Sunday, June 22, 2014

Talking About _Lavando La Dirty Laundry_ -- Interview with writer, Natalia Treviño!

These last two weeks have been wonderful working with poet, novelist, essayist, and professor, Natalia Treviño whose book of poetry, Lavando La Dirty Laundry has recently been published.  Natalia Treviño was born in Mexico City and grew up in Texas where she says, "my mother taught me Spanish and Bert & Ernie gave me lessons in English." She became a naturalized citizen at the age of fifteen. Today she holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English from The University of Texas at San Antonio, and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska.  She has been recognized for her poetry and fiction, winning the Alfredo Moral de Cisneros Award in 2004, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize in 2008, and in 2012, she won the Literary Award from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio. We are so happy to have Natalia with us on "La Bloga."
Author, Natalia Treviño (photo by Alexander Devora)
As well, Natalia is soon to be on a book tour.  Here are some of the dates and places.  At the end of this interview, check out more details:
1. June 27th at Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, Texas (click here to contact bookstore for more details)
2. July 23rd reading in Houston, Texas (click here for details)
3. September:  Featured Reader at the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival
4. Teleconference Interview on September 29th with "Las Comadres"
5. Participating as a "fellow" for the 2014 "Flor de Nopal" series in Austin, TX
For further information, go to Natalia's website:

Amelia Montes: Welcome to "La Bloga," Natalia.  So glad to have you with us.  I'm going to begin by asking you to tell us how you began your writing career.  Were you always writing? 

Natalia Treviño: Amelia, first let me say it is a huge honor to be a guest on your blog. Thank you for everything you are doing for Chican@s on a national and international scale, both for our intellect, our pleasure, and our health! Thank you especially for the health consciousness you are awakening with your work on Diabetes. Your calls are widely heard, and they will save lives.

Amelia Montes: You are so kind, Natalia. I thank the brilliant poet, tatiana de la tierra (Suerte Sirena) who left este mundo much too soon.  It was tatiana who called me one afternoon and said, “you must do this, you need to write for La Bloga.”  And I obeyed!  Because of her encouragement, I have met and worked with so many fabulous individuals like you. This is a work of love primarily for the Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino communities y tambien for those who have or know someone with Diabetes—which is pretty much all of us!  And this week, it has indeed been a supreme pleasure working with you.  So now to your interview!

Natalia Treviño:  That is so wonderful!  I remember tatiana vividly and fondly.  She was a warm and fascinating spirit.  We had lunch one afternoon at Macondo, and I encountered a brave and inventive soul.  She spoke of her health with me at length; it was a huge concern for her at the time.  I think authors tap into their mortality very openly and readily, though, since they are so used to working with timeliness, biographies, and life as a story with a beginning and an ending.  tatiana is still working her magic from beyond.  I can see her face and hear her powerful singing.  She is a living blessing even now after her passing.  

So to answer your first question, I can honestly say that I started by writing in the air with my finger. It was a childhood habit:  that and cartwheels. I would hear a word and then spell it in the air, discreetly, so no one would see. I would often spell it on my leg as well. It was an impulse, a kinesthetic response to words. Since I could not stop this air-spelling, I had to ask my dad one day, “Is this normal?” and I told him about it. He said, “No, I don’t think so, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. It may help your spelling.”

Thank God he said that because I was ready to think I was not normal and that I should stop that behavior right away.  I did not know I was already building my relationship between words and my own body, and that has been growing ever since. I always wanted to remember things that were happening when I was a kid. I wanted to tell my kids and grandkids what this world was like because I knew it would disappear. I desperately tried to record it all to memory and to pay attention, but I did not write my memories down on paper. I thought they would become oral stories like the ones my grandparents told.

My first big writing explosion happened in third grade when we were given a prompt for a short story, and I wrote for what seemed like hours. My teacher allowed me to do this. When I got to the end, all the kids were working on the next, and possibly the next lesson. I had eight handwritten pages: a saga! She never gave it back to me or my parents, and so now I can just pretend it was awesome. My teacher was ecstatic, but then she did nothing with it, not even a grade in return. But what is more important than what I wrote is that in that moment, I felt most alive. I was transformed. After that, I wrote phrases, notes, and poems. I thought I wanted to write children’s books one day. In high school and college, I knew I wanted creative writing classes, and I took as many as they would let me.

What authors Sandra Cisneros and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke say about Natalia Treviño's new book!
I became an English major to be a writer. I became an English teacher, so that I could be around writing, and reminded of it at all times, so that I could always study the masters, but I was not writing for a long time in my twenties. I call it the silent decade. I think I was afraid of what I would write, and a little disillusioned. But writing is what helped me survive my divorce from my son’s father. We had been together since high school.  Later, I became a high school and middle school English teacher and then a stay-at-home mom. When I was going through my divorce, I reconnected to myself and to my dream. I took more graduate classes in poetry. I started some short stories, which have now grown into my novel, La Cruzada. I did this while maintaining a new full time teaching job and staying compulsively active in my son’s life. I decided that writing time was never going to open up for me to give me the amount of time I would need in order to concentrate and write what I wanted to write. I had to squeeze it in where I could, part time, between work, sleep, food, piano lessons, grading papers, friends, family, and a new wonderful hubby. I had procrastinated writing for long enough. Eventually, I went back for my MFA in fiction to get help with my novel, and I have a new collection of poems in the works, all about La Virgen and her many names, meanings, and histories. 

Amelia Montes: Who influenced you when you began writing?

Natalia Treviño: I wish I had a human mentor who told me to listen to my dream or who could direct me toward writing, but my first mentor was God, so that mentorship was rather elusive. I am not very traditionally religious, hardly went to mass as a kid, became a divorced Catholic and all that, (apparently I am going to hell for adultery now since I remarried), and now I study the Tao, but I have always seen God in the natural world, long before I studied the ancient Greeks and learned that there were gods of the rivers, the trees, and the very grapes and cereal we ate. So my first mentor was this very spiritual being I experienced with nature, seeing her systems work together, and seeing human systems work well sometimes and not others. I had a great craving to communicate the beauty that I saw in nature, in people, and in ideas. This craving has turned into a very deep well from which I draw in order to write.
In middle school, I spent a lot of time with song lyrics by different New Wave 80’s groups,  replaying their tapes and albums, writing the lyrics down, and listening to the words and rhythms, fascinated by the whole experience of transportation. Then I started to manipulate the words I was copying on the page. What if I moved this here and this there? Now I realize that I was creating found poems, and they lit up my mind. When I told my junior year English teacher, Dr. Boland, that I wanted to be a writer, he said, “Oh great,” in his old sardonic tone. I said journalism, and he said, “No—they only write at the eighth grade level. You want to write beyond that.” I am grateful that he took me seriously in that moment and that he would want me to write literature instead of news, although the journalists I read and know go far beyond the eighth grade reading level—and they are essential to our lives. Recently, a couple of agents have told me my novel is a little too literary and to tone down the literary liberties I take, so that they can possibly find a market for it. I am going to stick with Dr. Boland’s advice. I am not writing as a vocation or profession. It is the sacred purpose of my being, and so I will tend to the craft while I make my living in service to college students.
It was the poetry of John Keats that really woke me up to what literature was:  the Romantic poets, his friends, Coleridge, and then the American transcendentalists. I was lucky to get them in my public high school curriculum. They showed me how active words can be on the page, how alive. like living gardens full of sound and light and entire ecosystems. I am grateful for those early dead “white guys” I read. I loved them, and I still do. It was not until college that my professor Wendy Barker introduced me to my first Latina writer in 1988 or 89. It was Pat Mora. Her songs in Chants were most powerful for me. This was poetry that moved my heart and my mind. Before, when I read literature, it had just been my mind that was moved, and understanding it gave me great joy. But when I heard a simple Latina voice on the page, it was both heart and mind that exploded. For the first time I was reading a poem about my bilingual and bi-cultural experience—in English! This gave me permission to do it too. 

Amelia Montes: Poetry, then, was quite an influence.  Are there other genres that also spark you?  You have mentioned a novel in progress too: La Cruzada.

Natalia Treviño: I used to think writing essays was the worst chore ever. I hated them, and I hated grading them even more, and of course while getting my BA in English, and my first MA (also in English), my whole life depended on these essays. As an English teacher and college instructor, my whole career has been based on teaching essay writing. If only my students knew how boring I found the pace and structure of any and all essays ever written. I don’t feel that way anymore, but I did for a long time, and am only now warming up to writing essays. In college, I wanted to write fiction but I discovered poetry suited me best not because I was good at it, but because there were just less words to fight with on the page. When I hated essays, I think I was rebelling against my fate, which included teaching writing and practicing orderly thinking. Now, I willingly enjoy writing essays on subjects I care about like writing, immigration, education, and naturalization, and I am working on a novel that is quite a bit more than 120,000 words. I am no longer wary of fighting with the number of words in prose, and now I use prose to get to the poetry.

Poetry is not just “better than prose.” For me, as I mentioned, it has “less words” to struggle with, but it is something more powerful than that, and it is what I was going for when I was younger, and perhaps easier to get to in poetry than in prose. What I love about poetry is the parallel patterns that can only reverberate in lyrical language to hold a much larger, multi-layered truth. It is as complex as the chemical make-up of an apple. Such a simple flavor, but to get to it, there are marvels of chemical properties that are reverberating with one another in order to exist as an apple. Poetry is like a geometric theorem in that it is taut, elegant, and emotionally piercing.
When I went back for my MFA, I decided to work on fiction because I was struggling so much with my non-linear, untraditional novel structure. I wanted those patterns, those echoes to be in my fiction, and that made it hard on my readers. I have been working on my novel for several years now, and in the final touch up stages I believe, but it is hard for me to tell a story without doing the language layering that I lean toward when I write poetry. This makes the novel a great, lengthy task, but one I also welcome. I did not think I could write new poems until I finished my novel. Again, I was wrong. I am writing new poems now, and I think of them as playing hooky from my novel, as a fun, magical getaway to other worlds.   

Amelia Montes: In addition to the more traditional poetry you mentioned earlier, what other writers have influenced you and why?

Natalia Treviño:  H. D., Wendy Barker, and Pat Mora are the three poets who influenced me the most. With H.D., there is the attention to music, to layering that puts Hemingway’s iceberg theory and his objective correlative to shame. Her work in Sea Garden and Hermetic Definition shaped my poetry lens when I did an intense study of her in grad school. Her craft as an imagist takes a word and spirals it into all of its potential dimensions and depths. Reading her is like following a ribbon into the core of the earth. And her attention to nature as the vehicle to understanding resonates with me and my own experiences with nature.
I see that kind of penetrating ribbon of understanding also in the works of Wendy Barker, Pat Mora, and Joy Harjo. I see the elemental power of nature in all of these poets’ works. I think these are writers of sacred texts. Their words shimmer on the page for me. I love Mark Doty, too. Mark actually writes about shimmer and glitter and sequins in a way that changed my life forever with the phrase, “every sequin’s / an act of praise.” Yes, even the sequin in its job to reflect light is taking part in praise. There is praise everywhere if we learn to think like Mark Doty. I admire many other poets as well. The list of the poets who influenced me is too long. Yeats, Stevens, and Williams all still very much at the top for me and for many other poets too, I am sure, though I am more in tune with feminine voices today.
What I love about those poets is that I learned how to think in a new way, how to put wordless truths into words, how to question the largest questions through metaphors that contained the smallest images. Frost is a master of that as he describes a fence, a moth eaten by a spider, or a bewildered butterfly. I want to get at the large issues too, but these poets have taught me that in order to do that, I have to use a very tight lens, a macro lens, and bring that way of looking at the world up close to my subject so that my reader can see what I see. My dad introduced me to the macro lens when I was in middle school when we did a photography project together on wildflowers. Again, my teacher kept my slides. But I still carry them inside of me. He is a master of this kind of photography, and when he was teaching me to take these photos, he said, “Natalia, arrange the lens so that the flower tells a story.” Wow, I thought. No wonder I am a poet. As a Chicana poet, my own experience and heritage will naturally appear in my poems, as will my bilingual thoughts. I hope this allows more people, not less, in on the secret hooky that poetry offers.

Poets Wendy Barker and Carmen Tafolla comment on Natalia's Lavando La Dirty Laundry
It goes without saying that my poetry mother, Wendy Barker, was a huge influence on me as well, probably the one who has had the most influence on me for decades now. Her sparse notes, her attention to line, and her weaving the personal with the universal just kill me. I want to write like her when I grow up, and her friendship with me that started in undergraduate poetry workshop is stronger than ever now. It was later in my life, after the silent twenties that I discovered more Latin@ authors like Sandra Cisneros, Maria Helena Viramontes, Luis Rodriguez, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Carmen Tafolla. With their influence, I am, as I once imagined I would be, when I decided to be an English major, surrounded by a sea of knowledge, example, and literary kinship.  

Amelia Montes: Wow!  Thank you, Natalia—such rich influences. Regarding your new publication, Lavando La Dirty Laundry:  Tell us about your title, which is in Spanish and English.  What does this title mean to you?

Natalia Treviño: This title actually hurts. It is the title of a poem that is about my grandfather’s infidelity. For a long time, I thought it was the only title that resonated with all of the poems, but I could not accept it because I did not want to draw that much attention to it, so I called the book Eight Marry Wives instead when I first sent it out. I jokingly said that I was two of the wives since I deal with my own first and second marriages. I also hear the voices of six other women in there—at least! But Sandra Cisneros heard the title, and she said, “It sounds like a PBS documentary.” And she was right. Lavando was my only other choice though I fought against it for years. At one point, I liked “Handcuffed to the Heart,” but then a friend told me it sounded very S&M.

Amelia Montes:  That's very funny. Even though it's painful, I think the title is perfect (perhaps because of the hurt it elicits). 

Natalia Treviño: Lavando La Dirty Laundry also means, “Hey, I am Mexican,” first. It makes people think in bilingual terms. It says clearly that this is a bilingual book. Second, people get it. They laugh when they hear it. They may not want to read about dirty laundry, but they know they can connect to it just by the title. I like that the title is about the common experience we associate with women and with domesticity; it is about something we all must do, or ask someone to do for us, once a week, or more or less often. We all must wash our dirty laundry. It is when the girls are doing laundry that they find a naked Odysseus washed up on the shore after he almost dies at sea after Circe lets him go. There is a long tradition of art associated with laundry. It is a timeless human experience. It is when we do laundry that we accept our own dirt.

We all have dirty laundry of the other kind too: the shame, the sins, the secrets. I want the title to evoke that mystery too, for people to see that I am not afraid of sharing this laundry with my readers. It is Hawthorne who taught me that the sinner is the one who can feel compassion for another because of his sin, who becomes less judgmental. The devil knows this in “Young Goodman Brown,” and he brings all the community together at midnight in a circle of human compassion, not a circle of evil. My title is about forming bonds of compassion through admitting who we are as whole people, not just the pretty, scrubbed up parts we take to parties.

Amelia Montes:  For someone who does not like essays—you’ve just created a excellent essay on your title's significance!  Wonderful!  As for the book itself, it is divided into four sections: 
a.     Lavando y Quemando
b.     Los Niños and Other Quehaceres
c.      Secretos de la Cocina
d.     Amor Sagrado:  Desde Melanoma hasta Magdalena
The sections tell me the writer is not a young, inexperienced woman.  Instead, she has “ropa” to get rid of in order to begin again.  Yet, even in the transition to a new life, there is a continuous running theme of loss and tragedy.  Might you agree with my thoughts just in the titles of the sections?

Natalia Treviño: I did want each section title to link the content and the emotional journey of each section, and I also emphasized the Spanish in these titles. Since most of the poems are in English, I wanted their “mothers,” the section titles, like my own mother, to lead in Spanish. If non-Spanish speaking readers want to gloss over them, that is fine, but there are words with strong English cognates that will help them get at least one word: niños, secretos, amor, and melanoma.
There is a great impetus to write from loss and tragedy. I think the women in these poems are united by their experience with love, and that experience is never tidy. There is pain, humility, compromise, and self-discovery. And ultimately, love is generous. I wanted to show that no matter how much loss, there is room for more generosity. I want to emphasize a way of thinking that operates with the paradigm of plenty rather than the paradigm of scarcity. If there is loss, there is the gift of knowledge, the gift of strength. If there is the tragedy of a melanoma, I can take off my skin and give it to you—or at least want to, and there is a generosity which I feel is very healing.
That is why I end on the note of sacred love, “Amor Sagrado,” with the cancer stories and the story of Christ’s supposed widow, Mary Magdalene, who, if she was in fact his wife, is the most silenced woman in one of the most widely read texts in Western civilization. But I end the book with my own ideas about empirical knowledge and how it relates to love, of needing forgiveness for still being wary of loving like I did when I was younger, loving with total abandon. There is nothing loving about abandoning yourself in a relationship for the sake of the other. Too many women are taught that it is right to put themselves last in our culture. This creates a culture of misogyny that we teach our daughters. I want to turn that around by first, pointing it out. Once we see it, we can do something about it. Just like with laundry. Once you see the stain, you want to wash it out.

Amelia Montes: In “Lavando y Quemando,” you allude to Roman mythology with Ulysses, Penelope, and the Greek deities, Aphrodite (whose Roman counterpart would be Venus), and Adonis.  Tell us how these myths and Aphrodite fit into a Chicana poet’s narrative.  I see many connections, but am interested in your own thoughts. 

Natalia Treviño: Amelia, I have been looking forward to answering this question for a very long time, and there have been moments when I had serious doubts about including these works in this collection because I wondered if some would say they were too Eurocentric, but I have come to see Penelope as one of the original Chicanas, experiencing a diaspora within her own home, forced without a choice to abide by the culture and laws of a male dominated society, straddling the worlds that are within and without by using art as a vehicle to survive.
I often teach World Literature, and when I do, I draw a rudimentary tree on the board with broad and thin branches and leaves, and I tell my students that these branches represent the stories of our shared human history, and just as time assists a tree to grow, time has also made the tree of humanity grow in height and width in a rich and complex human story, with many branches entangled, overlapping, and repeating certain patterns. I say that when they study this ancient literature, no matter their heritage, they will make connections to a larger story, and that when that happens, it is like they are the leaves becoming aware of the tree from which they grew. What an incredible experience that is for the leaf to know its history.
My students realize that they are biologically part of an incredible system that has branches and roots growing in all directions that stem back far beyond their own creation. And Chican@s are an enormous root system in this expanse of literature, and now, a major branch. What is behind the Chican@ is a melding of Indo-european and Mesoamerican cultures that have traversed time and space and united genetically, artistically, and culturally in order to do just as the leaf does:  exist, grow, and make room for new leaves to come and celebrate their life cycle in the sun.
In the Western hemisphere, students typically learn about the Greek gods in schools from a very early age, and if they do not learn about them in elementary school, they may learn about them in fiction that is written for children, like the works of Rick Riordan, a fellow San Antonian, and children are often too young to understand all of the lessons in these ancient tales, but they find what they do understand to be captivating.

Natalia Treviño at work with her manuscript
I want to bring some of those lessons to life for my readers. Penelope is an early archetype of Chicana love, so passionately in love with her missing husband that she stops living in the hopes that one day he may return to her. She sacrifices her whole life to wait for him, this single love of her life. In a way she is like La Llorona, doomed to live an eternity between worlds because her beloved was not on the same page as she was with their relationship. One was rejected, and one was abandoned for the glory of war. Both were left behind, and both women suffer isolation and are characterized by their sexual deprivation. Odysseus had plenty of sex while he was “lamenting” his separation from his wife for twenty years, and so I imagine Penelope taking care of herself in “Penelope, Yes,” and “And Her Weaving,” where she is trying to recall their last moments together, their last meal, their last unconscious touch.
The Aphrodite stories in my book are also a little untraditional. She lost her favorite lover, Adonis, to a goring by a wild boar, and yet there is plenty in the myth to suggest she might be a little angry at him for rejecting her too. He was all too fond of fishing and hunting, he did not want to lounge in bed with her all day, as she would have liked, and he also lived with another woman, Persephone, half the time. I think a lot of Chicanas can relate to this feeling of rejection and hopeless love.
I reimagine Aphrodite as one who needs to move on from a man who has a tight hold of her, but who treats her with disdain in “New Window,” and in a way all women contain a goddess of love temple within them—that is why Victoria’s Secret is such a strong enterprise. I also imagine Aphrodite as a powerful woman who should not have been scorned, one who would not be satisfied with just letting him be free of her to go on his silly hunts, but in “Fish and Hunt, Hunger,” she secretly instigates his death as a way of ending her unquenched desire for him once and for all. Would a Chicana do this? I am not sure, but Chicana love is all powerful. It is consuming, and long documented at that. These passions exist in our ancient literary mothers too, in Medea, for example, who killed her children to punish her husband much like La Llorona. Both characters broke all socially acceptable rules for their unquenchable love. We are characterized in the media as being hot lovers, as being hot tempered, as being insatiable, and while this stereotype is inaccurate as all stereotypes are, I think these ancient characters have parallels to many feminist and Chicana narratives, especially in the matters of intense love, heartbreak, agency, and coping.       

Amelia Montes: You include (among the longer poems) in this first section, these short quatrains that I see as pulsing, exclamatory poems: “The Happy Couple,” and “Before the Divorce.”  They echo what the longer poems are doing.  For example, “Tia Licha” gives us a “Penelope” epic of a suffering life lived with bold strength.  Comments?

Natalia Treviño: I hope those quatrains do just what you said, echo what is going on, so they may give a reader a continuance of emotion, with a rest, free of clutter that can possibly bog a reader down. I tend to get wordy, and I want to be watchful of that in my poetry and prose by altering the rhythm and length of sentences or sections. In poetry, we have the additional benefit of using spacing to accentuate the topography of the text. I love that you used the word pulsing because I hope they do work like open beats between longer pieces, as in a score or musical. I also love short poems with a turn after a bit of building, perhaps, in previous poems. This is the sonnet lover in me:  placing the last boom boom couplet between poems, so that we take note, but move on. They do not get the last word. In those short poems, I want to show moments of suffering that are balanced by an awakening of some kind, whether it be a lament or the acceptance of a cruel fact.  

L to R: Marta Ortegón de Treviño (Natalia's mother); 'Uelita Socorro (Natalia's maternal grandmother); Natalia Treviño
Amelia Montes: I love how these quatrains work—just how you describe them! Section two focuses on birthing and babies. There are many grandmother/aunt memories here.  How did these poems come about?

Natalia Treviño: My grandmothers and I did not live in the same country, and so when I saw them, I lived with them for extended visits, and that created opportunities for intimacy and seeing how their households ran. I had a very strong relationship with both of them before they died. I considered giving up college to live with my paternal grandmother when her health took a serious turn downward. I was twenty. I asked my maternal grandmother to be my maid of honor at my first wedding when I was 23. She was also my godmother. They shared their feelings with me, and they shared their stories. I loved listening to them and learning how bad my Spanish was when I tried to tell them my stories. And their stories left me with my jaw open all of the time. In Monterrey where they lived as neighbors across the street from each other, I watched them live decent lives on the income my parents gave them. They both wanted to save their money, as if ashamed to be receiving any, and wanting to leave something to their kids, and so they always lived far below their actual means, never buying extras of any kind. My mom bought their clothes and undergarments. She also bought their hair color. They lived without any delights except for coffee and the occasional pan dulce. But I did not notice their austerity. What I noticed was their generosity of self. They shared stories with me about their personal lives. They answered my questions. These gifts last a lot longer than a pair of earrings.  I began writing about them after I read “Elena,” by Pat Mora. I wanted to tell stories about those women who influenced me, by remembering moments that surprised or resonated with me. I have more to come because I wonder about them a lot, and I have only just begun. They, and my great aunt, Tia Licha, who is now 90, fascinate me. They lived during the revolution in Mexico and experienced epic lives as far as I am concerned.

"Buelita Raqueñel" (Natalia Treviño's paternal grandmother)
Amelia Montes: Such rich experiences, Natalia!  And in section three, we are in the “lavanderia” and the “cocina.”  How do these two symbols work together to describe love and loss?

Natalia Treviño: Many of my poems come from these two domestic spaces. This is where women I know tell stories, sing, and do most of their quiet thinking. Their hands are busy, and they are doing automatic jobs that give immediate job satisfaction. The shirt is ironed with each stroke. The jalepeño pepper is cut with each slice. And while their hands are busy, their minds are free for reflecting, praying, wondering, or reliving moments that matter to them.
In those reflections, they are transformed, renewed. At least I am. I think cooking and cleansing takes place on the stove, in the tub, and, simultaneously, in our own consciousness. I think of Penelope and her weaving, all of the thoughts that went into the repetitive motion of weaving. I think of my own cooking, and how it resonates with my life. I could be simmering, cooling down, or boiling.
The act of cooking transforms food. It kills bacteria, usually with heat. But we can cook with lemon too, as we do when we eat ceviche, a process of cooking seafood with the lemon or lime that kills all of the bacteria in the raw fish and shrimp. That is it. That is what cooking is, and so I see cooking and lavando as those processes that face and remove the bad and leave the good in a new form. In both acts, we take something that has a complexity in it, a ying yang, and we cultivate the part we want. We remove the bad, and add more of what is good. We invent new flavors, we cultivate healing scents, and we make a space that is healthier than it was. The mind does this too when it sings or relives an important or traumatic moment. We are processing it. I think those two areas serve as more than symbols, but as places of natural creativity, renewal, and healing, and where there is the landscape for spiritual and emotional transformation.  

Amelia Montes: You end with a powerful section on love, disease (cancer), and loss.  With the poem, “In the Direction of Words,” you write:
"When I married you, I knew what to make of vows, how they spin
and vanish.  Even sloshing caps in rivers disappear midsummer.
So many droughts, limestone promises, ravines broken by dust . . ."
This is the anti-romance wedding section, filled with truths and baring open all the traps and sinkholes that can be ingredients within relationships.  Would you say you are a realist writer? 

Natalia Treviño: Oh, Amelia, I would love to describe myself as a Realist writer. I am very moved by what is real, at understanding its core, and at trusting that in the real there is a very important spiritual lesson. I think I learned that from reading the Realists. They were after an honest representation of life in art. Recently, I gave my son twenty dollars while we were in the car. It was a reward for his giving a friend of mine a full day’s work to help her with her move. He did not expect it, and I waited a few days to deliver this reward. A real realist would not have done this. A realist would have realized that giving him money while we were in the car when he had no wallet was a bad idea. Within about two hours, we had no idea what happened to his hard earned money. It was lost. We had gone to two places, and his big hiding place for it was in the pocket of my car door. He was very upset, and when we saw that it was hopeless, I searched beyond my frustration and said, “Hey, this is a gift. You need to learn this lesson right here right now, and this lesson only cost you twenty dollars. Some adults learn this lesson with much larger sums of money, thousands.” So in this moment I was being an idealist or even a Romantic, but in my writing, I do think the poems get better when I am more honest, and being more honest means showing what is accurate, what is tangible, and not being afraid of the ugly side of it. Embracing the pain of loss means embracing the whole experience, the part that makes it so helpful to others later, and I would rather describe myself as a Whole-ist, as a poet who hopes to see the whole picture, not just the pretty or the dark side of things, but both sides, and in seeing them both, I hope to address a beauty that exists within all things, even cancer or divorce.   

Amelia Montes: The last poems in this final section have to do with illness and loss.  And yet they are also positive, hopeful.  Comments?

Natalia Treviño: I cannot bear to live without hope. I really cannot last more than a few minutes without hope. A friend of mine explained his brain to me when I was in my twenties. He suffered from depression, and he helped me understand that his neurons, when he was most depressed were just following a very well worn path that had been created by his own thoughts. He said, “It is just chance that they go in that direction. It is physical. Why not train them to go in the other direction where there is just as much cause to have happiness or delight? If my meds do that for me, then I need them. I have come to accept that. It is not my fault that I cannot control the direction of these neurons.” That really stuck with me. While I am deeply impacted by loss and despair sometimes, I have lived enough to realize that for me despair is as natural as the seasons. While I do not suffer from “poets’ flu”/depression, I do go down into painful pits of my old companion, self-loathing. I call friends and they help me for free thank goodness. I have also learned that nature will demand a new season to come if I get my ego out of the way, if I try to actively do what my friend’s medication does, seek the opposite reaction—what good can come of this? So when I cry, and my eyes get bloodshot, and my face swells up, and I lose sleep for whatever reason, I have come to realize that stopping it would be like trying to stop a digestive cycle. And trying to stop or delay it only increases the pain levels. While it is alive, the body has to do what it has to do. If I let the suffering happen, or go into the pain, I trust I will feel relief, and I want my poems to embrace that idea, that we are ever changing and tough.  

Amelia Montes: When you sit down to write a poem, how do you begin?  What is your process? 

Natalia Treviño: I absolutely crave time to sit and write, and so when I get that time, time disappears, and I am gone. Usually, I am revising, but when I sit down to write something new, it goes like this: I realize I have time, and I realize I am backed up. I have not written a new thought in a while, and so I rest my mind immediately. I close my eyes and face down. I know I may land in a number of ponds inside of me, one that is wanting to celebrate my grandmother, one that wants to talk about my son, one about marriage, and now, one that wants to deal with the incredible miracles associated with Mary, La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos. And it is like I am flying, not like an airplane, but a dragonfly, close to the dirt, and I have all these choices on which to land, and I land on a feeling that is strong, that is pulling me, and there is a line of words or an image that I finally can record, something I can see but do not understand. I write the poem to try to understand this feeling. And while I am there, I trust the words that are coming even if they have no sense to them, with leaps and phrases that just emerge from my feet. I will combine words in a way I never have before and then go back and see what I was trying to do, and then the other consciousness comes in, the reader, and she says…just say what you want to say. Don’t cover it up! She frees me to get away from the nonsense, and she wants it all in plain English, and the poet moves over for a while to let the reader rephrase, summarize what the poet was trying to say. It is a conversation between the two of them by the time the poem is done. I negotiate the two to get a balance that can be sent out to other readers. In the end, I want my son, my husband, and my mother to understand my poems, but I also want fellow poets to enjoy the layering that is part of the poem’s architecture. I show the poem to a few trusted friends, and now I am in an amazing poetry group that meets monthly, and that kicks my butt. This is the best gift, to have readers who are willing to see what that dragon fly was trying to land on.  

Amelia Montes: In your biography, it explains that you were born in Mexico City and raised in San Antonio, Texas.  You were “raised in Spanish by [your] parents while Bert and Ernie [Sesame Street} gave [you] English lessons on the side.” Was this difficult or did you find living in both languages something easy? 

Natalia Treviño: I think it was difficult and a privilege. I did not learn English language expressions from my family, and that kept me out of many conversations with my peers here, and so even today, I come across an expression that makes me feel like a foreigner. It was not long ago that I had to ask my husband, “What does ‘to boot’ mean when I got a response from a mentor. I remember being so confused by the word “sure.” Everyone asked each other all of a sudden if they were “sure.” I had no idea what they meant for a very long time, and I was also embarrassed to ask anyone but my dad, who learned English in the American Airforce and through reading science fiction books. He has an amazing vocabulary.
I also did not learn all of the Spanish language expressions that are used in Mexico by my peers there. My expressions are different from my son’s even though we both grew up in the same city, and so my parents’ Spanish expressions are not the same as those of my cousins who are my age. My Spanish is outdated and stilted, probably the Spanish of an eleven-year-old girl. I constantly miss half of what is said at the carne asada, and when everyone laughs, I ask for translations.
This is hard and frustrating because I am relatively fluent, and I have lots I want to say. I just do not have the vocabulary to get it across. I grew up with almost no family here in the US. Holidays and summers were only in Mexico. We lived here as foreigners who would go back to Mexico one day, never intending to become U.S. citizens until we realized that college tuition for an international student would be ten times that of an American citizen. My mom got her paperwork done almost immediately after we learned that. This is what my story, “Naturalization” is about.

I loved both countries when I was growing up, and I could have never chosen between them, and I have the privilege of hearing why the U.S. sucks from the Mexican point-of-view, and why Mexico sucks from the American point-of-view. People share their critical feelings freely on both sides of the border, and I never got offended because I understood there was some truth to what they were saying. They just did not understand the whole picture, the why this was this way or that was that way.

My Mexican relatives did not care if we had air conditioning or clean roads. They thought my neighborhood was dry and lifeless because the neighbors did not go outside every night to talk to each other. They also thought our television was crap. My American friends thought Mexico was dirty and dangerous. Well, it was dirty compared to the States, and it has always been a volatile state that had its share of danger for regular people. Then again, parts of the States are both dirty and dangerous. It is difficult to feel like I do not belong in either place, but it is a privilege to know what both sides think of each other. It makes me appreciate the grand elements in each, and it makes me look at both with a critical and honest eye. It motivates me to write about both cultures and experiences.

Amelia Montes: What other ways is it like for you to be a woman de los dos lados?  What ways do you see it influencing your work?

Natalia Treviño: I have an enormous impetus to write based on the fact that I am a woman from both lados. Once I tapped into that feeling, I knew that my writing had a purpose beyond taking care of me and my family. A lot of Chican@s live in two worlds already. They know what it is like to be bicultural. They understand that their ancestors have been subjected to racism as well as opportunity here in the States, depending on their family history, if they were always here, or if they arrived a year ago. This understanding gives them huge ganas to speak about their divided experience, and it gives them a flexibility and agility to navigate the disparate worlds on this side of the border. I have those same ganas, and with an added layer of division. I am a transplant, an intruder, and I abandoned my home country. I will never fit into it smoothly even if I went back to live there for good. I cannot get dual citizenship because I passed that up, not that anyone told me, when I turned eighteen and did not seek it out.
My work is not about my Latina or Chicana anger at any racism I faced as a kid. I have not reached the angry point yet, nor will I. As an immigrant, I can see that, yes, the US has some messed up and vile moments, but all human organizations have that. Every soccer club, church, school, and classroom has its bully, its immoral and amoral characters in it. We can take a stand against them by appealing to their good nature because they do have a good nature no matter how deeply hidden it may be.
And storytelling is the best way to awaken the good nature in a person. It is also the best way to get people to bond with one another. Just the other day, my son asked if we could watch the 80’s move, The Breakfast Club, and I agreed to watch it with him even though I remember it vividly. But I have not seen it since I was fourteen, so I said sure. This movie proved, like a good geometric theorem, what I have been learning in my faculty development training, and what my husband learns in his sales training—and what we learn in therapy sessions, paid or otherwise--that people, no matter how different, care about each other when they share their stories with each other. In the movie, the climax is a quasi group therapy session with boys crying about their parents’ abuse and irrational expectations of them. All the kids realize that they are all hurting from some outside force. All of us are hurting. That is one of the great truths in Buddhism. All of us are vulnerable, but we hide that from each other because we are afraid we will lose power. That separates us and makes us behave like animals toward each other. No need for that.
'Uelita Socorro with Natalia's son, Stuart
My work, especially in the novel I am writing now, is about that kind of sharing. My novel is about a girl who comes to work as an indentured servant from Mexico, with no plans to stay and be free here in the U.S., , but to return to Mexico with a wad of cash, two thousand dollars, so that she can properly educate her daughter back home.
This novel and my poems are about telling those stories, so people, no matter where they are from, can see themselves in the story. If you can possibly see yourself in any of my poems, then I have done my work. I have made a connection to you, and my hope is that that connection will engender compassion. If I can engender compassion on this side of the border for that or that side of the border for this, then I have done my work. I state that my goal is to bring understanding between people who are divided by arbitrary borders. This is a huge motivation for me because I understand what the border does, how it unites us and separates us, and mostly, how it hurts us.
Borders are arbitrary human constructions, and they are terribly deadly. And yet there is so much wealth to be shared when we cross them, wealth in terms of culture, food, drink, health, music, art, vegetation, and science. If wealth and music can cross the border with ease, if we can share recipes and scientific discoveries across a border; then why can’t we share the border in a more peaceful way when it involves the people from which those gifts came?
I understand there may be loss of power, that there may be chaos if we opened borders, just like there is chaos between Texas and Oklahoma, or Missouri and Illinois. I am not saying that Mexico and the US. are or should be the same country. I am saying that they already are the same country. They just do not know it yet. Fighting it, like fighting back tears, or fighting back childbirth, only prolongs the pain. Resisting our kinship is the problem.

The drug cartel movers and shakers are made of angry kids who have experienced the most excruciating poverty levels in their homeland, with no chance at a fair shake since NAFTA cut off the farming of corn in Mexico. NAFTA cut off the survival of Mexico’s most vulnerable population. Corn and beans were once subsidized in Mexico, so that no one would be hungry, so that there would be no more revolution, no violence. NAFTA and our American appetite for drugs ended that, and those who designed NAFTA, the NAFTA drafters, knew they would displace over seventeen million poor Mexican farmers, yet they went ahead and pressed the “Go” button anyway. Where did these seventeen million go? We all hear about the twelve million over here, right? Those who wanted to make an honest living risk their lives to make it over here where we love their cheap labor. The other five million are in battle in Mexico, either dying of hunger or killing for survival.  

The American continent is a natural body, and the people already share the languages, the customs, the rivers, and the air. What they do not want to share is the money or the land. But would you share your land with your own family? Of course it is human nature to help our own, but in time of crisis, we all become our own. That is why we see incredible acts of generosity between strangers in crisis. Why not let human nature in to assist us in our political crises if we see each other as family? Nothing is more certain than the fact that we are all biologically related to one another, no matter how tribal we pretend to be. If we understand each other’s vulnerabilities, and if we understand that we are all family in some way, we may actually transform and evolve like a good ceviche, killing our harmful bacteria, and marinating our flavors overnight to become something spectacular. That is the ultimate cruzada in my novel, La Cruzada, making the reader feel that they have something at stake in Berta’s journey.  

Amelia Montes: Is there something I haven’t asked, that you would like to share with our "La Bloga" readers?

Natalia Treviño: Amelia, I want to give you a huge shout-out for making this interview such a joy. I love reading your blog because it is such a generous space where you cultivate those things for which you stand. You take an active role in the issues for which you care, and you communicate them with dedication and hard work. Your ganas to do this are astounding, and they will stand the test of time because you are archiving the movimiento. You are an example of the border crossing that is so needed between those who live, not just on both sides of Lincoln, Nebraska, but those who live on all sides of the borders that we all need to cross. We just need translators like you to tell us we will be okay. You have done it, and you look back and help another idea, activist, artist, or recipe across so that others will prosper.  That makes you such a great warrior in my book, and I want to encourage you to keep at it. It makes a difference.

And this question would also be a good time for me to share with you some wonderful news I am getting about Lavando La Dirty Laundry. I am taking the book on tour in Texas this summer and fall, starting with a reading at Resistencia Bookstore in Austin on June 27th, continuing with a reading in Houston on July 23rd, an appearance in September as a Featured Reader at the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival, a teleconference interview with Las Comadres on September 29th, participating as a fellow for the 2014 Flor de Nopal series in Austin (I will post each date and event on my website,, reading at various events in Edinburg, McAllen, South Padre Island and Brownsville from October 2-5, including appearing at the Brownsville Book Festival, doing a few more readings this fall here again in San Antonio including at UTSA and San Antonio College, and winding up in December with a big Flor de Nopal reading in Austin.
I will keep the dates current on my website, so that anyone can check out when the next one is. It is a very exciting thing to share this book finally with those for whom it was written, Chican@s of all races and colors, my spiritual sisters and brothers, who may need the kind of poetry medicine that I am also after.

Amelia Montes:  Very exciting, Natalia! I am hoping that many of our "La Bloga" readers will attend your upcoming readings.  Thank you so very much!  Congratulations again, and much success with Lavando La Dirty Laundry!

Author, Natalia Treviño


msedano said...

Amelia, a wonderfully engaged and -ing interview. Natalia, un gusto de hacer meet you, and welcome to La Bloga! California welcomes a tour.

Giora said...

Welcome Natalia and I love the image of you writing in the air as a toddler. Maybe one day a small aircraft will sky write your short poem. Best wishes with your poems and novels.

Robert D. Shelton said...

I came to this interview in search of what to expect in January, 2017. I'll be a student in Ms. Trevino's Creative Writing class. I was thrilled when I first learned she was an active writer. Now I can't wait for the holidays to end so I can meet her and learn directly from her. Great interview.