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A Virtual Interview with Natalia Trevino

ire’ne lara silva and Natalia Treviño will be the featured readers Thursday, December 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Born in Mexico, Natalia Treviño is the author of the chapbook, VirginX, which was a finalist for the open chapbook contest with Finishing Line press. A professor of English at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, she was raised in a Spanish speaking household and learned English from Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie. Her awards include the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the San Antonio Arts Foundation Literary Award, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize for Poetry, the Menada Literary Award at the Ditet E Naimit (Dee-tet EH Nah-ee-mit) Poetry Festival in Macedonia, and several others. Her first book, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, was a national and international awards finalist. Natalia’s poems appear in BordersensesBorderlandsThe Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, and other journals and anthologies.

The Interview

CH: It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since we’ve shared this space. So I’d like to start by asking your thoughts about your writing life during this interval. What pieces have remained constant? What has changed, or ebbed and flowed?

NT: I also cannot believe it has been five years. So much has happened—to both of us. Since the last time I came to share this space, I’ve lost a parent, my father. It’s been a very difficult time. My writing sort of halted as I felt very deflated even though I know my work with the Virgin was spiritual preparation for something big. I didn’t think it would be that big or that close, but I knew I was on the verge of a loss of some sort. I imagined it was the loss of my beloved Tia Licha who I write about in my first book. She’d been such an inspiration to me and was a living connection to my grandmother, her big sister. That could be the only explanation for so much miracle, so much direct and divine intervention as I was diving into my study of her.

The loss of my father was completely unexpected. I was had lunch with him in my home on that last day of his. I had just come home from a trip abroad to study and write about the Virgin. I am just now getting back on track with my work with her and with my other projects. Grief is most definitely best understood through creativity. It has been a reflective time. Thankfully, my poetry group meets consistently, which means I churned out several new poems since then, but they are all over the place, about teaching, about my cat, about the chasm that is in my consciousness now in the world without my father. It has been a challenge.

CH: I read on your website (http://www.nataliatrevino.com) that you are working on a new collection of poems about Mary, and it was lovely to be able to read one of the poems (“Between Wings”). And contemporaneous with the 2nd Thursday reading in December, BookWoman will be having its annual Virgin Day Celebration in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe.  Please tell us a little about how Mary resonates for you, and about the inspiration for this new project.

NT: Thank you for the kind words and the research, Cindy! And I’m thrilled the reading fits in with Virgin Day at BookWoman. It is such an honor to bring my poems about the Virgin to any audience because she is more than the mom of a really nice man who was crucified for being a really good guy, a spiritual coffee cup, waking people up about their inner lives and their socio-spiritual responsibilities. Among other things, Jesus told us we are all God’s children, all brothers and sisters, and he liked peace and humility, and a rule of law that was based on compromise and respect. He did not want us lusting after wealth or prizes or power. The realm within is what he was helping us to understand, but He also cared for the poor and for children, for marginalized people. Sadly, he’s been twisted into someone who represents the homophobic jerks who hoard wealth and funds illegal materialistic wars. He can’t be happy with his characterization and how he’s been pimped out by corrupt leaders because this claiming of him to justify war and pompous self-righteousness so contradicts the very simple sentences that he emphasized: live without sin. Sin is dicking over your friends, family, and community: dicking them is doing the same thing to God, and that’s not good. It is the worst form of self-harm.

The Virgin is a much bigger being than a saint or relative to Jesus, and not only because she was used to replace Tonantzin by the Catholics, and not only because she’s the symbol of Catholic purity, the Mother of Jesus, Blessed among women, but also because, like all women, she’s linked to us all genetically and is a reminder that yes, we actually are brothers and sisters. She is linked genetically to Mitochondrial Eve, the maternal ancestor to all living humans, and so are all of us.

There is a common factor in our shared genetic being, and all woman are the sacred portal to life through this ancestral communion with life, original human life. This is true especially for women, not only if we become mothers, to send that genetic message forward, but because we are from mothers, connected to the source no matter what our reproductive choices are. Being aware of our cosmic ancestry going back to Mitochondrial Eve is a portal to Life, and with the big L, I mean Spiritual Life: the awareness that we are all deeply connected to one another through one actual mother. How is the Virgin mixed in with this? That is the miracle. She is a once-human-body that has transcended humanity, as all of our ancestors have, and who I believe is aware of us and her own connection to the Spirit Mother-Father, what some will God, the Creator.

We all have the DNA from Mitochondrial Eve, and we would not be alive without it. This is passed only through the mother line. Our ancestral mother, the mother of all mothers lived 200,000 years ago according to a study from Rice University, and she’s alive in each of us, literally in our spit, semen, and eggs. She’s in our tear ducts! She’s in Mary’s DNA too, and the Creator Goddess (who else) built this system of people.

Our indigenous ancestors and family members already know this. The goddess, Mother of God, is the Origin of Life, and science says all life begins in the ocean, in water, which has almost the same rich saline solution as the salt in our first nest, the amniotic sac, which was at 2% saline. The ocean is 3%, but this is so interesting. Salt water is necessary for life, for birth, and somehow also necessary for all foods to grow so that plants, humans, and animals can survive. Fresh water is absolutely essential for all of these life forms too. How can we not pay attention to that when we talk about the Mother of God? She’s liquid. She’s in our many ducts, aware of us and calling for self-care and compassion for ourselves and for others. This is the message of the Son, right? The Santeria religion, which is a blend of Catholicism and West African Yoruba practices call have syncretized their water goddess Yemaya/ Yemoja with the Virgin as well.

Mary, La Virgen is, like all women, tapped into that enormous power, and represents that power so beautifully, as she’s the one who was chosen to be named the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven. It’s in our DNA to connect to one another to assemble as a group, and many can do it through the idea of a Mother Goddess. This is why she was accepted by the indigenous people of the land that is now called Mexico. They said, “Oh, that’s how you see HER? OK!” And we have the matachines devoted to her every December  8th, the day she appeared to Juan Diego.

The thing is that all mothers are linked like a constellation, or better yet, a power grid to this great source, and so are all of their children. I know this sounds wildly heretical, but it’s also exactly what John said in John 3: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and we have not yet been shown what we will be in the future.” There is a lot of debate about whether this means we are automatically saved just because we are God’s kids. The line about the future evokes that question. The Second Coming is what most scholars say this future is about and yes, this is a factor in the Bible, judging those who lived in Christ— but to live in Christ meant be a good person. Believe that you must be a good person to reach spiritual feast and glory, and good means some basic things: do not hurt one another is number 1.

But who wrote the parts that said Jesus locks you out if you do this or that? Men. Men who wanted power. Jesus wanted us to love one another and His Mom. He wasn’t after power on Earth, was he? He was saying Heaven is for all of us if we are KIND to one another and look INWARD at our own sacred potential, sharing our material wealth with others so we can stop worrying about bread and begin worrying about our spiritual nourishment instead.

While dying on the cross, he looked at John; “Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” This is John 19. What a great son to know his mother so well, to see her real power and place in the world. I honor that.

Our Mother “es muy milagrosa,” my grandmother once told me. I see it now. My project is attempting to understand her better, and in so many traditions. There are over twenty two thousand Virgins who are all the same spirit, and each of those names, or identities are specific manifestations of her miracles. I understand there are many ways to access her, and I hope to understand this more by examining her representations created by humans in their inspired creative works. They looked to her miracles in their world, felt her resonance with all people as the Mother of God and all of us too, and found women around them who could represent her to model as her. They see her in their own mothers or lovers or muses. Looking at how artists adorn her and tell her story inspires me with a lifelong project of deepening my faith, taking in art, and tapping into the eternal thing I’ve always loved about literature: the complex, sometimes broken, but everlasting human spirit— in all of us!

CH: I understand you are teaching at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio. How do your students surprise you? How does teaching inform your own work?

NT: My students are so much smarter than they think they are. Once I build an atmosphere of trust, they tell me what they know. If they do not trust me, they will stay shy and not reveal their knowledge to me. If they do not trust me, they will never tell me what they need and what they don’t really know, and so with trust-building, we begin, and I also use trust move them forward with so much excitement.

They already receive a mass of information. They read all day long, not textbooks, but yes Twitter feeds and status updates. They are reading, communicating, connecting, making meaning, making new words, working out what ethos they will follow, working out who they will believe. My job is to show they how they can do it on a different scale, an academic one, so they can be degreed.

Why do most of them want a degree? It is not to discover mysticism or realism or humanism or even Chicano power. Most want to move along on the socioeconomic ladder that they feel is holding them back. I know I did when I was their age. How would I own a home one day? How could I be wealthy? I wanted to hoard and save like my father did, so I could one day take great vacations, travel, and of course, own a swimming pool. My students want these things too. They think things will bring them happiness and they have lost their faith in teachers. What surprises me is when they do trust me because I work on this every semester. Being in their lives is sacred work.

They are all multi-lingual and mostly bicultural like me. Most community college students are nepantleros, between two worlds: culturally. Once we talk about this idea of Gloria Anzaldua’s, they know we are being real and that they can be free to share their world in the classroom.

What surprises me most is when they trust me with their story, when they volunteer to share a personal worry or story. One of my students lost his father this year. He announced this during our Dia de los Muertos event. It has been less than two weeks. I started getting teary and shakey as I responded to him, but thankfully we were all talking about our dead, and we had a positive, communal Die de los Muertos altar that they had voluntarily built in front of us, a ceremonial space which made it beautiful. He added a picture of his dad to it. He wanted us to all know it had just happened the week before. I am doing the most important work I can do, helping my students gain confidence to share their voice. Their voice is their super-power.

CH: You have many roles in life: professor, writer, mother. How are you creating balance? How do you make time for your own writing amid the demands and commitments of work and family?

NT: This is always a struggle. It’s midnight as I type this interview and I need to be at work tomorrow at 9 a.m. There is a ton of grading waiting for me on my desk. It’s 4 a.m. when I do my best prose writing —sometimes on a Sunday morning when an idea wakes me up— or a hot flash!. Sometimes I tell my husband, “Don’t talk to me until I come out of our room” or “Don’t talk to me until Sunday.” He is fantastic and extremely generous about these requests. He understands how important it is to me to have time to write. I would not be the writer I am if it were not for his generosity and faith in my work, which has been there from the beginning. We met writing letters to one another. He is a writer too, but he is so selfless that he makes the space for me to create what I want to create. He will make dinner, clean up, and even give me alone time to write when we have a short vacation or a weekend together.

It’s just the two of us now, and we are learning it together since my son has always been a part of the package. I am in a new stage of motherhood now, which kind of feels like a break up, but not the angry kind, the I know you need to go kind. It’s nature. He’s moved out. He’s 21. It is so hard to miss him as much as I do, but it is also a wonderful time in our relationship as we are honest with each other and support each other as artists.

He’s a musician, rapper, and college student. I can fall asleep without knowing where he is finally. It used to keep me awake! I don’t have ulcers from worry, but I do send regular texts telling him to quit smoking. Mexican moms hang on tight, too tight. I’m trying to resist making him dread his oppressive Mexican mother who is a ball of worry and doubt and fear. Yes, I have all that, but the other day I sang the 12 Days of Christmas to him in full opera style at dinner. He and my husband loved me enough to let me do this. I need singing lessons. We have fun, and I can enjoy a glass of wine with him now as I tread into this new space of motherhood that is about encouraging and guidance and not rules and mandates.

I find that through attention to my body, which has been so generous with me so far, that I am able to balance and remember why I am here. I am running three times a week and dedicated to walking long distances with my best friend at work every day. I am taking care of  health in numerous ways, not forgetting about my body as often as I used to. These active measures punctuate my week and my life now. My exercise routine is a keystone habit reminding me each day of my priorities: goals, work, family, not in that order.

Family is first, work is second, writing is third except for when it is first, and family does understand that sometimes writing is first.

CH: In a section labeled, “finding purpose,” your website has an intriguing discussion of the term mutualism. along with the statement, “Mutualism describes the relationship between my writing and my life.” How did you come to your understanding of mutualism? How has adopting this concept made a difference in how you approach your own work, and working with others?

NT: I love the wisdom in the physical world. If a tree creates and gives me oxygen, I want some of that wisdom so I can survive like a tree does, giving something written to the world in return for its favors of light and air, Earth and water. I am happy to be a place for nests, a place that provides shelter for my students, friends, and loved ones, and perhaps also provide good fruit for my readers, if I am lucky enough to be that kind of tree. This can happen when I receive the gift of consciousness, calm, reasoning, and love, so can put forth more branches and perhaps be close to winged creatures that inspire me. My student just posted this wonderful line in his research paper where Chelley Seibert, a 25-year police veteran giving a TED talk, quotes Jana Stansfield saying, “I cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do” (“Behind The Badge”). Yep.

CH: Tell us a little about your novel-in-progress, Drinking the Bee Water.

Oh, that is the marathon for me! I was so fortunate to have it accepted with the press of my dreams a few years ago, and then my agent advised me to pull it because she did not approve of the contract. It was the bravest thing I have ever done because I have been working on this novel for a long time and this was my desired press, the press that changed my life and introduced me to Chicano letters. The truth is the novel was not done, and pulling it was a good idea in the long run. I am reworking it after others have read it and said, “Hey, this is not done yet. Try this. Work on that.” Ok. I always tell my students to sacrifice the words for the work. The work is not done, and I am so excited about how it is going now, which is a sacrifice of words, a lot of them, thousands of them that need to be unstitched, reconsidered. Luckily, I have many new words inside of me, and I have some new possibilities for publication, but I have to see it through, which gets back to the work/life balance thing. The story about this woman, Berta, is too important to muck up.

CH: When we last spoke, Lavando La Dirty Laundry had just come out, and you were focusing on its launch and promotion in the world. Looking back, were there any surprises along the way? Was there anything you would have done differently?

NT: I am so pleased with how it went. Who can complain about a dream come true? My first book of poetry. I would gladly revise it now because I have grown as a writer, and some of the poems could use some nurturing and pruning, and this is also true for VirginX. My Macondo network helped me immensely with this book, and I have limited time to travel and promote it.

The next book will get more attention on this front. The more you plan before the book release the better the launch will go. I had no idea how to get the word out, and so I said yes to everything and everyone. There is no small audience, only a small performer. This is what a former music professor friend used to say. And with each encounter I have in sharing this book with others, I notice it has its own life, how it resonates with certain people who are navigating nepantla, the world in between cultures, languages, between heritage shame versus heritage pride.

CH: What are you reading now?  

Research papers. HAHA! Yes, I do read a lot of student work, revisions, revisions, and reflections and drafts. But for my own work, at the moment I am reading ire’ne lara silva’s  Cuicacalli (Saddle Road Press 2019) and an early copy of Wendy Barker’s Gloss (Saint Julian Press, out in January 2020). These are my two favorite poets, and it is an honor to also call them my friends. They are a huge factor in the mutualism idea I mention in my website. They are great trees who bear important fruit and nutrients for me. I can honestly say that they have had a deep influence on my work.

In fiction, I am reading Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III, who I met at Gemini Ink last summer, and this book, which is so out of my normal reading range, it is shedding light on all kinds of things, showing me something lyrical in the structure of a contemporary short story collection about how dirty love can get. I recently finished another book about love called Love by Hanne Ørstavik and translated by Martin Aitken from Norwegian (Archipelago Books, February 2018). It is about the limits of motherhood, a very powerful book gifted to me by my amazing friend, Gregg Barrios. It haunts me, but this is a good thing.

A Virtual Interview with Robin Carstensen

Robin Carstensen will be the featured reader Thursday, August 8, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Robin Carstensen’s chapbook, In the Temple of Shining Mercy received the annual first-place award by Iron Horse Literary Press in 2016, and published in 2017.  Poems are also published in BorderSenses, Southern Humanities Review, Voices de La Luna, Demeter Press’s anthology, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, and many more. She directs the creative writing program at Texas A&M University-CC where she is the senior editor for The Windward Review: literary journal of the South Texas Coastal Bend, and is co-founding, senior editor of the Switchgrass Review: literary journal of health and transformation in partnership with the Coastal Bend Wellness Medical Center.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? As a young person, what about poetry engaged you? 

RC: Cat in the Hat books, nursery rhymes, jumping-rope rhymes, school yard rhymes, and songs.  I think the pleasure in sumptuous language engaged me.

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

RC: In my early memory scenes, I am writing short letters to my mother. With as much flair as I can conjure, I am asking for something, inviting some reconciliation. Early on, I felt the power of the written word on my livelihood, on gaining parental favor. I wrote stories, plays, and poems well into the night as my parents and little brother slept. That’s when I knew I was a writer. In middle school, I wrote stories by the light of a tall lamp post shining through the fourth story window of our brick quarters in Germany where my father was stationed. At various jobs in my young adult life, I felt compelled to write lyrical exposés of working conditions or real material lives of the people around me who needed better care, or poetic eulogies for the residents and cohorts at a residential care facility who had passed on. People seemed uplifted or comforted by my arrangement of words, and by my mid to late 20s my clear role as a poet was emerging.

CH: What role has your formal education played in your development as a poet?

RC: Very important role in appreciating and developing my craft, and embracing the depth, breadth, wisdom, and teachings of our diverse poetic roots and influences.  My formal education as an undergrad in the mid 90s, after five years in the Air Force and two years at Del Mar college, brought me a dear professor who would become my writing mentor for many years: Vanessa Jackson at Texas A&M University-CC. She introduced me to a luscious sensory world where I fell in love with the Romantics and Wordsworth’s riveting stories in verse in “The Ruined Cottage.” Through other wonderful professors who were expanding the literary canon, I studied poetry. Elizabeth Mermann introduced me to the mind-blowing heart-healing work of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, which resonated with my life on the borderlands of heteronormative society.  In another class, I was introduced to Audre Lorde’s poetry, essays, and biomythography, Zami, a New Spelling of my Name. Her lyric, sensual description of her childhood and her mother’s embodied force in her community held me from the beginning. I felt a kindred spirit with these writers and many others, and I felt their welcoming me and my unique voice and thoughts.

My doctoral program at Oklahoma State University where I concentrated in poetry was a rich, invaluable time in my life to study widely, deeply, intensely the history and traditions, theory, movements, and authors influencing our diverse contemporary poetry. I learned the joy in received forms, in reaching for and discovering pleasure in the unexpected through structure and pattern. The pantoum and ghazal in their use of recurring lines and refrain enchant me, as well the bending and fusing of received form with our 21st century concerns and expanded imaginations, consciousnesses.

CH: You teach a variety of topics at the college level, including environmental studies, borderland cultures, and gender and women’s studies. How does this work influence your writing life? How has your writing been influenced by the process of teaching and mentoring others?

RC: Radical feminism intensely influenced my work before and during my studies in Oklahoma. A few in this long list include June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Chin, Lisa Lewis, Ai, and the lyric poetry in the novels of Jeanette Winterson. They teach me through their poetry, teaching, and lives to be daring and speak my truths. I learned that to create and expand knowledge is to demand and imagine better lives for everyone. It’s worth it to reach for the images, sounds, tone, the shape, pause, space, and breath of a poem to precisely convey our demands as well as our celebrations, to stand up for decency and create momentum that dissolves the rhetoric of fear. It’s worth our lives to know that if language can be used to breed the hate and violence that we see daily manifested in tragic forms, we also have language to imagine and manifest life-giving force. In the poetry of witness and resistance, especially in these borderland regions as we experience harmful political policy and rhetoric, I feel myself a part of a gathering force that is creating urgent change and that will not allow the pendulum to swing into full madness. In the meditative poems and poems of eros, in poems that soothe and poems that disturb, I also find love letters to humanity and am moved to write my own that might comfort, inform, shake someone up, help someone, including myself, connect to loving energy, community, and possibilities.

Teaching college courses and editing two journals especially brings me close to work from new, emerging, and established writers. I find much wisdom and inspiration in students, and am moved by their poems and narratives, which speak to our intersecting lives and complex challenges on a planet heaving through radical changes. I’m encouraged by their higher consciousness, daring affirmation in themselves and faith in better worlds to come, in the beauty they uncover and the love and fulfillment they envision and create.

CH: Tell us a little about In the Temple of Shining Mercy. Over what period of time were these poems written?

RC: These are semi-autobiographical poems that explore the landscape, culture, and history of Oklahoma and Texas. Intimate friendships and solitude help the speakers in these poems confront violence and embrace wild uncertainty. I’d been writing and publishing these poems in individual journals for over a decade, between 2004-2015. Since the full-length poetry manuscript had not found a publisher yet, I decided to try sending a much shorter version to two admirable chapbook series. The 30-page limit pushed me to discover a tighter shape of intertwining themes.

CH: What was your process in selecting and ordering the poems of In the Temple of Shining Mercy?

RC: Finding a story, a thread to pull them together, and which poems seem to speak to one another, and roll into the next pairing, unfolding a new conversation. (Really, sometimes it’s a mess trying to arrange, but in the end, after arranging and rearranging, something comes together that feels whole, and it’s a mystery and a relief!)

CH: What was your journey in getting this book published?

RC: Long journey over a decade. In sending the full length to many presses, I learned to embrace rejection, and to find strength and resolve from that space. I’m learning from wise poets, such as Ire’ne Lara Silva and Odilia Galván Rodriguez, who reminded me during one of her stirring workshops, to keep focused on our writing and not become preoccupied with the fame or status of publication or become disheartened by comparing ourselves with those winning the accolades. From wisdom, I’m encouraged to stay steady on my course. And I learned there are many ways to share our work, which is the whole point of “getting published.” We all want to share our thoughts and ideas, stories, and emotions. In the process, I have joined poets all over Texas and Oklahoma at writing conferences, readings, and festivals. I help coordinate the People’s Poetry Festival in Corpus, with our fearless leader and talented Tom Murphy. I enjoy helping writers find a place for their work in a journal that I co-founded, Switchgrass Review:  A Literary Journal of Health and Transformation.  I also enjoy leading a team of students to publish a journal of voices from South Texas and the Coastal Bend, the Windward Review. Along this community of energy and collaboration, I gathered the sustenance to continue working on and submitting my book, believing it would eventually speak to an editor who would want to help bring it to a wider audience.

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?  

RC: I’m fortunate to have a circle of close friends who are my family and who are each uniquely artistic, kind, and encouraging. I’m also nourished through road trips, reading, music, swimming, watching clouds, movies, meditating in many forms, being with my community of poets who are my extended family, and the beautiful island campus where I get to create new curriculum, and be inspired by students and colleagues.

CH: What three things would you tell someone who is starting out as a poet? 

RC: Remember to enjoy doing your art. Be fearless in your writing, leap across chasms. Read other poets and writers across the spectrum.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

RC: Michael + Josephine: A Novel in Verse by Jo Reyes-Boitel. An inventive, enthralling lyrical love story, gorgeously written, offering an expansive vision for the many shapes and possibilities of love.

A Virtual Interview with ire’ne lara silva

Poet and fiction writer ire’ne lara silva  will be the featured reader on Thursday, June 11, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for June’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, TX, and is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press, 2010) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award and flesh to bone (short stories, Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the 2013 Premio Aztlan, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. Her newest work, Blood Sugar Canto, is forthcoming in 2016 from Saddle Road Press

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing? How did you become interested in writing?

ILS: For a very long time. Since I was eight, at least. I was taking an afternoon nap and had a nightmare that shocked me out of sleep. There wasn’t anyone to comfort me, and for the first of many times, I reached for pen and paper to write it all down and get it out of me. We didn’t have any paper in the house, so I ended up writing my story on a brown paper bag.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known I wanted to write. I fell in love with the alphabet my first day of kindergarten. Words and books came soon after. I was a reader in love with every new book.

CH: You have published full-length books of both poetry and fiction, in addition to chapbooks of poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you consider yourself primarily a poet or a fiction writer … or does your identity as a writer lie in a different area?

ILS: I like being described as a poet and short story writer, but before it’s all done, I want to add essayist, novelist, and children’s book writer. I’m good with WRITER, but I think other people might always think of me as POET first. Which I don’t have a problem with—sound, music, and intensity will always be my first concerns in relation to language. As Jeanette Winterson says in her collection of essays, Art Objects, I don’t think there has to be such a strict division between poetry and prose. It can all be poetry. And it can be prose when it needs to be.

CH: How does your work as a poet influence your fiction? How has your fiction writing influenced your poetry?

ILS: Each of them give me room. Poetry gives me space to be personal and auto-biographical. Fiction gives me the space to be imaginative and to write stories that are like the long and involved story problems that poke and prod at different scenarios and resolutions. They both use concentrated and rhythmic language, but they give me space to enter the other freely. I’m never confused about what a piece is going to turn out to be. Whatever it looks like at the end, whether it’s poetry or prose, it’s free to be what it is.

CH: What is your writing practice like? How have you gone about envisioning and creating your books? What have you done to develop yourself as a writer?

ILS: No practice—other than what I call my guerrilla writing strategies. I write whenever and wherever I can, in as much time as I have. No special time, no special place, no special rituals. I always have a pen and my composition notebook on me, though I much prefer to write on a computer or laptop (mostly cause I can’t read my own handwriting!). I’ve written poems and stories and eventually, entire books this way. My work schedule and my caregiving responsibilities don’t give me the ability to dedicate long hours or entire days/weeks to my writing.  My greatest dream as a writer is a very simple image—a shelf of books with my name on the spine. I point myself in that direction to focus and get oriented.

Each book has been a different journey and a different experience, but each one, at the time I was writing it, was vitally important to me as a person—sometimes as a release, sometimes as a way to figure out what transformation or healing meant, sometimes as a way to strategize my next steps. I think life and writing inform and enrich each other.

To become a writer, I’ve lived. And struggled and rested and had my heart broken. To become a writer, I’ve read voraciously and pursued friendships with others who have also loved language and all the questions this life poses us. I’ve gone to workshops to learn from others and I’ve challenged myself to expand my skill set—as a writer setting words on the page and as a writer living in the world—promoting work, writing reviews and interviews, coordinating readings, offering workshops, all of that.

CH: I have attended workshops where you have had participants throw a grito—a very visceral, powerful experience of embodied voice. How does the grito figure in your work?

ILS: A grito—thrown while sober—is pure voice, pure essence. My thinking with the workshop has been that if you can find the place inside you where your unique grito resides, then you’ve found the place where your unique voice resides. And if you can learn to pull and throw out sound from there, then you can learn to pull emotion and language from there too. So much of the struggle to ‘find’ our voices is actually about learning how to release it from all the constraints that we, our families, others, and our society has put on it.

CH: I understand Saddle Road Press will be publishing Blood Sugar Canto next year. How would you describe this new book? What motivated you to write it? How long did it take you to write it?

ILS: Blood Sugar Canto is a full length collection of free verse poetry that discusses diabetes, family, and individual and communal healing. I was diagnosed as diabetic and started on insulin 7 years ago. I wanted to write about my experience of diabetes and illness—but also I wanted to talk about the need to vanquish fear and all fear-based approaches to healing. I profoundly believe that fear is never healing, that we do injury to our spirit and our lives if we do everything out of fear. I started writing it in the beginning of 2011 and finished it by the beginning of 2012. I spent three more years revising it and looking for a publisher.

CH: How did you find the publishers for furia, flesh to bone, and Blood Sugar Canto? What advice would you give aspiring authors about finding publishers for their work?

ILS: The writing of each book has been completely different—and so has each experience of publication. I actually had a poetry manuscript that I gave up on. I spent seven years sending it out without success. I did put together two chapbooks, ani’mal and INDiGENA from poems in that collection. In 2010, I saw a call for a chapbook contest from Mouthfeel Press. I decided to put together what I would want for a third chapbook, and I decided that if this chapbook didn’t win, I would publish it myself. Furia won. As it was too long for a chapbook, Mouthfeel decided to publish it as a full-length collection.

I wrote one of the first sentences for the short story collection in 1993 and the first draft of the first story in 1996. It wasn’t until 1998 that I decided to jump into the story-telling with both feet.  In mid-2004, I’d finished the first draft of the entire collection. Over the next eight years, I revised it—added stories, deleted stories, tightened the language, transformed the stories. I didn’t keep count but I received at least 20-25 rejections for it, though the rejections became more encouraging in tone with time. I submitted it to Aunt Lute Books in 2011 and heard back in 2012 that they wanted to publish it.

As for Blood Sugar Canto, I spent 2012-2015 revising it and submitting it to different prize competitions and presses. At the end of those three years, I signed a contract with a press. Sadly, we had different visions of the book. Fortunately though I soon found another publisher, Saddle Road Press out of Hawai’i.

I have no idea what the journey’s going to look like for the next book. I am curious to see if it ever gets easier.

My advice for aspiring authors looking for publishers: Read. Find the publishers who are publishing the books you love. Work your ass off learning about the kind of journey you want your book to have and what kind of journey you want to have as a writer. Lastly, trust. Trust that if you hold true to what you believe, then your work will find the right home.

CH: Name at least three writers whose work has influenced yours. How would you describe their influence?

ILS: Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Jeanette Winterson. Francisco Alarcon. Ana Castillo. e.e. cummings. The Bronte Sisters. Lorca. Juan Rulfo. This list could go on for a very long time. They’ve impacted me at every level—from how I think about language and what I think language can do to the choices I make about which stories to tell and how to tell them. I love them all for their brutal honesty and rawness and music.

CH: If you could go back to the beginning of your writing career—before any of your books had been published—what advice would you give yourself?

ILS: For some reason, this is the most difficult question to answer—especially if I have to figure out when the beginning of my writing career was.

At 8 and up until I was 21, writing was succor and escape. I needed it to survive. There is no advice to give myself other than “write.” I didn’t fully commit myself to writing until I was 23. For my 23-year old self, I would say, “Keep on writing, and follow the story you want to write.” I spent many years facing what felt like heated opposition to my way of writing and to the stories I wanted to tell.

Or, if the beginning of my writing career is just before any of my books were published…when I was 34, then I would say, “Hang on and keep on going, because writing books is crazy and wonderful and you’re going to learn so much.”

CH: What are you reading now?

ILS: I just finished Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, and while it was wonderful to slip backinto her language, I just wasn’t all that moved or affected by it. (So disappointing.)

I’m in the middle of reading Deborah Miranda’s poetry collection, Raised by Humans, recently published by Tia Chucha Press. Amazingly fierce personal and political poems. Truly astonishing. And I’m about the plunge into Rios de la Luz’s  The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert. I am so intrigued by the description and it was recommended to me very highly.