ire'ne lara silva talks about embodied poetry
and writing Blood Sugar Canto
Please describe your journey toward writing poetry that reflects on the experience of living in the body. Have you always written this way, or did you come to it over time?
Time. People have the idea that to write from the body is somehow more instinctual, more emotional, and less intellectually or aesthetically rigorous. I think the opposite is true. It takes ongoing work and thought to peel away layers of artifice. To peel away the habit of untruths and the way we hide when language and image are formulaic constructions. It takes discipline to listen to the body and learn its language. There is nothing easy about revealing your fears and hesitations, your pain and history.
I said something last year about Gloria Anzaldúa’s work (specifically, Borderlands) that only seems truer the more I reflect on it—that the work of certain writers has a powerful effect/affect on us because it is truth spoken from their bodes. And body-truth, lived truth, body-experience is powerful because it is truth than cannot be refuted. And when we read the work by a writer writing body-truth, we feel it in our bodies as well. Anzaldúa wrote about the borderlands and culture and language and spirituality—but she spoke from the lived experience of her body, and even now, thirty years after it was published, the book still speaks powerfully to people from very diverse backgrounds.
In addition to everything else they are, I believe writing and reading are also physical and energetic exchanges. Language infused with energy transfers that energy from writer to reader. In the same way, language from the body transfers from one body to another.
The most popular poem by far in my first book (furia) was “I come from women illiterate and rough-skinned.” I think it captured people’s attention because it directly spoke to being the daughter of my mother’s lived body experience, to being the daughter of all my mothers’ lived truths. In that poem I'd also wanted to say something about the lives of poor bodies of color—how they’re stereotypically seen as bodies living a life that is solely a physical experience and not also a spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and artistic experience.
With flesh to bone, my short story collection, the entire focus of the book was violence and healing and so again, I returned to body-truths, to body as witness, body as history and future, body as language and art and prayer, body as the site of transformation.
Blood Sugar Canto took everything I had. I wrote the last poems for it in 2014 and it shorted out my circuits for a few years. But I wanted it to be as true as I could make it.
For the book projects I’m working on now, the greatest challenge has been learning all over again—with these new themes and characters and ideas—how to remain as close as possible to the truth of the body.
the old women say it is the accumulated weight
of so many sustos that cause diabetes
susto: not fright but trauma
and stress and shock and loss and grief
which susto do i blame for all this
which susto was the first to begin breaking down my resistance which susto was
the last straw
the knife that gutted me that drove me to the edge
pushed my body over which susto claimed victory and drove my very cells to
refuse the gifts of my blood
how do i name them all and once
named how do i uproot them unmake them and how do i heal
what’s left behind
This book is so brave. It weaves together health and heritage, the importance of family and the ways family can save you; it can also be read as a series of songs that speak back to doctors who colonize and ignore brown bodies. I’m amazed that you did so much in one book! What compelled you to write Blood Sugar Canto?
At the end of 2010, my first collection of poetry had just been published. I knew I wanted to try writing a whole collection of poems with some thematic core. I asked myself what was I struggling with the most in my life—what did I need most to figure out? The first thing that came to me was diabetes. By that point, I’d been an insulin-dependent diabetic for two and a half years. My youngest brother, who lived with me, had already given up driving for a year because his feet and legs had become so numb that he couldn’t gauge the pressure he was applying to the gas and brake pedal. My father, who’d been diabetic for at least twenty-four years of his life, had just passed away.
I had a lot of feelings and issues and traumas about diabetes that I needed to sort through. I’d gone to poetry for everything else—to work through discrimination, alienation, culture shock, love, heartbreak, grief...to find my voice, my sexuality, and my language.
At the time, I could only think of a handful of poems by Sherman Alexie on the subject of being diabetic, and so I thought, I’m going to write the book that I wish existed. So that I wouldn’t feel so alone in my diabetic body—so that I could explore this experience of being diabetic as a poet, poetry being the only way I’d ever been able to make sense of anything.
I started making a list. I knew I wanted to write a poem about amputation, my father’s greatest fear. I wanted to write a poem about tequila. One about South Texas. I wanted to figure out how to write a diabetic love song. I had to write about despair and depression. I wanted to write about my experiences with doctors. And from there, the list just grew and grew. I had many, many conversations with my brother about what else needed to be written about our experience—as people, as a part of our family, as a part of our communities. At least a third of the poems in BSC were prompts or ideas he suggested. The cover art is a painting by my brother that he was working on while I was revising the book.
The more I wrote the more clear it became that what I wanted to do was write a book that would inspire conversations. A book that would make people with diabetes or other chronic illnesses feel less alone. A book that might help non-diabetics glimpse what diabetes meant in a life. A book that would help family members or community members establish a dialogue. A book that might make doctors and other health professionals understand their patients a bit better or treat them more humanely. A book that would share my particular experience—a woman of color, Mexican-American, Indigenous, queer, from the border, born in poverty, an artist—living with diabetes.
My favorite poem in this book is "the diabetic lover," because it allows, in the midst of fear, shame, and uncertainty, a way for desire and joy to exist. Please say more about that particular poem—the process of writing it, what it means to you, anything you like.
I was watching some show—I don’t even know what—and the couple was raiding the refrigerator for whip cream and chocolate syrup and who knows what else, and it occurred to me that something that people would take for granted as fun or as a little adventurous would be something that a diabetic person would have to consider seriously before including in their sex play. If you think about it, nobody talks about what the sugar content is in flavored lubes or edible underwear or anything else.
But returning to the moment of writing that poem, it made me giggle to think of all those nutritional guides I’ve seen that list foods recommended for people with diabetes being consulted before heading to bed with items from the fridge.
As I went deeper into the poem, it became more about reclaiming sexual desire, pleasure, and agency over one’s body. So much of the time, the chronically ill body is seen as just that—chronically ill to the exclusion of everything else. But we are more than our illness—we are still living and participating in everything that life offers. And while the 25 granules of brown sugar speak to the limitations and awareness that diabetes imposes and requires, they map out the lover’s body in small explosions of sweetness and sensation. By the end of the poem, I hope, the reader is focused entirely on pleasure and on the relationship between the lovers.
THE DIABETIC LOVER
it’s not recommended, my love
that i cover your body with whip crème
and chocolate syrup
for aesthetic emphasis
i could not dust you
with enough whey protein
to make up for all
those empty carbohydrates
i cannot tongue red wine
from your body
or drink shots
out of your navel
would make me
but the thought of
grilled chicken breast
and veggies with half
a cup of brown rice
served on your skin
does not seem
a night of passion
no for sweetness
all i’d need would be
twenty five granules of
turbinado raw cane sugar
oh so carefully counted
one on your left temple
that’s where i’d begin
exploding against my tongue
in the scent of your hair
three on your tongue
while i pulled on your
lower lip with my teeth
one along your jaw
one down your neck and
one on your clavicle
i see sunlight and lush
green leaves playing
over your skin
two on one shoulder
and three trailing down
diagonally to your hip
i meant to use only my
lips mouth tongue
but my hands can’t
resist following the
waves of your body
the ocean crashing
in my ears
i’d take five
in the palm of
and rasp them against
the tips of your
drink in your gasp
then hunt for every bit
of sugar cane dust
while you sighed
on your belly
always makes you
i’d catch one foot
and then the other
place a granule
on each arch
since raw cane sugar
doesn’t dissolve at
the first touch
i’d roll one granule
up your calf
another from your
knee to your thigh
one from your
thigh to your hip
and then i’d find
my twenty-five granules
but no worries, my love
i’d murmur against
the apex of your thighs
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Joe Jimenez: The Possibilities of Mud (Korima Press, 2014) and look out for his forthcoming collection which won the Letras Latinas/Red Hen prize and will be published in 2019.
Sarah A. Chavez: All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl, 2014) and look out for her forthcoming collection, Hands That Break & Scar (Sundress Publications, 2017)
Barbara Jane Reyes: Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010) and look out for her forthcoming collection, Invocation to Daughters (City Lights, 2017)
Those are all poetry collections I’ve absolutely loved.
Also wanted to mention a few books that are at the top of my to read list:
House Built on Ashes by Jose Antonio Rodriguez (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)
Spill by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Duke University Press, 2016)
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press, 2017)
And whenever I talk about writing from the body, I always end up mentioning the work of Jeanette Winterson, especially her collection of essays, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, and her novels, Written on the Body, Gut Symmetries, and Sexing the Cherry.
Some Rogue Agent fans are just beginning to explore what making art about the body would look like for them. What advice would you give to someone just starting down the path toward writing poetry that features the body?
Promise yourself to tell the truth. And the more naked and vulnerable you feel, the closer you are to the truth.
Listen to your body and learn its languages and rhythms and energies.
I was talking to my friend Natalia Sylvester the other day (author of Chasing the Sun) and we agreed that if the writing was coming easy, then we were doing it wrong. The more difficult, the more challenging the writing was, the more we knew we were on the right track.
Strengthen your resolve before you show your work to the world. Depending on who’s around you, it might meet with condescension, incomprehension, or opposition (or worse). Figure out who will support and challenge you to find your voice and your work.
And lastly, read work not because you “should,” but because it speaks to your body. Because it makes you start, because it makes you weep. Because you feel its electricity zooming around inside you. You never forget the work that lives in your body that way. For me it’s Juan Rulfo and Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde and Hafiz and e.e. cummings and Leslie Marmon Silko and many, many more.
ire’ne lara silva is the author of two poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), an e-chapbook, Enduring Azucares, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015), as well as a short story collection, flesh to bone (Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the Premio Aztlán. She and poet Dan Vera are also the co-editors of Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands, (Aunt Lute Books, 2017), a collection of poetry and essays. ire’ne is the recipient of the final Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldúa Milagro Award. ire'ne was recently named a 2016-2018 Texas Touring Roster Artist. Visit her website at irenelarasilva.wordpress.com
This interview is the first in a series that makes an in-depth exploration into specific works, practice, and advice of poets who write in the embodied style. We hope to feature these interviews periodically. If you have published a full-length book of poetry that centers around the experience of what it is to live in the body, and wish to be considered for an interview, please query Rogue Agent at rogueagentjournalATgmailDOTcom.