'It takes a lot of tending of crocus bulbs to produce enough saffron for the paella' - Lorna Dee Cervantes on Craft
Besides, Bryce just called: the press is in a cash crunch right now, about $20,000 worth what with the reprinting of Black Like Me and my hard back, and now, a beautiful leather bound special edition in a wooden cover just waiting for me to sign the signature pages. Good time to order the book (there's a long section of the interview just on Drive), especially if you're thinking of using it for a class, directly from Bryce. Soon it will be sold only through the distributor (freeing Bryce up to work on books and and his own writing rather than mailing stuff off.) You can also order directly through me via check or paypal or the Amazon honor system link below. Just $25 now to me will also get you a copy of the Bloomsbury Review where I've got the cover, a long profile written by Jeff Biggers for Poets & Writers, (the Mar-Apr Issue which would have been distributed at the AWP and which was dumped for Franz Wright on the cover of that issue). Maybe buy it directly from me so I can pay Bryce for this latest box of books he sent me. (Jenn, yours is on the way, I had to surface mail it to Canada.)
Also, if you have donated $50 or more to Alfred Arteaga's heart fund, I'll send you both for free. $100 or more, I'll throw in some other rare goodies, maybe even an unpublished manuscript of your choice. How's that? Have a heart, help to give one. (search my blog for info on poet and Chicano litcrit and theorist, Alfred Arteaga)
Now, enjoy. Buen provecho. It's free.
YOU AND YOUR CRAFT
GUZMAN: Do you write literary criticism? If so, how is your literary criticism (as a poet) different from that of a critic?
CERVANTES: No. And, yes. As a Chicana, I consider my poetry to be critical theory enacted. I don't believe in the project of literary criticism and its uneasy relationship to the present crisis of legitimization we see in the institutions of higher learning. I firmly believe that a poet ought not engage in criticism of one's own age or era -- or even in one's own language. I would much rather put my time and energy into publishing, and helping to bring into print or translate excellent manuscripts than to spend all my time insisting that blah-blah who writes like me or thinks like me or is a personal friend to me is better than blah-blah because. This is never for us to say. But maybe that's just the India in me. You count coup, and it's up to others to say whether or not it's any honor.
I am beginning to write reviews (oops, there's one due now), but I would rather edit a series. I've dedicated my entire life to knowing who's out there writing and who is good. I have high standards of literary excellence, and I believe I'm a fine judge of it. (Ha! Any NY agencies listening?) But I have no desire to wrestle with prose just to prove how bad someone else's book or school of poetry is -- as I like to say: Competition's for horses and schools are for fish. I read everything I can. I would assume, and hope, that others will as well. I read all the literary criticism I can find time for, but only after reading the books themselves. I read Chicana literary criticism -- the best one's are poets.
That said, I just had a prose book solicited by my publisher (and timed to come out along with a collection of literary criticism on my work), a book on teaching and writing poetry, tentatively titled, "Ecopoetics: A Writer's Way of Knowledge." It will include much critical theory, theories of the text, semiotics and a discussion of Frederic Jameson's theory of the political unconscious, as well as practical exercises and suggestions for how to approach the poem. Much as I teach in my workshops: the primacy of the line and an acute attention to the words on the page, I train them to stick to the words on the page and how and what they are doing where they are, rather than waste time on polemics and interpretations based upon differential experiences, fooled by the ways language is charged; for example: melopoetically, phanopoetically or logopoetically -- that is, physically, psychologically or culturally.
As a poet, I prefer to regard literary strategies on a pragmatic level -- poem by poem. It can be detrimental to the poet as well as the poem to be squished into narrow definitions and parameters before anything is even placed on the page: the MFA student, for example, deciding whether or not his thesis is "postmodern" or "New Sincerity" before even getting down to any of the poems. Absurd to me. Give me morphemes and phonemes any day. And a good poetry reading, if not the book.
GUZMAN: You were a major founder and moving force of the Chicano literary movement and canon. What is its present place in American literature? How has this development affected your own work over the years?
CERVANTES: Sure. I'll go along with that. I was the first to publish and promote Chicano canonical writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Alberto Rios, Ray Gonzalez, Ana Castillo, Jimmy Santiago Baca and others alongside Victor Martinez, Orlando Ramirez (my co-editor), Beverly Silva, Geraldine Kudaka, Wendy Rose, Jose Antonio Burciaga, Ricardo Sanchez, Jose Montoya, Luis Omar Salinas, Joe Bruchac, Ernesto Trejo and others; Gary Soto asked to come on board as the editor of the Chicano Chapbook Series, something I had already started as a regular feature in my magazine, MANGO, I had already published Pancho Aguila, ronnie burk, Orlando Ramirez and Jimmy Santiago Baca in the series, and was looking for this suspected Chicana poet stranded in the MFA program at Iowa, Sandra Cisneros, as I had seen a poem of hers in a magazine, so I asked Gary to solicit a manuscript.
The present place of the Chicana/o literary movement is pretty much where I predicted it to be twenty years ago when I was first asked that question. The poets who came before me, "Walking behind the Spanish," as one, Luis Omar Salinas, once titled a collection of poems, created the way for me as they walked. As I like to think that my work can be a freeway for others. Certain poems get written, certain things get said, and in a way that opens the ways for others and then one can move on, to something new or the next. Art has always been affected by leisure, or rather, the lack of it. It's no surprise that the work becomes more refined without losing its relevance or urgency. My generation of Chicano writers, we were acutely aware of this process and conscious of taking our role in it.
There is, also, a direct relationship in terms of socio-economic class and access to better educational opportunities which impacts our literature; and negatively impacts the new immigrant generation of writers deprived of the right to education. Presently, we have many new and exciting writers, most young, some not. Some MFA trained, some not at all. We are a strong force to be reckoned with as, as I predicted twenty years ago, maybe even 30 years ago, the hegemonic forces that forged us have become progressively globalized. The threat of global nuclear war, or annihilation due to a nuclear accident and other environmental disasters as well as, now, the threat of terrorist attacks and the high rise of violence against women and children, have left us "Chicanized," for lack of a better word. These texts, that consciousness, a Xicana consciousness in the sense of the "helper" we are socialized to be, reverberates now among the dominant classes. These books and authors bear an impact upon the popular consciousness and the *imaginaire* of all who read and listen to them. Just read the latest by Pulitzer Award finalist, Luis Urrea, or Cecile Pineda, Carmen Tafolla, Reyes Cardenas, Benjamin Saenz, Rosemary Catacalos, Victor Martinez, Roberto Tejada -- just to name a few -- along with the first books of the new and upcoming "Xicanerati" (a term I made up and prefer) such as Eduardo Correa, Diana Marie Delgado, Blas Manuel de Luna, Sheryl Luna, Tim Hernandez, Maria Melendez, Rigoberto Gonzalez, and many others: these are writers writing books and poems of lasting quality securing a place in the canon of American Literature to come. And why not? It's like what a good line of poetry gives you: the unexpected inevitable.
Chicana/o poetry is a poetry written out of a consciousness of resistance -- resistance against a dominant dominating and repressive force.
And like a good poem, there is a symbolic core to it, a reversible logic: that is, some word, "Chicana" for example, becomes a signifier which somehow holds all of one's oppositions, contradictions and contrarieties, paradoxes and cross-implications, in check, as if held in some impossible balance of "good" and "bad" and all of the levels of ironies that generates "Chicana poet." It's a symbolic resolution. It's both confining and liberating. Good to be emerging and always conscious of that, as Plato and Machado have said, building the road as we walk it. The ultimate liberation of not having a chunk of literary tradition and literary role models to abide by; and burdened under the extra pressure of then having to serve as that , a model, while still living -- and writing. Bad to never be liberated from the pigeon-holing of literary critics and other academics bent on defining you into extinction to fit their schema.
In relation to contemporary literary criticism, my place in the canon (dubious though it is) is both a blessing and a serious curse. But, like for many Chicana and Chicano writers, I am marginalized, trivialized and ignored by it. After 30 years I think this may never change, not in my lifetime. It's my lot in life, along with my history and my skin. I've resigned. I'll never be a writer considered in my own right(write). I might as well play with it. And, play. I am glad if it opens up worlds for others.
GUZMAN: I love the Play section of the book. What courage to publish poems that you wrote in seven minutes. I also see on your blog that you do this daily, write seven-minute poems. Tell me more about your writing habits or rituals?
CERVANTES: Thank you. There's a lot more of them, a lot I like.
I'm not sure I have writing habits or rituals. I like what the astro-physicist and quantum theory mathematician, Hans Bethe, had to say about it: "I get up in the morning, I pick up a pencil, and I try to think." But I do believe, as my father once wrote, that "ceremonies heal." My writing is a ceremony that heals. Writers write. And I am only a writer when I am writing. I try to write when I can.
What I do have are constant writing blocks I am always working to clear -- the biggest being in relation to writing prose. Sheesh! It's like living with a colony of beavers and I'm always unclogging the dams. I feel I can never relax into it for the fear of sudden rising or falling water. Anything to make it play these days, a controlled folly. To make it not matter so much is the only way I can make it into matter from memory and voice.
Lately, for April, National Poetry Writing Month, I've been writing what I call "7-Minute Poems", the "play" poems every day. Not writing in a group, like the ones in the book, but alone in front of my computer clock, scribbling the poems from topics/words on scraps of paper left over from my various workshops. I'd also been writing 1-minute, one-a-day hay(na)ku poems from a website, oneword, that gives you one word a day and has a cool rainbow 60 second timer. I've also been doing weekly "Unconscious Mutterings" poems from another site which gives you a list of ten words you are to respond to spontaneously. It seemed kind of boring early on, so I started making 10-line poems out of them beginning each line with the given word. I also spent 26 days writing 26 hay(na)ku poems for a collection of abecedarian hay(na)ku poems, one for every letter of the alphabet, all of them written in words in alphabetical order. After writing 30 poems in 30 days, I'm a little glad to be over that experiment. But, I really like them. They are a zen practice, a commitment to the moment and craft. From the very first words, it's a commitment, so much like real life, or real death, rather, which can cancel the contract at any moment rendering everything you do permanent and unrevised. I really like these poems, especially these April ones. (I think I'll call the manuscript "30 Pieces of of Cruelty" or "30 Pieces of the Cruelest" after "April is the cruelest month" and Lalo Delgado's practice of naming his manuscripts.).
The difference between these poems and others, I realize now that they're written, is that the ones written in 7 minutes or less, I don't hear these in my head. I *hear* poems. I hear a voice. Sometimes just a cadence before language. I speak the poem out loud, over and over, usually while pacing around the room as I write them. At a certain point, the Voice makes me put down the pen and speak it out loud. When I read, I often close my eyes if I'm feeling self-conscious, trying to retrieve, in auditory terms, that *voice* I heard in my head alone in my room, writing. These 7-minute poems, they come from someplace else, where good jazz riffs come from, perhaps. They are gifts from the goddesses, I suppose, so it seems only natural to give them back to the readers -- in the form of free poems you can read on the internet as soon as they are typed. The blog is a ritual I am embracing. It has certainly made all the difference in gaining confidence and busting through my prose block. I hope, for good. As for writing, and writing well, the more the better. It takes a lot of tending of crocus bulbs to produce enough saffron for the paella.
GUZMAN: What poetic models do you employ in your own verse? Which do you not?
CERVANTES: I don't think in terms of models, I negotiate the moment through literary strategies. A shell is the model of what? A good poem, like a fine shell, is an artifact of the conditions of resistance and opposition, of lived forces and contradictions.
I can't help but believe in *Voice* and the development of one's own Voice -- as much as I resist it I have to agree with Eliot on this. It can happen. Across genres, styles, literary fads, cultures, languages, a poet's Voice comes shining through. For example, just the other day I was reading an article in a magazine left behind in an airplane, and one paragraph into it I knew it was written by Anne Lamott -- that Voice (and it's distinct quality of observation and turn of phrase); the way one can always distinguish a poem by Levine or Eileen Myles or Jose Montoya or Yusef Komunyakaa or Creeley, for example, despite the style or subject matter or form. Poetic voice, to me, is the marriage of literary technique to the moment when craft and subject are one -- the body and the experience of a particular body to the body politic as it is experienced by particular bodies at a particular time and place.
Poetic models are only useful to me in terms of resistance.
As a poet, I am all for increasing the conditions of possibility. Let a hundred thousand blossoms bloom! And as many poetic models flourish as there are dollars being spent on the present undeclared war.
I have always said that poetry is an exercise in freedom.
"I don't have to show you no skinkin' poetic models," didn't somebody once say that? And as soon as someone says I can't do something, like use the words "heart" or "dreams" in a poem, then I am sure to spend time discovering a way ("there's always a way") to do it, and not-do it.
That said, I have to say that language is both personal and private at the same time, always already, it is social and communal. We are walking on models all the times, not all poetic, and not all of our making -- or liking. But one of the phases in the creative/ critical process requires an abandonment of ambition; much in the way a potter at the potter's wheel must give up her model of the ideal vase, and give in to the will of the clay, to conditions, elements and chance. In other words, as soon as I declare that this poem is going to follow this or that model, I am sure to fail. The Muse always has a mind of her own; she just lacks the form.
GUZMAN: How does your extensive reading of philosophy influence your poetry?
CERVANTES: Poetry and philosophy are both burning the ends of the same candle, they are both shooting cars down the same Mobius strip race track. And the institutions of both are both in denial.
Think about it. How many philosophers are failed poets and vice versa?
Otherwise, I would like to think that my extensive reading of philosophy, 30 years worth including intensive study with David Hoy, Teresa de Lauretis and Hayden White during my doctoral work at UC Santa Cruz's History of Consciousness program, has no influence on my poetry at all -- other than, perhaps, a keen sense of personal irony.
GUZMAN: Who are the literary and non-literary figures that most influence your writing?
CERVANTES: My poetry Gurus: Virginia de Araujo, Robert Hass, Stanley Kunitz, like those Masters in the tradition of the early haiku poets of Japan: should their house burn down, I would gladly help build them another, and cook good things for them to eat while it was being built just so they can go on speaking and writing about poetry. Those people you find, "Elective Affinities," as Goethe suggested who just help align your molecules. You know? Like a certain phenomena in theoretical nuclear physics whereby two disparate objects can be placed together, just so, so that the space between them forms a new and different matter. There's no other way for me to talk about it. Like what happens when one opens a book to just the right page, just the right poem, the right line, to make something -- anything -- possible. They have been like that to me.
The bulk of black muses, that early "Negro Poetry" I devoured as a child, the renaissance of black women's poetry published in 1970: Lourde, Walker, Jordan, Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings", too, published in 1970. The breath of early Chicano writers: Jose Montoya, Lalo Delgado, raulsalinas, Luis Omar Salinas, Bernice Zamora, Jose Antonio Burciaga, Carmen Tafolla, and early Puerto Rican poets: Pedro Pietri in particular, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Julia de Burgos of the earlier generation, Sandra Esteves, Miguel Algarin and the Nuyorican poets; Socialist poets; Cesare Pavese; Latin American poets, Pablo Neruda among them, being the longest, most lasting and heavy influence.
And of course, my peers, among whom, as I remind my students, the real work happens.
I may not adhere to poetic models but I do believe in literary role models, among whom I have many and they are constantly changing and replenish like a river of good poetry freshens a dying lake: Marge Piercy, Philip Levine, Robert Creeley (to whom I owe the title and inspiration for DRIVE), Those unsung women beats: Diana Di Prima, Diane Wakowski, Anne Waldman, and since I'm in the confessional mode, Plath and Eliot, as well as brand new writers, most very young without full first books that I've found on poetry blogs -- I have a list of 30 in ranked order of excellence, posted on my blog. Really good poets always have a positive influence on writing. I think that's my investment in teaching. If my students are writing well, to the best of their potential, it inspires me.
I've always read widely and voraciously.
Artists of all kinds inspire me. The influence of my father is immense. Irving Norman, Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Georgia O'Keefe (I'll admit it), all of the surrealists, Visionaries, Chicana/o artsists, muralists, conceptual artists and happenings (Karel Apel). Dylan Morgan who's paintings grace the inside covers. James Crabb, whose paintings I have been living with all of my adult life. All of my friends who are artists.
I can't always remember who or what I was reading when I wrote any particular poem but I can always remember who I was listening to; good singer/ songwriters influence me: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Richie Havens when I was young, "my ladies," numerous female composers: Memphis Minnie (my earliest and lasting influence), Joni, Bonnie, Buffy, and others which may or may not get me labeled as a nerd for listening to; Dougie Maclean, a Scottish singer songwriter I've been listening to incessantly across the decades, Dick Gaughan, Billy Bragg, Celtic music in particular; Chicano music all day long! Ruben Blades, Ricardo Arjona (who along with Dougie is probably the best poet), Billie Holliday, even though she's written only a handful of songs she's ever sung for the intonation and the intelligent phrasing, Ana Gabriel and the tradition of Lola Beltran and rancheras for the same reason; Afro-Cuban music, drumming, and "New Song" movement. My brother, Steve Cervantes.
I have many in the soundtrack. It's all an influence. It all becomes a part of the living weave.
This, too. Thanks for asking.