A Virtual Interview with Natalia Treviño

Poet and novelist Natalia Treviño will be the featured reader on Thursday, November 13 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for November’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.


Born in Mexico City, Natalia grew up in a Texas where her mother taught her Spanish and Bert and Ernie gave her lessons in English. Natalia has won several awards for her poetry and fiction including the 2004 Alfredo Moral de Cisneros Award, the 2008 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2012 Literary Award from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio.

Her first book of poetry, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, is available from Mongrel Empire Press and most online bookstores.

A member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, Natalia has been working to increase young adult literacy since 1992 in her teaching career and through programs sponsored by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, Gemini Ink, and the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center.

The Interview

CH: I am intrigued by the title of your new book of poetry, Lavando La Dirty Laundry. How did you choose this for the title? How would you describe the role of code switching in the title, and in the book as a whole? in your writing in general?

NT: it was never my intention to code switch in my work since English is my dominant language, but I have been trained to use the right words as a poet for as long as I remember, and more often than not, Spanish gives me the right word. I need to call things as they are, and so there is a difference between saying sweet bread and pan dulce. Pan dulce gives us not only the thing itself, but its context as well, its location, its heritage, and its presence in our community, but it also offers sonorous beauty as well. The word lavando in the title poem does as well.

The title poem is about laundry, washing, but the story happened in Mexico, and I wanted to keep that history and geography alive in the poem to honor it and to name it correctly. After reading the works of Latina and Chicana writers like Mora and Cisneros, I knew I not only had permission to let Spanish into the poems, but I also had a responsibility to do so. And of course in college we read Eliot, Tolstoy, Hugo, and other greats, struggling with their freedom to use the languages they heard. We also teach students that what made Mark Twain so great, aside from his wicked satire was his devotion to truth, and that came out in his diction as well,  his use of the vernacular English, capturing the way people sounded, alternating spellings of words, so that we experience them and gain their context, their location, as well as their heritage.

I live in a bicultural world, and I want to capture that world on paper.

CH: What inspired you to write this book? How long did it take to write? How did you go about organizing the work?

NT: Great questions! The book did not come out as a book at first. I was writing poems, practicing my craft with poetry that did what I thought was the work of poetry–calling attention to the survival of the human spirit, dealing directly with those things that inspired awe, that required meditation and mourning, that stunned me into awareness. I had no mosaic in mind, no conscious thread. I was learning to write. And of course in poetry there is the boundary that dictates acute attention to the first level of meaning, the second, and the third. And then there is the layering in of sound, image, and metaphor to evoke understanding.

At least one of the poems is from my first class in poetry as a college student, “Zapatos Blancos.” And as a young person who was deeply in love with her grandmothers, I spent time with their stories, not to interlock them together in a book, but to do the first job of poetry, to tell. Most of the poems were written between 2003 and 2008, with more editing in the last few months before publication. I take my time as a writer because I teach, I am a mom, and I have a full time job.

When I had a number of poems, enough to make a book, I then looked for a theme. I knew some poems went together, but others did not. How do you weave in Penelope and my own love story? And then I remembered. Ah! Remember what Toni Morrison said. She once said every one of her books is about one word: love. When I thought about it like that, it became easy. Love is how I organized the poems, its layers, its troubles, its hope.

CH: In addition to writing poetry, I know that you write fiction; I understand you have a novel-in-progress, La Cruzada. How do writing fiction and poetry intersect for you? How do they diverge?

NT: Writing fiction is hard because there are a lot of words to herd into a cohesive document that makes sense to others. Also, since I am a poet, my fiction is lyrical, and that makes it hard to read for some. I’ve had potential agents say, “If you could scale back those liberties you take with language, then . . .”

While yes, the primary job is telling, but for me it is about telling it well, and so my fiction does merge with my poetry. There is a female protagonist who is filtering the world through her mind. She has no education, and she thinks in images. Nature is her teacher, and nature teaches through metaphor. But I also have to keep a plot moving, and I have to manipulate time and space, so that the world in the novel remains seamless. I am transporting the reader the way a film does, and so these are new and difficult skills for me.

That is why I decided to get my MFA in fiction when I went back to school. With poetry, time is just another color of thread. With fiction, it is the controlling force, and while the book is non-linear, I have had to learn how to meld scenes together lyrically, so that it moves in a way that makes sense. I do not struggle with this in poetry because the poem can move from scene to scene in a stanza or in a new line. With fiction, that kind of leap is too jolting, a remove from the goal and delight of fiction. With poetry, that kind of leap is energy, so writing a poem right now is like playing hooky from my novel, but the novel is giving me a good education. I won’t give up.

CH: How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity (e.g. poet, novelist …)? How do you see your writing changing over time?

NT: Since I have been working on the novel heavily since 2008, I began to believe I would never write another poem again. It is such a different mental space in writing, but I was pushed back into it by a painting I saw two years ago. And so, yes, there is a second book of poems in the works.

I am comfortable being a dual citizen in writing, a poet and an aspiring novelist. I want to get more comfortable with the novel though, so I am reading different kinds of novels to get a grip on their structure, their control of that rascal, time, and that other rascal, the arc of emotion. I want to smooth those rascals out, but still keep the lyricism as a strong element in my fiction, not only because I want the fiction to be beautiful, but because lyricism is the pathway to great truths that can be shared across cultures and across reading levels. People get metaphor in the heart, and hearts are what can change the world.

CH:  How does your work as a writer intersect with your teaching work? How does the teaching work inform your writing?

NT: I decided to be a teacher so that I could be in constant study as a writer. I would be teaching the great writers, and therefore, while giving a lesson, I would also be getting the lesson. It was a very selfish career decision when I was in my early twenties. I could not believe there would be a paycheck for talking with students about Joy Harjo or William Carlos Williams.

But teaching changed for me over time. While at first, it was about the subject, it later became about the student. My friend Dr. Dennis Gittinger says he teaches math, but mostly, he teaches students. And that is what is happening to me as a teacher. I am teaching them what they need, and sometimes, they simply need to validate their own stories. They can learn commas and theme and plot in a number of ways, and they are living in a world that drowns out their own voice. I want to give them that, their voice.

In return, I hear so many voices, so many stories, so many ways of thinking, and that gives me ample material for developing voices, characters, and logical systems that are foreign to my own, but still real and believable. I can’t think of a better way to prepare as a writer. However, it is not so peachy and simple. Teaching full time takes time and mental space. There is little time left in the week to write, and my writing career has gone very slow because of the focus on teaching. There is what my husband calls, my silent decade, when I was unable to write anything, when I had given up. Thank goodness a crisis came along so that writing could not only save my life, but re-emerge as my original purpose.

CH: What advice would you give to a poet who has yet to publish a book?

NT: Focus on the quality of the poems. Do not focus on getting published until you have really spent time with the quality of each piece. Write, revise, read, revise, and pay attention to the gem that is in front of you, its leaps, its wisdom, and its energy. It has loose ends, iffy line breaks, sloppy verbs, general terms. It is a draft until you know each comma and each word is working in several dimensions.

The poem does also have a reason for being, and remember what that is. Do not get distracted by the glitter of language just to show how good you can tweak an image or verb phrase. That comes after you know its center. The center of the poem is actually not so hard to find if you listen carefully. Silence what you think it is about and what you want it to be about. Silence the ego, and allow the inner wisdom come forward, not from thought, but from feeling. And image and voice will come because you are already a poet.

Once your collection is done, you can either focus on small presses in your community to build your presence in the community in which you live, or you can send wide, to strangers on the other side of the country. There is a rationale for both, and that depends on how you want to relate to your audience. A new book is not done when it is published. It is just beginning to live.

CH: What’s next for you?

NT: I am working hard to promote Lavando La Dirty Laundry this year, and I will continue to do that as much as I can, but I am also working on new poems for my next collection. I am finalizing La Cruzada to begin sending it out, which is going to be a huge process I imagine. I am eager to learn how to better balance my life as a professor, mother, and writer. Motherhood has to take precedence over everything else, and thankfully, my role as a wife does not compete with that or my professional goals. My husband is a total support and a refuge.

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