Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Conversation with Verónica Reyes on Bordered Lives and Poetry

Olga García Echeverría

La chuparosa skates the wind, stops midflight, hovers near petals, and drinks the flor's miel
like me--I am a marimacha crossing la tierra, el mundo and always coming back to East L.A.

--Verónica Reyes
"East L.A. Poet"

In October of 2013, Arktoi Books (an Imprint of Red Hen Press) published Verónica Reyes' first collection of poetry, Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives. Entre las páginas de este libro helicopters roam, tortillas torcidas fly, violins soothe a man's heart, diablos ask for comida and compassion, Xicanas theorize over jotería and sopa. There's deseo in these pages, rivers running from California to Texas, and super queers riding buses, chanting, "Panocha Power!" The collection embodies different landscapes, from bilingual East L.A. to the dusty desert of El Paso and the mountains of Juárez, from West Hollywood to the valles of Zacatecas.

The agua took her back to her childhood in México
rain that blessed her alma como copal shrouding her skin
She inhaled the desert aroma over concrete, nopales, 
and limones beneath splintered street telephone wires
Socorro breathed in once and inhaled México in East L.A.

I first met Verónica Reyes in El Paso, Texas, many moons ago when we were both MFA students in the creative writing program at The University of Texas at El Paso. This past Friday I was able to interview Verónica at Primera Taza in Boyle Heights. Like two caffeinated pericas, we talked for a long time about her book, politics, publishing, and poetry. This bloga is only a snippet of our conversation interweaved with excerpts of Reyes' poetry from Chopper!  Chopper!

The green-yellow helicopters scan the land and the wind lathers us in a cool summer breeze
Years ago in the '70s we'd play "Chopper Chopper" up the shrubbery loma cradling buildings
the fire station, Smokey the Bear, the practice range; on Saturdays we'd hear the pop, pop
And my mamá on hot summer days made rainbows for us with her magic and a manguera

A Sagittarius, who according to her girlfriend acts more like a Cancer, Reyes is a prolific bus rider and currently a professor of English and Composition at California State University Los Angeles. When she is not teaching, she takes off to different parts of the world--Canada, Berlin, London, México--to breathe outside of the U.S. and to write. But no matter where she goes or lives, she always ends up coming back to East L.A. It's the place she calls home.

The Mexican lime tree towers in the desert backyard blooming flowered lives
And the white-marbled sun blasts a fat ray on the dry zacate, leathered nopales
This is my childhood home where I grew up hearing my mamá sing "Paloma Blanca"
This is my childhood home where I grew up listening to my papá playing viólin
This is my childhood home: beneath two jails, below the loma, by the freeway

As a 15-year-old marimacha back in the day, Verónica Reyes shunned the whole quinceañera cosa and instead got herself a standard college-ruled notebook. She carried this rasquachi journal around capturing palabras and poesía. "Something would strike me," she says, "and I'd write it down. This is how I started doing these little scripts, writing pieces of poems." Nobody ever told Verónica to do this. It was necessity and instinct, hunger and teenage angst, an ill mother and barrio jota-haters that filled Reyes with words, images, emotional triggers. She needed a creative outlet; pen and paper became lifelines. 

As a tomboy, I ran and ran around the blue house in my super duper tennies from Zody's
From the side of the casa grew rosas, I'd rub soft tierra like ceniza on my brown chubby piernas
And I'd come running to my mamá; she'd be lavando ropa in the cuartito and I plopped myself
Like the roadrunner I announced, "I'm here, Mamá! Ya llegué from trabajo." And I beamed cariño
And inside the cuartito's opened-mouthed puerta, she shook her head, smiled Válgame

Although Reyes has been writing since her teenage years, it took her a long time to actually view herself as a writer. In college, a Chicano Literature professor once asked her if she was taking any creative writing course. "I didn't even know what that was," she says, "But, shortly afterwards, I read Viramontes' The Moths and Other Stories. I was wowed by it, wowed by stories such as 'Growing' and by the author's use of words like baboso." In her first creative writing class, Reyes had that poetic-unnameable-sense that something magical and deep lurked beneath her words. "I just felt there was something there. I kept thinking, I have something here." So despite the fact that she struggled with English, she kept writing. 

In the kitchen, I studied literature, wrote poetry, typed poesia on my Smith-Corona
And manteca stains spread greasy marks on my textbooks, notes like a forbidden traveler
Once I took my poems to the Vincent Price Gallery, in a trembled voice I asked a writer
            "Can you read them?" Brown eyes blinking in awe; my god, I was so young

Reyes shares that aside from Viramontes, other Chicana writers also enlightened and empowered--Cisneros, Anzaldúa, Moraga, to name just a few. They all fed Reyes in profound ways, but something was still missing. "Who doesn't love Esperanza?" Asks Reyes, referencing Cisnero's child narrator from The House on Mango Street. "But Esperanza wasn't completely me. As a kid, I was popping tires and trying to figure out what I could steal from the neighborhood stores while people played video games. When I was first reading Chicana literature, I wanted to see something from what I knew and what I lived, a hardcore macha, a homegirl who could pass as a homeboy, and the literature wasn't giving me this, so I knew that through my writing I could present another image, one that exists, but isn't often seen." 

She strutted down Whittier Boulevard
checking out the rucas on the calle
A bien suave Xicana butch dyke
hair slicked back with Tres Flores
glistening against her earth tone skin
Cut off Khakis right at the knees
smooth crease down the pant legs
Starched-white camisa over an undershirt
           "Fruit of the Looms"
A true homeboy's brand bought at J.C. Penny

Reyes went on to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. She recalls, "I was adamant about needing an MFA. As a Chicana dyke writer, I wanted my stories and the stories of others like me to be heard and recorded and taken seriously. This is a country that values the written word over the spoken, so it's about putting these stories down."

The front nopal's sprouting over 100 tunas, sweet prickly pears nesting, in all its glory
A señora at El Superior on Rowan gave him the plantita in a tin can, smiled a gold diente
             "Este nopalito va a dar miles de tunas. Vas a ver."
And in the back jardín, desert cacti grow as if they have found Tenochtitlan in East L.A. 

When I asked Reyes if she has a regular writing schedule, she answered bluntly, "Someone who has a regular writing schedule has money. I don't have money. I have to be creative. When I lived and worked in Toronto, teaching on a semester system, for example, I would look at my schedule and say, okay, I can spend the first 6 weeks pulling some time from here to write. After those six weeks, I knew I was going to lose that time and that I would be grading, grading, grading. I also use winter or spring breaks as time to write, but for me, poetry doesn't really have a schedule. Poetry is always happening. It's happening in my head when I'm walking. Everything I see is a potential poem. But you have to be in tune to notice that that was a poem that just walked by. Some people look at it more intellectually, but for me there's something else there. There's a spiritual element."

ronnie steps outside in the backyard
sits on the big red lawn chair
faces the skirt of the white house
dreams of names floating in spanish
the peach tree blossoms in pink
and the apple tree hovers behind her
Socorro   the name flies away in the air
as if a chuparrosa carries it back home
into the depths of the thick blue sky
somewhere in the heart of el valle
the valparaíso of her mamá's name

And although writing regularly is important, Reyes stresses that as writers we can't always force the birth of a poem. "For years I wanted to write this piece called 'Alamo Motel,' based on a hotel in El Paso," she shares. "I only had the title and the first line and I knew I really wanted to write it, but every time I sat down, I couldn't. That poem took a decade. One day, I just sat down and I started to hear a voice telling me a story. I'm a firm believer that sometimes you're not going to be ready for certain pieces. These pieces will know when you're ready and they'll tell you. Of course, there's other times when you really have to force yourself to write because that's who you are. You're a writer and you can't exist without writing. Even if you get a rejection letter one day. The next day, you move on, you have to do something, you keep writing because the writing--that desire--is in you now. It is a part of you."

And in the Alamo Motel, Modesta waits in the plastered lobby. On the carpet, paint flecks like
sprinkled sea salt absorbs the air. It reeks of American Spirits from gaudy tourists who layover
for the night:
            Sometimes they get stuck from Austin heading to Tuscon, sleep the night
            Sometimes virgins come to lose themselves in the motel and be free
            Sometimes newcomers from el otro lado stay to hide from la migra
And Modesta in her bleached apron cleans their messes, learns their lives.

When I asked Reyes who she is currently reading, she laughed and didn't want to divulge. Of course, I probed until she gave in, "Okay, okay, I'm reading Mark Twain. For a long time I wouldn't read certain things. I refused. If White writers don't read us, why should we read them? You know what I mean? But I'm somewhere else now and I'm going back and reading some of these classics. And yeah, Mark Twain's pretty good."

He ties a cuchillo to an old pole, reaches up
            and saws at the new cacti tendrils. They fall
            on pebbled ground, hang on lower ramas. He
            stabs them. Pulls them in like the viejito
            and the sea, estilo Zacatecano; he brings in
            his fresh catch: nopal.

Like many of us, Reyes has her own classic authors that she reads and re-reads. Among them are Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Audre Lorde, Ivan E. Coyote. During our interview, Reyes mentioned another East L.A. poet who has been riding buses in Los Angeles and performing her poesia for decades, Marisela Norte. "It's amazing how Marisela Norte can carry a 17 minute poem when she reads. Her poems are like symphonic poems where she goes from one thing to another, to another, to another, and you're not lost. She takes you somewhere and then brings you right back and you're like wow, I just went on this amazing journey with her."

Despite all the years that have passed since that first notebook, Reyes still prefers old-school writing tools--a pen and a journal where she can sketch out her poems. "There's been a couple of pieces I've written entirely on the computer, but that's rare." Although not a big fan of social media, she confesses that she has been using Facebook a lot more these days to share news related to her book and readings. I asked her if she had anything she would like to share with any aspiring writers out there. She spoke a lot during our interview of the need for us as Chicanas and writers of color to get informed about grants, writing residencies, conferences, etc. "When I got out of grad school, I didn't know anything about submitting to presses or how to go about applying for literary opportunities. That's something I think we need to really access and it's information we need to share with one another so that it's not a mystery or a secret. I also think we need to recognize that our stories matter. To get our work out there we don't necessarily need major presses, although it is always good to have the support of a press, but there are other options these days, like self-publishing. Most importantly have faith in your words and work on your craft."

Gracias Verónica for your poetry and your writing insights. Best of luck with your book and with all your upcoming events.

List of upcoming events where Verónica Reyes will be reading her poetry:

February 27th & 28th: Book signing at AWP in Seattle, WA. Red Hen Press (booths 1802, 1804, 1806)

Sunday March 9th from 2-4 PM at Beyond Baroque

March 16th from 2-4 PM at Espacio 1839: Reading with Myriam Gurba and Olga Garcia Echeverria

April 5th at 5 PM at Book Soup

April 6th from 2-6 PM at The Last Bookstore

To purchase Chopper! Chopper! Poetry From Bordered Lives

To read a previous bloga on this book by Daniel Olivas:

To read more about Verónica Reyes:


Amelia ML Montes said...

Orale Olga y Veronica! A most wonderful interview and Chopper! Chopper! deserves getting more exposure!

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Wonderful! Her book is powerful, eloquent, necessary. My interview with her runs tomorrow with LARB. Onward!

Anonymous said...

I want to thank you Olga for your interview post. Classrooms are everywhere and I'm so thankful for all at the La Bloga who write and teach. It is appreciated. I look forward to attending a reading!
Blessings always Olga,

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Thanks amig@s! It's always a pleasure to read your comments. Daniel, thanks for the heads-up on your interview with Reyes tomorrow. Que la pasen bonito!