Sunday, November 27, 2011

An Interview with ire'ne lara silva Author of Furia

For the month of October I had the pleasure of reading ire’ne lara silva’s collection of poems furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) while at the same time conducting an ongoing interview with ire’ne. ire’ne lara silva’s work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, most recently in Acentos Review, Pilgrimage, and Yellow Medicine Review. A CantoMundo fellow, ire'ne is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Furia, her first collection, received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. She is also Co-Coordinator for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival and lives in Austin, Texas.


ire’ne lara silva writes: “It’s that heat—that pressure—that’s capable of transmuting pain, grief, etc., into beauty.” And ire’ne’s collection furia is just that, pure fire burning against death and sadness. In furia—ire’ne lara silva, like the bundle of twigs which offers itself up in a selfless act of self-immolation, lights our way in a hallucinating journey from the cold and dark depths of human suffering to the redemptive heights of poetic self-expression. Hers is a poetry of diverse and exciting styles—from the torrid patterns in “the wind suffers love” and “they lie when they say grief lightens with time” and which echo the movement of wind and the shifting ground of grief, to the epic eloquence of bravery and survival in poems like “furia” and “i come from women illiterate and rough-skinned.” ire’ne is fierce in writing these unflinching poems of grief and sadness. There is certainly pain here but there is also the redemptive feeling of healing and self-assertion and the human dignity that overcomes the reader when reading this litany of human creativity.

Lauro Vazquez: I am curious as to how you arrived at poetry? I know for most poets they always speak of certain authors or works of poetry that spoke directly to them or their experiences. But it seems to me that your poetry is very much rooted in the poetry of the everyday--the poetry that is created by the necessity for survival. (Not that your poetry is not also grounded in the literary but that was a particular trait that was most searing for me). I was curious thus as to what your influences--literary or otherwise--were?

ire’ne lara silva: I was a little apprehensive when I first showed this collection to other people—not because of what it revealed about me, but because I wasn’t sure how it would affect them. I went around telling my readers that I was okay and not to worry about me. My friend Levi Romero, who wrote a beautiful cover blurb for ‘furia,’ said it best when he responded, “I know you survived, like I did. Some come to poetry because it's trendy and hip and they learn how to write it, sometimes well. Some of us come to poetry por que no nos queda otra. We'd die without it. It's not a game. Poetry is healing, powerful, sacred, holy.”

So yes, I had literary influences—Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings, Francisco X. Alarcón, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Carmen Tafolla and I’m strongly influenced by musica ranchera, especially lyrics written by Cuco Sanchez, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and Juan Gabriel—but poetry for me doesn’t come just from an aesthetic impulse…writing poetry is literally how I survived my life and my experiences without breaking down or zoning out or giving in to self-destructiveness. No me quedó de otra—there was no other way, no alternative, no rescue. I’ve made it this far one syllable at a time.

As a child, I started writing poetry because there was nothing more beautiful to me than the written word. Later, writing became an escape and I held onto poetry like it was a raft in the ocean. Through the years, I’ve tried to hone my work, deepen it, complicate it…tried to create a voice and a language and a sound that is my own, but in its essence, poetry is still my raft.  It keeps me afloat. It gives me a voice and a space. It lets me find the way to both my truth and my healing. It gives me myself.

LV: Yes, far too often we forget that poetry too inhabits the realm of the everyday, far removed from the boundaries of a written page. That where there is human creativity there is human dignity and poetry thus becomes as necessary as bread for survival.

You’ve mentioned Nikki Giovani and Carmen Tafolla as influences. And I can’t help but notice that most of the influences on this list are male figures. And yet Furia is a powerful litany of mujeres; mujeres made of rough and glowing stuff---mujeres as resilient as the bark on trees. In a society like ours—a chauvinist society that fears what it does not understand—how does a woman of color listen to these muffled voices?  

ils: Well, four men and three women, but yes, add the composers and then it’s mostly men. Although, off-hand, I can’t think of any women other than Ana Gabriel that have composed canciones rancheras. Although when I think of the composers, I think of the women who sang their songs—Lola Beltran and Lucha Villa, in particular, women who were known for their imposing physical presences and enormous voices as well as their beauty and intelligence.  

There are mujeres fuertes everywhere, not just singers/artists/actresses, but the women who work two jobs and go home to take care of their families, women who raise children alone, women who survive to nurture others and each other. And yes, where there is human creativity there is human dignity--there are so many women writers who have fought through families/communities/societies who did not believe they could be writers, who didn’t think they were intelligent, that they had something valid to say, or even that they had the right to dedicate time and energy to their writing. 

I think women of color, of my generation and past generations, had to hunt for the work of women of color. And when we found them, their voices were not muffled.  They were strong and loud and impassioned. They sweep us up and they push us to do as they have done—to free ourselves of fear and victimization and internal oppressions, to create and to imagine and to nurture.

I say ‘hunt’ because those voices were difficult to find— I had to leave home and go to college thousands of miles away to find the voices of women who were born only miles away from the high school I graduated from (Gloria Anzaldua) or to read the voices of Latina writers whose language was achingly familiar to me (Carmen Tafolla, Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, Helena Maria Viramontes, Sandra Cisneros). In some ways, it’s still difficult to find those voices, particularly of emerging women of color writers who are struggling to find publication, funding, and publicity for their work. 

LV: I am curious to know more about what the experience of going away to college was as a writer, as a woman of color, as a human being? Was this a catalyst for writing or were you already writing by then? 

ils: I started writing when I was eight—dreams and my own versions of fairy tales and bits of poetry and any other ideas that came to me. I don’t know when I first heard that writers had to have a ‘discipline’ but from at least 13 to 18, I was writing 5-10 pages a day, usually at night when everyone was asleep.

All of that writing I consider ‘practice writing.’ In many ways, I didn’t really understand what I was doing. Everything changed when I went to college. As a woman of color with good grades, I was ‘directed’ towards a degree in engineering. Studying the arts or humanities wasn’t even contemplated. I deliberately chose a university that was not only as far as possible from South Texas but one that had both an excellent engineering program and a strong and diverse arts/humanities focus. My intended major of Mechanical Engineering lasted about 6 weeks. Three reasons why: the campus libraries, Loretta Carrillo, and This Bridge Called My Back.

I read voraciously. I remember feeling that there were finally enough books within my reach. It wasn’t rare for me to have fifteen or twenty library books crowding my desk—most of them by writers of color. And then there was my instructor for my Freshman Writing Seminar, Loretta Carrillo, who pulled me aside and lent me her personal copy of This Bridge Called My Back. Everywhere I went with that book, women of all ages and colors pulled me aside to share their experiences of it. I remember I felt as if my heart, brain, and soul had been blasted open. There was nothing left of the engineer after that book. And I started to find my way to my own words and my own voice.

LV: This collection “Furia” is just that, pure fire, burning against death and sadness.  And I wonder with its deeply personal genesis, a genesis as violent as the birth of our own earth—how does it feel to be able to create something as real and as tangible and that contains the necessary beauty in diametrical opposition to pain and sadness? It must feel, I think, like palm trees bursting from your hands….

ils: Thank you, Lauro. Those are some of the most beautiful words I’ve heard in reaction to furia. More than a few times, I’ve met with readers who found the book ‘too heavy,’ ‘too sad,’ ‘too dark, ’or just ‘too much.’ But I am deeply contented with this book—I said what I most wanted to say and in the most concentrated language I could say it with. And if sometimes I feel naked or as if my insides are exposed when certain readers look at me—well, I’ve learned to be all right with that. This is what I wanted—to be real and to be raw.  Yes, we need love poems and funny poems and storytelling poems and poems contemplating the dawn, but I believe we also need poems that are grief-stricken and angry and frustrated. We need to hit the bedrock level of our pain so that we can be honest when we say it’s possible to climb up out of our experiences. Amidst all of that though, I hope that the will to create, the will to beauty, the will to heal is what the reader is left with at the end of furia. 

LV: In the poem “i laid you in the ground” you write: “to survive i must not feel—if i/ feel i will go mad--“ but this rejection of the heart, of that pain which accompanies living, comes at a consequence to the speaker, doesn’t it? In fact the speaker is fractured, never able to weep, to grieve, to speak, to be made “whole again” until this pain is made beauty again. And “this is what poetry demands/ a breaking heart that keeps breaking/ a bleeding heart that/ keeps bleeding—into words that gnaw away at the dead flesh.” The phrase “ to be made beauty” keeps flashing in my head as I read and reread this poem. How does one make beauty? How does one answer to this demand of poetry?

ils: I had a dream about eleven years ago—no people, no sounds, no action—just one image: my hands on fire in the darkness, shooting out sparks in a multitude of color. The heat and the pressure was intense, not agonizing but pushing against the limits of what was bearable. And I understood that that was the challenge for myself as a writer—to keep on pushing myself to the limits of what I could stand.
It’s that heat—that pressure—that’s capable of transmuting pain, grief, etc., into beauty. The experience/emotion has to be compressed/concentrated/cultivated even as the language is being continually honed and re-worked. Beauty might not even be the intent—the intent might be ‘healing’—but there’s a point where a poet pierces the reality of pain/grief and that’s the moment where both beauty and healing burst into being simultaneously, inseparably.

Not to say that those moments are always polished things. Sometimes they’re raw, rough, ragged. Sometimes they’re ugly or brutal or discordant. That doesn’t mean they are without beauty. And it is poetry.

LV: Could you talk a little about your writing process? In a different piece you mention something you call “guerrilla tactics.”  

ils: My guerrilla writing tactics! It’s all about approaching writing with mobility, spontaneity, and ‘quick strikes’. Given my time constraints—two jobs, being a caregiver, my own health demands, no maid in sight; considering that I can’t afford to go away to residencies or writing colonies, etc.; and having obligations that mean I can’t live in someone else’s basement or out of a backpack, I had to find a different way of approaching writing.

First—mobility. I’m not dependent on having an office, a writing space, a desk or anything else. I used to love writing in cafés…don’t have the time for that anymore. Now, I write on the dining room table, on the bus, while I’m in line at the grocery store, during breaks and lunches from work. I write on loose sheets of paper where I’ve printed poems and stories in progress, in a composition notebook I always carry, and sometimes, on my laptop. Spontaneity comes from creating a discipline out of being ready to write at any moment—in whatever length of time opens up—whether it’s while dinner is in the oven, while I’m at the doctor’s office, or the bus is late.

Mobility and spontaneity are both dependent on preparedness. For me, that means carrying my work-in-progress around with me everywhere I go. Not just on paper but in my mind. Daydreaming time and contemplation time can happen at any of the above places, any of the above times. Striking quickly means you can’t afford the luxury of a day or an afternoon to ‘sink’ into a project. Instead, you live your spare moments planning, dreaming, weighing words. And then, when those five-plus minutes open up, you swoop in, write, and then withdraw.

Because of my guerrilla writing tactics, I feel connected to my writing every day—no matter how many things are crowding my to-do list or how much time passes between those longer writing opportunities. Poems get written. Stories get written. I have yet to find out if I can write a novel this way, but I’m working on it.

LV: In “i come from women illiterate and rough skinned” the speaker challenges Virginia Woolf’s claim that women “have sat indoors all these millions of years” and instead proclaims a different lineage: “i come from women illiterate and rough-skinned all their creativity/ bent to the task of survival…”

“women who nurtured…/ made walls with their own hands who sewed and washed and cared/ for the sick women who took in laundry cleaned houses cared / for the children of others …/ i come from women who never sat indoors”  

Woolf is often cited to express the difficulties women writers and intellectuals face because of men’s disproportionate legal and economic power in education and society. But here are women of a different lineage, women who do not even have the privilege to sit indoors and begin to challenge these discrepancies. Here are women whose creativity is solely “bent to the task of survival.” Can you share some words about the gap that exists between the women in the Woolf narrative and those in this poem and their relationship to creativity, to poetry? 

ils: Virginia Woolf’s work has been a tremendous influence on me. After reading A Room of One’s Own, I taped that quotation on the wall next to my desk. I’ve even carried it in notebooks. But on the day I started writing ‘i come from women…’ (while filling out an application for the AROHO Foundation), I read and re-read her words and all I could think was that Woolf was assuming a lot of things about the lives of women—or perhaps it was that she wasn’t including her servants toiling in her kitchen, cleaning her house, and working everywhere else in the world. She was referring to women of a certain socioeconomic class who sat in drawing rooms and sipped their tea, who had had access to an education, certainly women with leisure time.

But even though she was excluding me, my mother, and my fore-mothers from her consideration, it was no less true that I felt imprisoned, restrained, constrained and filled to bursting with the need to create. And while my fore-mothers’ creativity was bent to the tasks of survival, that does not mean that they 1) didn’t feel the same desire to be unleashed, or 2) that they weren’t intelligent and aware women who daily tackled their challenges with creativity—stretching their dollars, creating the best meals they could for their families, raising their children, and dealing with a day-to-day reality of economic and social inequality.

It was only after I’d written this poem that I read Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”. It was so achingly familiar, so achingly true, that I felt as if she and I were speaking in the same moment though our words were separated by decades. There was always evident in my mother’s life a need for beauty and self-expression. My mother was a blur of constant action—cooking, washing, cleaning, driving, but I remember the complete peace that emanated from her when she was in her garden, when she was making quilts, or when she was making small sketches on birthday cards.

I know and have known, in person, many women who came from lineages like mine, who are the first generation in their families, whatever their socioeconomic means or family commitments, to privilege the making of art in their lives. I am a poet and a writer because of my mother—who only had a second grade education, who worked in fields, who was illiterate and had calloused hands—but who took to driving trucks so that her daughters could finish high school, who never discouraged my love of reading or writing, who bought me my first typewriter when I was thirteen, and who would listen to me reciting my poems even after I came back from college.

‘i come from women…’ is a poem for my mother, but it’s also a poem for the women like me, who are the children of women like my mother—it is not our houses and their bricks and mortar which are overcharged with the capacity of our foremothers’ creativity—it is our blood itself which is bursting with the need to create.

LV: Poets more often than not are writing and being read by other poets—poetry as a muse of privilege, at a distance from the marginalized even when poets are creating from these perspectives. One of the things I appreciate about your poem “i come from women illiterate and rough-skinned” is that it is willing to raise this issue of privilege, and more importantly it attempts to intersect the words of the poet with the lives of “the people.” Is this intersection, this gesture of recording the lives and creativity of those who run the risk of leaving this earth unrecorded enough? And how do you as a poet come to terms with this paradox?   

ils: ‘i come from women’ is only one poem out of the many included in ‘furia.’ For the most part, I think ‘furia’ inhabits the emotional and psychological terrain of grief, depression, and anger as well as self-expression, creativity, and healing. By including ‘i come from women’, I wasn’t seeking to make a gesture towards recording the lives of others. I was speaking from my own experience, my own history—individual and as part of a collective/community. I have never claimed to be a voice for the voiceless. There are many brilliant poets out there whose work does that and does it powerfully, like Martín Espada and Carmen Tafolla. But that isn’t where I’m coming from or what I’m writing about.  I am writing my own story.

If I touch on social/economic/political/etc. issues, it’s not as an activist gesture—it’s because it’s part of my reality, part of my experience. The way I look gets me questioned at the border and everywhere in the borderlands. I’m dark-skinned; I came from family of migrant workers; I speak Spanish like a person from the frontera—a Spanish that is obviously working class; and even though I had access to a few years of a privileged education, my hands are still calloused and I live paycheck to paycheck. I’ve worked in fields, in kitchens, as a waitress, in retail…I’ve mopped floors and scrubbed toilets and worked as a housekeeper… Of course, in my case, these were temporary jobs I took to make ends meet. They weren’t the sum total of all I could expect to do—I’ve also been an arts administrator and office/clerical staff with various local government offices.

I am privileged because I can inhabit different spaces—but I reject the notion of a wall between the poet and the people. Yes, there are poets who will never be read by anyone other than poets and students. Yes, there are poets who will never interact with the people. But there are also poets who will never be published, poets who don’t know what an MFA is, poets who will never call themselves poets. And there are also amazing poets who create bridges between those two points, who are sharing their poems and our poems with ‘the people’. There are poets taking poetry to, and inspiring self-expression in, correctional facilities, schools, battered women shelters, community centers, nursing homes, hospitals. They know ‘the people’ can speak for themselves—that they need to speak for themselves.

And I reject this notion of a paradox—it may depend on the work and a host of other variables—but I believe our poetry can be read by ‘the people’ and that it can affect their lives. In particular, I’m hoping this is possible for my next collection of poetry, “blood·sugar·canto,” which concerns itself with diabetes and healing. I want to read those poems everywhere—to people who never go to poetry readings, to doctors and nurses, to people working to learn about their health, to diabetics and their families and friends. I won’t be writing ‘about’ ‘the people’ and the impact of their economic/cultural/genetic histories on their health, I will be writing about my own experience. And if that collection includes poems about poetry and poems about language and poems about indigenous identity, it won’t be because of an intersection with the world of poets or culture—it’ll be because those things too are part of my healing and part of my experience with diabetes.

LV: From the very first poem, I was struck by your use of form, particularly in the diversity of forms employed. There are the longer poems like “furia” and “deja que todo se muera” but also shorter poems like the prose-like poem “desire could make” and also the torrent like patterns of poems like “they lie when they say grief lightens with time.” Can you tell us about how you developed such a compelling eye for form?

ils: I like the sprawl of a blank page. I like coming to it and feeling that the words I’m going to write might take up residence anywhere on the page—crowded to one side or the other, barely containing the white space inside, compressed or loose, flowing or broken. I think the visual elements of a poem are as important as the auditory elements…and both of those are as important as the emotional and intellectual elements of a poem. What a poem looks like on the page is as telling about the emotional state of the speaker as the pace, the rush, and stop of the words, as telling as images or meaning.

I rarely know what a poem’s going to look like when I start it. I usually figure out the form halfway through writing it, and finding the form allows me to finish the poem. I like the different tensions that each form brings to a poem. The compressed blocks in “furia” are completely at odds with the wild rush of words and images. The patterns in “the wind suffers love” and “they lie when they say grief lightens with time” are supposed to echo the movement of wind and the shifting ground of grief.

I’ve been influenced greatly by other poets and their approach to form—alurista, e.e. cummings, Sonia Sanchez….There’s a form I particularly love, the one I used for “the shape of my wounds” and many other poems that I thought I’d invented. Re-reading Borderlands the other day, I realized that I’d actually first seen it used by Gloria Anzaldua.

LV: I was also struck by how your poems flow despite the lack of punctuation, your poems are moved and made musical as much by your word choices or phrases as they are by your line breaks and punctuation. Why do you decide to not punctuate? How does this affect the musicality of your poetry? Is the line break an instrument for infusing your poems with music?

ils: I had an interesting experience earlier this year during a visit with a group of women from a community health center. There was a young woman there who took me to task for my lack of punctuation. Her main complaint was that it made my poems too difficult. After I gave her my explanation, she seemed outraged that I was so casual about recklessly breaking all the rules she’d ever learned about writing. 

I did and didn’t decide to not use punctuation in order to make my poems harder to read.
My priorities are to 1) slow the reader down and 2) to increase the number of potential meanings/reading of a line or a poem. I myself speed-read through everything—cereal boxes, newspapers, articles, facebook postings, poetry, novels. The only thing that slows me down and lets me live inside writing is when the language itself engages me. As a reader, I yearn for the work of those writers who challenge me, who ask me to meet them halfway. As a writer, I want to extend that invitation—be part of my world, bring your own experiences, find your own meaning, read this and re-read this and find something new every time….

As for music, poetry barely makes sense to me if it isn’t about music. All of it is music— each syllable, each sound, each breath, each line break, each period, each absent comma.

You just reminded me of something—since I was twelve, I’ve learned how to sing rancheras by ear (to this day I don’t know how to read music). I remember writing down the lyrics, breaking the lines wherever I felt they should break—usually to signify when larger breaths could be taken. The first time I saw these lyrics in a book, with punctuation and all, they seemed so messy, so over-written. I felt as if my way of singing it had been rendered illegitimate—as if each comma, semi-colon, and period was holding me down. I guess, in a way, that’s followed me.

LV: What can you tell us about your current project, “blood.sugar.canto”?

ils: It’s been incredibly interesting to me to see the difference between how I wrote poems before and after the publication of ‘furia.’ Before, I wrote poems and then worked to find the ‘book’ in them. Now I find myself consciously writing a book, birthing it one poem at a time. And maybe it’s that intent that seems to be creating opportunities for me to talk about ‘blood·sugar·canto’ as I’m writing it.

I was diagnosed as diabetic three and a half years ago. Despite the fact that my family has a history of it, I was still surprised by it. Not just surprised, I was shaken, angry, depressed. In those three and a half years, I’ve been all over the map—despondent, in denial, afraid…at other times, meticulous about medication and diet and exercise…and at still other times, prone to lecture people about diabetes, self-care, and nutrition.

I’m not alone in this experience. My brother was diagnosed several years before me and he’s been a great teacher and cheerleader. We’ve been each other’s support network. However, except for some of my brother’s work and a few poems from Sherman Alexie, I haven’t seen diabetes or the experience of it reflected in poetry. And so I came to poetry for all the reasons I ever have: to find a way out of my own pain and learn, to heal, to speak. In this case, to more fully explore my own experience of diabetes and to help heal myself from my own diabetes-related fears and traumas. At the same time, I wanted to recognize that diabetes, my own or others’, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. All kinds of factors are affecting its prevalence in our communities—from poor nutrition to the lack of knowledge to inadequate access to healthcare to socioeconomic factors to the U.S. food-culture.

My hope is that ‘blood·sugar·canto’ in some small way helps to break the silence, create dialogue, and introduce new ways of approaching living with diabetes.  

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