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 #3: Interview with Sarah A. Chavez, author of All Day, Talking
Now available from www.dancinggirlspress.com
ils: ire’ne lara silva
SAC: Sarah A. Chavez
I loved the epigram by William Carlos William that you used at the beginning of this chapbook, “Be patient that I address you/ in a poem/there is no other/ fit medium.”
I thought the “Be patient” was significant because it said something about both poetry and grief—the poems exist and move between the griefs of the past to the griefs of the present to the griefs the reader knows the narrator will carry into the future—and patience is needed as both work themselves out in time. How did you feel the compacting and stretching of space, time, and language allowed you to find the astonishingly organic structures of these poems?
It’s funny that you should mention both the compacting and stretching of time, because managing time is one of those things I’ve never been good at. Though I’ve gotten better as an adult, I’m incurably late to things that aren’t “mandatory” (like a job), and it takes extra preplanning and effort to be on-time for those things that are (like a job). If I’m doing something I enjoy, like reading or swimming, time compresses and what I think was only twenty minutes, in the rest of world was 2 hours. When I do tasks that allow my body to move separately from the mental-emotional parts of my brain, like walking or doing the dishes (sometimes even when reading and writing) the same happens. It’s like my brain and heart live in a space where past and present are braided together and the in-substantive nature of time gets even foggier. That’s one of the reasons I think this form – the epistle – ended up being the best avenue for these poems. Letters require the writer to make contextual connections, even when the letters are written to someone they know very well. Even informative letters imply a kind of reflection, and reflection and time are inseparable. I think my natural inclination toward universal connectivity, particularly psychologically regarding past experiences and actions dictating present reactions and choices, including those affecting interactions with the people around us, helped me with language choices. Those language choices and the way recollection and reflection drive both the individual poems, as well as the collection as a whole, made the structuring and order of the poems in the collection feel organic; they follow the organic push/pull, looping around and back in on itself of memory.
My mother passed away almost fourteen years ago, and it was a grief that blasted me open. It’s a grief I’ll carry the rest of my life. I was in no way prepared for the way grief scoured me raw and clawed at my heart and left me howling and wailing. I was not prepared for grief in my body or for the memories that would return years later with such startling clarity.
I don’t know if it was that I never sought it out before, but it seemed to me that in all the reading I’d done, there had been nothing that reflected my grief. My grief had no dignity or serenity or graceful diminishing.
What I find striking in your collection is its rawness, its nakedness, its directness. Incredibly unafraid to share every moment, every bodily sensation, every soul-stabbing shard of pain. What inspired this collection and what do you hope it communicates to those who are grieving as well as the greater audience?
I find it a little ironic that you say the poems are “unafraid to share” all the viscosity of grief, because in some ways I think it was, at least in part, my fear of being open and vulnerable that led to this collection. The first poem in the collection was written out of a kind of desperation. I found myself transplanted to a new state, a prestigious university, the first person in my immediate family to pursue higher education, to leave California, the only person from the neighborhood of my upbringing to go to college, and I was surrounded by all these people born into families where that environment, the academic environment – though not without their own stressors and struggles – was familiar. There was an etiquette I lacked, a base knowledge of the game, of what was necessary to be viewed successful in the eyes of others. Despite the many people who made me feel welcome (especially Dr. Amelia Montes, who reached out to me right when I arrived), I felt so heavily my working-classness, my brokenness, the years I’d taken off from school, how intrinsically different the formative experiences from my childhood and adolescence were from my colleagues’. And no matter how hard I tried to be like them, I couldn’t help giving myself away, partly because there were things about my life I didn’t even know were fucked up until I saw the looks on the stunned faces of peers. I felt a stomach-sickening loneliness. At the same time I was so different from the people around me, I was also now different from the people at home: too much education, too much time away. I wasn’t just afraid of failure anymore (which nipped like a persistent yappy Chihuahua at my heels), I was afraid of losing myself.
The grief of those I have lost sits in my heart always, and of course, there are those special people whose loss we feel so much more intensely and I had been writing about that loss, but it wasn’t until those people – that person – felt like the only connection I had left to the person I was. All the pain and memories were no longer just about that person, but it was about the person I used to be, who I was with them, and how much more I was willing to lose – and I couldn’t bear to lose any more. I had to let myself feel everything to be able to hold on to what felt essential.
I never set out to write these poems, never intended to have a series or collection. The first “Dear Carole” poem was for a workshop assignment in the poet Grace Bauers’ forms class. Honestly, I initially chose the epistle out of laziness and a resistance to European received forms, but that first poem unlocked something inside me and I couldn’t stop writing them. The more I wrote, the more solid I felt, the more rooted in my body.
As for what I hope these poems might communicate to those people who are grieving, and even to those who haven’t felt the body-wracking hurt of that sort of loss, I guess, in part, though it sounds cheesy as hell, what I want to communicate is that grief – in whatever forms we experience it – is not deviant, it doesn’t need to be hidden or to go away. It’s okay to feel it. To sometimes allow yourself to sit in, bathe in it, recognize its hollowed-eyed face and understand it for what it is: an important part of our experience as human beings.
I’m curious which one came first--Beryl Brown’s painting or your poem, “Dear Carole, It’s Dia de los Muertos”
Dear Carole, It’s Dia de los Muertos
next to a package
of Hostess mini
from the 7-11
off of Dakota
where they never
and lit a black candle.
If your ghost
those little sugar bombs
by the time I get home
from the late shift
tonight, they’re mine.
For some reason, when I first saw the cover, I thought it was a painting of stars and far-off galaxies. It took me a while to realize that it was a painting of chocolate-covered donuts. How did this collaboration happen, and I’m curious to hear more about the subtle and every day ceremonies of remembering and commemorating in All Day, Talking?
I’m so glad you asked about the cover! I love it, and think Berly is a wonderful artist.
The poems actually came first. I met Berly through a yoga class. She was the instructor, one of the jobs she does to make money so she can live and paint. I’m usually a bit slow leaving yoga (I kinda don’t always want to go back out into the world), and constantly being the last one out the door, we ended up talking and it became an after-yoga class habit. Turned out we had a lot in common.
I had seen Berly’s work before and loved the thick lines, the bold colors, the way there was always a clear scene based in reality that through her use of colors and shading had an aura of surrealism around it. Another poet, Laura Madeline Wiseman, whose work I deeply admire, worked with a local artist for her cover with DGP, and this made me wonder if I could do the same with Berly. Once I got the green light from Kristy Bowen (the editor at Dancing Girl Press), I immediately got in touch with Berly.
When I approached her, she asked me what I wanted and I said, “I don’t know, you’re the talented painter.” I just wanted something that got at the heart of the poems, so I gave her the manuscript and she said she’d read it and think about it. A month later, we met again and she had a rough sketch of what is now the cover. When I think about images from the poems, I think about cigarettes and smoke and concrete, so I was surprised when it was that poem in particular she felt the most inspiration from.
Aside from the fact that it’s lovely, I think that image does a lot to represent the balance of emotions in the poems. Humor isn’t one of my strong suits, and neither is brevity, but that poem has both of those characteristics. It’s sort of stripped down to basics, to the ordinary. The donuts and cigarettes are small, everyday objects of life. There is nothing inherently symbolic about them, but I think that’s where real ceremony lies, with the items that are precious to the individual or to the dynamics of the relationship. Though culturally Chican@s/Mexican@s have a specific day to honor the dead where we gather and offer to them those things from life that brought pleasure, the pleasure is almost never intrinsically the object. I mean, mini donuts are delicious, but being able to have the concrete memory of sharing them with someone is what makes them precious.
I don’t know how other people experience this, but it’s almost like my every day is haunted by interacting or encountering basic objects that hold meaning and significance. And this includes places and spaces where experiences happened. It is in for this reason, though I cherish Dia de los Muertes, I never felt there was only one day to honor the dead, because every day is.
Throughout the poems, the narrator is observing and interacting with a lot of people—strangers, bus riders, vendors, a dentist, a father and daughter, a waitress, and so on. What I find interesting is that all of those real-world interactions pale in comparison to the compelling nature of the letters to Carole. That connection is so strong that even though the communication is one-sided, we are never left in doubt of its power. As we move through the poems, there’s the almost physical sensation of an ever-tightening embrace and of a growing isolation that finds no remedy in the outside world. How do you see the narrative arc of All Day, Talking unfolding? And how did you make peace with a grief which many times approaches madness?
When I wrote “Dear Carole, I wake up like this now,” the one the title comes from, I knew that was going to be the last poem in the collection. I’d only had a little over half the rest of the poems written, but I knew, no matter what poems came next, that was going to be the end, because that, to me, seemed to get at the heart of the matter – grief is omnipresent.
As for the narrative arc as a whole, I think I’m relatively terrible at poem-ordering, so for this chapbook, I felt lucky, because the beginning and the end seemed to present themselves to me. I knew at the beginning there needed to be an introduction of sorts for the reader to meet the speaker and Carole, to see them interact in the environment they inhabited. From there, I wanted the complexity of the relationship to unfold. Not just the moments that were loving, but a range of experiences. I wanted as honest and open an account of their interactions as possible. I do feel the poems grow in knowledge and intensity as you move through the collection, almost coming to a crescendo with “Dear Carole, Remember how much I hated throwing up?” In that one, the journey the speaker is on (the physical journey of walking the bike and the emotional journey of grief) pushes them to sickness and the sickness reaches a breaking point and the body erupts. The body, like the mind, has a boiling point, and the moment after that release, it feels good. Kind of a like a hard, ugly cry. Everything that built and built seems to dissipate and you’re left with an emptiness that makes you feel lighter. And the speaker in that letter gets to feel that emptiness, and like all feelings (I would argue), that feeling seems definitive.
The final poem is so important for the arc of the narrative because it highlights that no matter the emptiness of a moment, it never actually goes away. Saying life is an emotional rollercoaster is cliché, but like many clichés truth lies therein. Feelings come in waves; it ebbs and flows, sometimes sitting in the back of the mind like a faint smell that just slightly taints the space around and other times like cataracts covering the eyes, obscuring life. I wanted to be as honest as I knew how, and the only honest conclusion I’ve come to is that the world just keeps moving around you. I don’t know that I have made peace. If I had, would I still be mildly consumed with writing these poems? Though I suppose I have in that like the chemical depression I deal with, it is daily, and I’m able to meet each morning by doing only thing I know to do: look at it, give name to it, acknowledge its power and then keep going. To say, you are part of me and that part of me informs my capacity for compassion.
From “Dear Carole, Remember how much I hated throwing up?”:
last quarter mile from home, I felt my face catch fire, my eyeballs begin
to melt. My vision swam in my lava face and I doubled over into the
gutter and threw up all my memories of you. With my waist bent, my
face six inches from leaked transmission fluid, dust and dog piss, I
thought, this really isn’t so bad. It’s natural. Sometimes the body just
has to give something up.
This is one of my favorite poems. There is a visceral and bodily sense of the work of grief and the work of letting go. Loss involves so many different kinds of release: mourning, the push-pull of memories, the letting go of possessions. This poem made me experience that purge of emotions in a physical way, which made me also think of how writing itself is a purge of emotions. While many say that simply putting words down on paper is healing, I think the healing happens during the process of revision—that working and re-working of what we find on the page after the initial writing that allows us to move through and make peace with emotion and experience. Was this collection a purge for you? And what/how do you see the healing work of poetry taking place?
I think at first I saw it as a purge, a way to try to get rid of the gnawing, but I’m not sure that’s how it ended up functioning. I think it’s been more about a need to reach out, to communicate. When the real Carole died, I didn’t get to see her, hug her, touch her hand. I wasn’t given the opportunity to talk to her or attend the funeral. I had no closure and so very much I wanted to say; things I thought we’d have time for, but her illness was so quick, her death sudden. For such a long time, I really couldn’t believe she was gone. I mean, more than just the normal denial stage, it was like it was the cruelest hoax. I had so little physical evidence. Without being faced with the corporeal reality, it was like my brain and heart couldn’t, wouldn’t make that leap. In a way, I think I started writing these poems as a way to say things I never got to say, but also to work through feelings that without tending remained raw. I never expected closure, rather it was more a desire to shout out into the abyss and see if anyone answered back.
For me, the healing work of poetry – both reading and writing it – comes through communication and connection. The realization that I am not alone in whatever it is: fear, sadness, joy, a desire for justice. I remember when I had the realization that I could say anything I wanted in a poem. This is not to say that there aren’t consequences to doing this, but all those things I wished I could have told people, I wished I had done, the things that I had felt and bottled inside; everything that was a lost opportunity or completely inappropriate, here was this space. And if I felt comfort and healing from reading the anything and everything from other writers, if I’m lucky, what I have in me to say could provide this for someone else. Li-Young Lee once said in a workshop he needed poetry to live, and I thought, me too. We can’t be the only ones.
Another one of my many favorites:
Dear Carole, Pushing 85 mph north
up state route 99 windows down wind
ripping and scattering my hair in the dead
vegetation following along the concrete,
watching my driving arm grow
another shade darker, I realize
you were the only person I ever told
about wanting to be a truck driver.
…Even now, I can still see the white
of your thighs spilling out of jean shorts
filling the passenger seat, window open, long hair
knotted sloppy at the base of your neck, dragging
deeply on a Marlboro, watching
the horizon line, noting, the faster we drive,
the further away it gets.
I saw on Facebook that you also had a farmworker childhood. Were you also from a migrant farm worker family? My parents were migrant truck drivers/farmworkers. So when someone talks about driving a truck or being on the road, it sets up all these associations for me. Before google maps and phones with GPS apps, people had to look at maps and figure out routes. When you travel roads over and over again, they become repositories for memory and meaning. A road isn’t a fixed place—‘road’ always implies motion. And both roads and the horizon are eternal in the imagination. Could you speak a bit to the ideas of maps, roads, and eternity in your chapbook?
I’m not sure I’d be doing justice to those families and the children who work the farms season to season, before and after school (if not through or instead of), to claim a farmworker childhood. When I was 14, I did farm labor full time for one summer. I was never asked to pick, but I was paid piece meal to build wooden crates and construct boxes for shipping and if I worked fast enough and finished the quota for that day, in the afternoons I’d get to stand under an awning in an open shed and pack produce. I primarily packed basil, standing in water for hours, fishing bunches of basil out of a large square pool. Of all the things I remember from that summer, something that comes back to me at odd times is the fresh scent of that basil, always a mixture of the water and soil, the tang of the leaves.
One of the things that makes my experience different from the many families who rely on this work – including my father and his parents, and my grandfather’s parents before them who did rely on working the fields, lighting the smudge pots for the oranges in winter, picking grapes and lettuce, picking, canning and packing peaches – is that I did not have to do that work. I asked to do it.
My father is 1.5 generation Mexican American, my abuelo’s family having been Californios for a few generations, and my abuela is from Mexico City. The way they met, married and how she came to live and work without citizenship in Estados Unidos is a story too long to tell here. My father is the oldest of three sons, and from the time he was young until the end of high school, they traveled back and forth from Merced, CA to Mexico to visit familia. They would sometimes take him out of school to spend time on the other side of the border, and when they were back, he worked.
I grew up hearing the stories my dad told about staying up all night trying to keep the oranges from freezing and then barely having time to clean up before heading to school, the stories my abuelo told about quitting school before reaching 8th grade to work the fields and meeting and befriending all the “Okies” who migrated West during the Dust Bowl. My immediate family lived in a falling-apart mobile home with recalled plumbing in a drug-ridden, impoverished neighborhood, but no one ever asked me to quit school. In fact, I was privileged enough to attend a private Catholic school paid for through an anonymous benefactor from the church and academic scholarships. It was during that first year of high school I met one of my dearest friends whose parents own T&D Willey Farms, an organic farm outside Madera, CA.
It was a weekend during the last month of my freshman year of high school and I had spent the night at this friend’s house. Over breakfast, my friend’s parents talked about what her responsibilities on the farm would be that summer and she was complaining about having to work; why did she have to, isn’t that why they hired people, she wanted to ride horses or sunbath or do nothing; I don’t know, that part I don’t remember. What I do remember, was that I was desperate for a job. Being a year too young for a work permit, I was having trouble finding anyone who would take me, pay me under the table. I needed to work because even though I never went hungry or was without a roof, I still needed school uniforms and books. I wanted to save money; I already had plans for when I turned 18; I wanted to go to college. While they were talking, I think I said something along the lines of “I’ll do her work.” And that was that. Of course I didn’t do her work – the work of the owners’ kid – but they gave me a job, treated me like they treated their other employees. I was very lucky. They are good people, run a fair business, care about their crops and the people who work for them, with them. That summer, my dad – who frankly, I didn’t see all too often during those years – got up extra early before he had to be at work to drive 30 minutes out of his way to drop me off at the farm by 6 a.m.
At the time, I wanted to make money, yes, but I also wanted to understand, even just a fraction of what my father, grandparents, great grandparents, ancestors had to do. Fresno is an urban center, and I’ve had a lot of shitty, bottom of the barrel jobs (was never without at least one after that first job on the farm), but this was with the land, it was part of the legacy of mi familia, la raza. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted them to see how proud I was of my heritage, of how hard they worked in the hopes I wouldn’t have to. I wanted to embody their work ethic; I wanted them to be proud of me. Of course they were happy that I did well in school, but that education has also been a wedge, something that made me different. This was something we could share.
Highway 99 runs the entire length of the Central Valley, north all the way to Red Bluff and south down to the Grapevine, a windy pass a few hours north of Los Angeles. It’s lined with crops: cotton, almonds, pistachios, citrus, eggplant, oranges, peaches, garlic, tangerines, tomatoes, kiwis, hay, alfalfa. I’ve driven it countless times, back and forth, in and out of Fresno. It’s the road we took to visit my abuelitos, it’s the road we took to the farm. It’s the road I took to leave. When I think about roads, I think about leaving and arriving. I think about how roads don’t really end, rather they just change numbers and begin anew.
Do you have plans to expand All Day, Talking into a full-length manuscript? What else are you working on?
I do. I didn’t at first; I thought the chapbook would be it and I was done, that I’d gotten it out of my system, so to speak; that turned out to not be the case. I’m currently working on a full length manuscript that will largely consist of “Dear Carole” poems. Some of these new poems can be found on Tupelo Press’ 30/30 website. I participated in March of this year and was able to use the experience to work on some of the letters that were haunting me.
The other project that I’m working on is a series of turtle poems (which might be my next chapbook manuscript). I’ve always loved turtles and felt a fondness and fascination with the indigenous myths surrounding the turtle who held the Earth. I kept wondering whether that was a punishment or an honor? Was it fulfilling or just lonely? These questions brought me to thinking more about who this Turtle character might be and what their life might have looked like. The poems are informed by a fusion of Christian as well as indigenous mythology. The first poem in the series, a long sectional titled “When Turtle First Began to Carry the Earth,” was just published in the most recent issue of North Dakota Quarterly.
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.
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.