Across the Threshold of Emily Pérez’s
House of Sugar, House of Stone
interview by Sasha West
Poet Sasha West wrote of Emily Pérez’s first full-length poetry collection, House of Sugar, House of Stone, that Pérez “knows how to cast a spell. In this smart, brave book, she uses her honed musicality to enchant the reader while she plumbs the great domestic mysteries: How do you wed and stay a self? How do you both procreate and create? The dark forests of Grimms’ fairy tales pulse through her poems. By the time you leave the wilderness of her singing, you will have been changed. Home will never look the same again.”
The two recently had a deeper conversation about the origins of the book, the boundaries it pushes, and what comes next.
Your chapbook, Backyard Migration Route, examines liminalities in many ways: what it is to be both Latina and white, what it is to live on a border, what it is to belong to shifting spaces. How do you see your full-length collection, House of Sugar, House of Stone, engaging in the same territory?
The primary borders I’m exploring in this collection are the ones in families. I think you said it so well in your blurb; I want to know about the line between the self and the partner, the self and the collective. In families we make ourselves vulnerable to unknowable others—sometimes by choice and sometimes by the accident of when, where, and to whom we were born.
I am especially curious about the border between parents and children: the way their fears and secrets mingle, even if unspoken; the way their inner lives manifest in their outer worlds. In that way, this is also a conversation between the past and the present—how previous generations in a family influence the present day generation. I started the book before I was a parent, and at the time I identified closely with the children in my poems. Now that I’m a parent, my sympathies waver. My hope is that this shifting perspective gives readers multiple entry points.
Your book has an epigraph from the Brothers Grimm version of “Hansel and Gretel” and a number of poems return to the space of this story as a kind of ur-narrative of childhood, parenthood, danger, domesticity, and love. How did the space of the fairy tales guide and inform your work? What is it to write from out of the shadows of a Grimm forest?
Your question made me realize that the “shadows of a Grimm forest” are an odd vantage point for me, since a German forest is almost entirely unlike the place where I grew up, the semi-tropical Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. In fact, my family had a scrubby stand of trees in our side yard that we called “the woods,” and it wasn’t until I left Texas and encountered actual “woods” that I realized the irony in that name. So on a literal level, the Grimm forest is completely foreign, but perhaps this is what makes the Grimm forest a good choice for me on a metaphorical level.
My childhood was rich with all kinds of stories. I found tales haunting; I was both convinced and troubled by the logic and architecture of the Grimms, Anderson, Anansi, and the local folk tales of South Texas. These stories purport justice, and often “happy endings,” but it’s a dark justice, and if there’s happiness, it comes at a price.
Growing up, I had a feeling that my life needed to be “happily ever after” but this did not account for darkness or injustice. Fairy tales, especially Grimms’, captured the seeming paradox.
As an adult, “Hansel and Gretel” spoke to me especially. I originally chose it because I thought I was interested in how a girl and a boy navigated a crisis differently. Several poems into the project, I realized I was interested in the different ways people abandon each other in families.
By transcribing my own concerns onto well-known tales, I felt I could tap something both specific and universal. The stories allowed a certain kind of shorthand—there were things I did not need to explain. I felt liberated from factual autobiography; I could focus instead on the feelings.
While many of your poems come from the position of being a mother or being a wife, these poems seem less about the subject matter than they do about what kinds of speakers can say what kinds of things. Those roles become lenses through which to view the world. How does positioning the speaker in this way allow you to get at psychological material you couldn’t access in another way?
I had not thought of it that way, but you are right: these speakers are yearning to say the unsayable. When they do, however, they are not shouting from mountaintops; it’s more like they are confiding, as if there’s still danger in what they are saying.
The question of who is allowed to say what has always been a big one for me. In my father’s Mexican family, there were different rules for girls and boys. My mother’s white family prized stoicism and strength. Topics like mental illness were taboo.
If I think something is awry but nobody else acknowledges it, I feel like I’m crazy, and I felt that a lot growing up. When there were silences in my own family, tensions and undercurrents about things we could not discuss, home felt like an unsettled place.
Many teachers have told me to “write what scares me,” and what scared me was what wasn’t being said. I didn’t necessarily want to write about the secrets themselves; rather, I wanted to explore the feeling of living with secrets, the feeling of probing for or accidentally discovering knowledge that I did not want.
Your poems work against type in a beautiful way, allowing motherhood and domesticity to be complicated, vertiginous spaces. Did you have particular models in mind as you wrote these? What were you writing towards? And against?
At this point in literary history and feminism, plenty of people have written about darkness within the domestic. My early models were Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, and Lucille Clifton. It was a relief to read women saying the things I felt were unsayable. Later I discovered Anne Carson, Carmen Giménez Smith, Rachel Zucker, Beth Ann Fennelly, and many others. There are several excellent writers exploring the boundaries of motherhood and marriage in radical ways.
There is so much about cycles within families that I wanted to explore. I was writing towards an understanding of inheritance—what we inherit through biology, through community, and even through literature. At first I wondered what I had inherited from my family and from the stories I’d read, and now that I’m a parent and a writer, I wonder what I am passing on.
What was I writing against? I was writing against silence. I was writing against every woman’s magazine article, every mommy blog, and every princess story that packaged motherhood and marriage as pure, sweet smelling, and serene. I was writing against the erasure of darkness.
Your poems have a very rich music to them. I get the sense you’ve spent a long time honing the way that sound and rhythm play out over your lines. Who are the poets (or thinkers or artists) who have been most helpful to you as you’ve developed this aspect of your craft?
I grew up in a family of musicians, and while I am not particularly talented at any instrument, I am certain that I was influenced by listening to musicians practicing, perfecting their phrasing, repeating lines over and over until they contained the ineffable. I generate work by listening for the music that each line creates and reaching towards the sound and rhythm that comes next. The music helps me find the words, rather than the other way around. For that “ear,” I credit the musicians who practiced and continue to practice around me: Rudy, David, Ileana, and Edward Pérez, and my husband, Matt McFadden.
As for poets whose musicality defined me, my parents owned three “adult” books of poetry when I was growing up, so my early trinity was Dickinson, cummings, and Plath. Recently I’ve loved, taught, and returned repeatedly to Romey’s Order by Atsuro Riley, a wildly musical exploration of boyhood in which sound, story, and setting are inextricable.
What’s next for you? I wonder in particular: since your books thus far navigate such rich territory in gender and race identity, how do you balance engaging in the moment of your life and the moment of your country?
The national conversation that feels most pressing to me is about race. As a teacher and a parent this is always on my radar and a part of my instruction, but as a writer I have struggled with where I should enter this conversation. I am a person who looks white and experiences almost every white privilege. I cannot be a voice for “THE Mexican American” experience (not that there is a single experience). However, I’m interested in how my racial identity has shifted depending upon where I am living, and I’m interested in my own internalized racism and its origins. Growing up, even in a Spanish speaking part of the country, my education erased Latinos and elevated whiteness. It’s similar to my experience of growing up as a girl and for many years valuing boys’ voices more that girls’, even my own. It’s an immense amount to unlearn, to wriggle out from beneath. I want to explore internalized oppression in general. Perhaps I’m moving on to Gender and Race identity, part two. Based on a conversation with you a few months ago, I’ve been trying to tackle this in a lyric essay. I have no idea how long it will be. Right now it’s just a mess.
As for being in the moment vs. being a part of a larger conversation, my life is such that I am still more likely to re-read a Curious George story than to read the day’s news. My engagement in a conversation larger than the ones in my household or my work feels superficial and sporadic. For now, I will hold fast to “the personal is the political” and write what’s around me. My children are still young, and I’m still awed by their encounters with language and emotion; they still suffuse my poetry. I don’t think I can escape the influence of motherhood just yet.
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone (Center for Literary Publishing) and Backyard Migration Route (Finishing Line Press). A Canto Mundo Fellow, she has received funding and recognition from the Artist Trust, Jack Straw Writers, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Her poems have appeared in journals including Bennington Review, Crab Orchard Review, Calyx, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English in Denver where she lives with her husband and sons.
Sasha West’s first book of poems, (Harper Perennial), was a winner of the National Poetry Series and the Texas Institute of Letters Bob Bush First Book of Poetry Award. Her poems and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including: and . She is a professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin where she lives with her husband and daughter.