APRIL 14, 2019
POEMS CAN BE windows. They can also be doors. These are truths to prescribe to while reading Sara Borjas’s debut poetry collection, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff. A window can work as an entrance, can mirror the reflection of someone familiar. In her poem “Lies I Tell,” previously published by the Academy of America Poets, Borjas writes,
A woman has a window in her face: that is the truth. I look like
my mother: that is the truth. I want to tell you I am not like her:
that is the truth. I am ashamed walking in a woman’s body: that is
the truth. I wish to take back everything I say: that is the truth. A
window can be a mirror. It can also be a door: that is the truth.
Borjas, who dedicated this book to her mother Criselda, is looking into her reflection in order to make sense of the life and the heritage of a Mexican-American Pocha from Fresno. She very much looks like her mother, at least this is true from a photo she shares on her website, depicting her mother Criselda in sepia. She has her mother’s diamond-shaped face, her full cheeks, and her almond eyes. But what separates her from her mother (among other things) is a master’s degree in Creative Writing and a cropped undercut that matches her bold personality and her refusal to fit conventional female stereotypes. In her poem “I Know the Name of the Desert,” Borjas writes, “I am a daughter / who walks through a desert carrying my mother’s wounds — / each open palm across her child’s face, each time a man offered her / something he did not have.” These wounds caused by toxic masculinity and generational trauma reappear in the collection as a way for the poet to learn to love the place where she comes from. This theme is clearly depicted in the opening quote of the book, written by Cherrie Moraga: “Home is the place, for better or for worse, we learn to love.”
Sara Borjas is fourth-generation Chicana, a Pocha, and a Fresno poet. She earned a BA in English Literature from Fresno State and an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from University of California, Riverside. Sara is a 2017 CantoMundo Fellow, a 2016 Postgraduate Writers Conference Fellow at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a 2013 Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley Fellow. She is the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mesa Poetry Prize. Sara was also named runner-up for the 2010 Larry Levis Undergraduate Memorial Prize judged by Phillip Levine and nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently a lecturer at UCR, and her debut poetry collection Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2019.
I’m sitting across from Sara in a sushi restaurant walking distance from University of California, Riverside. This is the campus where she teaches Creative Writing to undergrads and where I’m currently pursuing an MFA in poetry. It is no coincidence that Sara and I cross paths again. I met Sara four years ago in a Poetry Workshop she taught for undergrads. She was the first person to call me “a poet” and the first to introduce me to confessional poetry, a term Sara has personal beef with, as she says it “tends to be used when speaking about women’s poetry that is simply personal in nature.” In short, Sara subscribes to the idea that some labels do female poets like us no favors. When I bring up the word confessional, she responds, “[We] should pay particular attention to [these terms] and not let [them] contain us.” If I can say one thing that Sara has taught me, it is that there is power and clarity that comes with saying things directly. Either in person or on the page, there’s no need to “dance around it.” The words “Just say it” still ring in her tone of voice while I edit my poems. As I read Sara’s poems in her new collection, I could detect her own advice flashing through lines like, “I wish / a whole woman would wake up inside me.” And “I, the girl who / talks to my parents like children. / I, the girl who listens to their stories / and wishes to be someone else / inside them.” In our conversation, both in person and with her poems, I hear Sara admitting that it took her many years, an education, and a lot of poems to decolonize her love: to accept who she is, and where she comes from.
BRENDA DELFINO: When we talk about poetry, a lot of times we say, “Never assume that the narrator is the voice of the author,” but going through your collection I couldn’t help but detect how autobiographical your work is. For example, in your poem “My Name Disappears from the Script,” you talk about your name and its origins in lines like, “I, unnamable duty of Xicanisma. I, / converted Xicana who learns her Hebrew name / does not make her white…”
SARA BORJAS: I believe we say that to protect ourselves. The truth is, the speaker is part of the author, always. Through reading so many first books and writing one, I’ve learned that the first book is usually the hardest, the most personal, and a chance to put it all out there, so yes, the identity of the voice of the speaker is clearly me because these are things I have to get out, for my own benefit as a person via the poem.
So this is you coming out as a poet to the world?
Or just me coming out as who I am. I can give a fuck about the world. This is me coming out to me, you know? Once this is out there, I’m sure I’ll have more access to the me that’s underneath. The things I can’t get to yet deep inside me because I gotta get out the stuff that’s on top first. When I took a workshop with Sharon Olds, she said that. We gotta get out what’s on top so we can see what’s underneath.
You were a runner-up for the Larry Levis Undergraduate Memorial Prize judged by Philip Levine. I know Levine is a Fresno poet, did this tie have any significance for you? What kind of weight do you give to the term “Fresno poet”?
At the time, I was just learning that Fresno, and really, California’s Central Valley, straight-up farmland, had a tradition of raising poets, and so at that time, I felt pressured. It was like realizing your grandma was a famous singer or artist and thinking that everyone was going to measure you by her life. It was very intimidating. As I learned more about Fresno poets, I was like, where da ladies at?! I learned that “Fresno poetry” really was a lineage of mostly men, and the women who were writing were not recognized. So yes, I am a Fresno poet. But I am not influenced by Fresno poets in the way I had expected to be. I am a woman who does not resonate with many of the male perspectives in those poems. They don’t come up through my feet like other poems do. Yes, I relate to poets like Levine’s, but mildly. Mostly, I write in the tradition of Levis and Montoya, but my connection to them is different from male Fresno poets, although no less deep. I actually wrote a presentation for the Andrés Montoya Symposium last year at Fresno State and am presenting it at AWP this year, too, on a panel celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Iceworker Sings, Andrés Montoya’s collection that was published posthumously and won the American Book Award. He was only 31. I am 31, too. I’ll say this: I have a lot of hope for Fresno’s poetry community and for Fresno.
In your poem “What I Know About Fresno,” you say “the reason I stay / teaching myself, so I can come back to them / with a gift that bursts.” Do you have intentions of returning, and with what goal?
In my dreams, I’d like to. My dad always said to never forget where I come from. He said that if I gained some privilege to bring it to my community. My intentions have never swayed from those words. At this point, I don’t know in what capacity I would return but I imagine it would be as a professor at Fresno City College or Fresno State — I am an alumnus of both — or if my parents were to become ill or just needed my help. My goal would be to stay rooted, to use what I’ve learned to develop literary culture in my hometown and say thank you to it, and to my family, in that way.
I know you had the privilege of working closely with Juan Felipe Herrera, who is also a Fresno poet and our first Latino two-term poet laureate. Tell me about that experience. What do you appreciate most about his guidance? How has he influenced your writing?
Juan is a trip. He is also the same age as my father, and we are both from the Central Valley. Actually, his son is married to my mom’s second cousin, or something like that. Anyway, Juan’s basic presence in the Creative Writing department was so empowering. It was like reading Chicanx stories in Alex Espinoza’s class all over again — seeing possibilities for myself, for someone who looked, loved, talked, joked like me and my family. Juan was always talking about derailing ourselves. He was always joking about the institution and the academics. He reminded me a lot of Roque Dalton’s speaker in his poems — highly critical, highly caring, always dancing above it all, not letting it get them down too much but making fun out of injustice, inequality, and “rules.” He gave me the freedom to do the same, and I think I pretty much ran with it and still am. I read today that for every Latinx professor, there are 225 Latinx students, and for every white professor, there are 32 white students. His absence, or the absence of Latinx faculty in all departments, especially creative ones, shakes me more than their presence.
In your poem “Study of a Part-Time Pocha,” I see that you unpack the struggle of being a minority in higher education with lines like, “We eat the crumbs of the institution / saying mmmm like it’s cake,” “and no I will not / teach whiteness and call it craft.” And you argue that you don’t believe poetry should have a “good reason” to “not adhere to a traditional, Eurocentric form.” What do you mean by that?
I mean that historically underrepresented groups often are offered jobs in academia as goodwill or exposure or opportunity, but in reality, it’s the institution who needs us if they are truly trying to undo oppressive institutions that are rooted in racism. Institutions such as academia are not doing people of color the favor — we are doing them the favor. It’s not dissimilar from when a literary magazine or community gets knocked for unequal representation and then they share an apology and try to hire queer women of color as their editors and solicit “political” work from POC writers. If they want to sustain, or stay relevant, they must adapt. That’s their job, not mine. Along the same lines, conventionally accepted “craft” has been formally developed in these same institutions and communities with heteronormative, white folks at their heads. Like the Constitution of the United States, if women and people of color weren’t there to write and vote on it, it probably did not have us in mind and definitely does not represent us. Craft is whiteness taught through “tools” of writing, but it does not have to be. I mean we need to stop looking at Western literature as models and simply as inheritance. It’s what we got through colonization, not because it’s classic. Not because it’s literature. Not because it’s beautiful. I’m trying to, as Juan said, derail that colonial habit.
When I first read the essay “We Are Too Big for This House,” I felt like it was a screenshot of your mind, of all the things that end up embodying all the themes in this collection. I also noticed there’s a reference to an art installation piece by Anish Kapoor called Memory and the block quote is by Sandhini Poddar.
Yes, I saw that installation piece Memory when I was 20 or something. It’s a huge, metal, rusted balloon in a big room at the Guggenheim. You can come at it from three different ways but you can’t get around it, you can’t crawl under it, it’s huge, you don’t know how it got into that space. Then there is a black window, it’s the inside of it, and you go up, as close as you can get, but you can’t see the inside because it goes on forever; so I always related that to my life, to my parent’s life.
Is that how you approach windows and doors in this collection? Like in the title of the poem “A Heart Can Be Broken Only Once, Like a Window” or the lines in the poem “Lies I Tell” when you say, “a woman has a window in her face: that is the truth […] A window can be a mirror. / It can also be a door: that is the truth.”
Yeah, as a medium to see things in different ways. It can be a little door, or a window or a person, a story to look through it or transcend it. I think the speaker is having a hard time transcending in this collection, so this book is more looking through. When I think of windows and doors (which I use a lot in my poems lately) I was borrowing from my experience growing up in the house, running in and out to play to school to work and back to the grocery store, et cetera. Thinking of windows and doors leads me to think of people or stories which we see ourselves in. There’s a quote that goes something like, “Poems can be windows, they can also be doors.” I also think about mobility and engagement — are we stuck behind it, looking out into the world? Do we have the power to walk through it? If we walk through it, can we come back? And I’m thinking about doors and windows as my mother’s and father’s lives, childhoods, and the narratives of Chicanos in the United States and especially Chicanas in the United States. Do these stories limit us, guide us, give us hope, and if we transgress them, what kind of Mexican or American or woman are we? These are the questions I was thinking of when I wrote this poem.
I saw that you Tweeted an earlier draft of this collection was titled like the essay, “We Are Too Big For This House.” What made you change it to Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff?
My editor, Carmen Giménez Smith, suggested a title change, and I agreed. The book had evolved out of that title and had become much more ambitious in scope. It was not so clearly on the subjects of domesticity anymore. Also, my good friend and one of my copy editors, Julia Bouwsma, suggested it. I was thinking of just the second half, but she said that would be ignoring the deep tenderness of the speaker. I think she was right.
In that same essay, you write, “My mother always tells me she feels / dumb. That I make her feel dumb. I / don’t realize I am doing it — telling her / that what she is not comfortable saying, or knowing, is obvious to me.” I know exactly how that feels. I remember sitting across my family over lunch, trying to correct straight-up racist comments and how difficult it was to explain that. I don’t think I had even grasped the level of racism in the Spanish that I spoke until I came to this country and I began interacting with people of all races.
Yeah, it’s hard to make those corrections; especially when you’re coming from a Latinx culture. There’s this expectation to respect your elders, and if you’re a woman, to “just shut up.” But I’m not putting up with that anymore. That’s a privilege that I have now. But the process hurts you, it hurts those intimate relationships, and that makes it hard.
Do you feel it’s important, though, to continue to bring up these “corrections,” even when you know that it’s going to create conflict, or that you can’t change their minds? Do you still do it? Is it worth doing?
I think it’s worth doing it, but I think there are wrong ways of doing it. What I have been doing to my family has come off as patronizing and condescending and that’s problematic. Here’s the thing, you ask, “Is it going to make a difference?” “Are they going to change?” My answer is no. My parents are not going to change certain things. So yes, it’s important to speak my perspective, but I need to learn to stop trying to control their perspective because it’s impossible and violent, and I don’t want to do that.
The line “They think I am a monster” from that same essay is referring to what your family calls you whenever you bring up a memory as part of an argument. That line really caught my attention as a writer because I’m constantly revisiting the past. I’m always digging up my family’s history. But I learned that my mother doesn’t want to dig into her past. Whenever I ask her to tell me stories, or why she never shares any with me, her response is, “Because it hurts. The past hurts.” That’s when I realized that every time I asked her a question about the past, I was opening a wound. So my question is, how do you approach memory in your poems and how do you continue to explore and deal with memory when your entire family …
Doesn’t want to talk about it?
I try to explore my memories, because my perspective is the only thing that has integrity.
So always making sure that you’re speaking for yourself?
Yeah, or if I’m sharing something that happened to my mom or my dad it’s always them saying it, not me; the memory is always being told from the perspective of whoever experienced it. My mom is way more open to sharing and to reading my work. I remember one time she cried when she read one of my poems where I talk about the abuse she went through, and she told me, “I didn’t know my pain could be beautiful.”
That’s powerful. Was it a poem in this collection?
Yes, it’s “I Know the Name of the Desert,” which I wrote after “Iris” by David St. John, another Fresno poet. She was grateful that this poem had transformed her pain and that it had turned it into something else. My dad, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about the past, because he feels the same way as your mom. It hurts, and he is not willing to enter that space. But in order for me to know who I am and where I came from, I have to ask those questions. So, you the speaker and the writer, wanting to explore your lineage, your identity, and your generational trauma — in order to understand who you are — you have to commit these quiet acts of violence against your parents, and that’s a fucked-up thing. I think that’s why I’m obsessed with the idea that the oppressor is implanted in each one of us. If your love is colonized …
Can you expand on that? Because this is the way you start your collection, with a quote from Audre Lorde that says, “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.”
Within my family, love is very much based on expectations, and adherence to expectations depending on your gender. My dad is supposed to be the provider, he’s supposed to be stoic and wise. My mom is supposed to be of service, comforting everybody, never talking about herself, and always checking up on everybody else. Same for me — I’m supposed to be married by now with kids, and the best thing I could do is find a job that provides insurance and a 401(k). But I’m none of those things, therefore my value in their eyes is depleted. If your value and how you adhere to your identity is being commodified through a relationship, that is an oppressive relationship. And that sucks. Because that’s how you learn to love, that’s your parents, that’s your Latinx culture, that’s your model of love. Then you go out there trying to love other people in this way, and if they don’t share your culture, it’s gonna get complicated and nasty. When I did date people who didn’t adhere to my personal ideals, it really messed me up. I was devaluing them for not loving in the way I was taught. Years later, here I am figuring out where it all stems from and asking myself, “How can I decolonize my love?” I don’t really know if it’s possible, but I’m trying. So yes, it was difficult to date white people, but it was the first time my perspective on love was challenged.
With that in mind, what would be one misconception that a white reader might have, that you would love for your book to shatter? I guess the reason I ask is because this is a struggle for me. My relationship with white people is a struggle. Especially with white women, how I view them, how I sometimes feel inferior to them … So this is more of a personal question, as I struggle with my own racism.
We’re all racist. We have to stop asking if we’re racist, and we have to start asking how we’re racist. It’s not if, it’s how. We have to start asking ourselves, “How do I participate in these systems that hurt people of color?” If there’s anything that I’d want to be perceived or learned from the speaker’s narrative in the collection it would be: Whiteness is rattling every single one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re Chicanx, if you’re black, or if you’re white. We’re all part of it. Even brown folk have internalized whiteness to the point of being self-hating and self-shaming. I’m assimilated, you know, and that makes me part of the system. I think it’s important for us to understand that this is not about any specific individual. It’s not about what one white person says or does. It’s about all of us, it’s about the system. So I’d be cool if my narrative can do something to remove that wall, but honestly I don’t care. I care more about brown people and helping us see how we’re sickened by whiteness. If anything, I want my mom to see that she can be a Pocha and that she is valuable; and my dad, that he doesn’t have to be a white dad. He’s tried so hard to be a white dad, and he’s never going to be one and that’s okay, it doesn’t mean he’s not a good dad. If they can see that about themselves, that would be ideal.
I really liked the way you said that, because it’s true. This is not about us against them, it’s about an individual against a system that has been in place for decades and that ultimately devalues some lives over others.
Yeah, I think we understand that this is a systemic problem, but not everyone sees it that way. A lot of people take it personally, but I don’t know how else to say it, it’s not about you.
I noticed that in a lot of your poems you mention the words: Chicana, Xicana, and Pocha. For people that are not familiar with these terms, what’s the difference? How would you define each one?
There’s Chicanx with an “x,” the gender neutral of Chicana, and then there’s Pocha as “she.” There’s no Poch-x, just Pocha. I’m not there yet, I’m not that post-Pocha yet. I did write a poem about being post-Pocha, but I’m not, it would be a lie, so I took it out of the collection.
Chicano is a term used to reference Mexicans who migrated to the United States. But what are you specifically saying when you reference “Chicanismo” in your poems?
When I reference “Chicanismo,” I’m referring to the traditions and ideas of the 1960s-style Chicanismo, which tended to be male-centered, Eurocentric, and still very patriarchal. When you see that come up, I’m making a commentary or a criticism. “Xicanismo” with an x is my current state of identity, which is not centered in a patriarchy, in Eurocentricism or a male-dominated perspective. So I was trying to be thoughtful as to what I used and when I used it. Pocha is discrimination and criticism within our own culture of Chicanismo. You could say the Mexican culture, but the speaker is not necessarily talking about that.
So when someone calls you a Pocha, it’s almost like a …
I feel like it’s Chicanos seeing me, the speaker as a Pocha. Originally it was used by first-generation migrant Mexicans to reference third- or fourth-generation Mexican Americans like me. It’s originally a derogatory term used to call attention to a Mexican’s or a Mexican American’s white-washed identity, assimilation, loss of heritage. But in the context of this collection, it is Chicanos calling each other Pochas. Yes, it’s a criticism, but it’s also a reclamation. Also, I can’t lose what I never had — which is Spanish, and also my indigeneity. I’m of a colonized people. So my heritage was taken from us hundreds of years ago. I’m accepting it as an identity and as a source of power. A center in itself, instead of a word that dangles from another culture.
When you introduce yourself, do you use both Chicana and Pocha?
Yeah. I thought about using one over the other, but they’re both true.
When it comes to identity, do you feel like it’s a fluid, ever-changing thing that depends on where you are at and who you are with?
I’d say, I identify as a Pocha all the time. If I’m with a group of white people, I’m a Pocha; if I’m with my black boyfriend, I’m a Pocha; if I’m with my Mexican family, I’m a Pocha.
Would you say then that Pocha is your American identity?
In the poem “The Study of a Part Time Pocha,” I say, “Yes, Pocha Studies, are Chicano Studies are American Studies,” they are the same studies — American Studies. I personally identify as a Pocha, and this in itself is an American identity. It’s full-time for me. But it’s not seen as full-time for whiteness or white perspectives. It’s still Other-American. Not American. But they’re wrong. Let’s just hope they figure it out soon.
When did you come to this realization?
I didn’t learn that I was Chicana until I was a junior in college. I never even learned the word Chicana until I took a class with Alex Espinoza called “Chicanismo: Chican@ Aesthetics and Poetics.” We read all Chicanx literature, and I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve been around this whole time and didn’t even know.” That’s when I was around 22 or 23. Before that, I wanted to be white my whole life. I thought I was half the time until I one day I realized, “wait a minute, I’m not white, but what am I?” All my life I had been bouncing back and forth between cultures, but to Mexicans I was not a Mexican, but I was also not white. My family didn’t have the language or the education to explain to me who I was. My parents suffered a lot discrimination and racism, and they didn’t want their children to go through the same thing, so they didn’t teach us Spanish for that reason. My parents didn’t make us burritos for lunch, because they didn’t want us to get beat up or be called wetbacks like they did. They were trying to protect me, and what ended up happening is that I fell in between the cracks of two cultures — and I didn’t realize this until I was in college. I learned late but at a time that I was being empowered by what I learned. I went hella hard, and I was about it.
So college is what opened that door for you, of being able to define yourself?
Yeah, I’d say education gave me confidence. But part of the struggle of having this privilege of an education is that it can be an alienating experience. Especially when you are the first in your immediate family to go to college and the first to get an advanced degree. Education was an enlightening experience, but returning home with this knowledge felt like an act of violence. When I corrected my mother, I was being patronizing and I was coming off as pretentious. Telling someone that their ideas are “not quite right” is, at its heart, violent. I’m still struggling with being complicit of this violence toward my mom and my sister.
In your collection, you also write about your brother. In the poem “Imagining My Brother’s Return,” you talk about him joining the Air Force. How did his decision affect your family dynamic and your understanding of what it means to be a person of color in the United States?
It doesn’t matter what we do, we’re still brown. It doesn’t matter if we die for the rights of a person who lives in the United States, we’re still Mexican. We’re never going to be American. We can say we are all we want, but our laws and our education system all function to make us understand we aren’t. My brother was in the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. During his second return, I remember him calling me very upset, because someone was being racist toward him at the store. He said, “If they only knew what I did to protect them! But I wasn’t in my uniform, so I was just another Mexican.”
Has your brother seen your poetry?
He has but not all the stuff about him. Although I did send my book manuscript to him to make sure there was nothing in there that he didn’t want exposed. I wasn’t asking for permission, but I didn’t want to sacrifice my relationship with him over a poem.
I have that question for a lot of these poems. For example, how have they affected your relationship with your parents?
I had the same concern. But my mom was like, “You don’t have to ask me for my permission.” It doesn’t matter what you write, “It’s yours.” My dad did have concerns, and we talked about them. But I ultimately told him, “No,” that I was going to keep everything. It seemed that his biggest concern what the overall image of the family. Ultimately, my response to him was: “That really did happen.” All his life, my father has always not wanted to talk about things, and his denial is a form of gaslighting. For me, poems are the only time when I can speak my mind and recount memories without the presence of my father’s denial, downright denying everything. Poems are the one thing I can keep for myself. They are the one time where all these situations my father denies ever happening, can be real. For me to be able to maintain a relationship with my father, I need to keep this reality alive somewhere.
In one of your poems you say, “I write so I can love my parents. So I can accept them for who they are.” I thought that was very powerful.
I write for me to love and feel loved, so I can give and accept.
You go straight into the heart of things in these poems. There is no beating around the bush, and I respect that. As a poet, I’m looking for ways to say things, without really revealing too many private details, because I’m not there yet. But reading your poems and seeing that it’s possible, that you can do it, and that you are doing it, is definitely encouraging.
It’s hard. A lot of young poets want to practice all these elements of craft, but they don’t want to take any personal risks within a poem. A poem where the speaker is acting as a pure observer is usually not alive. There’s no blood in it. If I hold my family accountable, I have to hold myself accountable, too, and implicating myself in the conflict is part of that. I come from the school of Chris Abani, who taught us not to be observers, but participants. This mentality is what ultimately transformed all my poems.
Brenda Delfino is a poet and a writer born in Argentina and based in Riverside, California. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from University of California, Riverside. She is a freelance copy editor and serves underrepresented students across the Inland Empire by managing and assisting in private and federal grant projects.