The Small Claim of Bones
an interview with Cindy Williams
by Ae Hee Lee
In The Small Claim of Bones, Cindy Williams Gutiérrez words dig deep and exquisitely into the earth of Mexican history to uncover the voices of the people of Tenochtitlan and New Spain. Divided accordingly, the book engages in three different dialogues: between the poet’s father and the Nahuas, her mother and Sor Juana, and Cindy herself and the “bones” that make up her multicultural identity. Through word, breath, and song, this collection of poetry places the sacredness and beauty of the past right beside the present, enriching it— claiming it.
Note: As the new ILS graduate assistant, I was given the opportunity to choose one book from three on which to conduct my first written interview for Letras Latinas Blog. The Small Claim of Bones immediately caught my attention. First of all, it was because I had not encountered a lot of Latino poetry on the ancient past and the book was like a treasure trove from that world. But secondly, and more than anything, I was deeply intrigued in seeing how the very history of a culture could contribute to the composite of an identity. Having read the book, I now see I was wrong in my initial speculation about the latter. It was not merely a contribution that history gave to the poet's identity. It was inspiration.
1. First of all, thank you for doing this interview for us. The collection’s title, The Small Claim of Bones, has the same name as the first poem in the book, one that acts like a prologue poem. Did you decide to name your collection after this poem? Or did the title produce the poem? For what reasons did you set it apart from the rest of the collection? Could it be possible to say that it was to signal a consideration of the poems in the collection— the cultures, the past and the present they embody—as “bones” from your body and identity?
I named the book for the prologue poem which serves as a proem. It introduces the book to the seminal idea that “my past/ lodges in my marrow.” Your metaphor of the poems in the collection as the bones of my identity resonates deeply with me. My identity embodies my past, along with the pasts of my ancestors and of those who have gone before them. I often speak of my work as exploring “the silent and silenced voices in the land”—individuals, peoples, and cultures marginalized by history. In addition to giving voice to the vanquished Nahuas and to Sor Juana who was forced to renounce her literary work, this is primarily a book of her story—a book of remembrance by a woman claiming her multicultural roots.
2. As a Latina poet you seem to place great importance in remembering not only the modern but the past of Mesoamerican cultures— its traditions, its myths, and its landscapes. And you dedicate this book to your “father admirer of Tenochtitlan and … mother keeper of the old ways of New Spain.” Is the treasuring of the past something that was awakened by your family? In other words, could you tell us how did you come to embrace all of it as your own and eventually write about it?
My father hoarded the past: he was an avid collector and a serious history buff. Amassing bullfighting and baseball memorabilia, as well as stamps, coins, and autographs of movie legends, he also collected seemingly unremarkable family mementos for their sentimental value—cards, crossword puzzles, tallies of domino and Scrabble games, even the key to the hotel where we stayed in Paris when I took him on his first and only trip to Europe. He read voraciously about Mexico’s history and reveled in retelling it. As my poem “Father’s Memory of a Mexican Mining Camp” reveals, he was born and raised in a mining camp in Santa Barbara, Chihuahua. Though he is the “Williams” in Williams Gutiérrez, Mexico’s rich history and culture—“the voices in the land”—seeped into his bones. He was not Mexican by blood, but by marrow. Primarily Welsh- and German-American, he was also one-quarter Cherokee. He felt a connection with Native peoples and their way of life, and became fascinated with the indigenous cultures of Mexicans who worked in the mines. On the other side of the family, my Gutiérrez mother is a great storyteller with an interest in genealogy. She and my aunts often spoke of the family history which they traced to a 16th-century land grant from the king of Spain. The impulse for my book—which is based on my MFA thesis—was to explore, in the words of the Yeats epigraph, my “two selves” shaped, respectively, by my father’s and my mother’s heritage.
3. You divide the book into three named sections: “The Gift,” which includes a poem of the same name around the end of the section; “The Scattering,” which is referenced in the poem preceding it (“Huehuehcuicatl, or Song of a Suddenly Ancient Man”) and later within the section itself (“A Scattering of Flocks”); and the “Epilogue.” I got the impression that this division was in accordance to the order of receiving (“You said that the world was mine.”), giving (sowing and growing), and hoping for future fruits in prayer. What do you think about this idea? Could you tell us more about your choices in the process of organization of your book?
Once again, I appreciate your insightful interpretation. My motivation was to juxtapose Mexico’s history with my own personal history. The first section is a call-and-response between pre-Conquest Mexico and my father who was fascinated by Mesoamerican culture. The second is a call-and-response between the iconic feminist of New Spain, Sor Juana, and my mother’s Mexican matriarchy. The epilogue brings all the voices of the past together in English, Nahuatl, and Spanish and offers a call to action in the present: “to make the dark earth rumble,/ and the heart fiercely tremble” so that the earth and our bodies reverberate with song.
4. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican 17th century poet-nun, is the voice/inspiration for several of your poems. In “Sor Juana’s Habit,” the speaker juxtaposes a fiery desire for expression to the humble and temperate life as a nun she is expected to live. In “Sor Juana on Immortality,” I felt there was a surpassing of such life through writing. The latter also includes a subtle reference to what it means to be a woman and write (“I, a mere, woman…dare…”). Could you share with us in what specific ways Sor Juana was or is part of your life (as a woman) and writing (in general and the poems inspired/dedicated to her)?
Sor Juana is one of the greatest literary figures of the Americas. A vital contributor to the Spanish Golden Age, Sor Juana is emblematic of New Spain’s literature, making hers the perfect voice for the cultural juxtaposition that I wanted to create in the book. A feminist in a world oppressed by the Church patriarchy, she sought a cell of her own (refusing marriage and joining a convent in order to write) 250 years before Virginia Woolf espoused a room of her own. My persona poem “Sor Juana’s Habit” confronts freedom of expression and of love, alluding to the love poems she wrote to the Condesa de Paredes, wife of the viceroy of Spain. As an emerging poet-dramatist who explores feminist themes, I admire her deeply and rue that much of her work was lost. This tragedy inspired me to write a play, A Dialogue of Flower & Song, which takes place in Huexotzinco (near modern-day Puebla) in 1490 and reimagines the original dialogue about poetry (or “flower and song”) by seven Nahua poet-princes. In my play, three women from different points in Mexico’s history debate the purpose of poetry: 15th-century poet-princess Macuilxochitzin, 17th-century poet-nun Sor Juana, and a fictional, contemporary protagonist—Diana, a Latina photojournalist covering the war in Iraq. Whoever wins the debate may alter the course of history.
5. In your book, you explore different cultures (Tenochtitlan, New Spain, Mexico, and the U.S.) not only in the context of landscape and history but also, more specifically, using the myth and religion that are part of them. In “Recasting the Story of Isaac: When the World was Under a Mother’s Spell,” you present a dialogue between the Biblical character of Sarah and the ancient earth goddess Gaia. As in The Small Claim of Bones different gods and goddesses from different cultures find a meeting place, I am interested to know how you view the contrasting (or maybe they are not?) beliefs and their place in your poetry.
That particular poem reimagines a seminal choice made by the father of Abrahamic religions. Curious about a mother’s choice in the same dilemma, I realized that the resulting poem fit well in the matriarchal section of the book. Spanning Catholicism, Judaism, and paganism, the first four poems in this section reveal my fascination with religion and ritual. I was raised piously by my mother who was a devout Catholic. I went to a Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. Then I attended college in “the Baptist Belt” of Texas where I met my first love, a Muslim from Iran. My husband is a Jew. I began my own Jewish learning and observance while we were engaged, though I have not converted. During my graduate MFA work, I immersed myself in the Nahua cosmology in order to write in the voices of Mesoamerican poet-kings. I have performed my work accompanied by pre-Hispanic music; in those moments, I embody these voices and their beliefs. When my father passed from this earth, I held a Lakota ceremony and carried his Spirit Bundle for a year to honor our Native ancestry. Despite my exposure to a wide range of faiths, I do not feel like one of Rumi’s “spiritual window-shoppers.” Rather, I like to think of myself as a vessel for honoring and holding these myriad beliefs to invite discovery (the way a poem is a vessel for transformation). We can learn much through juxtaposition if we can make room to hold things, side by side, up to the light.
6. One of the things I appreciate from your poetry is the rhythm and musicality weaved through the different songs you composed. Like in “Yaocuicatl, or Song of War,” where you used the onomatopoeic sound of the drums to accompany the words of the song (I love the words that in a sense merge these two as one (“Tocotocotiti tocotocotiti … Raise your word and breath/Raise your heart and sky”). I am aware you have performed your poetry accompanied by music at several conferences and colleges. What do you believe is the significance of oral performance in poetry? Do you think a poem is completed by its utterance?
Yes! I am a strong proponent of the oral roots of poetry and I am enamored with the human voice. A poem is meant to be spoken. In the oral tradition of the Nahuas, poetry was chanted accompanied by music and dance. The non-lexical cues you reference are taken from extant Nahua “flower and song”; they were cues for the musician. I interpreted these cues as dactyls and trochees, respectively, in the first and second halves of my poem. When I first met musician Gerardo Calderón, I asked him how he heard those non-lexical cues. As he drummed on the table in the café, his rhythm emulated dactyls and trochees! We performed together for five years and released our CD “Emerald Heart” featuring my Nahua-inspired poems (collected in the small claim of bones) accompanied by pre-Hispanic instruments (including water drums, turtle shell, clay flutes, wind and jaguar whistles, rain stick, seed pods, and butterfly cocoon rattles). In addition to these performances, I have created and produced numerous poetry productions, including most recently, Words That Burn, a dramatization of poetry and prose juxtaposing the World War II experiences of William Stafford, Lawson Inada, and Guy Gabaldón in commemoration of the William Stafford Centennial and Hispanic Heritage Month.
7. In “If I were a Nahua Poet” and other poems, you raise the idea of the human being as a dwelling place for word and breath, and you present words as a worthy offering to the gods (“Make my body a cuicoyan, this house of song… Let my voice join the ancients/To swell the sky with a thousand plumes of light”). You also employ a great deal of three-way code switching (Spanish, Nahuatl, and English) and translation (“Si yo fuera poeta Nahua”) in your collection. I would like to hear more about what word and language means to you, the power they have and role they play, and their place in your own identity and poetry.
My childhood in a Texas border town is the root of my code-switching: I grew up speaking Spanish to my maternal grandmother, English at school, and a flowing Spanglish with friends and family. For me, emotionally evocative and richly musical words often defy translation. To this once-timid girl who gained confidence by confiding in the page and by asking questions in the classroom, words are bridges—to the self and to others. To this same girl who began creating semblances of poems at the age of seven and matured into a poet, words are the medium of shamans: they entrance, enchant, cast a spell. The Nahuas referred to “prayer” as “word and breath”; I believe that poetry is word on breath. Words are purveyors of meaning—mere symbols which we have learned to interpret. But the music of the line—the rhythm and repetition of sound—penetrates the body for a visceral experience. And when these lines are declaimed, they expand into a communal experience. This is why poetry is an alchemical art: it hinges on the transmutation of the most mundane of mediums—language. This transmutable medium is a constant window to a culture—a people’s beliefs, way of life, what they value. The death of even a single language—irreplaceable in its singularity—is unbearable.
Selected by Poets and Writers Magazine as one of the top ten 2014 Debut Poets, poet-dramatist Cindy Williams Gutiérrez draws inspiration from the silent and silenced voices of history and her story. Her poetry collection, the small claim of bones, was published by Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press. Poems and reviews have appeared in Borderlands, Calyx, Harvard’s Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s Periódico de Poesía, Portland Review, Quiddity, Rain Taxi, Rattle, and ZYZZYVA. Plays include Words That Burn—which recently premiered at Milagro Theatre in Portland, Oregon in commemoration of the William Stafford Centennial and Hispanic Heritage Month—and A Dialogue of Flower & Song featured in the 2012 GEMELA (Spanish and Latin American Women’s Studies) Conference co-sponsored by the University of Portland and Portland State University.
Cindy earned an MFA from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast Program with concentrations in Mesoamerican poetics and creative collaboration. Cindy is a founding member of Los Porteños, Portland’s Latino writers’ collective, and the founder of Grupo de ’08, a Northwest collaborative-artists’ salon inspired by Lorca’s Generación de ’27.
Gutiérrez’s work, The Small Claim of Bones is available through Amazon, Powell’s, and Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press/EditorialBilingüe. She can be reached through her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ae Hee Lee is a South Korean by birth and Peruvian by heart and memory. She is currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program of The University of Notre Dame and works as a graduate assistant for the university’s Institute of Latino Studies. You can find (or will find) her poetry in Dialogue, Cha, Cobalt, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Ruminate, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society and Silver Birch Press.