Friday, February 17, 2017

An interview with Verónica Reyes

an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)

Verónica Reyes

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
VR:   Verónica Reyes


One of my favorite lines from,“Desert Rain: blessing the land” is “Socorro breathed in once and inhaled México in East L.A.” What is that place for you, when you are away from it and miss it, like Socorro and México? Do you draw inspiration from your hometown, while creating work in someone else’s hometown, or in the classroom?

East LA. This is my barrio. It’s where I’m from. It’s my homegrown roots. It is my inspiration. It is my breath. This includes my sexuality and my background as a whole.  

“Marimacha” Este poema, damn, I love it! But I am bilingual! Which brings me to my question: When editing this poem, on your last revisions, did it cross your mind that the non-speaking Spanish audience would have a hard time accessing your work? Does this matter to you as a poet? Do you tend to write with your audiences in mind?

Thank you for the complement. When I wrote that poem, it was sketched in grad school at UTEP. I originally thought, ‘I’m going to write about an academic walking down the calles of Whittier Boulevard,’ but when I wrote it, it came out the way it needed to be. It represented the barrio it was from. And the tone and language captures Carmen’s story, a home girl, aka a butch one, from el barrio.  
As for audience, the answer is No. I did not think of non-Spanish speaking audience. They were never on my mind. I trust the poem’s voice. It is my guidance. This is what matters most. The content. The voice. The experience. Clearly, it is based in my barrio roots with dyke content and all; this plays a role in shaping the poem, but the work is always guided by what the poem wants to say. I have intentions. And the poem guides them, and I guide them in revisions. So if it’s bilingual, then it is because it needs to be. It is between the poem and me, the Xicana jota poet.

I will add that I doubt gringo writers think about this question at all. “Do I write so that my audience understands the language I’m writing in?” I doubt they even consider a wider audience beyond their scope. 

As for considering audiences when writing, I think about the poem that wants to be scripted. It gets complicated. The poem exists because of the stories/narratives that still need to be told about what it means to be Chicana, Latino, lesbian, joto from el barrio in this country who keeps on killing so many men of color, from this country who accepts gun violence as the norm, from this country who keeps thinking it is okay to rape a woman and blame her, from this country that has so many engrained societal issues (racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia) it needs to deal with and avoids them or puts a bandage on it, but it is a festering wound that needs to be healed. I think about that.

Throughout, “Torcidaness: Tortillas and me” you talk to your audiences like they are close friends, and the conversational tone/pull interested me un chingo! I really love the tone of this poem! I was with you all the way. Can you tell us a bit about how this specific and almost deliberate choice of making the poem sound “conversational” comes about? Was this an initial idea from the beginning of the creation of this poem, or was it something you developed along the way, as the poem drew closer to completion?

Thanks for the question. No one has asked about this. So, yes, the conversational tone was right there at the start. I did mention that the poem decides some key aspects about how it will come to life on the paper or computer screen. So I knew at the onset this was going to be a conversation.

A key aspect of writing for me is to trust the voice of the poem. It is in some way a spiritual connection to a narrative that the poem wants to convey. I treat it this way. So with that in mind, years ago in grad school, I wrote a line in my journal. I shared it with a fellow writer. She giggled, and said it was good. I kept that in mind. So I knew this was a poem, but it was not until years later that I wrote the poem. And that’s how it works at times. The tone was always there. I just made sure it read that way throughout the piece.  

There is a strong presence of “longing” in your poem titled, “El Violinista.” How important is it to you to pass these kinds of stories to the next generation of writers, jotas y jotos? Why is it useful or sacred in a way, to use poetry as a medium to pour out these stories?

Yes, longing. It is the energy looming in there. I wanted to share a story. It is meant for everyone, queer and straight. I think it is important though that a dyke from East LA wrote this. We need to break the confines that Chicana lesbians are pigeonholed in. And this poem does that. I wrote it. A Mexican American butch dyke from East LA about a very Mexicano hombre, un caballero, de esos tiempos antiguos.
Stories of this nature need to be told. They get lost when a person passes away. They can stay saved and honored in the written text. After all the written word is valued in the western world and the reality is that oral storytelling needs to be kept up. You need to want to share the stories, and if you have no one, then the story is gone. In this mundo, it needs to be written down. I wrote what I heard and learned from many angles. And then I (re)imagined and created this poem.

Poetry is my medium. I did not think I wanted to write this as a short story although I thought about it. I wanted the whole script in one swoop. Capture the moment and lifespan in a poem. The structure/form is deliberate: block stanzas. It captures the violinist and his story. 

Ummm, okay: So I feel there is a beautiful bond between father-daughter and your poem “Recycling: 1976” made me wonder: Do you have plans for writing a whole collection on you and your apá? I feel there is so much poignant material there to be told. We want to hear it! I feel I could read poem after poem about your personal history with him.

No. I don’t foresee a book on this topic. I have other pieces I’m scripting for myself. Still I write to be specific so the audience relates. So I do not think of it the way you do. They are snippets of life, but imbued in imagination. It is what and how I know they need to exist. For now, this is it. But thank you for the complement.

So yes, the relationship is a simple one between father and daughter. It is to say gracias. It is in some way a homage poem. For I did not think my siblings and I saw ourselves as growing up low-income. We had a home. We were Mexicanos, first generation, who lived in East LA. And I know I enjoyed life in my barrio and never questioned my family’s economic status. We lived a buena vida. Thanks to my parents. For their endurance, their frugality, their faith, and for their cariño. Each in their own way. For my papa, recycling is what we did.

One of my favorite lines from “Cholo Lessons Por Vida,” is “Chingao, there are so many fregado things he learned from the calles!” Can you share with us some things that maybe you learned from growing up in East Los Angeles, and how they have shaped you as a poet and person?

* how to listen to a story [sit behind the cortina, near the puerta, in the shadow, and listen to your elders, your familia, share a cuento from back when someone crossed la frontera, how la vida was in el rancho, how this member survived this illness, how to value la tierra, how Pancho Villa came into your pueblo, how la gente survived, how….listen to the cuentos for there is truth in them and they merit to be shared]

* how to survive the calles [this skill works wonders in academia]

* how to trust my instincts [this gut feeling keeps me afloat in academia and the writing world]

* how to believe in myself [perseverance is a necessity as a writer]

* faith [not religious, but trust in your art]

* how to fight for our rights [our voice matters as jotería, as Mexicans from the barrio y más]

* how to stand up for ethics [get up and give your seat to an elder; if a señora or señor needs help like carrying bolsas, help her or him.]

* how to value our language with all its idioms and not be ashamed. Love Spanglish. Love caló. Love slang. Love our barrio terminology. Take pride.

And so much more.

“Super Queer” is one hell of an inspiring queer poem! Bravo. I saw it as a love letter to straight people everywhere: Can you elaborate un poco más on what it means to be “queer?” Also, do you believe art, like this poem for example, can help other members of the LGBTQIA community come out? Is it important to use your voice in support of the younger generation?

Thanks for the question on this poem. I’ve been waiting to see if anyone would ever make a comment on it. First off, I can only hope that people are inspired by this Super Q poem. I hope they feel excited and proud to be queer. And if it prompts a fellow queer to come out, it is an honor.
Still I most definitely do not see this as a love poem to straight gente. Clearly, if that is how you see it, then that’s your interpretation. But for me, it is a poem acknowledging how hard queer familia, our comunidad, have to fight to stay alive in this mundo. Sometimes we hope that some brave jota/o or Trans person stands up for our rights. Sometimes you want someone else to fight. But the reality is that in some way, if you are out of the closet, then you are that person; you are Super Queer. Because you are being you and doing it with pride. Because we are everywhere. And straight society needs to recognize this and see how our rights and lives are being subjugated. Because I and we as a community know the chingazos you get thrown at you and how much you need to fight to exist as who you feel you are meant to be. It is poem chanting, “Fight, fight, for your rights and stand up with pride: queer brown lives, to la jotería, to butch dykes, to the drag queen or king, to the gender fluid, to our communities.” This is a poem of pride, courage, bravery, and love for all our LGBTQ communities. You gotta be Super Queer in a society that sometimes wants us gone.

And while you are being this beautiful queer brown person, you might be listening to some Curtis Mayfield or another artist or song nudging you along the way and inspiring you. Because we need to take care of our bodies, our souls, our minds, our lives. We need to heal from homophobia, heterosexism, and all those isms. For the ones taken too soon, we need to keep on being ourselves, keep on dancing, keep on existing, keep on fighting, keep on loving, loving, and loving.

Color is sprinkled throughout your poem, “Texas Twilight on the Border (El Paso, TX).” The inclusion of such descriptive language helps the poem, not only move along, but also in being more specific, grounded and concrete. It is vividly attractive! When you wrote this poem, if you remember, and through your last of revisions, was the presence of “color” something you imagined would be this successful? Did you purposefully include this many colors on the page, or was it just coincidence? The verdict is in: there is somewhere around sixteen uses of color in this poem!

Yes, color was a necessity for this piece. I lived four years in El Paso, and every evening I was mesmerized by the immense sunset and all the colores that hovered over both sides of la frontera, hugging the land. If you lived in the desert on the border (US-México), you know the gorgeous sunsets. It just pulls you in. And you are in awe. Color. We need it. The land needs it. The cielo gives it to the frontera every evening. Like a rainbow, it is a sarape of the land and the people. A layer of life on la frontera comes alive. I wanted color. As many colores, I’ve seen splashing the sky over El Paso and Juárez.

“This is my Angela Davis Poem” was one of those poems I had to read out-loud! I really enjoy this. Did you intend for this poem to be read aloud? It looks and reads like it can be a mini-play, monologue, or a speech at a rally or something along those lines. I love it! Can you tell us a bit more about this poem?

Yes. I hope all the poems are read this way. Aloud to the sky, to the nopales, to your barrio, to your home. In a café. In a classroom. In the backyard. Poetry is meant to be heard, felt, and encompass the reader’s senses. My Angela Davis poem took a decade+ to write. I heard the tone; I felt the rhythm; I had the chorus, “This is my Angela Davis poem.” In my head, I heard it being repeated over and over. I’d add bits and pieces to it, but it was a poem that I would only say/chant to myself. It was not written down. I knew that it was not yet there. It needed time to dream. I needed time for it to dream in me. For me to become part of it. This is how it works for me. I need to become one with it. And so when I was at my first writer’s residency, Vermont Studio Center, a fellow artist mentioned to me that Dr. Davis gave a lecture, The Tornberg Lecture at “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” in 2007. I looked up that interview. Listened to it. Enthralled by it. And the poem just rushed out of me. I was so in tune with it that the high from the writing was amazing. I remember I had to stop for dinner because I had to work in the kitchen. The residency wanted artists to work jobs on site for paying part of the fee. There I was taking off to do clean up. Ate my dinner. And took off back to my poem. I was able to just jump right back in. We were one. It was sooo—exciting. The scripting/sketching of it took a few hours, but I knew when I was done, this is it. It was that type of poem and that type of intense connection. 

I see your family tree in your poem, “The Fields.” Can you tell us a little about the birth of this poem? Is this work about your family tree? Roots? Backstory? I am fascinated by the way you weaved nature throughout the whole poem. Beautiful! And my favorite, favorite line: “Her corazón suffocated from manteca and sadness.”

I understand where you are coming from. But I’m hesitant to some extent. Family tree. Yes/no. When the poem comes to life and is on the page, something happens. It is part of something more. This is a longer conversation. It requires more inquisitive depth.

I wrote the poem because stories of this nature need to be told. It should be shared in the literary world and in our local cafes and in our homes. So I’m still thinking of your question based on “your family tree.” From a couple of questions you wrote, I noted that I think you sometimes interpret the use of my nick name or the name Socorro as indicators that this is a real story from my family. An aspect of life that really happened. At least this is what I gather from your question.

Keep in mind, it is a creative piece, obviously. But with that comes another key component: imagination. I needed to dream up images. In my case, concrete visuals. So the poem is not always all true and factual like science claims to be [and even in science, there is imagination of what something is—a hypothesis]. There is truth in the work. But it does not truly or factually represent my family heritage as in this happened this way, and it cannot be debated. I’m a poet. This is a poem. There are parts/lines/images that are made up. And there are parts that resonate truth or factuality. For the sake of the poem. For the sake of the narrative. But most importantly, it is a narrative that needs to be scripted or it will be forgotten. Lost in time. And these stories need to be recorded. They deserve it.

What matters most is the story of this nature needs to be told because many families experienced something similar to it.

As for the line, “Her corazón suffocated from manteca and sadness,” it is an image originally from a short story I wrote during an undergrad fiction workshop. I always thought that was a strong image. So when I was writing this poem, I brought a line similar to the one in an old story. The poem needed it.
As for use of nature, it was vital to this piece. To breathe. To exist. The poem and the narrative needed it: the land, the air, the scenery. It was all needed.

VERÓNICA REYES is a Chicana feminist malflora poet from East Los Angeles, California. She is proud to have graduated from Hammel Street School (1981), Belvedere Jr. High (1987), and Garfield High School (1987). She earned her BA from California State University, Long Beach and her MFA from University of Texas, El Paso. Her poems give voice to all her communities: Chicanas/os, immigrants, Mexicanas/os, and la jotería. She scripts poetry for the people. Her book—Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press 2013)—won Best Poetry from International Latino Book Awards 2014 and Golden Crown Literary Society Awards 2014, and a Finalist for Lambda Literary Awards 2014. Reyes has won AWP’s Intro-Journal Project and Astraea Lesbian Foundation Emerging Artist award. She also has received grants and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale Foundation, and Montalvo Arts Center. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Feminist Studies, ZYZZYZVA, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, North American Review, and The Minnesota Review. Currently, Reyes teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.

LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review,CloudbankThe Packinghouse ReviewPublic Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina

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