ire’ne lara silva talks about embodied poetry
and writing Cuicacalli: House of Song
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?
I read a quote last week that’s been on my mind ever since: “The body is the ground of [all] thought.” (Gloria Anzaldúa)
Which led me to think about why Cuicacalli happened as it did. When it did. Blood Sugar Canto was a deliberate and in some ways systematic attempt to dismantle my own fear, to dissect what diabetes had been and would be in my life.
The truths and issues in Cuicacalli have been with me my entire life—as a child, as a college student turned activist, as a poet, and through my adult artistic/lived/intellectual life. I’ve explored the themes of indigeneity, culture, language, myth, history, oppression, and freedom many times in many ways through the years, but what made Cuicacalli coalesce for me the way it did was an intense experience of rebirth—whole-bodied rebirth—that I lived in 2018. By whole-bodied, I mean a rebirth of heart/mind/body/soul. I’d never even remotely thought that it would be possible, at 43, to feel everything in life become new again. I think I was giddy for an entire year. I seem to be settling down now—and definitely missing all the energy that came with the giddiness.
The poems in Cuicacalli burst out of me. It’s my fourth book and the first one I didn’t cry my way through. My brother laughed at me when I said it was the most joyous writing experience I’d ever had. He said, “But so many of the poems have rage in them!” Which made me laugh because it’s true. But that made it no less a joyous experience for me. Writing about the body…writing the body…writing in an embodied way… Cuicacalli was about freedom, and what is more joyous than freedom? To say, here, in these ways, I’ve been unnamed and alone. In these ways, I know truths that others won’t let me claim. In these ways, I have returned to myself, to my body, to my heart. In these ways, my ancestors have survived and survived. In these ways, I have channeled my rage at past and ongoing injustices and made song. In these ways, I say I am not separate, not alone, but part of a larger body, a larger story.
In this book, which is densely layered with violent beauty and incantatory bravery, my favorite poem actually occurs near the beginning. “Walking the chupacabra” is brilliant in the way that it externalizes generational rage in to a legendary beast that the speaker has (only somewhat) domesticated. Where did you get the idea for this poem? How did it come to be?
It was a random Facebook prompt from my friend, the poet Deborah Miranda. Her dog’s nickname was “Chupacabra,” and one morning her wife asked her if she was going to walk the Chupacabra. Deborah had loved the sound of it but didn’t think it was a poem that she was called to write and so offered it up. I immediately wrote the first version of “Walking the Chupacabra” in the comments of that FB post.
I’m fascinated by readers’ interpretations of this poem. ‘Generational rage’ is an interesting take on it. That this is how we live with the rage we have inherited. Conscious, wary, and afraid but inarticulate to the extent that all we can do is describe the task, describe the return home, describe the home itself. By its very nature, a chupacabra is a wild thing, an untameable, unknowable thing. Which I would argue is what our history is too—as much as we may study it or hear about it. Someone once told me, history is facts, all names and dates and places. Even when I was nineteen, I thought that was one of the stupidest things I’d ever heard. What can we know that way—by name and date and place? We learn mostly by story, by consequences, by motivations, by conflict, by experience, and by empathy. We recognize the truth of history in our very bodies. These bodies that have lived the consequences of history, of conquest, of violence.
And that is what it is to live with the Chupacabra, to try to care for it. It is to know what our bodies know. What we can’t let ourselves forget.
WALKING THE CHUPACABRA
for Deborah Miranda
every morning we put the leash around his rough furred neck let him take the lead out the door and onto the sidewalk while the neighbors look askance at us we walk the chupacabra every morning or shall we say he consents to let us walk him and we walk on the balls of our feet here we are walking the chupacabra or shall we say walking the threat of violence walking the shadow of imminent death we walk on the balls of our feet and breathe rapidly ready to run should he decide to turn and maul us should he become unable to hold his hunger in check not hunger for flesh but hunger to see life spilled life burst life ended
we walk the chupacabra praying under our breaths hesitating when he stops to inspect a bush or a butterfly or a dog walking down the opposite side of the street we never hesitate when he decides to change direction we speed our steps almost trip over ourselves we walk the chupacabra or shall we say we walk danger incarnated walk rage concentrated in a four-legged form we turn back when and only when his eyes turn homewards and his horns cast shadows he waits while we open the lock on the door while we remove the leash while we pour water into his bowl and use a knife on our hands to add enough of our blood so that he’ll always recognize us we do not serve him anything to eat we still don’t know what he eats he has no bed sometimes we find him asleep on the ceiling
at night we sleep in this house this house where the chupacabra sleeps we sleep with our eyes open in case he wakes we sleep in this house which always smells slightly of blood and smoke of wild things of anguish not anguish and hunger not hunger of remembrance always remembrance of vengeance desperately seeking to name itself something else we live we sleep we eat we love we make things in this house where the chupacabra lives this house guarded by the chupacabra
At the end of Cuicacalli, you include a keynote speech you gave at the Chicana Arts & Activism Symposium in late 2017. In that speech you have a line: “Our task is to remain human. To become neither monsters nor victims.” How do you think your book contributes to this daunting task?
When I first read this question, I thought, wow, that’s a big task and a big question. But in the end, it’s a very simple answer.
That’s the contribution of every work of art I’ve ever loved or appreciated. It’s my hope every time I follow a line of poetry or spin a story into being or answer questions like these. The task, the contribution, the hope of all these things is to increase our capacity to remain human and to resist both monstrosity and victimhood. To say, this is my story and this is where I am and this is how I feel and what do you think and what is your story and where are you and how do you feel and where do we understand each other? I don’t mean human in a simple way. I mean human as beings capable of compassion and understanding and justice and fairness. Of beauty and love and healing and vision.
What I hope for with this book is the same thing I will hope for with all my work—that it reaches whoever needs it. That it inspires a conversation. That it makes someone feel less alone. That someone understands it as a story of some ways I held on to remaining human.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
Invocation to Daughters by Barbara Jane Reyes
Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky by David Bowles
Savage Conversations by LeAnne Howe
Buckskin Cocaine by Erika Wurth
Ceremony of Sand by Rodney Gomez
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?
Right now, my first answer would be to say, “Listen.” We hardly ever listen to our bodies. Mostly, we are taught to deny our bodies and what they tell us they feel, they want, they need. We’re taught they don’t tell us anything. We’re taught to deny what our bodies know.
We’re not sure, really, what our bodies even are. The physical body isn’t all there is to a body. A body—a person—is the heart/soul/mind/body. A body is an energetic thing. We are our bodies, our heartsoulmindbodies. And we are also the concentric, overlapping, layered bodies that create who we are. A family is a body. A relationship is a body. Our artistic/political/cultural communities are bodies. Our histories, our realities, our dreams inform the location and specificity and nature of our bodies. Our relationship to nature is a body.
So, in writing about a community, we are still speaking of a body and speaking from a body. Same rules apply: listen and tell the truth.
ire’ne lara silva is the author of two poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), which were both finalists for the International Latino Book Award in Poetry, 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 a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant, the final recipient of the 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 is currently working on her first novel, Naci. Her latest collection of poetry, CUICACALLI/House of Song, will be published by Saddle Road in April 2019. Website: irenelarasilva.wordpress.com