Monday, June 08, 2015

Child of the border writes poems in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl

An interview with Cindy Williams Gutiérrez by Daniel A. Olivas

Cindy Williams Gutiérrez performing. Photo by Nelda Reyes.

Cindy Williams Gutiérrez's debut poetry collection, The Small Claim of Bones (Bilingual Review Press), is a powerful and lyrical ode to one woman's multicultural identity with roots in Mexico's indigenous past intertwined with a modern, feminist consciousness. This is the type of poetry that — as with incantations — should be read aloud to fully appreciate the richness of Gutiérrez's language and imagery.

DAO: You weave your poems with vocabulary from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and you even include a glossary of Nahuatl vocabulary. Could you talk a little about your relationship to this ancient tongue and what it adds to your poetry?

CWG: I was born and raised in Brownsville, Texas. To this denizen of a border town who grew up with a seamless flow of English and Spanish in the same sentence, code-switching feels natural and essential.

Nonetheless, I wanted the intermingling of language to be purposeful in my collection. I chose emotionally evocative words in Spanish and symbolic words in Nahuatl to remain in the language of origin. This intentional code-switching captures my multiculturalism.

My father (the "Williams" in Williams Gutiérrez) was born in a mining camp in Santa Barbara, Chihuahua, and lived in Mexico until he was 13. Most of the workers in the mine were indigenous Mexicans. Primarily Welsh and German, my father was also one-quarter Cherokee — quickening his fascination with Tenochtitlan and indigenous ways of life. He was Mexican by "marrow," not blood, often claiming, "Soy más mexicano que tu mamá" (my Gutiérrez half who traces her lineage to a land grant from the King of Spain). The farther north I ventured as a West Coast gypsy, the more fascinated I, too, became with the Olmec and Mexica and Texcocans. When I entered the Stonecoast MFA Program in 2006, I aimed to explore two bodies of work: Nahua "flower and song" (poetry) and Sor Juana Inés' oeuvre.

DAO: How has Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz influenced your writing?

CWG: I am inspired by the silent and silenced voices of history and herstory. Sor Juana's literary genius evokes awe as much as her life evokes outrage in me.

Writing persona poems in her voice, I explored décimas (in English) and an irreverent tone. These persona poems, along with those I wrote in the voice of a Nahua poet-princess, led to the creation of my verse play, "A Dialogue of Flower & Song." The play re-imagines the original dialogue of Nahua poetry (or "floricanto") which took place in Huexotzinco (near modern-day Puebla) around 1490. Instead of seven poet-princes, three women poets debate the purpose of poetry — a 15th-century poet-warrior (Macuilxochitzin), a 17th-century poet-nun (Sor Juana), and a fictional, contemporary, Latina photojournalist covering the Iraq War. The winner of the debate may be able to alter the course of history.

DAO: One of my favorite pieces in your collection is "Ritual for Ash," which begins: "We will smudge / our shoulder blades with wings of ash." How did this poem come into being?

CWG: Initially, part of "Ritual for Ash" formed the ending for the previous poem in the collection "If You Must Die." My Stonecoast mentor, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, suggested that I end this elegiac poem with the image of my father's daughters carrying him out of the bullring and consider writing a separate poem to explore my impulse for the ritual I imagined following my father's death. Though I was quite attached to the original ending and the longer version of "If You Must Die," I trusted her instinct.

The poem emerged from my father's obsession with bullfighting and his dream of having his ashes scattered on a bull ranch in Mexico. I feel that this ritualistic poem inspired by my father pairs nicely with "Rituals of Weavers" in the second half of the book, which focuses on my feminine and feminist influences — namely, the Mexican matriarchy of my heritage and Sor Juana.

[This interview first appeared in the El Paso Times.]


PEN Center USA, a literary nonprofit based in Beverly Hills, is pleased to announce the 2016 Emerging Voices Fellowship application period is now open.

The deadline to apply for the 2016 Emerging Voices Fellowship is August 10, 2015. Founded in 1995, the Emerging Voices Fellowship aims to provide new writers, who lack access, with the specific tools they need to launch a professional writing career. Over the course of eight months, each Emerging Voices Fellow participates in a professional mentorship; hosted Author Evenings with prominent local authors; editors and agents; a series of master classes focused on genre; a voice class; courses donated by UCLA Writers’ Extension Program; three public readings; and a $1,000 stipend. Past mentors have included authors Ron Carlson, Harryette Mullen, Chris Abani, Ramona Ausubel, Meghan Daum, and Sherman Alexie.

Participants need not be published, but the fellowship is directed toward poets and writers of fiction and creative nonfiction with clear ideas of what they hope to accomplish through their writing. For eligibility requirements and to download the application, go here.

Recent Emerging Voices accomplishments of note include 2005 Emerging Voices Fellow Cynthia Bond whose novel Ruby (Hogarth Press) was acquired for film rights by Oprah Winfrey and selected as Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 Pick. 2008 Emerging Voices Alum Shanna Mahin's novel, Oh! You Pretty Things (Dutton - Penguin Books USA) was published last month and received a glowing review from The New York Times.

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