A Virtual Interview with Griselda Castillo

Background

Griselda Castillo will be the featured reader Thursday, June 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX

Griselda Castillo is an unapologetically bilingual poet and creative nonfiction writer from Laredo, Texas. The youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants, she is a first-generation American and explores her Mexican-American heritage and identity in much of her work. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Spark + Blink, Unlikely Strangers, Chachalaca Review, and the di-vers-city anthology.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What is your first memory of writing?

GC: My first memory of writing goes deep. I don’t remember how young I was but I remember watching the cool important people writing. The scientists on TV, the news anchors shuffling white paper, David Letterman’s note cards. Were they blue?

As a kid, I would pretend I was a scientist taking notes that were really just scribbles. I would play news anchors with my little brother. We wrote stories about what had happened at the house or in the neighborhood that day and reported them later. Top stories were us making fun of our other siblings and stuff.

My first memories of poetry are more ambivalent. Kinda like my poems, surprise! I remember the initial complicated feelings that pushed me to frustration and thinking just say what you mean. Get on with it. I also remember seeing my sister write poems with abandon. And how she was the only one in the family who I ever saw writing more than their homework. She shared them unabashedly too. She used to call the radio station, recite a poem to the DJ…and get it played live on the radio! Fearless. Those are my two first memories of poetry as an art form.

CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? as a poet?

GC: Probably in college. I was a theater major at first but quickly questioned if that was the right path for me. I was very disappointed in the lack of diverse roles and the rigor of the major was sort of ridiculous to me. Having come from a fine arts high school, I expected something a bit more… well collegiate. But it felt too chaotic for me.

I took a poetry and politics class that was taught by 3 professors who lectured and discussed with students during the same one class. We read and learned about Vietnam, watched Apocalypse Now and read Douglas Anderson, The Iliad and The Odyssey. I felt my world shift. I saw with eyes for the first time. Through the cross pollination of all of that media, I got Vietnam. It was a thing in our consciousness. I also began to understand how I could convey what I contained in a controlled context. And how, when a poet can articulate all those things well, it feels powerful. It moved the important things within you. I’ve always asking myself: How does this poem mean to get to where it wants to get?  And then we sort of figure it out together.

CH: Your bio describes you as both poet and creative nonfiction writer. How do these two passions inform one another?

GC: It’s the pearl and oyster scenario. With poetry, there is always this nagging particle. Something I mull and mull and ignore but can’t get rid of so I roll around until it starts to form. With creative nonfiction, it’s more about the oyster. There is more of a process or narrative, more thinking , more flesh and shell, more story. Can’t have one without the other.

CH: How has growing up along the border shaped your writing? How does place figure in your work?

GC: Border towns are…interesting places. But you don’t know that until you leave them. While you are in a border town, you are blinded by the border town drama. Almost everyone is brown, all the business signs are in Spanish, everyone speaks Spanglish: in other words not great English or great Spanish. Menus are in Spanish but everyone orders in English. It’s a bizarre spot.

When I left for school, I experienced great culture shock and was exotic. The latter was not a great feeling. I learned about people’s weird relationships with their parents and other people and also realized how poor my schooling had been at times. My grammar is still terrible! I was writing more sterile poems during that time because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into being a Hispanic writer. Didn’t want to become gimmicky. I was also young and didn’t have the experience or reading brain needed to write the kinds of things that painted my interior self.

But then I got homesick and homesick for the Mexican-ness of what makes up my “poet home.” In hindsight, I realized the richness from where I came and found fertile earth. The search from my severed roots led me to an understanding of the how the border weaves in and out of my identity and writing.

CH: How has your experience as a first-generation American shaped your work?

GC: I think it’s that border town bizarreness again. When you are in Laredo you’re a not really Mexican. When you are not in Laredo, you are very Mexican to others. And to make things even more confusing, when I say Mexican, I really mean Mexican-American. It was odd growing up as an American in a Mexican home that happened to be in America. I think that propels the treatment of identity in the poems.

CH: As a bilingual poet, you live with the music of two languages. How has this influenced the sonic landscape of your work?

GC: This is an area I am still developing an ear for. I write by instinct and nostalgia, always enamored with image. So the sounds in my poems flow like underground rivers. I feel them more than know there are there.

CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer? What paths have you taken to deepen your skill?

GC: This is a hard fucking thing to do. I am still learning how to nurture myself so I can nurture my writing. It’s hard. I am sensitive, combative, but want to take care of everyone. I’m sure my husband loves that about me! 🙂

But when there is cause for a poem, I get tunnel vision. It sit down to work for hours at a time, doing intense editing, handwriting draft after draft, until I leave it to rest for a while. What I am getting better at is coming back to them quicker. Writing in stints vs bursts. I feel more enjoyment from the writing when I can write that way. I also self-imposed a sabbatical at my brothers house one time to finish something. I want to do more of that. Removing myself from the world to write. Just writing that felt good.

CH: What is your writing process like? How do you make room for writing in your life?

GC: I ruminate a lot. I like to see stuff. Remember. I talk about ideas with Jim. Pull stories out of the depths of my parents. Then I get to work. Making room for it is tough though. I write for a living and the demands of that sometimes leaves little stamina for myself. I want to balance that a little better. Make enough money to be able to.

CH: Tell us a little about Five Voices One Brush. How did you get involved with the project?

GC: I never thought I would be a part of this amazing collaborative. I read poetry with Terry Dawson, a man with a very groovy past, and Joe Morales who is a Grammy winning musician. Joe puts together the trio, Terry puts together a very diverse set of poets and Chris Rogers does live painting to it all. It’s very cool and we hope to get the word out about it some more.

I write much differently for that. More of my performer side comes out. The outfit, hair and make up. I let the poems go loose for Five Voices One Brush and imagine the jazz band when I’m building my sets. The amazing thing about the collective is that it’s the poets that anchor the show. The jazz follows the poetry. We never rehearse! Yet it all works out. It gives me the most prized feelings: freedom and confidence.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

GC: I love Saul Williams, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath less and then more again, John Berryman, Robert Haas.

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