada” for the last poem, this sense of being blessed which I can feel at the very least with language, with the ability I feel I have to enjoy it even if it hurts or gets challenging.
4. I’m interested in your usage of form in your poetry. Sometimes you employ forms already existing, such as haikus. Other times you seem to set your own rules for structuring a poem, like in “Five Words a Line, Six Lines a Stanza, Seven Years of My Life.” Sometimes they appear as a prose poem in a block form, other times in a more organic and flowing and twisting form. What influences your choice in form and how do you feel it is connected to the content? For example, you used the Haiku form, a Japanese form that is centuries old, to speak of contemporary and foreign subjects (ex. McDonald’s, refrigerators, TV channels with Spanish and English…). What prompted you to do so? Is it related to celebrating the commonplace, the anything and the everywhere? With making a sacred ritual song out of the mundane (I’m thinking of “All Hail the Parking God” here)?
Form is where I get to play the most. I’m always interested in playing. Playing is serious work to borrow an idea from a kindred poet spirit, Matthew Burgess, who loves to play too. I do hope my forms do follow content somehow. I might be successful and sometimes not. What I’ve always loved about poetry are all the shapes it takes, all the ways you can go on a page, the visual that adds another element to the reading. “All Hail the Parking God” is made of these odd projective verse stanzas and at one point there is a calligram-like map of the streets I’m driving. It is as epic a poem as I write, about a minor thing that is pretty major in a city like New York, trying to find a parking space, that journey. It really can test your spirit and toughen you here, anyone who has faced that will tell you as much. I live for the small detail made large, I live for the everyday magic. I’m originally from Coney Island, a neighborhood as well as an amusement park, a ghetto with an ocean view. I grew up with manmade towers transformed by a sea breeze, an unobstructed sunset, enchantment in a land of concrete. New York is my hometown and sometimes my purgatory and I do just about anything to elevate the routine of living here, surviving here. With form, perhaps I do anything to elevate the routine of a stanza.
I love haiku because it is an form taught early to me and many in the NYC public schools, economical and memorable. It is pretty damn near perfect a shape to me, my fallback. The imagists were all about it. Seventeen syllables, a breath or so beyond pentameter. The focus on the picture, the mood, the suggestion. I appreciate the European forms, but the non-European ones just get me, I get them. I crave a non-European tradition, always wonder what would have been if the poetry in my family’s part of the world had survived, what would have been a Maya tradition that lasted well into modern time. That might be another reason I play with forms. I’m looking for the ones my people lost. I latch onto traditions that have lived, and so attach myself to the Japanese that is so strong. I believe when the haikus are funny, more mundane and not nature-based, focused on humans and their ridiculousness they’re actually called senryu. That’s probably what I do. Some of the haikus in the book address modern objects as natural beings because I am a city person and I don’t know nature that well, so talk to the toaster oven rather than the flowers. I think that’s allowed. I like to allow myself many ways to go.
Also I must say I teach for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, the oldest organization to send writers into the public schools to teach, I believe, and they were started by some seriously playful poets. Their books really taught me how to teach creative writing. They are so much fun and comprehensive in this unpretentious way. Luna, Luna, edited by Julio Marzán, and Sing the Sun Up, edited by Lorenzo Thomas, are some of my favorites, as well as Handbook of Poetic Forms edited by Ron Padgett. I met some playmates across time in those books, William Carlos Williams, Nicanor Parra, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, writers who made the simple extraordinary, who got their ideas from things, the concrete, the musical, all the truth that takes those shapes. I’m mostly doing what I learned there, teaching myself as I teach kids, the play and shape-shifting permeating my writing.
5. Finally, gender is something that seems to hover and pop up in one-bedroom solo throughout. Female and male, man and woman—the duality is usually explored in a single poetic context or, almost surreally, in a single body in terms of behavior (“one-bedroom solo”) or speech (“Caller Identity”: “enunciates female”… “she/spits male”). This makes me wonder how you conceive your poetry and your poetry-writing in terms of gender. Would you say it is female, male, both, none? Maybe you do not even think of it in these terms?
I know quite a few women who are their own man, who might be the best man they know. They grew up heavily influenced by their fathers and brothers, witnessing their strength and hypocrisy. They are like a lot of Latin women in the U.S. growing up with old, traditional, at times, misogynist ways and new, liberating, at times, confusing ways, caught between a lot of roles. Mothers were certainly influential but they were from another time, another place. They seem to accept tradition and perhaps could. It held for them to some degree. We were in between those times and places. We took on what was dominant, could argue like a man for instance, but still show emotion, still believe in it.
I see how my poetry can reflect that. The poems you chose deal with my mockery of my split self and my loneliness, as well as another friend’s duality, someone who lived a similar reality, having to be hard in tough ass New York, having to face rough streets but still wanting to live out some idea of womanhood, one she saw in the movies. Both of us grew up in hard areas and there is something that happens to your idea of gender in these places for everyone involved. I would call us tomboys but I hear that is not so fashionable now. Perhaps we are our father’s daughters. I think we might be making up in some way for the missing men, the men who don’t really live up to what we imagine. For that reason, we are open I believe to the idea of our selves as multiple. We’ve had to play a lot of roles, we couldn’t afford not to. The friend that inspired “Caller Identity” for instance is a single mom who had to be a father to her kids too. She, like I, have close male relationships, sometimes getting along better with men than women because we can respect the concealment of emotion we associate with men and how they survive. “One-bedroom solo” deals with the idea that I am pretty much alone and entertain myself with some notion of manhood and what that would be or has been in my life. I think my poetry reflects all the in-betweenness I and the people I know live, between realities, languages, countries, peoples, forms, and genders.
Sheila Maldonado is the author of one-bedroom solo (Fly by Night Press, 2011), her debut poetry collection. She grew up in Coney Island across the street from the Atlantic. Her family hails from Honduras. Her poems have appeared in Rattapallax, Callaloo, Hyperallergic, Aster(ix) Journal, and Me No Habla with Acento: Contemporary Latino Poetry. She teaches creative writing for The City University of New York and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She holds degrees in English from Brown University and poetry from The City College of New York. She lives in uptown Manhattan above the Hudson. Look her up in www.sheilamaldonado.com.
Ae Hee Lee is a South Korean by birth and Peruvian by heart and memory. She is currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program of The University of Notre Dame and works as a graduate assistant for the university’s Institute of Latino Studies. You can find (or will find) her poetry in Dialogue, Cha, Cobalt, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Ruminate, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society, Day One, and Silver Birch Press.