Three conversations with LA based, female poets
UCLA’s Campus Events Commission recently hosted “See, Recognize, Hear,” an empowerment week dedicated to acknowledging female artists and creatives. Consisting of various programs, March 3rd was devoted to a night of poetry. Los Angeles based poets, Lynne Thompson, Verónica Reyes and Marsha De La O each were present to give readings of their work. I was able to reach out to these three artists and discuss their creative processes, how they write and what role they think poetry plays in the world. The project developed into a short series; every few days or so the blog will be updated with a new dialogue and accompanying poem.
In the final post of the series, I interviewed poet Verónica Reyes. We discussed the various communities she’s apart of and how she writes for the people. Included is her poem, “Desert Rain: blessing the land.”
SAG: When did you know you wanted to pursue poetry?
VR: I had been writing poetry when I was a teenager, around 15 years old. But I did not call it poetry. It was just my “writing.” And it definitely was not a diary. It was pieces that I wrote in the moment. So they came to exist when a “poem” came to me. It always had to be in that moment. Inspiration was the key. When I was an undergrad at Long Beach State, I, in some way, needed to cross paths with an Introduction to Chicano literature course that really affected my life. I had an instructor who once asked if I was a creative writing major. And I was surprised and intrigued by this. My mind was reeling, “What is that?” But I trusted this Chicana professor and really believed I was going to learn something important in that class. So when she asked that question, I followed her advice. The following fall term I enrolled in a fiction workshop. It was there that I realized that what I had been doing for years was creative writing all along. By this time, I had already been a student for several years and changed majors a few times. I probably was already in my 5th year as an undergrad. So when it finally dawned on me, this is my route. I took it seriously. I was maybe 23-24 years old. I wanted to write for many reasons. But the main one was to write stories/poems I did not see in literature. I also wanted to write stories for my mom, for women like my mama. As a Mexicana, her life was important, and it deserved to be recognized in the literary world.
Your work is strongly driven by the many communities you are apart of, could you elaborate on that?
Every person of color or queer of color is part of many communities. It’s a reality. You learn to find your space. You recognize that you need all these diverse communities because they all are you in some way. You belong in each one. Now sometimes one person or people may not want you due to ignorance or lack of knowledge. This is a result of racism, or homophobia. We live in a society that garners its power by disenfranchising people. But as a woman/lesbian of color, I know I am part of many communities because in some way they exist because I exist. I don’t think I’m aiming to be philosophical, but in some way a person has to be. I want to feel safe in an arena where I can be me. Exist in a positive and safe space. So I searched for it and know it comes in different locations, different times.
The reality is that we (people/women of color and/or queers of color) are put in a position to choose. I don’t think we necessarily think to ourselves. As a woman (female) I’ll only speak about these issues, or when I’m in the Chicana/o community (i.e. race), then only part of me is this is there. You cannot dissect a person or pull a person apart that way. It is a ridiculous ideology that aims to take away agency in a mainstream framework that does not want people, who are marginalized, to have any sense of power. I will always be a Chicana, lesbian poet every moment of my life.
So, we also learn to juggle communities because not all communities accept you for who you are. The isms (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.) are there to pit one ethnic/racial group or community against another. So when I am around my community of la jotería, Chicanas/os, poets/writers, I know I feel good: This is my community. My home. It is heartening. Like family you may not always agree. But you also know, hopefully, you can work out your differences.
What should really happen is that people should accept a person regardless of race, sex, class, orientations in all those environments. I should not have to choose. But we live in a society that is based in Western patriarchal structure. And it promotes, inherently, within its structure, heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and classism because it thrives on reducing people into parts so that a person is disempowered. In order to have privilege, which comes with power, it must disempower people of color, and label people as other. So a person cannot name oneself, claim her or his identity, space/arena. People need to find their community. Find their home. Sometimes it is biological and sometimes it is not.
So when I say I’m part of many communities, I am also a bridge among all these people. I do not feel pulled apart by being forced to choose one comunidad. These are my communities. And so if one community someone says something homophobic, then he or she needs to be called on it. If someone says something racist, then it must be challenged. And we must learn to accept differences and respect each other.
I’m very proud to be Chicana, a dyke, a poet and to feel at home in East LA. I speak about issues that matter, such as immigration and the injustices that society has inflicted. We must stand up for those whose voices are silenced in this American stratum.
Do you feel a certain way when you write; is there a certain state of mind that is required?
It all depends on the poem. If it is poem chanting the political atrocities unjustly afflicted on people of color, then I’ll be in that state of mind: there will be anger, there will be calmness, there will be a well-articulated Chicana voice because I will not adhere to stereotypes. There are always layers to poems. Like any other poem, when analyzed the reader will see the meaning, the craft, the message, the work.
So your question on a poet’s “state of mind,” it still all depends on the piece. What is the poem asking for? What does the poet want to script? When I wrote “Panocha Power!” this was a politically grounded poem that was grassroots and asked for a revolution, but it is engrained in a well-educated speaker’s voice. The voice or “I,” knows her history and speaks about it openly. There’s no shame. There is pride: Chicana feminist butch jota poet.
If you are also asking the literal as when working on crafting the poem after the first sketch has come to exist, then the artist emerges and polishes, cleans up the poem for what the poem is asking to be. As a poet, you work on your craft. Even if a poem is spontaneous, the poem still gets reworked and reworked until it feels complete. You have some sense of completion. No matter what the poem will always have been worked on.
The question posed is not a simple response. It requires a more in depth response than my answer. But I would say this is the basis.
What do you want readers to get from reading your poems, is there always a message?
Yes. For most poems, I have an intention of sharing narrative about a speaker/character that is based on reality. At times, the piece is completely made up, but it still had something rooted.
So, there is usually a message. After all, a poem is based on an idea, my poetry for the most part carries a voice or experience I want to share with audiences. For women of color, it is significant to share a story, experience of lives that are negated in society. So yes, there is always a vital story; it is about people whose lives are not readily shared in mainstream literature and presumed because I wrote it, then it can only be Chicana lesbian literature. If that is the case, then any white male or female should only be found in white male/female American literature component. By inherently calling it American lit, it already presumes they are the dominant group that matters and negates any other voice. So it is placed/marked as “other.”
At times, I’m painting a picture of someone’s life as in “The Alamo Motel,” or sharing a life story as in “East L.A. Poet.” Or it’s illustrating the atrocities that police and society inflict on low-income communities as in “Green Helicopters” or being proud of who you are as in “Marimacha” or sharing the reality of life infused with humor as in “Cholo Lessons Por Vida.”
So yes, most of my poems have something to say. As a Chicana feminist dyke poet, my poems will always have a political message. I write for that reason. Still I would even say poems, such as “Winter Desert/Summer Glacier” that describes the landscape is still saying something important about place, geography, and home.
Does your work reflect your present state of being or is it more a reflection of the past?
Both. It is always both. You write in the moment. You may recollect the past or you may dream of the future. But it is always present.
Now, I see this question can also be about the craft of the poem in terms of content. But I do write to discuss the present scenario and there also will be poems that reflect on the past. But upon reflection, it does not necessarily mean it is about my life. It is about the speaker’s or character’s life. As previously mentioned, the poem, its idea, form/structure (aesthetics—line length), imagery, and voice determine how it is shaped and comes to exist.
You’ve said that you write poetry for the people, what do you mean by that?
I write poems with narratives of people’s lives—Mexicanos, immigrants, Mexican Americans, queers of color—that are ignored or invisible in this society. I write about lives, whose have been bordered because of geography, politics, identity, etc. I write about lives whose experiences are not even considered important in this environment. Someone who is low-income for the most part knows how to finance and manage his or her money. They know how to survive, but should they be given only access to buy GMO foods and unhealthy foods at their local market? No. Why don’t they have affordable-healthy options that are good for their bodies, minds? Their access to these food resources is limited. Even taking public transportation, the price is not reasonable. For a time in LA, including city and county, there were no transfers available to hop from one bus to another, so a passenger had to pay full fare each time. This is all unreasonable when the people are living on minimum wage that is not even paying for living expenses. Or the reality is that affordable rent is not there. A large number of people are put in conditions that are not fair. This is also one reason gentrification is succeeding in low-income communities. Those with a higher income than the locals know they can come into those locations and acquire those locations for themselves all the while pushing out the person who is working hard to pay for rent, food, etc.
So I write poems about people, mainly, Mexicanas/os, Latinas/os y la jotería, particularly Mexican American lesbians, whose stories deserve to be told. I write so they can see a reflection of themselves in the print. Because this society values the written word, these stories will only get recognized in print. Dismally, the oral word, such as oral history, is negated. History has illustrated this over and over. So in American literature to exist as the central character and not a mockery or a stereotype, I write pieces that share lives of working class people who are immigrant, undocumented or not, queer or not and provide a snippet of a larger fabric of lives and experiences that have not been written down.
You recently took part in a poetry reading at the Student Committee for the Arts’ Word on Wednesdays, what are your thoughts on the “See, Recognize, Hear” female empowerment movement?
I think it is great. For a university to support this type of reading is significant for all women from first year students to graduates. Universities should support female students. Young feminists need to be supported. To hear a poetry reading of this nature, hopefully, inspires dialogue and action in students to advocate for women’s rights. It really sheds a light that society and the individual needs to take responsibility for eliminating domestic violence, supporting of childcare in businesses, and reproductive rights are women’s rights (Our body Our choice), and creating unisex restrooms on campuses and for creating safe environments. This list can go on and on. This also exemplifies how this fight needs to continue because larger society treats women as second class and/or third class. Women’s rights need to be supported and this event “See, Recognize, Hear” female empowerment is a great tool and podium.
But I also think students need to ask: what is next? How do I get involved? Females need to find her voice and speak her mind. And male students need to recognize that they can be feminists as well. It is about eradicating about the isms and recognizing how they are interconnected. Women’s rights are interconnected with racial equality and class equality, etc. They are not separate entities.
So poetry serves in this arena to inspire and ask students to make decisions in their lives about what route and role they want to play in the larger framework of American society. The goal is equality for all. It is to respect our differences and accept our commonalities.
Yes, empowerment. Power to all women! Power!