Sarah A. Chavez talks about embodied poetry
and writing Hands That Break and Scar
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?
Like most things in my life, the answer is a little both. I have always been aware of my body—of its size, its shape, how much space it took up in a room, how it might look when next to other bodies, how it did not conform to the norms I wanted it to replicate. I often thought (and sometimes still think) of it as separate from “me,” as if there is a “me” without the body, something that is mind and desire and the body is an uncooperative accomplice, bumbling, getting in the way.
It has often been a contentious relationship. When I was a child, the evangelical neighbor who often babysat my sister and me when my single mom was at work told us that if you felt pain, it was God punishing you for something and the only way to rid yourself of the pain was to “pray and surrender yourself to Him.” So at the age of 9, when I got my first period, I remember being doubled-over on the floor of bathroom, cramps twisting my insides, arms wrapped around my abdomen, crying, praying, “please God, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I didn’t know what I had done, but I knew for pain that felt so fundamental, so at my core, it must have been really bad. That pain was transformative as was what I saw as God’s refusal to take it away. I suffered intense menstruation until adulthood and learned that ultimately the only way to work through pain was to acknowledge it and lean in.
These early attempts at control primed me both for a life of physicality (athletics, manual labor, body modification) and for eventually writing from that space. Because my emotions often manifest in physical sensations: heat, nausea, back pain, disassociation, I learned to understand feelings through the body. And feelings are where writing starts for me. Again, when I was younger, I started writing because my feelings would so overwhelm me, I needed some way of ridding my body of them. Writing was that release. In that way, the process of writing for me begins in the body naturally, but I would say the harder work of writing the experience of being in the body is in the revision process, being able to maintain that physicality and grounding while also revising for a more complicated and nuanced use of language and concept. That has taken me a long a time (and I am most definitely still working at it).
You open section 1 with a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa that contains the phrase “I remain who I am, multiple /and one.” Multiplicities (yet) unities abound in your book. Mexican and American, girl and woman, dutiful daughter and curious adolescent, much love and some violence, and “no moment of happiness without cost” (33). Can you please say a bit about how borders and border crossings influenced the writing of Hands That Break and Scar?”
Anzaldúa’s work, specifically Borderlands/La Frontera and her theory of la conciencia de la mestiza changed my life and my writing. Being half Mexican and half white/Anglo and having these two parents divorced meant that I almost never saw the peaceful co-existence of these two cultures. So when I was with my dad and his family, I needed to be more Mexican and when I was with my mom and her family, I needed to be more white (in whatever way at the time those markers of ethnicity manifested, certainly the performance of ethnicity is complicated). Both sets of grandparents even lived in the same town, just on either side of Bear Creek, a small, but long body of water that worked as a naturally occurring border. To get to where my abuelitos lived, you cross west to the new construction going toward the outer edges of town and to get to my grandparents’ house you cross east over the creek to older, established neighborhoods with large tree-lined residential streets.
I didn’t know that there could be a third space, one in which I could embody both cultures. There were other dueling sides of my life too, my working-class reality and the affluent lives of my Catholic school friends. Again, I was neither in the same situation as the other kids in my neighborhood, nor was I like the kids I went to school with. That was a tension that plagued me, but it wasn’t until reading Borderlands that I was able to articulate that tension. I was also so focused on needing to act “right” in the space I was in, it never occurred to me to question why I was doing that in the first place. To fit in, of course, but why has the culture of the space been set in an either/or? So, ethnic cultural borders, socioeconomic borders, borders of right and wrong, and border crossing and trying to eke out a space in between the binaries is really at the heart of the collection.
THIS, LIKE SO MUCH
On the night of my first kiss,
I was supposed to have been home
by 10 p.m., but we just kept walking,
our fingers interlaced, talking about
Clive Barker books. When we got
to my front door, the porch light
was out, and I thought it lucky,
because this time, I’d remembered
to leave my retainer at home
just in case.
We stood in the half dark, the glow
from the street lamp back-lighting
his silhouette. He brushed his fingers
down my cheek, while his other hand
slid under my hair. We were smart
enough not to talk. He merely bent
down and touched his lips to mine—
sweetly—at first. My body both burned
and relaxed, my mind for once not racing.
I went in the house, feeling dizzy,
giddy, sat on the couch and tried
to keep the feeling, tuck it away
where I could always come back to find it,
but from the other room I could hear
my mom’s shrill screaming, her boyfriend
pleading. The small mobile home shook
as he tried to slam the bedroom door
in her face, but she followed him,
pushing at his back, yanking his shirt,
yelling all the while, Don’t you
walk away from me! They brushed
past me, out the front door,
and into the cool night air I had just left.
After the screech of his tires faded
down the block, my mom stomped back
into the house, her face twisted in anger.
The fair skin of her neck blazed
as she grabbed a glass from the table.
The sweet, high ting echoed
in the shower of shining shards
that bloomed from the newly formed
hollow in the living room wall:
no moment of happiness without cost.
When I read these poems I notice so many small indicators of place: Motel 6, 7-11, the VFW Hall, a dumpster, some busted car windows, a backyard garden, grape fields—and so much California heat! How do you use place to make meaning in your poems?
There is so much Cali heat! (Valley heat, specifically) It’s funny, but when I was working on my dissertation and reading through Gary Soto’s (a well-respected, well-known Fresno, Central Valley poet) collected work, I remember thinking, “Damn, how many times can a person comment on dirt and dust?” And then while editing the manuscript, I realized I was doing the same thing, but with heat. I think there is sometimes that one characteristic that tends to encapsulate a place for me. In all my memories of Fresno, it’s summer. I know that’s not accurate. I remember the winters and the rare rains and the terribly thick fog with a strange damp that chills through the bones, but when I think about Fresno and the Valley, I think about the sun and warmth and brightness. I also think about people. Place and people are inextricable for me. I can’t think about my childhood without thinking of the mobile home park and I can’t think of the mobile home park without thinking of my childhood best friend Tracy. And I can’t think of Tracy without thinking about the community swimming pool. And I can’t think of the community swimming pool without thinking about Carole.
Much like the way the body is the instrument through which I experience emotion, place is the instrument through which I recall memories. It wasn’t until moving away from California that I began to understand how much location shaped my understanding of the world. Everything about a person can change based on location. In Fresno, California, I’m an ambiguously-ethnic pocha. In Muncie, Indiana, I was the darkest, most ethnic person person in all my graduate classes. I’m not so sure that I use place to make meaning, so much as I try to allow myself to be open to the meaning inherent in place and to an honest perception of it. Like the dumpster. My sister and I really did climb into these industrial dumpsters and take out building materials to play with. The first time I mentioned that in grad school, the friends I told the story to were mildly horrified. Where were my parents? I could’ve stepped on a nail, what if I had cut myself on glass? To them, the dumpster represented danger, to us though, it represented possibility. The truth is, the dumpster is both. In retrospect it’s pretty amazing that neither of us needed tetanus shots. I’m sure we cut and scraped ourselves, but the memory of those minor infractions is far outweighed by the fun we had. I didn’t know it as a kid, but that there was even an industrial dumpster always nearby, that was a mark of the neighborhood we lived in. That we were in a mobile home park. All places that represent working class upbringing. I think part of my hope with this book and these poems is that a reader will see through the dinginess of the places and be able to see the beauty that I see there. There is beauty in the relationships built in these places and these relationships could not have forged in these ways in any other space.
Please share with our readers a list of 5-10 books you think we should read right now.
So many good books! This always feels like an unfair question because no matter who I put on the list, I’m bound to later think, “oh, I should’ve said ___.” Even though there are others, I’m going to go with those books that lately I find myself coming back to over and over again.
1. ire’ne lara silva’s Blood Sugar Canto
2. Natalie Díaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec
3. Marvin Bell’s The Book of the Dead Man
4. Salvador Palacio’s The People of Paper
5. Gloria Anzaldúa’s posthumously published second book, Luz en lo Oscuro (Light in the Darkness)
6. Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things
7. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen
8. Stacey Waite’s Butch Geography
9. Manuel Paul López’s Death of a Mexican and Other Poems
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?
Do physical things and journal with a pen or pencil and paper. There are a lot of writers who advocate walking as a way to open the mind, but what I really mean is intentionally set out to do something, anything physical where you can pay attention to what your body is doing and what it feels like to be wherever it is. For me, biking and yoga are best. Especially yoga because of the focus on breathing and feeling your body breath and moving with breath. But I don’t think it matters what a person choses, so long as it works for them: meditation, playing a sport, washing dishes, laying outside on a grassy lawn, as long as it is mindful and requires movement. Then get an easy to carry with you notebook and a comfortable pen or pencil with pleasing movement (personally I like Pentel RSVPs with a fine point and Pilot G2 retractable gel roller pens). And then, and I know this sounds cheesy, but allow yourself to feel the side of your hand rubbing against the paper. Hear the scratch of the tip, smell the graphite or ink. While I do a good bit of prose writing on a computer, almost all of my pre-writing and poem drafting happens in a notebook, which helps remind me that writing is not just an act of the mind.
Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of two collections of poetry, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), a selection of which won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship (2013), and Hands That Break & Scar (Sundress Publications, 2017). Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest and she was named one of the 2016 Top Ten "New" Latino Authors to Watch (and Read) by LatinoStories.com. Chavez holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Political Punch: The Politics of Identity, Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzalduan Borderlands, and Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts, as well as the journals Brevity, North American Review, Fourth River, Acentos Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Boiler Journal, among others. She teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at Marshall University, where she also serves as the coordinator of the A.E. Stringer Visiting Writers Series. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop. Find her on the web at www.sarahachavez.com