Controlling Grief — An Impossible Task: A Conversation with Casandra López




LAST YEAR, Casandra López’s first full-length book of poetry, Brother Bullet, was published by the University of Arizona Press. The collection is a deep dive into trauma and survival. Written in the aftermath of her brother’s murder, López presents an unflinching documentation of the trajectory of grief following that tragedy. Her work reminds readers that grief is not stationary; it is not limited to one violent moment in time, or to the month or year afterward. It is something that follows the mourner every day, taking different forms and affecting different facets of life. López makes this plain in her poem, “In This Desert,” where the speaker muses about a current lover: “What I really want to ask is: Can I love after that blood / stain I sometimes rub raw? I’m always trying to get at // that hurt. I ask him if he can taste my bitter, and watch / his face for signs of puckering. Will he grow tired of my sour?” That “hurt” is always interrupting the way the speaker can give and receive love.

From the outset of the collection, the reader feels invited into the flux of emotions. We are not voyeurs or interlopers but guests. The collection’s opening lines, from the poem “Where Bullet Breaks” — “Come — / See where Bullet broke / Brother, see where I break, / where we split into before / and after,” — are an explicit invitation, as López explains, to “enter this experience of grief and violence.” So then, what happens when we take the poet’s invitation into the murky waters of mourning and grief? We swim. We run with her and with her family. We eat the oranges off of her father’s tree. We watch fireworks explode above a neighborhood in San Bernardino on the Fourth of July. We turn each page wounded and surprised by the ways in which López makes the painful lyrical and present.

While López offers an intimate dissection of the hopelessness that comes with trauma — as in her poem “Flight,” where the speaker observes, “But we are so mortal, and there is little magic left / in this world” — we are reminded that this is not a permanent state of being. Ultimately, she brings the speaker, and the reader, to that final stage of grief: acceptance. We are guests, after all, not inhabitants of this place. The last lines of the final poem, “Oranges Are Not Indigenous,” offer a perfect closing, leaving the reader with hope: “I need these reminders of / how we survive and still grow / so fiercely against the edges of this earth.” Despite the sadness, despite the grief, we survive and go on.

In February, I had the pleasure of interviewing Casandra López, whom I’ve known for a few years as a friend and fellow writer from the Inland Empire. When we spoke, she was at her home in Bellingham, Washington, where she teaches at a tribal college, and I was at home in Loma Linda.

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ISABEL QUINTERO: Good morning, Casandra. Thank you for talking with me today. Can you tell me where you’re from and how that place informs your work? I ask this because we’re both from the IE and it’s a place that’s often overlooked in terms of literary art.

CASANDRA LÓPEZ: I’m from San Bernardino. I grew up in a downtown neighborhood. Oftentimes, if I’m explaining where I’m from to people who are unfamiliar with the area, I might say that it’s a place where people often pass by as they’re making their way to somewhere else. So, they might have passed by if they are driving to Las Vegas or Palm Springs.

San Bernardino informs my work because it’s the place I feel like I know the best, yet it is also rich in complexity. It’s a place that can be confounding and frustrating, but also a place that brings a lot of joy. In my writing, I’m trying to better understand something, whether it is a place, a person, or an experience.

That said, what has your writing helped you understand about this “confounding and frustrating place” and the people within it? I push on this because the locale is so present in Brother Bullet.

Writing Brother Bullet helped me see the importance of how place and experience interact. In my early drafts of poems, I had named other places, not the San Bernardino/Inland Empire area. On one hand, I was writing about a place I knew very well, so it didn’t occur to me to name it, but I think I also had this idea that it wouldn’t be important to the reader. I think I was wrong, and once I made the changes to more explicitly indicate place, the collection took on a stronger life of its own.

I’m so glad you decided to name the places explicitly. That’s one of the things I feel really invites the reader into the narrative you’ve created. You’re inviting them to a very specific place, for a very specific reason. The first poem, “Where Bullet Breaks,” for example, seems to be that invitation: you seem to be welcoming the reader into your home, or into a space where a secret is about to be told. The first few lines, “Come — / See where Bullet broke / Brother, see where I break, / where we split into before / and after.” Can you talk a little bit about where this first poem is inviting the reader?

[Lengthy pause.]

Also, if at any point you don’t like the question or it doesn’t make sense, let me know.

No. It is good. I just haven’t thought about it before. [Laughs.]

I was thinking about how that first section opens and closes. The first poem is an invitation, the last poem is almost a closed door — way more trepidatious.

Yes, the first poem is a type of invitation to the reader to enter the book, enter this experience of grief and violence, but also an invitation to my family and home. Also, through writing that poem, I realized for the first time that my life had been in danger as well. The use of “My Bullet” is meant as both a metaphor and an actual experience. So, yes, I’m inviting readers to come with me through all of the grief and good memories.

I think at readings you’ve addressed the issue of how readers should remember that Brother Bullet is a collection of poems and not a memoir. That you are exploring grief, violence, and good memories via poetic forms. Along those lines, can you talk about how you see imagination and grief intersecting? I thought about this question when I read “Dear Brain Bullet” — especially the last line, “becoming what we could not imagine” — and I thought about the before and after of our imaginations once we experience grief. Where does that lead us? What happens to our creativity? Where do we let it take us? I was also thinking about how you’ve discussed not writing poetry until after the death of your brother. All those things were in my head as I read that poem.

After my brother passed away, poetry felt like it made the most sense to me. I was studying fiction, but I didn’t feel compelled to write stories anymore. In that way imagination was too far away and nonfiction was too close to the center, so poetry seemed like the best fit because I could speak explicitly about grief but also use a language of images and other poetic elements. In the poetry I could in a way bring my brother back to life or talk to him. Through the poems I could also put Jim Thorpe [the Native American athlete and Olympic Gold Medalist] and my brother in the same imagined place.

“An Unknown,” the poem about Jim Thorpe, is one of my favorites in the collection. There is so much movement in the poem, and in the collection as a whole. There is no stopping, really, no pause. I felt always in motion. Did you notice this as you were writing? 

I think I notice it the most when I read it out loud. I think it is one of those cases where I lucked into the right form for it. The long couplets help create that momentum, which complements the context.

It definitely does.

I’m a fan of using couplets and have to consciously push myself to try other forms. A lot of times while writing the collection I would free-write and then revise into couplets as a way to cut away the excess. Then I would see if another form might work.

I see a few traditional forms sprinkled into the collection. I think those might be the moments when I paused. My writer brain wanted to know why this form here, what it was doing.

I think the traditional forms can be a challenge. I wrote a few while I was studying with Luci Tapahonso [Navajo poet and Professor Emerita of English Literature at University of New Mexico]. But none of them made it into the collection. Later, I knew I had lines that I wanted to repeat, so that is when I went back to look at what traditional forms might work.

“Sister Song” is a good example of that, though I couldn’t remember the name of the exact form.

It is a ghazal. It is supposed to end with the writer’s name or some allusion to it. It just seemed fitting that I end it with “sister.”

In “Lake Days,” you write, “I ask your children: What can we lure from water?” and this is a question I asked in my second and third reading of the collection. There is so much water, dampness, hurricanes, liquid. I thought about where we’re from and the droughts we’ve experienced, plus just living so near deserts. What does water mean to the poems? To you?

Ah, yes. Some of it is very literal. My brother died in December during a rainy period. Even though San Bernardino is in a valley and we have experienced drought, beneath part of the city is a high water table. There are still natural springs in the area. So, just beneath the surface is this other reality. It is also part of the history of the area.

Also, both the desert and bodies of water are a part of my personal history and cultural history. I grew up going to lakes to fish with my family, hearing stories about my family fishing or spending time near different bodies of water and spending summers camping near the beach in Baja. So, I have those experiences and images to draw from as well as the dry brush and cacti.

I am drawn to using images of water because it shares a lot with grief. People want to try to control them both and sometimes it is an impossible task. Which is why I don’t typically recommend people try to read [the collection] all in one sitting.

I like that correlation of the impossibility of controlling grief and controlling bodies of water — the outcomes are often severe and unpredictable when we try to do either. That’s one of the things I appreciate about Brother Bullet: there is no apologetic grief, no holding back, no shielding the reader from the hurt. It is honest. How did you come to this honesty? Were there other writers you looked at before or during the writing? Any mentors? Or was it something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning?

When I began writing Brother Bullet, I didn’t have much experience with poetry, especially not in the context of learning from a poet in a craft sense. I was very fortunate to take a poetry workshop with Dana Levin a month or so after my brother passed away. She was a wonderful teacher. One book she recommended was Catherine Barnett’s collection, Into Such Perfect Spheres Holes are Pierced (2004). That book really spoke to me, and originally I wanted to do something similar and focus on a year after my brother’s death, but then I realized that wouldn’t work for my book.

When or why or how did you decide what would work best for the collection?

I just wrote and wrote. [Laughs.] Eventually I began to have a bunch of poems to choose from. Once I had all the poems, I tried to balance the collection by spreading out some of the more intense poems. I think it also helped to emphasize the idea that grief is circular. I think what I struggled with most was the feeling of “when am I going to be done with this collection?” Because the grief is never done.

But there came a point where my style of writing started to change and that to me was an indicator that I was moving on to a new project, although I was still writing about a lot of the same themes and topics. Much later, I did go back and write the last poem because the poem I originally used to close the collection didn’t seem significant enough.

I love that last poem.

Thanks!

We’ve been talking a lot about how the collection was put together, but now I want to shift a little. You are also writing about grief, loss, and violence in the memoir you’re currently working on, right? What responsibility, if any, do you think writers have when writing about these topics? And do you think this responsibility shifts from memoir, to fiction, to poetry? In that context, I’m also curious about how you navigate that space of grief and violence as a Native and Chicana woman. Are there different rules, do you think, or different responsibilities?

I think a lot about the ethics of writing about trauma. My own grief is very much linked to experiences of trauma. It’s something that I think about so much because I’m writing about my family, and my brother who is no longer here. So, I think it’s important to always be aware of that privilege and the responsibilities I have. In a very literal sense, I want my family to be physically protected but also protected emotionally.

In the memoir, I’m not just writing about myself. I’m writing intimately about my family, bringing in the history of California and the Inland Empire, along with some community stories. So, I do feel more of a weight to not retraumatize others or to make sure what I’m writing is going to be of service to those in my community and family.

I sometimes hear criticism that too many Native writers write about tragedies or that readers don’t want to read stories about gun violence. But this is part of my reality, as well as of many others in my communities, so it is not something I am going to turn away from.

It has been useful to think about some key questions that Daniel Heath Justice asks in his book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (2018). He poses certain questions to analyze Native literature, but I have used his questions to guide me as a writer:

1) How do I represent the complexities of my contemporary Indigenous life? What does my work say about what it is to be human?

2) What responsibilities do I have to others when I write about myself, my communities, my family, my ancestors, and the nonhuman world? What meaning can be explored in these relationships and kinships?

3) What can my work provide to my future kin?

4) How can my work encourage balance and healing?

I think a lot about those things in my writing as well, since I often write about family and community. Those are powerful questions to have leading your work and research, and perhaps many writers would do well having something similar guiding them. Obviously, not just Indigenous writers but anyone writing about community.

I think these are questions that could be helpful for any writer to ask themselves.

Definitely. You’ve mentioned a few writers. Who do you see your work in conversation with? And similarly, if readers want to see who or what texts influenced you, what would you recommend?

I greatly admire the work that Deborah Miranda is doing. Her memoir Bad Indians (2012) has been greatly influential on the work I’m doing now. The Inlandia Institute [a nonprofit literary arts organization in the Inland Empire] is doing great work. Their anthology Orangelandia (2014) features a lot of local writers.

And who are you in conversation with?

I’m in conversation with Miranda and with Brian Turner’s book Here, Bullet (2005). Also, in terms of specifically San Bernardino and the IE, I’d say that my book was in conversation with Juan Delgado’s Vital Signs (2013) and Lewis deSoto’s Empire (2016).

Thanks for those recommendations. What are you currently reading and/or watching?

I’m excited to start Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land (2020). I’m listening to Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls (2019) and loving it. I was recently blown away by Bassey Ikpi’s memoir I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying (2019).

I can’t wait to read Children of the Land, either! Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is such a gift. Finally, what in general makes you hopeful or what are you specifically hopeful for in the upcoming year?

I teach at a tribal college and my students give me a lot of hope. I am hopeful about the positive impact they can have on their communities, families, and larger community.

I love that. I’m always inspired by youth. Thank you so much for taking time to have this conversation so early on a Saturday morning.

Thank you.

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Isabel Quintero is an award winning author whose works include: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, and, most recently,My Papi Has a Motorcycle. She also writes poems and essays from her home in the Inland Empire.

 

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