Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child: An Interview with Mia Leonin

Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child

an interview with Mia Leonin
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child is an intersectional poetic narrative, a book-length variant of the long poem that challenges the stylistic boundaries of adult fiction. It is anatomically complex, incorporating qualities of poetry, prose, and image-driven story books. Indeed, one might think of Leonin's Fable as an adult fairy-tale, with textures of dream-like magical realism and concessions to the blunt realities of  life. 

We explore a Spanish-speaking sea-side village through the eyes of a ten year old, who searches for meaning in language, her neighborhood, and the figure of her unknown father. Her fresh, unassuming wonder about the world and its progressive maturation is an unidealized window into the childhood consciousness. The symbol of the winding Spanish tilde (~) guides us through Micaela's morally complex world, reflecting the lived experience of bending "highs and lows." Leonin tells a tale that defies resolution, forcing the reader to examine their notions of family, victimhood, and community. As a Peruvian-American, the context of Micaela's struggles inspired me to reflect on familiar problems that traverse the boundaries of Central and South American cultures. Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child provokes a bittersweet nostalgia of our past selves and/or that of our parents, a well of resilience and strength for the future.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child is a unique poem-tale of a young girl’s life with her single mother. I was reminded of what my own mother could have been like as a child, discovering the nuances of the tilde in Lima, Peru. Who was the character of Micaela inspired by? Why is her town and culture left unnamed?

[Mia Leonin]: Fable was a long time in the making. I was raised by a single mother and I didn’t know who my father was or even that he was alive until I was sixteen. In my twenties, I started working on a long poem that explored that parent-child relationship in a single-parent family. As a younger writer, I was very drawn to persona and the dramatic monologue. Louise Gluck’s poems and her ability to communicate psychological depth and complexity through such spare, even quiet language made a huge impact. Later I discovered Ai whose use of persona was wide-ranging but always emotionally bold and unapologetically visceral. No subject was too intimate or taboo for Ai, and I think on some level, that gave me permission to write (albeit indirectly) about my “illegitimacy.” 

In very early drafts of Fable, I explored writing from the perspective of a single mother. Later, I imagined what life would be like for a father who doesn’t know his child. I created a life for him as a radio announcer with many lovers. I even wrote poems from the point of view of the lovers! Normally, the dramatic “I” would take me where I needed to go, but this poem was vexing. If it felt emotionally authentic, the structure didn’t hold up and vice versa. I would give up and then return to it. 

In that time, I wrote two other books of poems and a memoir about my family story. In my 2016 book of poems Chance Born, I explore the lives of women and children who are “hidden in plain sight” – mothers and children living in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, a three-year old child from South Florida who died while the Department of Children and Family Services was investigating her family for “an unrelated incident,” and others. In writing these poems, the first- person persona no longer worked. It felt false and even unethical, especially in the case of the war poems. I experimented with the third person and that allowed me the latitude and vision I needed to write those poems. I think this technical lesson on point of view paved the way for Micaela’s character. At one point, I returned to the long poem and did an exercise where I imagined her world. I saw her walking to school with a magic stone in her pocket. I saw her mother shaving a man’s face and whistling. The shift to the third person was like the turn of the key that ignited the motor. It also made me realize that in my many previous drafts, I’d forgotten the most important, or at least the most vulnerable figure in the story: the child. That’s when I knew the book would be about Micaela’s world from her perspective. The limited third person led me into her world – the imaginary and magical, the mundane and hurtful. 

I wanted her story to read as a fable, but I wanted the content to be as harsh as real life. Two films that deeply influenced me were Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves. Both films feature young girls as protagonists. Awful things happen to these children and because they are children, their agency is limited to their own resourcefulness and imagination. Many children are not spared harsh realities by virtue of being children. In the face of difficult times and even trauma, a child’s resourcefulness and her imagination can serve as vital coping mechanisms. Intervention and compassion from adults, say a teacher or grandparent, can make a huge difference in a child’s life; however, none of these are replacements for the security, stability, and loving care that is the basic human right of every child. In Fable I wanted all of these truths to co-exist. 

In regards to setting, I have known a few cities by the sea intimately: Miami, of course, where I’ve lived for over twenty years. Havana, a city I’ve travelled to many times, and Lima, Peru where my daughter’s father is from. I also visited Barcelona while on the cusp of writing this book and it made a lasting impact. I could have pulled off setting this story in Miami, Havana, or Lima, but I think the city would have become too much of a character. I was committed to Micaela’s point of view. Children her age don’t construct identity based on place. They are immersed in place. I also wrote the Spanish as very panlingual. If you know Spanish, you’ll recognize South American, Caribbean, and Miami as linguistic influences. I didn’t want the personality of one country or culture to take over the story. 

Likewise, I did not address Micaela’s assault directly because I was very committed to Micaela in this book. To confront her mother or to have Micaela discover her mother’s past would shift the perspective to the mother. In the story, Micaela comes last after all of her mother’s boyfriends. I was not going to let her mother get center stage in the book although she certainly tried.    

"First Micaela," the first draft of the "Fable" collaboration by Nereida Garcia Ferraz

[TK]: What do you see as the relationship of prose, verse, and image in this poem? What vision did you have for the illustrations before they were commissioned? What inspired the unique aggregate narrative structure of Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child?    

[ML]: I tried to write Micaela’s perspective in lines of poetry and the mother’s (or rather adult world) in prose. I wanted the form to reflect the juxtaposition of the contradictions Micaela is living. By the end of the book as the story reaches a crescendo, those lines blur. I paid close attention to the imagery and sensual language of Micaela’s world. I had fun playing with the Ñ words. But I was also aware that mother and daughter existed in a finite world and that there was a story to be told, so I kept track of that as I wrote and edited. 

Perhaps because movies were an inspiration and because the tilde became an important symbol, I always imagined the book with illustrations. This was also the case because I wanted it to have the feel of a children’s fable. However, I did not commission illustrations. I sent the text to an amazing visual artist, Nereida García Ferraz. Nereida has a deep, abiding love for books, but she is not a book illustrator. I sent her the text and she sent me the following image back. It’s pretty amazing because that first image now strikes me as a blue print for the entire book. It’s like she captured the unconscious of the book – the shadows, the dreams, the desires, hopes, and fears all in one image. We both knew we wanted to work on the book together and thus, a fruitful conversation began between me, the already existing text, Nereida, and her art.  

[TK]: What is the symbolism of Micaela’s dog in the poems? Is it an analogous figure representing the women upon whom equally senseless violence is inflicted through the eyes of Micaela? 

[ML]: Despite being resilient, animals and children are ultimately defenseless in the world of adults and they should be protected. I think this book was my subconscious attempt to work through the binary of vulnerability and resilience. One does not overwrite the other; yet, we are raised on the myth of American individualism and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps survival tactics. I abhor a hero’s tale because heroes are liars. The truth is that the individual is intimately connected to a larger constellation of community, country, and consciousness and when we ignore this, we give ourselves the license to ignore human suffering. When human suffering is ignored, cruelty thrives. 

It was utterly necessary to tell this story from Micaela’s point of view. Therefore, we get glimpses of her mother’s history and relationship to trauma. I tried to find a balance between giving enough information to reveal how trauma is passed down generationally, but I held enough back to keep the focus on Micaela’s experience. Within the first few pages of the book we see that Micaela’s mother is someone who demands center stage. She is a character who could easily overtake the book. I wrote a lot of back story for her so that I would know her better, but I used (or tried at least) the precision of poetry to say as much in as few lines as possible. 

The white space in the poems allows time to breathe and digest the prose passages. For that reason, the prose passages reflect the adult world and the lines of poetry are like limbs of a tree where Micaela can crawl out and see glossy leaves and blue sky. 

"Micaela con tildes," an illustration by Nereida Garcia Ferraz

[TK]: Micaela wonders what food her father is. “Is he scrambled eggs or palomilla steak smothered in sweet Vidalia onions?” How did you cultivate the child-like perspective the novel is written in, complete with fantastical names such as Crab Man? Why is it written for adults? What interested you about the fables of pack-saddle children?

[ML]: “Pack-saddle child” is a folk etymology I came across when I was researching “bastard,” a word whose origins ironically are not fully known. Thus, the fable of such a child is made up. I was raised in a small Midwestern town where the nuclear family was the dominant social structure. Later when I moved to Miami, I met many people whose family structures had been disrupted by war, immigration, economic hardship, political strife, etc. My telenovela story of not meeting my biological father until I was nineteen was just another Miami story, which was comforting in a sense. But even though it is common, it still leaves its mark. By the time I was working on the version of Fable that was eventually published, I was more interested in how children deal with traumatic events and I was primarily interested in telling this story in the magical, sensual language of poetry. My intention is to tell this story to adults in order to stretch our empathy and understanding. I wanted to remind myself and other adults what it is to be a child – the beauty, the vulnerability, and the hurt. 

When I decided that this was Micaela’s story and that I wanted the reader to experience the world through her eyes, I set some parameters. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, I decided none of the adults would get a name unless they were kind to Micaela. The two women who befriend her are her teacher Señora López and the neighborhood bodega owner, Doña Nina. That led me to make up nicknames for the other characters like Crab Man. 

[TK]: How does Micaela benefit differently from her two maternal figures, her mother and Señora López? Where do you see Micaela in 10 years? 

[ML]: Micaela’s future is a Rorschach inkblot test. I would like to imagine that she uses her imagination to undergird her spirit and along the way she forms bonds and she builds the family she will never have with her mother. Statistics say otherwise. Neglected and abused children are more likely to suffer from addiction and mental health issues. The neighborhood boys in the book, for example, are a microcosm of society. Ditto with Micaela and her mom. This is not just one neglectful mother and her child. This is systemic poverty. This is a culture where schools are the place where many children get their only hot meal, where teachers are often pressed into the role of counselors, nurses, parents, and more with little or no support. This is a place where sexual assault is silenced and the victims of sexual assault are left to carry their experiences in the form of silence, shame, and in the case of Micaela’s mother, acting out. She relies on her sexuality as a way to access male power.  

"Mother con tijeras," an illustration by Nereida Garcia Ferraz

[TK]: Micaela’s mother is a rather interesting figure of female independence, maternal yet still a child herself in some ways. Why did you decide to have her not play a role in Micaela’s coping process in the book? 

[ML]: Micaela doesn’t blame her mother because victims, and children in particular, don’t blame their abusers nor do they tend to blame those who play a complicit role by looking the other way. Victims blame themselves, and by “blame” I mean they absorb the shame and hurt that surrounds the event and they keep it to themselves. In Micaela’s case, she just retreats further into her fantasy world and starts to slip away.  

[TK]:What do you believe is the impact of Micaela’s sexual assault on her psyche? She seems to fixate more strongly on the tilde after this event. How does her journey to the gypsy caves help her to reclaim her identity? 

[ML]: The impact of the sexual assault is very damaging to Micaela, but she’s a child and even worse, she’s the child of a neglectful parent. I think her mother’s neglect and their lack of economic stability have as much of an effect on her as the assault, probably more. The tilde begins as a flight of fancy and a way of entertaining herself at school, but as her already tenuous world begins to unravel, the tilde becomes a character. This is another aspect of the fable form, or my version at least. The tilde on top of the Ñ comes alive and leads Micaela on her search for connections and cohesiveness in an increasingly chaotic existence. 

Micaela is very imaginative and resilient. She survives poverty, neglect, and trauma as best she can; however, I don’t think her journey helps her reclaim her identity because she is a child and her identity has yet to form. I would say, however, that her path is altered by going to the gypsy caves. Because she is trapped by her situation, the act of setting out on a journey is as important as the journey itself. She does gain some strength and agency from her visit to the caves. Still, it became clear to me as I wrote that Micaela would not be rescued by the gypsy’s or anyone else for that matter. Micaela would not be rescued. She would survive. A rescue is a moment, an event. Survival lasts a lifetime. 


Mia Leonin is the author of four poetry collections: Fable of the Pack-Saddle Child (BkMk Press), Braid, Unraveling the Bed, and Chance Born (Anhinga Press), and a memoir, Havana and Other Missing Fathers (University of Arizona Press). Leonin has been awarded fellowships from the State of Florida Department of Cultural Affairs for her poetry and creative nonfiction, two Money for Women grants by the Barbara Deming Fund, and she has been a fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts/Annenberg Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. Leonin has published poetry and creative nonfiction in New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Witness, North American Review, River Styx, Chelsea, and others. She received a special mention in the 2014 Pushcart Prize anthology. Leonin teaches creative writing at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

An interview with Francisco Márquez

Francisco Márquez

After my transformative experience last summer at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, I was fortunate enough to forge/foment a pilot partnership between Letras Latinas and the Community of Writers. The result was the Letras Latinas Scholarship at the Community of Writers poetry workshop. What follows is an interview with the inaugural recipient: Francisco Márquez

Márquez is one of the poets whose work will be performed by a stage or film actor this coming Monday in New York at “Every Day We Get More Illegal,” a collaboration between CantoMundo and Emotive Fruition. Márquez was also recently chosen by Douglas A. Martin for the Emerge-Surface-Be fellowship, an initiative of the Poetry Project.

October 25

FA:  Francisco Aragón
FM:  Francisco Márquez


Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions in your capacity as the recipient of the Letras Latinas Scholarship for the Community of Writers gathering at Squaw Valley last June. I experienced the gathering for the first time in 2017. I'll save my impressions for my headnote to this interview, and I don't want to bias your own response! What was it like for you, having to write a new poem every single day for a week?  Had you ever been to workshop of these characteristics? If not, how did this experience compare with other types of writing workshops you've attended?

And thank you for all the work you do with Letras Latinas! It means a great deal to me to have received the scholarship, not only for allowing me to attend but also as a validation of my work within the Latinx literary community. In regards to your question, I have been in workshops where I have had to write a poem every day and I usually don’t enjoy it. This is because the work feels forced, and then, after trying to edit it, becomes abandoned. This was very different.

I think some of it had to do with the endless Californian landscape, the silence, the poets I was lucky enough to attend it with, and the liberal amount of free time. It also differs in that most conferences or residencies will pack the experience with readings, seminars, craft talks, etc., and even though CoW did include these activities, it never felt overwhelming or like the main purpose of the conference. In fact, after workshop, I had most of the day to walk around, nap, eat, have a drink, and write throughout the day, so at night and the next morning I could organize my thoughts into something presentable. It’s rare when from a week’s worth of poems more than a few, or one, seem possible.

Finally, the community in the title definitely held true in that there wasn’t as much a hierarchical divide between attendees, or even faculty members, as I have experienced in other places. It wasn’t too difficult to get to know our teachers and I think, in turn, it made for a more trusting work space. A final detail that added trust was, because our work was often not even a draft but a fragment or simply a page of writing, we weren’t allowed to give critiques but instead gave mostly observations and reactions to the work. It restored a kind of faith in my voice when I had been feeling, previous to the conference, a bit discouraged with my work. That was definitely a huge lesson I gained.

You were kind enough to let me a have a look at 10 pages of your work before carrying out this interview. Could you share with our readers some context for this work? In other words, were these poems produced while pursuing your MFA at NYU? And speaking of NYU, how's that been for you? I've met a handful of terrific Latinx poets who have come out that program in recent years. What were some of the highlights of your time in the program?

Yes I can, and thank you for asking for them! Three-ish of the poems were written during my time at NYU and the others after. Actually, one of the poems in the packet, “Citizen,” was written while at Community of Writers. I owe a lot to NYU. It was one of the first times where I truly felt seen in a space filled with other imaginative, sensitive, good people (and poets) who didn’t seek to compete but, instead, grow as a community. I was also fortunate enough to work at the creative writing department for the two years I was there as well as at Coler-Goldwater Hospital with their fellowship program helping elderly patients with disabilities write poems. Those were highlights, particularly Goldwater, because it allowed a glimpse into why we write poems in the first place—that is, as a way of being witnessed, a way of discovering what we think we know about ourselves, what we don’t, of telling our significant stories. Working with Sharon Olds, Catherine Barnett, Yusef Komunyaaka, Matthew Rohrer, Rachel Zucker, Meghan O’Rourke, Edward Hirsch, and Terrance Hayes, among other stellar poets—those are other invaluable highlights I can’t forget. And to add to that, it’s more than the names; it’s really how intimate my time with them was. I’ve heard of cases where it’s hard to access or reach out to a certain renowned poet but these were all caring professors who made themselves available in genuine ways. Finally, I actually met some of my closest and dearest friends and that is irreplaceable. Yes, like you said, so many incredible Latinx poets have come out of the program and done brilliantly in the world like Ada Limón, Christopher Soto, Diannely Antigua, Javier Zamora, and many, many more, and to think I had a place in the school where they wrote drafts of their first books humbles me every day. 

In your poem, "Citizen," you reference Venezuela when talking about the speaker's background. How do you see Venezuela, or other Latin American countries, figuring in what I hope will soon be your first book? Is this something you give much thought?  The sense I got from your sample, which I loved, is that you are invested in cultivating a variety of poetic modes, and that your writing and your exploration of language is more your muse than your subject matter. How do you see yourself navigating this, as you forge ahead as a literary artist?

That’s a big question! And thank you, I’m so happy you enjoyed it. I have tried over time to navigate the nuances of why I write poetry in English and not so much in Spanish. I have written in Spanish before, but there seems to have been a choice made at some point after I moved to the US. I always return to texts like Dura by Myung Mi Kim and Dictée by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, among others which explore the connections of lineage, identity, history, and language, and I aspire to explore that facet of my relationship to it more. However, I think a reason I write more through language is because of my training as a pianist when I was a child. I studied musical theory, piano, guitar, and composition, and I think it informed my ear’s antennae and choice. Much in how the same way we are drawn to certain paintings or movies, there are times, and I’d say most of the time, that I can’t un-hear the way a line sounds. It’s imperative to write it as such and then also imperative to betray it. As I move forward, I am consistently interested in ways of using my work and the space I take up to interrogate super-structures of power—through performance, hybridity, risk in content and form, queerness, and language, how sometimes you have to question the muse, its comfort within you, and, like any relationship, be wary of the power they have over you, in order to deepen. Is it healthy? Are there lines of meaning I am writing over and therefore ignoring?

Venezuela comes into the book because of my relationship to exile and home. Like most matters concerning belonging and desire, there is a certain unreachable quality to how Venezuela (mis)fits into my work, much like trying to speak on love, queerness, family, or immigration—other themes I obsess with—it will never be fully reckoned with and will remain undefined. However, this is how Venezuela in particular fits into my work, poetry remains to be a way for me to gain power from, or at the very least create my own space for, a situation that at times, in reality, feels unable to be resolved. Poetry resists conclusion and, therefore, to me, remains somewhat a comfort, albeit terrifying and real. If imagination and language is our superpower as poets, then I can, with the most careful of choices, reveal what oppression keeps hidden. The deeper I delve into the question of home and exile, the more similar it looks to my relationship to myself, to my family, to my past lovers and constructed family, to other things we try to get closer to and then find ourselves away from all over again.

I didn't get a clear sense of your relationship to the Spanish language in your poems. Could you comment on this?  Do you envision literary translation (Rightly or wrongly, I'm making an assumption here) as an activity you might cultivate as part of your artistic practice, if you aren't doing so already?

You are right in the observation that I don’t really integrate Spanish into my poems too much—only once in the packet I sent you. I think Spanish enters into my poems when it comes to the long construction of the sentences, and my baby influences of Lorca and Neruda. Moreover, I lean heavy toward the lyric in my work and even though Spanish sounds like that in my head, I feel it is easier for me to break English given its somewhat mongrel history. This makes American English more comfortable for me to break, to blend with Spanish here and there. I’m fascinated with how American English isn’t one stable music but a constructed and evolving fraught sound. I guess most languages are. But working in New York City restaurants, for example, you encounter Englishes that have evolved from, and mixed in with, Dominican or Colombian colloquial dialects, for example, that make for a new and electric music. If anything, these are the kind of words I’m wanting to put into my poems. I would love to use my poems as a way of showing the world the Maracucho dialect from where I grew up. To give a glimpse to how people actually speak and live. Spanish is still a first language for me and its how I talk to my family and some of my friends. But it doesn't feel as breakable as English sometimes. I’m not sure how that sounds but I think it’s how I feel. Perhaps it’s how I came to know them that determines how I use them.

As for translation, to tie it back into Community of Writers, speaking with Mónica de la Torre, a faculty member there, was a kind of a revelation for me. I have translated before, specifically my friend and poet Daniel Arzola’s work, but more recently I have become excited by the prospect of using it as another writing tool. Perhaps, in the future, I could perform literary translation of another work, particularly if that work is one I feel needs to be salvaged and preserved, translation then being a way to care for. So much of writing in English, not to return to this, feels murderous. Translation could be a way to turn that around. I am, however, more interested these days in alternative methods of translation that question the naming of translation vs. interpretation, or fact vs. truth, and translation is definitely a way to get to the heart of that. Texts like Jack Spicer’s After Lorca and Carolina Bergvall’s Via inspire me, as a project, to write the texts of the dead whose words I’d like to preserve and translate—the apocryphal question, and the poem’s mode as finding truth, suddenly blurring. The uncertainty, futurity, and possibilities within translation are necessary and so thrilling.

Finally, what advice might you offer to a poet who is slated to experience the Community of Writers for the first time, now that you've had the experience of attending?

I would advise taking the daily writing challenge seriously. By that I mean do it. But if there’s one thing I learned from that structure, and I learned it from the reinforcement of the faculty, was to not see them as unfinished poems, or as not worthy enough. Everyone is turning in something at the same level and the best way to succeed at the challenge is to take risks, to do something you wouldn’t normally do, to change modes each day and see how it affects your work, and to accept some days you’ll turn up with what feels like a more finished poem than on another day. I would also recommend taking advantage of the natural landscape, to do the wildflower walk, to draw and take notes and know the earth, to dive into Lake Tahoe, and get to know the landscape deeply and thoroughly. It is quite invigorating, especially for someone who is used to New York, and I do believe it is what allowed for the work to flourish. I was fortunate enough, and I’m sure this is the case every year, to be surrounded by poets who not only took challenges with themselves, but challenged the problematic name associated with the valley, or certain comments made by attendees of the conference, or ongoing socio-political issues—you then have the chance after workshop to discuss this even further and foster the opportunity for growth and collaboration. We don’t, as poets, often get the chance to be only among other poets. It’s such a special circumstance. Make it the community you want it to be.


Francisco Márquez is originally from Maracaibo, Venezuela. He received his MFA in poetry from New York University, where he was a Goldwater Fellow. The recipient of grants from the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Brooklyn Poets, and Letras Latinas, he was a finalist for the Narrative 30 Below Contest. His poems have been published in Bennington Review, The Offing, and Nepantla, among other publications. He works at the Academy of American Poets and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Invocation to Daughters: An Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes

Invocation to Daughters

an interview with Barbara Jane Reyes
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Invocation to Daughters is an intimate account of the Pinay woman experience. Reyes invites the reader to gain an understanding of the female identity in Philippine culture, from a religious, economic and familial context. The invocation to daughters could be understood as a prayer for these women, part of the third-largest Catholic population in the world. The mythos of liturgy with its manifold purposes of contrition, thanksgiving, adoration, and petition are reshaped into human psalms, gospels, and even apocryphal poetry. 

In her diction, Reyes uses stylistic conventions from scripture. It offers a deeper spiritual reflection on the feminine spiritual identity and the call to action from the New Testament. Echoing Christian theology, words dwell among us in the flesh for Reyes, a living testament itself to the multicolored, nuanced, anti patriarchal and deeply joyous celebration of feminine will.
-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: Invocation to Daughters invites Pinay women to meditate on their relationship with their fathers, the patriarchy, and ultimately their colonialist heritage. What distinctive qualities or personalities do you believe Tagalog, Spanish, and English bring to writing?

[Barbara Jane Reyes]: Tagalog brings Filipino Core Values into the work -- concerns and practices of reciprocity, collectivity, community, and collaboration, over the individual, what I like to call, “we” culture. There is the term, kapwa, which means shared humanity, shared self. Tagalog brings gender-neutral language. Tagalog also brings what I think of as an emphasis on root words, upon which you can build meaning and connection. 

Spanish and English are languages of conquest, but they also very deeply communicate what I think of as contemporary Filipino identities. They bring patriarchal structures and white supremacy into the mix. They also bring cosmopolitanism. Spanish brings Lorca’s duende. Spanish and English bring my ambivalence to the forefront. For example, Filipino reverence for the Virgin Mary recalls the pre-colonial babaylan -- the “poet-priestess” figure, as Filipina author Marjorie Evasco calls her. It also brings the virgin/whore dichotomy, the dutiful daughter, the product of Spanish rape, the cloistered, the ghostly María Clara of José Rizal’s Noli Mi Tángere. Spanish also brings the Nuyorican, Xicanx, Latinx, poetics of dissent and resistance. 

English is the language in which I am most proficient. Yes, it is colonially imposed, and therefore, a marker of social status. And as an American, as an immigrant aligned with other marginalized groups, my English is not just standard or institutional. My English is hybrid, incorporating urban vernacular, code switching, and “Tag-lish.” This hybridity is also a kind of resistance.    

[TK]: The Philippines has a very strong Roman Catholic presence and you reframe many religious ideas in your poetry. You speak of a woman Jesus, and reimagine many patron saints as more feisty females. What is your position on female role models in the Catholic Church?    

[BJR]: Are you referring to my Juana de la Cruz? For Filipinos, Juan de la Cruz is the “everyman.” Juana de la Cruz is therefore the “everywoman.” This is an acknowledgment of the Filipina who is ubiquitous but invisible in the world, working and hustling thanklessly. The poem, “The Gospel of Juana de la Cruz,” is modeled after the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John, poetic writings of the word made flesh. So then I’m poetically inserting my Filipina “everywoman” into canonical space, as opposed to apocryphal space, to which she is regularly relegated (see my poem, “Apocryphal”). 

As for other female role models in Catholicism, one thing I go back to is Filipino syncretic ideas about the Virgin Mary. Do the status of and respect for pre-colonial women, the babaylanes, inform how we regard women today. 

I do have a poem, “To the Patron Saint of Encumbered Wives,” which I wrote after reading an article, “Paying Tribute to Saint Wilgefortis,” in Paris Review: “Wilgefortis is the patron of tribulations, with a special focus on those women who wish to be disencumbered from abusive spouses.” There was -- and is -- a need for a saint to represent the needs of wives with abusive spouses. There is a need to pray. There is a need to come together and name the harm aloud -- in other words, to resist the silence which perpetuates patriarchal violence.  

[TK]: Purity culture introduces harmful concepts of ownership where the father and the daughter are both charged with guarding her virtue. In many ways, it is incompatible with consent, because the father is charged with controlling her sexuality. How is a daughter the fulcrum of her father in Philippine culture, as stated in Mythos? Why is this belief damaging? ” 

[BJR]: “The daughter is the leverage of the father,” would be another way of wording “fulcrum.” She is an asset, just as a water buffalo is an asset, one you can offer up as a bid for changing, improving your own social positioning. Sons carry the family name, inherit the land or the business, but if little or no land or business is to be had, the daughter may be offered up in marriage to other families, who have assets. In Angeles Monrayo’s Tomorrow’s Memories, we see a father promise his adolescent daughter in marriage to a much older man; in exchange, a brand new automobile is promised. 

In my mind, it should go without saying -- this belief is damaging, because these transactions are not contingent upon a girl’s or woman’s consent. This is violence.  

[TK]: Though the relationship between father and daughter is burdened by gendered dynamics, you care deeply about his health, a man with no sons. You thought of poetry on The Day he died, acknowledging that “Sometimes you are broken. Poetry won’t fix you. Poetry can’t fix you.” What relationship did poetry play in coming to terms with your upbringing?

[BJR]: Maybe my belief and insistence upon being creative, generative, are what “fix” me, should I ever feel as if I am broken. When I was young and inchoate, my private notebooks contained likewise inchoate poems. That was a young me, figuring out what I thought about the world, my place in it, and whether I had anything to say. I go back to Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in which she writes, “It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” 

To be clear, my upbringing was one of a suburban immigrant American family of all daughters, one in which the daughters were expected to attend top ranked universities, and to become high earning professionals. Poetry was where I figured out that kapwa, that empathy and cultural wisdom were the things I prioritized.  

[TK]: Many of the bilingual and trilingual poems retain the chant like quality of traditional Catholic prayers as in Orasyon. “Maria Santisima, maravillosa. She is a fissure, an excess.” Do you read poems like these in the same tone of voice you would read the Hail Mary?

[BJR]: I think of the tone of voice we would use to recite the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a congregation, many voices as one. There is also the possibility of the call and response, the way a congregation recites the rosary. So those would be the traditional elements. I had always been taught that you pray for those in or with “need.” I think those are the folks who populate my prayer poems. I really don't know then, how divergent they are.  

[TK]: Some poems deal with instances of violence against women. Two psalms, especially, are written for Mary Jane Veloso and Jennifer Laude. Can you shed some light on the context in which their fate caught your attention and why you found them especially moving?

[BJR]: These “instances” of violence against Mary Jane Veloso and Jennifer Laude occurred within the larger continuum of violences perpetrated against Filipina bodies rendered powerless within a patriarchal order. In Veloso’s case, the context is an economy that requires the global movement of exploitable Filipina labor, and the absence of rights and protections for the Filipina laborer abroad. For Jennifer Laude, the context is American militarization and the associated sexualization of Filipinas, and then the status of transgender folks. 

I want to add that Laude was regularly mis-gendered in news stories following her murder. I also want to add that when the families of Veloso and Laude ceased to “play nice” with politicians and media, the public criticism was heartless. 

So we have many layers here. This is what moved me to write. 

These were major stories within our Filipino communities, for obvious reasons, and I was drowning in news stories shared on social media. But there are other Filipinas whose experiences with patriarchal violence do not result in international (or even local) activism.  

[TK]:Do you believe your work will be eye opening for Pinay women who read it? What advice do you have for women and girls who are not independent from their parents who are living in this culture? 

[BJR]: I can only hope for this work to be eye opening; I find that the Pinays who reach out to me after reading this work are the ones, not just whose eyes have been opened, but those who have been looking for the language, the voice to communicate, name the things they have known all their lives. 

There are also the Pinays who perhaps aren’t ready to read work that hits too close to home. It’s painful to revisit trauma, and seeing this ethnic and gendered violence in the pages of a book brings up questions of how much we are willing to see it, speak of it, and have others see of us. It’s frightening, to participate in the naming of the harm, to confront perpetrators of violence. 

There are real consequences. Families and communities break apart when violence is exposed. All shit breaks loose when a daughter says no, when she states her intention to break with centuries-long traditions of obedience and acquiescence. 

I suppose that would be my advice then -- all shit will break loose, as it should. Be prepared for this.


Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Invocation to Daughters (City Lights Publishers, 2017). She is the author of four previous collections, including Poeta en San Francisco (TinFish Press), and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd). Her sixth book, Letters to a Young Brown Girl, is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd. jbarbarajanereyes.com

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl: An Interview with Leticia Hernández-Linares

Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl

an interview with Leticia Hernández Linares
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl is a lyrical celebration of inspirational El Salvadoran womanhood. Hernández-Linares' poetry explores the centrality of place and community when home is unreachable and unrecognizable. These women of San Francisco's Mission District are the flowers in Leticia's poemsongs, the "flores" in Leticia's "canciones." She channels a long tradition of Central American poetry championing resiliency and heroic individuality.  

In the wake of TPS deportees and gentrification displacement, "poetry keeps the Mission's heart alive."  A self-identified "mucha muchacha," Leticia challenges gender norms and machismo. As a second generation Peruvian immigrant, I gained a greater appreciation of intergenerational Latinx wisdom by reading Mucha Muchacha. Hernández-Linares captures a District cheerfully overflowing with cumbia and "too muchness," a human rhythm that cannot be contained.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: I love the alliteration of the phrase “Mucha Mu-cha-cha.” One of your poems, "Too Much Girl," deals with institutions not intended for people of your background. What does being “too much girl” mean to you? How did your understanding of your identity in relation to society change when you entered graduate school?

[Leticia Hernández-Linares]: “Es mucho hombre esta mujer.” The male literary colleagues of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda infamously described this nineteenth century Cuban-Spanish writer as too much man. The recent article “Es mucha mujer esa mujer,” chronicles how even José Martí claimed there were minimal female qualities about this literary pioneer, suggesting her “rough” and “energetic” poetry’s quality benefited from her man-ish ways. 

The descriptor, accusation of “too much” has followed me throughout my life. My laugh: too loud; my words: too blunt; my anger: too extreme; my dreams: too audacious. So when I heard the silly, patronizing song by Esquivel, I had an epiphany. Resilient mucha muchachas in my family and history shaped me, so why not embrace this? My poems often inspire me to write songs and I also weave song lyrics throughout my poems. Equivel’s verses prompted a conversation that developed across the two poems and throughout the book. I wanted to respond to the premise that there is a particular way to be girl, a woman.

Ay, Graduate school. I just wasn’t ready for what it meant to be a first generation college graduate and doctoral student at UPENN in 1993, and the outcomes for my fellow POC classmates reveal a pattern bigger than my own personal experience. I have learned the hard way that I can’t make myself do something my spirit hasn’t signed off on. My desire to develop further as a poet and community advocate became clear then. I obtained a Master’s degree and achieved candidacy and then I left Philadelphia. This experience reminded me that no matter the milestones you reach––first generation, awards, prestigious schools––the dominant culture of white supremacy will always surface and try to contain you and damage you.   

[TK]: What do you believe is “La Lotería de la Mujer”? Do you consider your poetry to have a feminist message? Who or what inspires your female characters such as Zoraida or  the stereotyped women in the aforementioned poem such as “La Trabajadora” or “La Enamorada?”   

[LHL]: I am a proud graduate of Scripps, The Women’s College, and founder of Amate: Women Painting Stories, a ten year interdisciplinary women’s art production that I curated and produced. I am absolutely a feminist, a womanist, in everything I do. Does my poetry have a feminist message? Sure, but inherently, not by design. I write about a range of topics. I write about being the mother of two brown boys in a city where police kill our youth of color, regularly (where is the city where that doesn’t happen?). I write about gentrification. My poetic message follows Roque Dalton’s example, that ‘poetry like bread is for everyone,’ and that I exist and create in community. 

¡Lotería! I collect Lotería sets. Traditional lotería images can reinforce stereotypes, and the game does after all highlight boxes. Some of the dichos that accompany particular cards, and some of the images themselves, are cringe worthy. So exciting to see that Latinx artists have produced several new versions that explode the boxes. 

Humor and interaction play integral roles in the performance of my poetry. The familiarity, the fun of the game attracts me to lotería. I have used the game for youth art projects and to engage the audience. In terms of this poem, Nuvia Crisol Ruland, a San Diego based artist, created “Lotería de la Mujer.” Her artwork and collaborative spirit inspired me. Her version depicts the stages of a woman’s life, and I appreciate the inclusion of unexpected images like an androgynous Trabajadora and unapologetic Vaga

On a more philosophical level, the lotería for la mujer, involves a set of boxes that try to control and dominate us; the poem focuses on a game with new rules that I have reworked alongside the incredible women I know. Women in my family, in the Mission, in my life inspire me. My students and mentees teach me. My poems are a hodge podge of people and moments. I obscure them to protect the innocent and the guilty.

[TK]: You write about your El Salvadoran heritage in “Tragedilandia.” Growing up, I used to hear the phrase “Gringolandia,” land of the gringos. Does Tragedilandia reside in the El Salvadoran experience of the Mission District, El Salvador, or both? ” 

[LHL]: Tragedilandia certainly resides in both. I never lived in El Salvador, but I was baptized there. I grew up in the U.S while most of my family still remained “back home” so I always understood my point of reference as originating somewhere else. This is why the anthology I just edited with Rubén Martínez and Héctor Tobar, The Wandering Song, is so historic. With so many Salvadoran poets publishing books and the release of this anthology, we are beginning to establish a chorus of stories about Central American realities in the U.S.

As a child, the only place other than El Salvador that I traveled was the Mission District. We would take annual road trips to visit my uncle who lived here, eat pupusas, and explore the city. In fact, we had several family members living in the Bay Area, and when I came to live here in my early 20’s, I did so intentionally to develop as a writer in a Central American community. I understood the Mission as a satellite to El Salvador. It was like coming home.

[TK]: Two poems that seem to dovetail are “How to be Spiritual in Stilettos” and “How to be Spiritual in Tacones.” As a little girl buying new shoes, you seem to be desirous of the beautiful and forbidden. Yet in “Tacones”, as an older woman, you are sure of yourself in high heels. How can one be spiritual in stilettos? What do you see as the connection between the two poems? Do these poems illustrate a personal religious journey?

[LHL]: I once heard a Latinx poet critique the way church ladies dress up, asking “how can you be spiritual in stilettos?” The judgment of women and the oversimplification of clothes and dressing up in communities of color bothered me. From the little girl wonder of sparkly and assigned feminine things, to the joy and pain and complicated relationship with tacones, I wanted to unpack the intertwined issues involved in this presumptuous question. A person can be spiritual in so many different ways and despite and sometimes because of costume, and ritual. 

I informed him I would write a poem that explains how you can be spiritual in stilettos. The early versions of this poem, more performative, were not as subtle as the final set that ended up in the book. I was thinking about the performance of prayer, and beauty, and gender in a confessional way. I don’t, however, apologize for the reality that a lot of little girls desire the beautiful and forbidden. I am, however, all for expanding what beautiful encompasses.

[TK]: Some of your poems have a strong relationship to music and rhythm such as “Cumbia de Salvacion.” What is your process for creating poetry inspired by music? How do you capture the beat of cumbia in the written word? What is your understanding of a “poemsong?”

[LHL]: I have consistently approached poetry in an interdisciplinary way. My published work, therefore, operates as a kind of hybrid. Calling them poemsongs honors their multidimensionality as someone who sings and interacts and draws heavily on context and location. I listen to many different types of music which fuels my associative way of writing. Sometimes it is a song and sometimes it is the topic that begins a poem. Not every poem is based in song or generates one. When it comes to sharing them out loud, however, I have to find the rhythm or the texture. 

My musician father taught me many things through song. Music was a central part of our family experience. What I didn’t know at first and now actively study, is the poetic way Nahuatl speaking ancestors made meaning and recorded their narratives. This precedent validates my approach to poetry. While I didn’t invent the invocation of flor y canto and flowery songs, or use of song in poetry, I have adapted it into my aesthetic in a particular way. Moreover, in my writing workshops, I teach what I call “word math” based on the disfrasismo that exists in the Nahuatl language (in xochitl + in cuicatl = songs and flowers = poetry). I am working on turning this into a poetic form for my next book.

[TK]: Your poetry integrates Spanish and English, memories of El Salvador and U.S. living; two conflicting cultures. What do you believe is your most powerful message as an El Salvadoran-American poet in the United States and what do you believe is the future of El Salvadoran poetry, given these turbulent political times?

[LHL]: The mission to learn my history and understand myself in this country has driven my focus, for sure. I am the only child of Salvadoran hippie artist immigrants who were headed to San Francisco but ended up raising me in 1970-80’s Los Angeles. My interdisciplinary work emerges from my family and community and that genuine inspiration speaks for itself. 

When I worked at Pacific News Service (New American Media) in 2000, I connected with the Izote Vos project, a publication of U.S. born and based Salvadorans. This project involved youth, artists, and activists from San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I served as a sort of bridge. Shortly after, I traveled to El Salvador with Izote artists as part of a delegation with Carecen, Los Angeles. After that trip, delegation participant, Raquel Gutiérrez, founded a collaborative of Central American writers in Los Angeles. I occasionally convened writers in San Francisco, and Gutiérrez curated events in the L.A. and this ended up connecting us to each other. Many of these writers have work that appears in The Wandering Song

I recently returned to the organizing side of this work under the title of Tejido, producing events in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and D.C. Perhaps my most powerful message filters through the celebration of our literary and artistic contributions, and I will continue with this work until we no longer reside in the margins of Latinx literature and academic departments. Our books are more urgent now than ever given the times, but we will not produce in response to the violent rhetoric, we will create in spite and instead of it.

[TK]:Women play many roles in society as mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, etc. Why did you call your three sections “Comadre,” “Hija,” and “Mi Gente (Ustedes)?” You dedicated your book to your mother and “las Mucha Muchachas.” Who are they? What advice do you have for other female artists of color?

[LHL]: The book is dedicated to my grandmother. She recently turned 97. We call her Mama because she would not accept any iteration of “abuela,” She is Zoraida. She is La Cuchillera, and she schooled me about the dichos from her town about ‘cuchilleros’ which inspired the poemsong. Mama also broke down how little time she had for menopause (Holy Mother). I have survived this far by leaning on an incredible círculo of mujeres—first my birth and then chosen family. They are the mucha muchachas. 

I worry about historical memory and urge younger writers to ensure they explore it. Excavating, learning from, and building community with elders has been an important part of my journey. I have felt fortunate that the Bay Area facilitates easy access to an incredible intergenerational intersection of artists. Women, however, often remain buried in the historical timeline (and in the headlines) so my hope is that female artists of color continue to dig as they create.

[TK]:  Though the Mission District in San Francisco is becoming gentrified, you speak of a mission that its streets have become or taken on in “Despierta.” What do you believe is the new mission of the Mission District, and what impact have you seen poetry have on the community?

[LHL]: There is no new Mission. While the latest wave continues to deal a significant blow to the spirit and landscape, gentrification in the Mission is not a new phenomenon. There is the thorny scarred but vibrant heart that holds on. You feel the heartbeat through new murals in tribute to the neighborhood; new and reoccurring events that celebrate our Latinidad; and, activism that preserves history, art, residents. Then, there are the conquered areas—a surreal caricature of young, mostly white wealth that surrounds the heart like a bad futuristic movie. 

I have lived on the same block since 1995. Our sons walk to school in two directions and have attended multiple schools and enrichment programs within a small radius from our small but beloved home. In 2015, shortly after I published my book, our greedy, very wealthy landlords let us know they would be evicting us to move in a family member and enthusiastically encouraged us to jump on the first thing we could find (which would have forfeited our payout). They wanted to evict the only family, one of two long-term tenants, the only Latinos in the building. We were a much better choice than the friendly white wealthy doctor living next door who had just moved in and could easily find and afford another apt. We lived in extreme fear and anxiety until the notice finally came. And then we had to face the reality and figure out what to do. 

Thanks to the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and a supportive community, we remain in our home. We managed to beat it, for now. We are not unique or special in this predicament. So many families displaced. Buildings have mysteriously burnt down in an alarming number. Property owners ruthlessly dole out eviction notices. Small businesses have closed down or moved out of the city. One could argue that there are two missions, the classic car, running on fumes, and the driverless car with no face. 

Poetry keeps the Mission’s heart alive. A long history of literary events and cultural centers persists thanks to artivists in the late 1960’s, and many others who have maintained that legacy since. Alejandro Murguia, San Francisco’s first Latino Poet Laureate, is one of the cultural ambassadors who has taken up this charge. Artists and activists and residents continue to resist. I often sing and recite poetry in the Mission streets for art events, and now more than ever, it feels important to do so. 

This topic is flammable for me. My next book of poetry focuses on the epidemic of displacement in the Mission. I hope by the time I release it, the housing market bubble has popped.

 …En el distrito de La Misión, las flores crecen del concreto…


Leticia Hernández-Linares is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, and educator. She is the author of Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl, and co-editor of The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. Widely published, her work appears in collections and journals such as U.S. Latino Literature Today, Street Art San Francisco, Teatro bajo del Sol, Huizache, and Pilgrimage. She has performed her poemsongs throughout the country and in El Salvador. A three-time San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Artist grantee, she teaches in Latina, Latino Studies at San Francisco State University. Visit her: joinleticia.com