Viktoria Valenzuela was the featured reader Thursday, October 10, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Viktoria Valenzuela is a creative nonfiction poet human rights activist whose work appears in such publications as Poetry Bay, Mutha Magazine, AMP (Hofstra University), The MALCS Journal, and A Prince Tribute Anthology: I Only Wanted One Time to See You Laughing. Valenzuela is an educator, a Macondista and the organizer of 100 Thousand Poets for Change: San Antonio, Texas. Her writing keeps keen focus on Chicana mothering as decolonization and political action. Valenzuela and poet Vincent Cooper have six children and live on the Westside of San Antonio.
CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?
VV: My first interest in writing was a natural desire for me. I was a very inquisitive child. I remember sitting on the carpet in kindergarten learning how to spell the word “zip”…. There was a cartoon drawing of a St. Bernard dog who was zipping up his jacket and my old teacher was really putting emphasis on the Z sound to pronounce the word as she read it, “Zzzzip!” I was taken by how easy it was to create sound with these funky lines and squiggles. It was a monumental moment where art met sound in these things called letters… I wrote Zs and Ss everywhere. Later, when I learned to write down words then sentences, I wrote poetry (or songs) about beautiful things like flowers, rocks, or love poems for my dad…
I was always a writer. Dad saved some of those poems in an old suitcase for 30+ years. I didn’t realize I was always a writer and poet until recently when my old high school buddies reminded me that they have journals and yearbook entries with poems I wrote for them. I don’t remember writing these at all but apparently I’ve been a poetry-tagger.
CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
VV: I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I was in my late 20s. I’d always considered myself an artist. I double-majored in Studio Art and English for a creative writing degree at community college when I went back to college as a single mom. While there, I took to hosting a bimonthly open mic event in 2003. Poetry just took over. I stopped pursuing art to be a creative writing major when I made it to university.
I began to think of myself as a “real writer” when I was featured at The Sterling Nature Center by my good friend, the poet Charles Itzin, who also asked me to speak at his college class as a poet. Before then, poetry had been just a fun hobby but these moments .
CH: I know that you write creative non-fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?
VV: I don’t believe I have a primary identity as a poet or CNF writer but I think most folks know me as a poet. I have two books of memoir that I’ve been writing. One deals with my hazy teen years and claiming Chicana identity, while the other is more recent and is a hybrid work that centers on my experiences as a mother of nearly nine children. These are both personal narratives and include the political awareness of their times. I maintain that all my work is politically charged.
CH: How has your life as a mother and human rights activist shaped your writing?
VV: There is no divide. I chose to become a mother at 21 years old. I knew having children would affect my work as an activist and scholar but I also knew that if I didn’t have children when I did, I might have no children at all. Writing and activism requires that you give your whole self to it. I have not maintained balance but I have tried my very best even if I fall short I do not quit. I write because, in a hundred years, I refuse to go unread. I exist, I care about other humans, and I have some stories to weave into the fabric of America.
CH: What is your writing life like?
VV: If everyone in my house goes to sleep at 9pm then I have 3 hours to write by myself. If not, I wait until they go to school. I have to be a mom and wife before I am a writer at my desk or agree to do a reading or event. My daylight hours are for the children and at night I might have a reading. I write between tasks or I carve out space where I can. There are times when I wish for more hours in the day but then I remind myself that Andre Dubus III wrote House of Sand and Fog in his truck parked at the job site. He gave himself only 20 minutes a day on his way to work to write as much as he could. The books want to be written.
CH: Tell us a little about the Macondo Writers Workshop. How did you become involved with this program? How has it influenced your writing?
VV: I was always interested in writing for mainstream culture. I remember reading House on Mango Street in my high school English class and then an article about Sandra Cisneros that talked about her moments leading up to creating Macondo Writers Workshop. I had already resolved that I must become a writer “for those who cannot out” but further, I knew I wanted to become a Macondista someday.
I would have applied to be a Macondista in 2015 but I was pregnant and the labor date was within two days of the start date of the workshop. I applied the next year and was accepted. It was a very validating moment for me as a writer. I now serve on the ad-hoc board and am so proud of the work I am doing there. I helped plan last summer’s workshop and this year will do the same.
My writing has grown in craft due to the amazing master writers that lead the workshops I have participated in. Also, being able to workshop with other Macondistas about our work has been key to publishing well.
CH: Tell us a little about 100 Thousand Poets for Change: San Antonio, Texas. What motivated you to become an organizer with this group? What gifts and challenges did you find from your involvement?
VV: The BP Oil Spill of 2011 was the sole reason I became an activist poet organizer. I had been following certain poets on Facebook when it was new to me and I was struck by another poet, Michael Rothenberg, making comments about how atrocious it was to allow the oil spill to continue the way it was. I found a kindred spirit in him and when he said that we should write poems about this I was ready. When he said we should march in the streets and demand they repair the oil spill I was all for it. The more we chatted on these comment threads, we came to debate if having one large poetry event will make a difference. He was able to secure Stanford University to host an archive database of 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Cities from all over the planet contribute photos and poetry to the site and it is considered as one poetry reading even if 800+ cities around the globe participate. I submitted one poem in 2011, in the next few years since I have created poetry reading events and zines of the works read there.
The gifts of these readings is in the amazing networking that can happen. My readings have helped others in many ways, such as when I hosted deportable Vietnam veterans and gained some national attention for them.
CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?
VV: Time for nurturing myself as a writer is not easy to come by but I am blessed that my family understands the need for alone time. I stay up later than everyone else. When we have time and money, I sign up for writing workshops nearby. This summer I was thrilled to take workshop with the amazing poet, Sherwin Bitsui at Poetry at Round Top and I recently went back to university for my masters in English. When I am actually writing, I tend to sip coffee or ginger root tea while listening to John Coltraine on Pandora radio.
CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?
VV: My favorite writers are Dorothy Parker for her clever skill and wit. Li-Young Lee is a master writer and I aspire to his level. I also like Gloria Anzaldua, Alice Walker, Jane Hirshfield, Deborah Landau, Sherwin Bitsui, Claudia Rankine and Ada Limón… and more… there are thousands of poets I love.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
VV: I am just started reading Citizen by Claudia Rankine and You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid.