Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Put Your Name On It": Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo on Writing, Submitting, and Honoring Our Creative Work

Olga García Echeverría

Upon Celebrating America’s Birthday

In the morning, I explore the yellow hills
of Chavez Ravine and collect trinkets for my desk:
a hawk feather, a sun-bleached snail shell,
a rusted nail sitting within the brick base
ruins of a house. I imagine great-aunt Susana
collecting herbs from the hills hugging Teocaltiche.
In the afternoon, Uncle Manny recalls remedies
she concocted and the tiny quail eggs she fried
for breakfast with handmade tortillas the shape of boats.
My finicky father never ate from her table,
but Uncle Manny has had too many Budweisers
and is spilling memories of his favorite tia this 4th of July.
“She used to put me on her shoulders and carry me
across the river,” he says dreamily. This was before L.A.,
hair products, Ford cars, and the church youth group
where he met my aunt, and my dad met my mother. 
By dusk, tears dig into the creases of his face
like a stone creek. He hushes only to watch my cousins
launch bottle rockets from the street. Smoke tails up
and sparks shoot out over our heads. Colors flash bright
and disappear into the air like my uncle’s sobriety,
like Tia Susana, like the houses of Chavez Ravine.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

If you're an Angelino with your eye on the literary scene, then most likely you've heard of Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo. She's shared her award-winning poetry with audiences throughout LA and beyond. She is the creator and curated of the quarterly reading series HITCHED, formerly held at Beyond Baroque and now being hosted at Holy Grounds.

Another important and exciting LA-based literary project is Women Who Submit, which Bermejo co-founded. This group encourages and supports women writers in the submission process for publication. When Xochitl isn't organizing, submitting her work or encouraging others to submit, she's teaching, grading, and reading articles on the pedagogy of working with English language learners.

Despite her busy schedule, Bermejo ekes out writing time, a veces in the afternoon, usually in the evenings, most often on weekends or in the summer when teachers' loads are generally lighter.

Her writing essentials? Música and a laptop. A source of inspiration she keeps returning to? Long walks in nature. 

Although Xochitl says she did not become serious about her writing until her mid-twenties when she pursued her MFA, it is obvious that the creative word has been brewing inside her since she was a chiquilla. At six, she wrote her first poem, and at 11 she not only wrote a western, she also won a Knott's Berry Farm contest with her submission.

Bueno, there is so much to say about Bermejo, but we'll let her say it herself. Here is our featured and estimada poeta sharing her insights on writing, publishing, building community, going beyond AWP drama/trauma, and talking about the importance of following our hearts and honoring our stories.
Welcome, Xochitl. Let's get right into it. I've been writing a lot about my parents lately, and as a result re-discovering ways in which they influenced my writing. I'm curious, ¿Qué dicen tus padres about you being a poet, and how have they influenced your creative journey?

My parents have always been very supportive of my writing career. I think it is because they are both artists at heart. My mother wanted to be an opera singer, but ended up dropping out of community college when her music teacher didn’t show much interest. She’s told me the story a few times. She was thinking of quitting school and went to tell her teacher and her teacher basically said, “OK.” As a teacher myself, I try to remember this.

As I was growing up, my memories of my dad tend to revolve around images of him in the garage creating objects in his wood-turning workshop. We still have a table he made in those days and my aunt still has the bed he made for her and her husband as a wedding present.

The thing is they were both immigrant children, and they are both the eldest in their families, so they didn’t have the freedom to pursue their artistic dreams. My mom had to take care of her little sister and brothers, and my dad had to go into the army. I think seeing me be a writer brings them joy, and whenever anything good happens, I definitely feel like it’s happening to all of us. 

My dad’s number one saying is, “Put your name on it, Mija!” Whenever I come to him with some good news he always says, “That’s good, Mija! Just remember, put your name on it!” To them creating something you are proud of, something you can attach your name to is of high importance.

As a Latina writer, have you always felt free to incorporate Spanish in your creative work?

No, I didn’t always use Spanish in my work. In graduate school, I had little sprinklings of Spanish here and there when I would write about my family, and that was the first time I had people telling me I had to italicize those words. I had never heard that because I hadn’t really studied writing academically before.

It wasn’t until I went to Las Dos Brujas writing retreat in New Mexico that I started to understand the wider conversation of using Spanish and other languages in writing. Las Dos Brujas was organized by Cristina Garcia. The mentors were Cristina, Juan Felipe Herrera, Chris Abani, Denise Chavez, and Kimiko Hahn. LDB was the first time I had ever experienced being in a workshop with a majority of writers of color, and it was the first time I felt I had connected with a mentor of color.  LDB really opened my eyes to what had already been going on within the community for some time. A book that really struck me was Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral. I was really amazed by how much Spanish he used. Nearly whole poems in Slow Lightning were in Spanish. His book really opened my eyes to how far it can go.

As a teacher myself, I know how difficult it is to write during the school year, especially because we take so much work home.  What helps keep you on track with your writing during the school year?

The best thing I have to keep me writing at this time is a regular workshop group I have on Wednesday nights. There are three of us. We are all women, and we are all workshopping early drafts of novels. We each take turns reading 5-10 pages aloud for feedback. Thankfully, I generated like crazy over the summer, so all I have to do is show up, bring something I’ve already written, and be ready to listen. It feels low-pressure, and it keeps me thinking about writing in the week. And then I have something to work on when the weekend comes. This group has been a life preserver. It’s definitely keeping me afloat writing-wise.  
You were the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writer's Exchange poetry winner. What was that experience like?

It was very exciting. I got an all-expense paid trip to New York to meet with editors, agents, and writers. As a poet, I didn’t really have much connection to meeting the agents, but it was great to hear what they had to say. Some highlights were going into The New Yorker to meet Deborah Treissman, having a glass of wine with Yusef Komunyakaa, and listening to Alice Quinn recite a poem to me. Also, it was pretty amazing to feature at a reading in Manhattan at the Center for Fiction. Some of my oldest friends live in New York, so it was really cool to be able to share that moment with them. It felt good to know I had a loving support team so far from home. It was really special. The whole experience was special. Every night, when I got back to my room, and I was alone for the first time all day, I cried. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me and it was happening to me because of something I wrote. I felt really happy and grateful. 

Photo from Poets & Writer's E-Newsletter 3/14/13:
From left: P&W staff member Jamie FitzGerald, Laura Joyce Davis,
Yusef Komunyakaa, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo,
and P&W Staff member Cathy Linh Che.

Can you briefly share what inspired you to start your HITCHED reading series?

I had gone to a reading at Avenue 50 Studio where Suzanne Lummis invited her students from her classes to feature with her. I liked how she used the reading to bring out new voices, so that was one of the events that inspired me to do a reading series revolved around mentorship. I was also newly out of grad school, and I wanted to promote my friends and other new writers like myself. It was kind of great because we were all newly out of grad school, so we still had close relationships with our mentors, and so I had a bit of a built in talent pool. At the beginning it was a way to get my friends some exposure and to build relationships with the older generation of poets and writers.

You've been hosting this series for the past 5 years. What have been some of the rewards?
The rewards have been many. For one, every time there is a HITCHED I walk away feeling moved. I feel a little selfish saying that, like I made this reading strictly for myself, but I hope if I’ve been moved then so have other people. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet so many writers and to introduce writers to the community. The way the reading usually works is I invite someone I know to feature, and then that person invites someone to feature with them. The person they invite can be a mentor, a student, a collaborator, a workshop partner, etc. So nearly every reading, I’m introduced to someone new, and nearly every reading someone is meeting someone new.
Have you seen important shifts in the literary scene during these past 5 years?
Something that makes me happy is seeing what I think is a bigger push in the last few years to have literature in public spaces. I see it with the Jessica Ceballos and Avenue 50’s Poesia Para la Gente series, with what Iris de Anda is doing with the “Love Corner” in El Sereno, with Liz Gonzalez’s new Uptown Word Reading Series in Long Beach, and with the Los Angeles Lit Crawl. I think this is important work.

And you'll be reading at Lit Crawl,  on October 21 with Women Who Submit. Here's the link to your event:
On the issue of submission: one thing is creating and another is getting our work out there. Alyss Dixson, Ashaki Jackson and you took a lead a few years ago in encouraging women writers (and in particular women of color) to submit. Can you tell us a little about starting up Women Who Submit? :
Women Who Submit came out of the first VIDA count. The women of VIDA started counting the number of women and men published in top tier journals like The New Yorker and Paris Review. What they found was that there was a large disparity between men and women being represented in these magazines. When editors were asked why they thought there was this disparity, the most common response was, "Women don't submit as often as men."

Women Who Submit was created in an attempt to change the rhetoric. The idea of submission parties, getting a group of women together to submit work and act as a support, came from Alyss Dixson. She invited Ashaki Jackson to work on this idea with her, and Ashaki invited me to work with the two of them. I didn’t even know about VIDA until I was brought into this project in 2011. Together we planned our first submission party. It was at my mom’s house, which I thought was great. For the first few years, it was a small group of women meeting in each other’s houses about 5 times a year, but over the last year we’ve become more global. We now have monthly submission parties with submission parties open to the public and new members every other month. We’ve also started doing panels, readings, and workshops. It is definitely growing, which is really exciting!

I've yet to go to a WWS meeting myself, but I want to share that I feel encouraged by WWS from afar. WWS has, on several occasions, inspired me to send something out, so gracias! Here's the link to WWS in case readers want to find out more: :

That’s amazing! I’m glad we could inspire you to submit. Not everyone can come to an event, but if women find some strength and support for submitting from our online presence, then that makes us happy. We are trying to create a supportive community online with our Facebook, twitter, and blog. We want women to know they can always come to these parties for encouragement, information, and support.

Finding a “home” for a literary piece can be challenging, especially when we are bilingual and write in mixed languages. There is always so much negotiation (between the self and the page) that happens prior to sending something out. Should I even send this there? If I do send it out and it's not a Latino journal, how much of the Spanish do I have to take out? etc. What advice can you give women writers out there who are grappling with some of these issues and questions?

I think my advice would be to make the best piece you possibly can, and try not to worry about who will take it. I know this is hard. I’m trying to do it right now with a YA novel I’m working on. My heroine is the daughter of migrant farm workers, and I’m always thinking, Is that too much Spanish? But I think we have to fight to stay true to who we are, and fight to stay true to the piece. Each piece is different and there is never one answer.
What I hope other poets do is write their hearts out, and make something that makes them proud, something they are proud to have their names on (like my father says), and then send it out. If you do that, I think you will find the right home for your work. I have an essay up at The James Franco Review right now where large chunks of dialogue are in Spanish.
I definitely worried no one would take it, but then I found out about The James Franco Review. Based off of their mission and the work they had previously published I thought, if anyone is going to take a chance on this piece it’s this place. And then they did, which was amazing! So I think being true to yourself, and looking for those places who are open to what you are doing is key.

I think that even when we do make efforts to submit, though, it can be pretty discouraging, and it can also be expensive. Although it's exciting to see more people of color presses and journals, it's still a very White and very male-dominated literary world. We've made many gains, but the racism is institutionalized.

This is true, but we have to keep pushing ourselves into these spaces. I spent a month this summer at a residency that was very white, and it wasn’t always comfortable, but as one mujer told me recently, “So what’s our option? To not go? No!” Being there made it possible to finally write a first draft of a book I’ve had in my mind for years, so no, we can’t stop doing it. But this is something I’ve been thinking about with Women Who Submit. We want to support women trying to move up into these prestigious spaces, which tend to be white and male. I’m curious about what we can do to help arm them before they go. I’m curious to figure out how we can support them from afar.
Money is also a big issue. To apply for prestigious awards and accolades is not cheap. Reading fees and application fees are no joke, and it only helps keep the writing world classist. One dream I have is to start some kind of scholarship fund just for application fees. If we could help women submit their work to places they normally wouldn’t because of fees and financial concerns, that would be huge.

Speaking of institutionalized racism and the need for more diversity in the literary world, you wrote a great blog on your recent experience with Red Hen Press, "Kate Gale, Red Hen, and What Poetry and Community Mean to Me." To quickly recap, in August you received a letter from Red Hen stating they were interested in publishing your poetry manuscript. In your blog, you shared that this was a dream come true, and yet it was quickly followed by that horrific Huffington Post blog by Kate Gale, “AWP is Us.” There was such a huge outcry in response to to Kate Gale's blog because it offended so many--the LGBTQ community, writers of color, writers with disabilities, and I think in general just writers with consciousness. Because of Gale's affiliations with Red Hen Press, you then made the difficult decision of not publishing with them. I imagine that must have felt both empowering and heartbreaking.

The decision not to publish was heartbreaking. Writing about the decision not to publish was empowering. Making the decision to make the blog piece public was frightening. Kate Gale’s article came out on Monday. I wrote the blog on Wednesday night and sent it off to two friends for feedback with the question, Can I really do this? I revised it Thursday night and didn’t sleep at all that night. Then first thing Friday morning, I decided if I didn’t do it right at that moment, I would never do it, so I did. My hands were shaking. Then Facebook kind of exploded, and the outpouring of support was just amazing. All day long, I kept crying mostly because people were being so supportive and writing beautiful messages to me. I didn’t expect that. It was a reminder that our poetry community can be a really good place. We can’t let the Kate Gales and Michael Derrick Hudsons of the world try to distort it. We have to be vigilant in speaking out, speaking our truths, and telling our stories.

You wrote in your blog, “'AWP is US' reminded me why I write poetry in the first place. Because privileged, white America isn’t going to tell my story, or the stories of those around me. Because writing poetry is my way of claiming space in a world that wants to push me out of the way. Because writing poetry gives me the power to create and build the world I want to see.” I think these words strike a cord with so many of us.

Thank you for that. I think this was what resonated with many people who reached out to me. In all of this I only had one negative commenter (which is kind of unheard of), and this person said, “In fact, Red Hen was going to tell your story–you just opted out because, like some others, you chose to interpret Gale’s piece very narrowly, reducing her to a stereotype.” But this misses the point. Writers of color and women writers, have to be careful. Of course, we all want to be published, and we want credibility and professional accolades. And for those who choose to pursue tenure tracks, getting published by top tier journals and presses is a necessity, but we also have to feel good about where our work lands. It’s our one major commodity, and we have to handle our publishing decisions with care.

I love that you turned that situation around. It's usually the publisher who has the power to say, “No,” but in this case you took that power back into your own hands and ultimately denied them the opportunity to publish your work.

Speaking of your work, can you briefly share what your manuscript, Built With Safe Spaces, is about?

Built with Safe Spaces is a collection of poetry inspired by Los Angeles, my grandmother, and the Arizona-Mexico border where I volunteered as a desert aid worker in the summers of 2011 and 2013. By traveling from the green hills of Los Angeles to the jagged canyons of the Sonoran desert, it is my hope these poems illustrate a speaker driven to activism by a need to honor her family's journey as Mexican immigrants.  

I have no doubt your manuscript will get picked up soon by a great publisher. I look forward to reading it, and of course, we want to review it here at La Bloga as soon as it comes out.

Thank you! I’ve been losing faith lately, so your words mean so much to me. I’ve often daydreamed about the book, and how it will feel in my hands, and how my name, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, will look across the bottom of the cover, but I haven’t been dreaming about that too much lately. I’m more excited about my new novel these days. The novel is where most of my energy has been going, but I hope one day soon, I’ll have both, and that will be an amazing day!

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the 2013 poetry winner of the Poets& Writers California Writers Exchange. She has work published in American Poetry Review, CALYX, Acentos Review, Los Angeles Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. A short dramatization of her poem "Our Lady of the Water Gallons," directed by Chicano activist and Hollywood director, Jesús Salvador Treviño can be viewed at

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