Playing with Fire: Daniel Olivas interviews Melinda Palacio

By Daniel A. OlivasApril 14, 2013

Playing with Fire: Daniel Olivas interviews Melinda Palacio

MELINDA PALACIO IS TENACIOUS. I learned this in 2005 when I sent out the call for submissions for Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008). She submitted several stories to me that I rejected. But Melinda did not give up. She finally submitted a beautifully restrained monologue of a man in prison who is talking to his daughter, making yet more promises that would very likely be broken. I would learn years later that this particular short story, “The Last Time,” drew its power from Melinda’s experiences with her own incarcerated father.

Melinda, armed with two degrees in comparative literature (a B.A. from Berkeley and an M.A. from UC Santa Cruz), has since been a 2007 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellow and a 2009 alum of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her poetry chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, won Kulupi Press’ Sense of Place cash prize and publication in 2010. Melinda’s first novel, Ocotillo Dreams (Bilingual Press, 2011), won the Mariposa Award for Best First Book at the 2012 International Latino Book Awards at the Instituto Cervantes in Manhattan and a 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles award for Excellence in Literature.

Melinda’s first full-length poetry collection, How Fire Is a Story, Waiting, has just been published by Tía Chucha Press. It has already been honored as a finalist for the Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. How Fire Is a Story, Waiting is a mature and deeply stirring work, one that explores Melinda Palacio’s identity as a Latina, daughter, and writer in language that is as lyrical as it is candid.

Melinda will be appearing at the Los Angeles Festival of Books on the panel “Writing American Identity” with Reyna Grande, Luis J. Rodriguez, and David Treuer, moderated by Héctor Tobar. Despite being on the road to promote her book, Melinda found time to answer a few questions for LARB.


DANIEL OLIVAS: This is your first full-length poetry collection. Did you begin it as a book, or did you simply bring together poems that you’d been writing throughout the years?

MELINDA PALACIO: Ever since I started writing poetry, I have wanted to collect my poems in a book; even before I had enough good poems to do so. I culled from all my poems, leaving behind those that didn't adhere to the structure of the four elements that I had laid out. But, yes, I have been writing these poems throughout the years. The book begins with the first poem I ever had published; I try not to be intimidated by the fact that the book includes my grandma-and-tortilla poem. The collection also ends with one of the very first ekphrastic poems I wrote in honor of an exhibit at Casa de la Guerra in Santa Barbara, Forged In Iron: The Expression Art of the Rooftop Tradition in Chiapas, Mexico, in 2007. I dedicate this poem to my mother — an iron cross for her that reveals aspects of our life together.

DO: Getting a poetry collection published is quite difficult, to put it mildly. How did you place your manuscript with Tía Chucha Press?

MP: I’m glad you are asking this Daniel. At the panel you moderated at the Latino Book and Author Fair at CSU Los Angeles in 2009, someone in the audience asked if I was working on anything new, and I shared that my new poetry manuscript was looking for a home. As luck would have it, Luis J. Rodriguez of Tía Chucha Press was on the panel and he said the magic words, “Send it to me.” Months later, at another panel with Luis at Avenue 50 Studio, he informed me that he would like to publish my manuscript. I remember the moment well because I jumped out of my seat, screamed, and dashed into a frenetic happy dance.

DO: You divide your book into four sections: fire, air, water, and earth. Why?

MP: The subjects of my poems fell into the four elements; the division seemed organic and natural. The fire section, with its title poem, includes pieces that are mostly about childhood, as well as real and metaphorical fires. The air section includes poems about travel. The water section is about bodies of water and here I linger on poems about Katrina and New Orleans. I even use my poetic license to imagine an entire childhood in New Orleans, although, as you know, I am from South Central Los Angeles. And the last section, earth, is made up of poems about death, or my idea of death as returning to earth. The death of my mother when I was 24 was such a strong force in determining my career as a writer that the last poem is dedicated to her.

Once I had the structure of the elements in place, it was very easy for me to choose the poems. “Iron Cross Suite” is a long poem that I do not read from much, but I knew it would make the perfect bookend to a collection that begins and ends with my earliest works. I included my earliest poem and those that skated in just before the deadline for turning in the final manuscript, a span of six years.

DO: Several of your poems address being the daughter of a man who is in prison. One particular poem, “Questions for Dad,” lists 12 items of inquiry including: “Did you really think you’d get away with everything?” Because you’ve spoken of having a father in prison, these poems are obviously painful poetic attempts to understand him and his actions. Can you talk a little about these poems?

MP: Yes, thank you for mentioning these. I’ve included several poems from my chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, which contains poems that I wrote after visiting my father in Folsom prison. I didn't go to the prison with the intention of having a new poetry collection. In fact, I didn’t think I would write about the experience at all. However, three days after the visit, I started writing poems and could not stop. When I showed some to a friend, she told me I had a poetry chapbook. On a lark, I entered a “sense of place” contest for a press in Sonoma I had never heard of, and I won! The writing of these poems happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to intellectualize them. I think if I had, I might have been worried that they were too painful to publish. As it turns out, this is my most personal book, a memoir and ode to who I’ve become over the last decade, and a tribute to the women who raised me: my mother and grandmother.

DO: Several of your poems are in Spanish with an English translation on the opposite page. Why did you choose certain poems to do this? Did the process of translating the poems raise any challenges?

MP: I am very happy that I was able to sneak these poems into the collection. The poems with translations were originally written in Spanish for Olga Gutierrez, who edits part of the San Diego Poetry Anthology. I met Olga at a reading we did together at REDCAT. She asked me to write something for the Spanish section of the San Diego Poetry Anthology. I usually only write in English. However, I was so touched that she asked me to write something in Spanish. It was challenging, but thrilling because there was a time, before I went to kindergarten, when I only spoke Spanish. I appreciated the request and found there were a few poems that fit into the structure of the book.

DO: Why did you choose “How Fire Is a Story, Waiting” as the title poem?

MP: The fire section of the book is the most dominant. Since the fire poems begin with childhood and address both real and metaphorical fires, that poem represents a sort of prequel, if you will, because it is about my grandmother. I still remember the image that started the idea for the poem. I grew up in my grandmother's house and we had a gas stove which was used for all manner of things besides cooking — heating the house, for example. One day, my grandmother was playing with the flame, catching it in her hands. I was impressed by how magical she always seemed. I dedicate the book to her, Maria Victoria Ibarra Gutierrez.

DO: Did you have any “readers” who helped you shape and edit this book? If so, what was that process like?

MP: Many of the poems in this collection were published in literary journals. I enjoyed working with these editors, who gave an unknown poet a chance. The readers who encouraged me most were the members of my poetry group, the Santa Barbara Sunday Poets. We have been meeting once a month for 10 years now and I think that group has heard every poem in the book. Having a chance to read my work aloud and get feedback has been really important. I also participate in the poetry open mic at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans.

DO: Which poets have influenced your writing? Any particular poets have a particularly great impact on this book?

MP: Martín Espada, Sharon Olds, Luis J. Rodriguez, Luis Urrea, Cornelius Eady, Juan Felipe Herrera, Galway Kinnell, Gabriela Mistral, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and W.B. Yeats have been great influences. Yeats was the first poet I was introduced to in the eighth grade and then I somehow didn’t remember a single poem until I started writing poetry. When I first heard Martín Espada give a reading in 2006, I was completely mesmerized, the same with Luis Urrea when he read from The Hummingbird's Daughter. In 2007, when I was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, I chose to focus on the works of Luis Rodriguez and read everything he had written and was immensely influenced by the raw beauty of his poetry. In 2009, I was given a scholarship to the poetry week with the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where I studied with Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell, a special treat.

DO: The cover of the book includes a lovely portrait of you by Margaret García. Could you tell us a little about it and the artist? Why did you decide to use an image of yourself for this book?

MP: I didn't intend to be on the cover of my book. Many people remark on the similarity between the covers of my novel Ocotillo Dreams and How Fire Is a Story, Waiting. Ocotillo Dreams has that nice image by Patssi Valdez, which many people ask if the woman is me. After realizing how important book covers are (this is in part due to you and your pick for the cover of Latinos in Lotusland), I had written Margaret García’s name down. I remember she was part of an exhibit called “Brushes with Fire.” I called her on the phone and I immediately felt a connection with her. I set aside two hours to spend at her studio in Highland Park. When I arrived, I explained what I was looking for and she insisted on painting an original portrait of me for my poetry book. I called Luis Rodriguez who agreed to license the painting. I knew this was very unusual. What was supposed to be two hours at her studio turned into two days of sitting for a portrait by Margaret. I am very humbled and I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to sit for such a noted Chicana artist by that, and I’m tickled to have a mythic representation of me on the cover of the book.

DO: Are you working on another book, or do you avoid answering such questions?

MP: I’m always working on new material, new poems, new posts for La Bloga (I contribute every other Friday), and I am working on a new novel. When I wrote Ocotillo Dreams, I thought of the book as a historical novel. However, with the passing of SB 1070 in Arizona in 2010, my historical novel became a contemporary novel. I decided to reach back further in time and set my new work in the late sixties.

DO: “How to Make a Mediocre Poem Sing” is a wonderfully funny poem that offers advice to poets who have to do public readings. How have your own readings of this book gone? What, if anything, have you learned about your poems from public readings?

MP: Over the years, I’ve gone to poetry readings and have found that some poets take themselves way too seriously. I am fortunate because I have had some theater training. What I’ve learned most from public readings is that I am funny. I write about depressing subjects and infuse humor into my work. I don't set out to be funny, just honest. In being honest and exposed, people laugh with me and recognize humor in subjects that aren't traditionally funny. I’ve learned that every audience is different. Some audiences do not give themselves permission to laugh, cry, applaud, or express any feelings. In these cases, I try to avoid feeling nervous about the quiet quality of the audience because, chances are, they will express a variety of feelings once the reading is over.


LARB Contributor

Daniel Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is a playwright and the author of 10 books including, most recently, How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2022), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press, 2017). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press, 2016). His first full-length play, Waiting for Godínez, was selected for the Playwrights’ Arena Summer Reading Series, and The Road Theatre’s 12th Annual Summer Playwrights Festival, and was a Semi-Finalist for the American Blues Theater’s Blue Ink Playwriting Award. Widely anthologized, he has also written for The New York TimesLos Angeles TimesThe GuardianAlta JournalJewish JournalLos Angeles Review of BooksLa Bloga, and many other print and online publications. By day, Olivas is an attorney in the Public Rights Division of the California Department of Justice. He and his wife make their home in Southern California, and they have an adult son.


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