Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

Sheryl Luna: What were some of the reasons the CantoMundo founders had for starting the organization? Does the banning of books by Chicano/a authors in Arizona affect CantoMundo’s goals and purpose in any way?



Norma E. Cantú: The reasons we felt that CM needed to exist are many: some are selfish (at least for me) as they speak to our individual need to come together with like-minded poets where we can speak our languages and do our work without being judged or silenced. In broader terms, we felt that it was high time that a Cave Canem kind of organization exist for Latina/o poets. Macondo is great, but it is not JUST poets; it includes other genres–fiction, essay, and even drama. The banning of our books in Arizona affects all of us who write.


Celeste Guzman Mendoza: The primary reason that I decided to become a co-founder was because I believed, and still believe, that Latino writers need a space where they can convene and be 100% themselves as writers and as gente, a space where they and their writing, no matter the style, could be accepted and supported unconditionally. I strongly believe that when we as writers have this center, this support, we create much stronger work, both in terms of its own emotional core and craft. The banning of books in Arizona only reaffirms why communities like CantoMundo are so important.


Deborah Paredez: I was invited by Pablo, Norma, Carmen, and Celeste after they had had a series of encounters wherein they wondered aloud, “Where is the Latina/o Cave Canem or Kundiman?” I answered the call because I believe that ideas of aesthetics and “professional success” are invariably racialized and gendered and that by creating this space for Latina/o poets, we could collectively identify and intervene in the prevailing (and troubling) assumptions that often undergird these issues in the poetry world.  I also was thrilled by the idea of being part of a community made up of the diverse array of Latina/o poets with whom I could learn so much and have some of the necessary hard conversations that can’t always be had in “mixed” company.

Luna: How do you feel CantoMundo can help Latina poets in particular, now and in the future?

Mendoza: Think I answered this in my reasoning for becoming a co-founder. I think I’ll add that when we feel supported we begin to feel more confident in our work and voice. We submit our writings to more contests, we enter our work into anthologies, we go out and look for opportunities…ultimately, the strength of the group helps us challenge ourselves. It is not the same for everyone but I do feel that for many of us it challenges us to improve every aspect of our “game” so to speak. We bring it in a way that is much stronger after we are in one another’s orbit.

Paredez: I think the particular challenges that female poets face in this historical moment (as opposed to even 25 years ago when I was just beginning my “adult” life as a poet) is the pervasive and insidious notion that we should be past or “post” any number of important aesthetic, generic, or theoretical categories: post-feminist, post-confessional, post-sincerity, post-race, post-narrative, post-language…post-nauseum.  This sort of teleological thinking is especially detrimental to women of color who are simultaneously (and systematically) excluded from publication venues or taxonomies of aesthetic value while being told that race/gender/etc. has nothing to do with the terms of their exclusion because we are all so over that.  CM provides a space to name this beast and encourages Latina poets to gather together to fashion the weapons to slay it.  We also insist on a feminist mode of engagement at our workshops: everyone is accountable and respectful and encouraged to examine the implications of the power dynamics in which we may be invested. Not a safe space—that is too facile—but a place of productive risk.  We are lucky that our co-founders include Norma Cantú and Carmen Tafolla who were instrumental participants in  Latina writers’ efforts as part of the second wave feminist movements.  This living historical memory insists we keep our eye on the long view rather than being distracted for too long by the mirage of post- anything except maybe the post office or the particular struggles a post-partum poet might face.

Cantú: CantoMundo can help Latina poets in three specific ways: 1.  networking so that the Latina poet doesn’t feel all alone—knowing that there are others out there supporting and believing in your work can be transformative. 2.  Offering a place to try out new work, to expose oneself to the scrutiny of other poets who will tell it like it is, who will be kind, but most of all will be HONEST about your work. And 3. By providing a space where we can leave our families and our daily demands behind and come and just be a POET.  In the future, I think CM can also grow and become an oasis for Latina poets who may be in a desert out there where there are no other Latinas writing—mostly here I am speaking of those of us in academia who may end up in geographical and cultural isolation.

Luna: What has CantoMundo already done to foster its mission?

Mendoza: I believe that the community of poets who have come and shared themselves and their work are benefitting greatly from one another in various ways, whether it is simply finding like-minded writers or being challenged to write differently, or helping one another get reading gigs, etc. I also feel that when we participate in the workshops themselves we delve deep and write from an emotional center that is very strong and shows in the work.

Cantú : The most important thing CM has done to foster its mission is to exist! Given the dire financial straits of the arts and arts organizations, we have been very lucky to have the funding from UT Austin to make the summer workshops happen. So, the workshops are number one—that is how most of our mission our goals are met.  I also think that having the readings and inviting major figures in Latino/a poetry as faculty and as readers has also been a fulfillment of our mission.

Paredez: Because we started out as a collective of founders, we are accustomed to the (often fraught) process of collaboration.  Each year, we’ve taken seriously the valuable feedback from our fellows and faculty to improve our ability to create an emotionally nurturing and creatively challenging space for Latina/o poets.  We work closely with our fiscal sponsors, The Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, to endeavor every year to keep costs down for fellows and to share with them the resources an institution like the university can provide. We are also really proud of the ways the fellows have taken ownership of CantoMundo by curating regional CantoMundo readings and events beyond the workshop space.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of CantoMundo?

Cantú: My own vision for CM focuses on a pivotal point: growth and maturity. As the organization continues to grow and mature, CM will become as well-known as Cave Canem or Kundiman. At five years old, we are probably still at the childhood level. We are not yet teenagers, but we have the energy and vision of youth. As CM ages, it will come into its own by developing the goals we have for the next 5, 10, and 20 years including publishing books, awarding prizes, and holding academic conferences on the subject of Latina/o poetry.

Mendoza: I envision CantoMundo continuing to be a space for Latina/o poets to convene and create community however we see fit at that time. My primary goal is for us to perfect as best we can the workshop experience. If we do other things like a publication or some other offshoot that will be exciting and new but our core is the workshop and supporting the fellows’ in their work.

Paredez: I envision CM taking part in cultivating a larger trend of Latina/o poets mentoring one another (imagine!) as more and more Latina/o poets achieve professional success and standing both within and beyond the traditional spaces within the poetry world.  Other goals and dreams include sponsoring a book prize and residencies and innovative outreach programming with Latina/o communities who’ve not yet had the opportunity to imagine themselves as poets.


Luna: What are some of the ways being a CantoMundo fellow has helped you as a poet?

Gloria Amescua: My poetic world exploded—in a good way, of course. I worked for years in isolation and then in small groups. CantoMundo unlocked countless doors for myself and others. I have grown from the supportive environment and the wonderful workshops led by invited poets and fellows.  Not having gone through a formal creative writing program, I was unaware of the many blogs, writing residencies, conferences and many other resources available for writers. The postings in CantoMundo Charla and elsewhere are extremely valuable. Fellows in this network share leads to amazing poems, books, interviews, and poetry readings. As a result, I’m tuned in to the changing literary world. I am in constant learning mode, trying out different styles, subjects, and forms as I access the diverse poetry of my CantoMundo fellows and those poets they admire. More than ever, I am motivated to write, send out work for publication, enter contests and be involved in various networks of poets. The organization encourages lively interactive discussions about Latin@ poetics, which I value highly. CantoMundo really has been transformational. I treasure the intellectual stimulation of this community of learned people and their willingness to share from their abundance. One vital aspect is being able to experience the poetry of CantoMundo fellows. The diversity and honesty of their poetry has pushed me to dig even deeper and to challenge myself. My writing has definitely improved as a result, and I am working on my first manuscript.  I feel that I am in the midst of an intellectual, artistic and literary revolution in poetry. CantoMundo has definitely been the experience of a lifetime.

ire’ne lara silva: CantoMundo helped me to remember that I am a poet and that I would always be one–even if several years of writing prose had made me start to believe that there was very little poetry left in me. It introduced me to writers I have long admired–as Fellows and as Faculty–and to new poets that have changed how I see the work of making poems, how we approach language, and how we weave our histories and identities into our work. CantoMundo made me part of a loving and supportive community and created a space for lasting friendships and artistic collaborations.

Luna: How do you feel about CantoMundo’s fostering of Latina poets?

Amescua: Since I became a fellow in CantoMundo, my circle of supportive Latina poets has expanded exponentially from the local community. I am so honored to be part of a national network, which includes incredible Latina poets. I communicate through email or Facebook with several Latina poets and have reviewed their poems and/or manuscripts, and they have given me feedback as well. I discovered Hedgebrook’s Writing Residency for women through Amalia Leticia Ortiz, whom I met during the inaugural workshop. She not only encouraged and helped me with my application, but several other CantoMundo poets have also applied and been accepted as a result. This is just one example of support for one another. We promote each other’s works, interviews and readings. I was motivated to organize a Southwest Regional CantoMundo Poetry Reading for the community in San Antonio, Texas. We have had several regional readings across the U.S. in 2012-2013.  As I’m sure many others do, I share many of the ideas and information I get from CantoMundo. I especially do that with Mujeres Morenas, my local writing group of Latinas. CantoMundo and its network expands beyond the fellows, which is especially helpful to Latina poets. I’m thrilled with my fellow CantoMundistas for their publications and their awards. I can see the tremendous output of my fellow Latinas and am encouraged by their success, not only for myself but also for other Latina writers.

silva:  I think that the very structure of CantoMundo lends itself to women poets. Beginning with the four-day schedule (Thursday evening-Sunday morning) which is more likely to allow women with children, other caregiving responsibilities, multiple jobs, or with fewer economic resources to participate. The organizational emphasis on respectful exchange, ‘checking in one’s ego,’ giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak as well the community’s acceptance of personal stories, emotional openness, and speaking in varying registers (from academic to performative to familial) makes a space for women to speak ‘from the heart’ and without having to downplay their wisdom or intellect.

It’s interesting to me to see how CM’s insistence on gender parity also works to support Latina poets. For one, it introduces us to male poets that we might not ever have met as part of a life-changing, art-affirming, close-knit communal experience. As poets living our individual lives, what keeps us persistently writing and continually developing are the networks we create. The more multi-faceted and unique they are, the better. And the bonds built during CantoMundo– at the retreat and year-round–are indispensable, whether between women, between men, or between women and men.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of this organization?

silva: In my vision, CantoMundo is still growing and developing decades from now–bringing Latin@ poets together and creating opportunities for connection and dialogue. I wish for CantoMundo all of the things that will provide more publishing and networking opportunities for its Fellows: CM book publication prizes, grants, and a literary review; a website that promotes CM poets; and cross-country readings and reunions for current and graduated Fellows.

Amescua: The founders of CantoMundo had a magnificent vision for this organization, and they have seen their vision embodied in the five years since its founding through their hard work. They have devoted time, energy and love to support and serve Latin@ poets. The promise of CantoMundo as a community will multiply as more fellows graduate. I envision an increased network of CantoMundo fellows who continue to promote the work of Latin@s and are increasingly recognized for their poetry.  I would like to see an increased web presence, more opportunities for instruction and publications by our organization—anthologies, single works, or media versions of readings. This past year we had several regional readings, and I can see these expanding and evolving into more than just readings, perhaps involving workshops for local communities, so that the learning doesn’t just stay within the CantoMundo circle. CantoMundo is an amazing force. I feel fortunate to be a part of the outreach to the community, where we are all planting seeds beyond the CantoMundo fields. The harvest: Latin@ poets empowering themselves and each other


CantoMundo Founders

Norma E. Cantú currently serves as Professor of Latina/o Studies and English at the University of Missouri in Kansas City; she is Professor Emerita at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her PhD in English from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and has taught at Texas A&M International University, the University of California, Santa Barbara,  and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

As editor of a book series, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo: Borderlands Culture and Tradition, at Texas A&M University Press, and Literatures of the Americas at Palgrave  she promotes the publication of research on borderlands culture. Author of the award-winning Canícula Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, and co-editor of Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change (2002),Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001) and Dancing Across Borders: Danzas y Bailes Mexicanos (2009) and of Inside the Latin@ Experience: A Latin@ Studies Reader (2010) and El Mundo Zurdo: Selected Works from the Meetings of the Society for the  Study of Gloria Anzaldúa 2007 & 2009 (2010),  she is currently working on a novel tentatively titled: Champú, or Hair Matters/Champú: Asuntos de pelos, and an ethnography of the Matachines de la Santa Cruz, a religious dance drama from Laredo, Texas. She is founder and Director of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa and co-founder of the group of Latina/o poets, CantoMundo as well as a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.

Deborah Paredez is the author of the poetry collection, This Side of Skin (2002) and the critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Mandorla, Palabra, Poet Lore and elsewhere. Her honors include an Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Paredez is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latina/o poets, and she is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin where she teaches in the New Writers School MFA program.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza is a Macondista, Hedgebrook resident, and co-founder of CantoMundo, a master writer’s workshop for Latina/o poets. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various anthologies published by Penguin, Calaca Press, Eakin Press and Wings Press. Her first, full-length poetry manuscript, Beneath the Halo, is due out in Spring 2013 by Wings Press. Her chapbook, Cande te estoy llamando, won the Poesia Tejana Prize in 1999. A performer and playwright, Mendoza’s plays have been produced in Austin and San Antonio. She is at work on a second poetry manuscript, and lives in Austin with her husband and three cats.


CantoMundo Fellows

Gloria Amescua is an inaugural member of CantoMundo, a national Latino poetry community. Gloria has been published in a variety of journals, including several di-verse-city anthologies, Kweli Journal, Generations Literary Journal, Texas Poetry Calendar, Acentos Review, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Pilgrimage. A workshop presenter for youth and adults, Gloria is an alumna of Hedgebrook’s Writers-in-Residence program. She recently won first place in both the Austin International Poetry Festival Contest and the Austin Poetry Society Award.

ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, and is the author of two chapbooks:  ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Her first collection of short stories, flesh to bone, will be published by Aunt Lute Press in 2013. ire’ne is the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo Workshop member, and a CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow.  She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal

HER KIND: Bitch Magazine provided us with the following prompt for our BITCHES theme this month: In a May issue of Publisher’s Weekly, Claire Messud was puzzled by her interviewer’s remark that the main character in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs seemed like someone she wouldn’t want to be friends with. “Would you?” she asked Messud, who responded, “What kind of question is that?” and continued on to list a number of male fictional characters whose male authors, as far as we know, were never asked to account for their likability. Do likable characters matter? When you write, do you consider how readers will judge your characters—particularly female ones—according to gendered expectations of behavior?


STALINA VILLARREAL: Never would I consider the audience to develop the content of characterization. I think of the audience when considering accessibility and pacing, even formal poetics, but character itself seems to exude upon the exposure of rugged individuality, independent of others. For example, one of my poems has a female speaker that admits to having stained underwear from menstruation, and I have been thanked by females in the audience for saying such commonly unsaid truths. Originally, I had thought that the taboo I described with this character would have been unpopular, but as it turns out, the conflict of the plot helps fuel the character’s motives. The effect results in freedom of characterization. On the other hand, the challenge then is to answer: What kind of pursuit of freedom should the character have? I disagree with the screenwriting convention that each character only has one motive, for three-dimensional characters usually have more than one motive, even if the second motive is minor in comparison. The sister can be a mother and can be an enemy all at the same time, depending on the context. Transitioning is the key to taking turns with the motives, so I suppose that now I have contradicted myself by correlating the motives with the pacing. To be more precise, I should distinguish that I do not think of the audience when defining the character’s motives as I write, but I do think of the audience as I edit the proportions and sequencing of the writing.

Maybe I should also disclaim that my artistic background is in visual art, so my characters usually have a visual motive that I assign: a spiral, chicken scratch, a square, and so forth. This allows me to have what I call the dominant motive, but characters often have recessive motives. For instance, I know that I strive to have a circular motive, as it seems to me the most perfect shape, yet instead, I am bombarded with my spiraling, chicken scratching, cutting angles, holes, and stitches. Still, while my characters are usually fictional, I displace some of my emotional truths to make the characters molded to a vision that I can accept in existence, even if I disapprove of their potential popularity or infamy.

Perhaps I still haven’t answered the concern about the gender angle. I disagree with the double standards and the stereotyping, yet I actively pursue the feminist notion that women can be the subjects of desire rather than objects of desire. To me, this means rejecting the art history claims that circles are purely a feminine shape and that angular shapes are solely masculine. All genders have their moments of blurred behavior, hence the multifaceted characterization. I consider my gender bias to be queer.

Nonetheless, the majority of my work has what I call hidden characterization. Oftentimes, we do not know if the shy person became shy because of experience or if the person was born with a temperament that causes this person to be shy. Even when we think we have known a person for years, we sometimes still make an unintentional mistake that hurts because of a lack of understanding behind motives.


IRE’NE LARA SILVA: I don’t think ‘likeability’ matters at all. I don’t read or write to find ‘likeable’ characters. ‘Likeable’ characters aren’t often doing interesting things. Sometimes they are, but if you give me a choice between a character baking cookies and dreaming of love or a character waking up from a nightmare of killing their best friend, my interest is more likely to be piqued by the latter. What I want are characters that are compelling—characters dealing with situations that are pushing them to the limits of their comfort zones, their identities, their relationships, their coping abilities, etc. People living through those situations are often not ‘likeable,’ but we, as readers, empathize because we know what it is to live through those situations, and know that we were perhaps not always ‘likeable’ in those situations ourselves. Or, we’re fascinated by the unpredictability of the characters’ responses and what it tells us about them.

The gendered expectations of ‘niceness,’ of superficial beauty, of ‘keeping it together,’ fail to offer us opportunities to illuminate the human experience. I learn nothing—as a reader, writer, woman, or human being—if life isn’t illuminated, its brighter aspects as well as its darker and less likeable parts. Otherwise, I’m just being entertained. That’s not to say that I dislike being entertained—sometimes I want to read a romance novel or watch a sitcom or go to a movie theatre for a big summer blockbuster. And that’s perfectly fine—but to suggest that, as a woman writer, my foremost concern should be my characters’ likeability, is to limit me to use 3 crayons when I could have 128.

For example, I just finished working on a short story about a character with cannibalistic tendencies who’s deciding whether or not to give in to the desire to ‘consume’ her lover. Likeable? No. Compelling? I hope so.


SV: I agree: Transgression is welcomed in literature yet rejected in real life. Or at least we pretend to abide by our own norms yet tend to fall for temptations or to experience turmoil beyond our boundaries. Hence, literature has a purpose in this gray area of subversion, as even the most traditional Western literature depends on conflict to drive the plot and subsequent characterization.

I would even dare to say that humans find an attraction toward otherness, for obsessions of hatred and fear still inspire us to move or hide. The advantage is that an artistic representation of the grotesque is more approachable since it is more removed. The distance but exposure together allow for desensitization—or at least give us room to file more categories in our brain. Otherwise, we would never see monstrosity like the loving vampire or the endearing zombie.

As an audience member, I have always experienced the consciousness Brecht describes when he asserts that the audience never forgets reality, never fully gets lost in art, even with my escapist lens. Visually, this interplay can be seen like the localized color of painting: The shade of the pigment in a solid can be altered by its reflected light in the air. In other words, the artist and audience are simultaneously both codependent and independent. The latter of this duality concurs that likeability is irrelevant to any type of character selected for writing, and I believe this irrelevance should be the writer’s carte blanche. Worrying about the audience is futile because discomfort is already inevitable in potent writing in the same way that strong spices prick the taste buds. As a writer, I use revision as a way to rearrange the presentation for the codependence in the dining room, but acquired tastes seem to be too arbitrary to limit the writer’s choices in the kitchen.

Lastly, I agree that true learning requires a challenge, and that art can serve this necessary pain on a palpable platter.


ILS: I think there is an important distinction that needs to be made between an ‘artist’s audience’ and ‘the market’. When it comes to the ‘market,’ the work of art–book, painting, film, etc–is a ‘product’ and its value is determined by what people are willing to spend for it and/or by how many units of it will fly off the shelf. ‘Audience’ and ‘market’ are often conflated. Returning to those summer blockbuster movies–their goal is to attract as much of the market as possible, make as much money as possible, attract as large of a following as possible. And so, they use likability as a storytelling shortcut, often using familiar actors, and for the most part, sticking to established plot-lines and ways of telling a story. They have ‘test audiences’ and whole departments strategizing on behalf of their product.

But an artist’s audience is a different thing. I think of my audience all the time–before, during, and after writing–because it is my goal to tell a story, to communicate an experience, to invite a response. But I don’t conflate my idea of what audience is and what the market is. My work is not a product. I know this will sound idealistic/romantic/naive to many. How can it not matter how many books are sold? My ability to live off my writing depends on it. My work’s ability to reach a larger audience depends on it. A press’s or agent’s desire to publish/represent my work depends on it.

But I didn’t come to writing for any of those reasons. I haven’t poured time and energy and heartbreak and decades into my writing in order to have to deform/mutilate/hinder my vision, my language, or my stories. The audience I’m seeking, the one I’ve been writing for, is the audience that needs my work.

In Seven Nights, Borges makes an argument against the idea of compulsory reading. To roughly paraphrase, compulsory happiness only should direct the reader on their way. If the reader isn’t drawn to a book, then it’s a book that wasn’t written for them. Literature is diverse and rich enough that it will offer the reader something they will want to read.

Reading that passage, I had a revelation.  If literature was rich enough to offer something to every reader, then conversely, there was a reader for every kind of book. And books did not have to appeal to every reader. Books were written especially for some readers. And that freed me. To me, it meant that I would eventually find my readers. Find the ones I was writing for–who would find something they needed in my words.

I have been often humbled and awed by my readers’ responses. When you have elicited tears from readers or audience members, when you have had perfect strangers share their personal stories, pains, and triumphs with you–then the numbers on the page do not matter.

My life has been saved by poetry, by stories. I don’t say that lightly. I would not be here. I would not be who I am. I would not have enough heart or vision to care or to speak. I owe a tremendous debt to the work of others that saved me. My repayment is to strive to create work that may save others, that may help them heal, or that, at least, may enable them to go on.

I write from my gut. From my base chakra. From my vagina, as a friend once said. Personally, I have an affinity for the word ‘cunt.’ In my own personal act of language re-appropriation, I like to say (or at least think), I write from my cunt. To write from the heart sounds Hallmark-y, so I will stay away from that, but I mean that too–I write from the seed-filled center of my blossoming heart. All of this to say that I write from a visceral body. What I long for in art–as an experience and as an artist is the direct opposite of  Brecht’s consciousness. Give me the Stendahl effect–where all consciousness and all our ideas of separation cease to exist. As Stendahl wrote, “I was in a sort of ecstasy…Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul…” As a reader, I want to feel the minute and the infinite. I want to have new eyes. I want the world re-made. I want my senses sharpened. I want to feel that my heart isn’t the only one beating inside my chest. I want to feel the preciousness of life.

Transgression for the sake of transgression, monstrosity for the sake of monstrosity, pain for the sake of pain, pushing boundaries just to push boundaries is not what my work is about. Perhaps I should have used another story as an example—a few years ago I wrote a semi-autobiographical story about a pregnant, almost suicidally depressed woman taking care of her terminally ill father. She spends most of the story speaking to her unborn child, walking along the ocean, and fantasizing about killing her father. The point of the story was not to transgress or to provide pain for the reader to consume. The point of the story was to share an experience as I felt it in my body. Returning to the idea of likability—there was no way I could see where I could tell this story if I insisted on a likable character to hold a reader’s attention.


SV: While the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘market’ is important, during my education in the United States, I was taught early on that the poetry industry loses money instead of gaining it, that poetry usually pertains to the gift economy more than the actual market. Perhaps the fact that my poetry has only been published in Mexico contributes to this bias. I never think of my work as sellable, although I do put a price on it simply because I live in a capitalist nation; however, this is mostly a compromise in the adaptation of my aftermath of having lived as a red-diaper baby in a contradictory atmosphere.

I’d also like to clarify that I do not associate only ‘likability’ with ‘audience’; on the contrary, I was loosely trying to explain that both love and hatred are essential in art, that the worst art is when the audience is apathetic. As I see art as a sensory form of communication, ‘likeability’ and taboo must combine for the audience to feel. That does not mean that the description of a panhandler on the corner has to be that of a famous violinist, but it means that the artist has to play with arrangement, whether the likeability-taboo mixture is simultaneous, consecutive, or a combination thereof. Again, I have been influenced by visual arts, in which most products are about arrangement rather than invention. Because I am a maximalist, variety within intense patternmaking is my goal.

In my extremist perspective, I have to say that I identify with the minimalist Philip Glass regarding art being a nervous compulsion. I tried to sell out many times because the life of an artist is taxing. In spite of my efforts to be part of the mainstream, I would have committed suicide if it weren’t for art, so I only live because art motivates me to get up in the morning. Because I have a day job, sometimes art is a long-term goal rather than an immediate one, but I have to think about art every single day, even if it’s in an abstract or brief moment.

With that being said, my artistic motivation is independent of the audience. My “hidden characterization” is actually quite unpopular. Some writers have even questioned how it is possible for me to have an MFA with my “wild” writing style. I just follow my code and hope that later someone else (an audience member) has a code that can overlap in a Venn diagram, not 100 percent of the time but at least enough to make the person feel (negatively, positively, or both) at least once. Even when audience has booed me off the stage, that behavior still requires energy. Both negative and positive energy electrify me because interacting with others is a shocking yet enriching process. I use the audience’s free energy instead of paying shrinks, curanderas, or churches. In a way, I am the vampire of human electrodes; I use both art production and audience consumption as a healing process for my synapses in everyday life.

Now that I have confessed that I am a selfish person seeking and sucking energy through art (as opposed to sports or other fueling mechanisms), I have to say that preciousness is not part of my style. Especially since I hide character, I have to engage in experiences that strengthen my own character—usually challenging myself uncomfortably—so that some of the character development can trickle into the writing, even if the writing is fictional. I write using my gross motor, engaging viscerally, but I revise with my fine motor, focusing cerebrally without erasing the rugged skeleton. To grow, I have to step out of my comfort zone, and my ultimate outcome, as my painting professor once suggested, should be to produce works of varying value to avoid a plateaued state of existence.


ILS: You’ve piqued my curiosity with a few things you said: first, about ‘wild’ writing styles and MFA’s. As part of my own journey as a writer, I had a brief period of being anti-MFA because 1) I didn’t have one, 2) most of the writers of color that I knew had had extremely negative experiences in MFA programs, and 3) I feared that my developing voice would be crippled before it could find itself. Nowadays, I would happily go to one if I had the time, energy, and financial resources to do so—because I have my own voice now, because more MFA programs are available in more diverse places with more diverse faculty, because I can’t think of anything more lovely than 2+ years to focus on my writing, and because of the increased access having an MFA would give me to writer opportunities. With that said, I also have to say that I often feel like an ‘outsider’ because I don’t have an MFA. I’m not an academic. I’m not ‘trained.’ As much as I have read, I can’t claim familiarity with the American ‘canon.’ To my bewilderment, my stories were often judged as ‘too experimental’ or ‘un-marketable’ by various presses that I thought would be receptive to my work. I still don’t understand how they are ‘experimental’. They’re merely stories I told in the best way I could—with an Indigenous/feminist/poetic sensibility, yes, but not deliberately ‘experimental’.

Recently, also, I’ve been re-hashing an old argument with myself about how ‘validity’ as an artist is determined. To what degree do we look to degrees and teaching positions and publications and life arrangements as markers of validity as artists? By life arrangements, I mean the ideas I consider to be antiquated or elitist—that a woman artist/writer must be independently funded, funded by a husband, spouse-less and child-less, or otherwise free of all care-giving responsibilities. In order to create, I constantly have to silence all the voices that say that I cannot be a writer because I am from poor, working-class roots, because I work seven days a week to support myself and my brother, because I am his sole caregiver, because I am not free to travel widely, because I don’t have an MFA, because….because…because…

I hear so many women struggling to claim their identities as artists/writers…as well as the struggle to claim time, energy, and resources for their work. How do you see this argument for validity as artists working out in your life and in the women around you?

And returning to the idea of ‘writing wild,’ what is it that makes some writing wild? I’ve had my writing called ‘wild’ as well and have been left wondering what it means to be a  woman writer whose work is called wild, raw, primal, etc…more specifically, to be a woman writer of color whose work is called wild and raw and primal. When is it what I would like it to mean—that I connected through words to my blood and my gut? And when is it that it denotes that I am being perceived as writing primitively? That my writing is accidental/instinctive/un-educated…and not the result of decades of contemplation, deliberate choices, and painstaking revision?

Another point that piqued my interest was the difference between perceptions of poetry in the U.S. and Mexico. While we are both queer-identified Latinas, I feel that our backgrounds are probably very different from one another. How do you feel that your background and your queer identification inform how you perceive the creation of your art—whether visual or written—and how you came to identify as an artist/writer?


SV: To answer your question fully, I’d have to be very narrative, which is not inherent in my nature. To apply what John Locke wrote of a restricted freedom, I usually live very reserved in terms of expression, for even my journals don’t fully hold my deepest desires. I hear the singer, guitarist, and songwriter David Rovics with a disclaimer: “It was no one that I knew who ran the plunger up my ass / It’s just that I was told to speak freely.” Although he inspires me to practice the First Amendment, my unusual upbringing quickly taught me that I offend and argue less if I just stay quiet. Marginalization was imposed upon being named after Stalin for my first name and upon being named (for my middle name) after Emmanuelle Arsan, who wrote erotic literature—among a myriad of characters, the one that mother points out is the one about the wife of a diplomat who slept with the wives of other diplomats. I think my parents wanted a daughter with character. To make my identity even more pluralized, I also had an epiphany during my formative years when I read Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension about cultural proxemics: I have some Arab tastes from my mestizaje that partially like to obscure the figureground. The latter impacts my aesthetics most, but that may be caused not from lineage but rather from experience—despite the gringa rhetoric of tolerance that my (also pluralist) mother instilled in my brain, the public seems to be very intolerant when confronted with lack of commonalities. My art, then, serves as my shield. I call my poetics partial poetics because I only share an assemblage of fragments and because I am biased.

As I was raised by a feminist, it has been my understanding that I have a fundamental freedom to defend but that the struggle for freedom is ongoing. My mother explained to me that when she was young, she used to attack with expressions like el tuyo and chinga tu padre, but that she later realized that succumbing to gender-associated insults means to stoop down to the level of the original oppressors. As a result, I refuse call a person words like bitch, but I have caught myself degenerating by using the word as a verb to mean to gripe. I’d like to diminish this behavior since the only linguistic difference between the genders that I’ve read about is minor. According the linguistics blog Language Log written by linguistics professors, women tend to apologize more. Is apologizing bitchy? Maybe slightly, but not in the way that the word bitch is used. While this misperception may seem trivial, it still shows the desensitization of language amid popularity. Society seems to be the one that oversimplifies, and my struggle is that I live in a country that likes to tag everything.

Among those tags are words like queer, Latina, and so forth, and I recognize that I was born in the seventies when some labels like Chicana were used to empower. Sure, I can use these existent terms to explain who I am, and I enjoy that pluralism allows me to adopt multiple identities. Nevertheless, predetermined tags are uncomfortable—I hate them. For instance, the word agnostic seems to supply the definition that others like most for my theism, but it does not satisfy my own delineations, as I am an intrapersonal theist but an interpersonal atheist. This search for answers using tags may be part of human nature, but it seems hypocritical that inquiry can be portrayed as being rude. For example, it seems unfair when people ask where I am from. I answer “Houston,” but they really want to know why I am not like them. My answer does not suit them, so further questions must be asked, even though it is impolite for me to ask about lineage in return when they, in turn, assert being natives. In other words, because I am an immigrant (Mexicana), it’s easier for them to ask me about location, but when I ask about the America of immigrants and lineage, the mood usually turns sour. Self-identification seems to be safer, but even so, it’s still more complex than it seems. Another example is class. Economically speaking, I fall under the upper part of the lower class, not rich enough to be middle class, yet that is not the type of term that I talk about in my personal life. I identify as a pinko, someone who is not communist but is sensitive to communists. I mention this because of my strong-but-nonstandard beliefs, yet demographics tend to ask about given-but-not-acquired standards. I do like that some of the tags mentioned above are more politicized and could be seen as acquired, but if I had to select one tag or two tags to flaunt, I would feel fragmented because I do not write just chic lit, only bi-chic lit, solely Chicana literature, purely poesía frontriza, or simply Marxist literature. To answer your question in its simplest form, description defines things without naming them, so characteristics of these tags in my writing and art are evident in sequence, simultaneity, or both.

I treat language as a material, and as much as writing is about the human experience, I still see it as an inanimate object that I forge, saw, solder, file, and sand like a blue-collar worker. Poetry may be a white-collar activity, but again, the supply supersedes the demand, making the profits look like an utter loss. Although in Mexico the government spends more money on poetry than its more affluent neighbor the United States, I don’t usually have access to these funds, as I was given the impression that more opportunities are given to young Mexican poets while the older ones need to have similar expectations of publishing as the poets in the United States. There is a possibility that I am misguided in regards to the very economics I evade. I do know that I am limited in my applications in Mexico by the types of identification documents I have, and one essential one has to be obtained by living in Mexico. Consequently, I disassociate the idea that I would receive money for my work, even though it occasionally happens sporadically, briefly, and marginally. For materiality, I still rely on the breadth my visual art, a mark of my hand, for the depth of my pencil-pushing and finger-typing writing; synaesthesia allows me to make poetry my primordial and primary form of communication.

The most obvious characteristic that the audience remarks is the code switching. This may be why it’s easiest for me to blend among Chicano poets and Mexicano poets who like bilingual work. Being part of the Generation 1.5, I partially use sound to cantinflear, a process I learned from my father but created by the popular Mexican comedian Carlos Cantinflas to gibber using similar-sounding words, which I speculate that in the United States could be accepted phonetically by slam poets but could be accepted lexically by poets familiar with modern and post-modern movements that emphasize abstraction as part of form rather than content. For form, I combine both Latinate and Anglo-Saxon rhythms and sounds to appeal to both my ear and possibly the audience’s ear. For monolinguals, I believe that readers familiar with Erza Pound are more likely to accept that I use more than one language, although the code switching probably creates a language barrier for many; however, for bilinguals, the wordplay is familiar when learning cognates and false cognates. Much of my work is a mistranslation about culture clash.

The gender part, on the other hand, when actually present, is the part of the content that is most graspable. I’m what some of my friends call futch, neither femme nor butch. I let the audience decide if my cyclone is a yoni from the heavens or a phallus from the earth.

I think that the reason why people call my poetry experimental is because I overtly force the reader to fill in the gaps, a process contrary to today’s information age. However, I feel that good art, even traditional art, has to challenge what has been previously created, and that this particular process requires experimentation, even if the experimentation is not deemed as peculiar. In essence, I disagree with the societal associations of the term experimental.

The word wild is usually used to describe fauna and flora that are not human, so I was insulted when my work was labeled with this subhuman adjective. Granted, I do animate art media like wood, but I sarcastically told a friend, “Bring on the antlers!” Perhaps I am unruly at times, but what I learned in art school is that every decision has to look intentional, even if there is a nonsensical part. I’m starting to move toward the use of the oxymoron, but I still allow for the juxtaposition of the unexpected, which sometimes appears to be nonsensical because I seek syncopated hyperpluralism. Who was is who said that Frost was not writing about the choice between two roads but multiples? The road is the erred ode is the era odd, ha!

I could not be an artist today had I not been formally trained simply because I started out green as an engineering major in college, but I do not think that a piece of paper legitimizes an artist—experience does. I lucked out that I started out at a school that did not require a portfolio. I knew in my calculus class when I was having emotional responses to the graphs on the board that I belonged in an art-history class, not a math class. Today, I am still pathos driven; as an English teacher, my students tell me that they enjoy my instruction when I make myself emotionally vulnerable in the classroom. Alas, I have not left academia, but I still feel that prose is a coercion of society, although I believe everyone should have access to utilitarian prose if the individual chooses so. I’ve just always been insecure about my prose because of standardized testing; I even think that, unlike the writers who take pride in honing their prose, I allow mine to wilt, leaving my own prose to be left boring unless it has poetic moments.

I do agree with you that having a few months to eat, live, and breathe poetry is phenomenal, but in the aftermath, you still have to reconcile with reality. After you overcome the post-MFA withdrawal of the writing community, you have to establish a writing community to interact with regularly. Further, not only do you still have to make ends meet, but you also have to deal with the fact that aging leaves a more decrepit body each day. For a loner like me, my mind yields my escapism.

And as you make the decisions that you live with, it is now my turn to inquire: How do you make your own decisions between identity and writing? Also, how much of your experience would you say is typical or atypical?


ILS: When I was a child and young reader, I had a thing for stories about foundlings—everything from The Ugly Duckling to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles to Jane Eyre. There was something about not being recognized for who you were that struck a strong chord in me. Whether it was the duckling coming into its beauty or how Taran the assistant pig-keeper became a hero or Jane Eyre’s insistence on autonomy, it was the tension between destiny/nature and the perceptions of the external world that fascinated me.

Growing up, I never felt like I belonged to my family. I didn’t fit. I wasn’t the quiet, obedient, pretty child my family and culture expected me to be. I talked back and fought with my brothers and was too dark skinned and ‘fat’ for that. I loved words and books and daydreaming, but my parents were illiterate, with only a first- or second- grade education. I was passionate about libraries and ideas. My siblings were into partying and football and tv and disco and erasing their culture so that they could become white-identified consumers.

My parents, most of my grandparents, and so on were born here in the United States, but due to that lack of education and living in South Texas, I spoke Spanish until I started kindergarten and we thought of ourselves as “Mexicans from this side.” I learned and claimed, in turn, ‘Hispanic’ and then ‘Mexican-American’ and then ‘Chicana’ and then ‘Latina’ and then ‘Xicana.’ What ran under all of those labels, though, was Indigena/Indigenous. This land is my homeland and the homeland of my ancestors. The dominant society may try to make me “Other,” but down to the marrow in my bones, I know this land is my home.

I was very defensive of my family. I’m not the oldest, but due to how much older my older siblings were, I often ended up being my parents’ translator with the English-speaking world. I was there when my mother was looked down upon in the grocery store because she couldn’t fill out a personal check. My father would have me call when we were migrating to a new town and needed to rent a house or apartment for a few months. The landlord or landlady would tell me all about the rental property, schedule a time for us to come over, sound glad on the phone that we were ready to move in immediately. And I was there when my father would knock on the door—they’d take one look at us and shout, “It’s not available anymore,” as the door slammed shut.

So there was that conflict between me and my family, the conflict between my family and the world, the conflict between some of my sibling’s desire to acculturate and my insistence on retaining my Spanish, on learning Mexican ranchera songs, on claiming my Indigenous ancestry—and that’s before even involving my desire to write and my identity as a queer woman.

I went to college firmly believing that writing would only ever be a hobby. But everything—my understanding of myself and the world around me— completely changed when I first read This Bridge Called My Back and other work by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga and bell hooks and Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison and Leslie Marmon Silko and more. As for the queer identity—that took a bit longer to coalesce. I was comfortable with bisexual for many years, but I never felt the need to come out to my family. I was fine with the silence that kept the peace—and through those years, my youngest brother’s gay identity and the conflict that set off with our father and other siblings completely overshadowed my own journey. I came out officially to a few friends in 2002, but my perception then and since is that most people can’t figure out how to label me or where I fit within their paradigms of the masculine and feminine. The first time I heard ‘futch’ though, I thought, “I could work with that.”

I’ll agree that the tags and labels are a pain—in my opinion, mostly because they set us up for people’s expectations and shut down dialogue. Tags are an easy way for differences to be prioritized above commonalities. But I have felt kinship and connection with people from vastly different backgrounds and lives. When people are concerned with beauty, with language, with emotional/psychological/spiritual truths, there are so many more points at which to connect.

At different points, my being a queer Latina with my particular background might directly inform my work in ways that can be easily seen—but just as often, it won’t. furia, my first book of poetry, was much more about grief and loss and family than it was about anything else. My short stories—while they are about my cultures and my histories—are not autobiographical. The poetry manuscript I’m polishing up now is about diabetes, illness, and healing. And the novel I’m writing—about a Mexican-American hermaphrodite living on the border and trying on different genders and sexualities –may be the ground where everything collides…and who knows what I’m going to write after that?

It took me a long time to claim the label of ‘writer’ for myself. I still remember that moment in 1999 when I was taking an informal six-week writing class where the daily journaling exercise finally made me realize that I had an unlimited supply of words, ink, and paper at my disposal. Much more than I could ever exhaust. It took even longer to really claim for myself that I would see my dream realized—a shelf of different books with my name on the spine.

Books with wild writing inside—wild the way Natalie Goldberg describes it. I like the association of wild to flora and fauna, to the natural world, to the ways we are both animal and spiritual beings. To be wild and original and connected to the essence of things the way Lorca speaks of it in his essay about El Duende. I want to own primal, to speak words that penetrate and resound beyond solely the level of intellect and theory.



ire’ne lara silva has lived in Austin, TX since 1998. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival (December 2012). Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies including Acentos Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Mas Tequila Review, Pilgrimage, Bordersenses, Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders, CIPACTLI, Kweli Journal, The Worcester Review, Rhapsoidia, Soleado; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Palabra, The Mesquite Review, La Revista Literaria de El Tecolote; Kalliope: A Journal of Women’s Literature & Art; among others. She is the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo member, a 2010 Cantomundo Inaugural Fellow, and the 2013 Fiction Finalist for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Gift of Freedom. ire’ne lara silva is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in October 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Aunt Lute Press will be publishing ire’ne’s first short story collection, flesh to bone, in October 2013. ire’ne and Rain C. Gomez  are currently co-editing an anthology titled, Chronically RED: Indigenous Bodies Writing and Resisting Chronic Illness in the Age of Paracolonial Occupation



Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal is a Mexican and Chicana poet, a translator, and an instructor of English. The book (H)emötoma by Minerva Reynosa has been the main focus of her translations, for which she attended World to World, Mundo a Mundo in 2009 to workshop poems from the book. She is also the translator of “Grace Shot,” by Luis Alberto Arellano in Sèrie Alfa: Artiliteratura, “Eight Fabulous Animals” by Ilan Stavans in Eleven Eleven, and nine poems by Minerva Reynosa in the latest Mandorla. She has an MFA in Writing from the California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stalina lives and works in Houston.

On Furia and Writing Wild: A Conversation with Ire’ne Lara Silva and Stalina Villarreal