elena minor’s poetry and prose have been published in more than two dozen journals, including Jacket2, MAKE, Hot Metal Bridge, RHINO, Puerto del Sol, Switchback, Mandorla, and Shadowbox. She has been a first-prize recipient of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize and is the founding editor of the literary journal PALABRA. Her debut poetry collection, TITULADA, was published this year by Noemi Press. It is a wild ride, a book shaped by Chicana identity, language and number play, and visual textures that refuse to be bordered or shackled.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Many of the poems in TITULADA were first published in literary journals. Could you talk a little about the process of putting together this collection and the significance of organizing it into four untitled sections?
ELENA MINOR: I didn’t start out intending to write a book. In fact, it never occurred to me to write a book of poetry; I simply wanted to write — mostly about what I was curious about, what irked me, what confounded me, what tickled me. But I also wanted to see what I could do with language: how to stretch it, blend it, remove it, deconstruct and then recombine it to create meaning. When I thought I had something worth the effort, I sent it out to see which journals would publish it. It wasn’t until someone asked if I’d ever thought about a book that I thought about a book.
Then the difficult part of the process began. I had this unruly group of poems that in large part had no “guiding principle” even though there were some that felt as if they were more or less on speaking terms. If it had been solely my choice, I would simply have alphabetized them and let it go at that. But I knew that without some coherence, some hook for readers to hang on to, it would have been even more difficult to place the book with a publisher, because editors like to see coherence and order. It gives them a benchmark by which to evaluate the content.
So I enlisted the keen poetic sensibility of the fabulous Maria Melendez Kelson, so she could help shape at least an outward semblance of an orderly collection. It was a treat to work with her. She respected what I do and how I do it. She also slapped me around, told me where to tighten the language or púchale mas, asked me the right questions, then threw out some of my favorite poems. (Maybe I’ll include them in the next book …) It was she who sussed out four sections and gave them form. I was never able to title the sections, though. It didn’t feel right.
You play with poetic structure in a very visual way, sometimes using symbols and unusual punctuation, other times stretching words and sentences so that some poems appear to cascade across the page. (I’m thinking of such poems as “Se Me Escapó” and “rrs FEED.”) Thus, much of this visual wordplay — for want of a better description — would lose its meaning or even disappear if you read some of these poems to an audience. What does this say about your definition of poetry?
Yes, clearly some of my work can’t be read aloud and still pack the sense of what appears on the page. Needless to say, I don’t read those pieces aloud. (Although I’ve been thinking lately of backing into ways that can make them work aloud, perhaps using multimedia tools.) That sometimes the poems are as visual as they are aural speaks to my own sensibility about writing — that a writer should use whatever technical tools are available to have her proper say.
I believe in exploration, in trying to forge the new from the old, in searching to find ways to express what seemingly can’t be expressed, and while I enjoy reading beautifully crafted and lyrical work, my own just doesn’t come out of me that way, and it (mostly) refuses to be forced into those forms, however harmonious they may be. Sometimes punctuation and the symbols and smileys created to serve technology also serve language, in the same way that pictographs of long-ago ages told stories. And since language is never static, since it’s always changing, shifting, and evolving to fit new ways of discovering and experiencing life, why not use these new tools, created, after all, to communicate meaning?
I also use unusual constructions to subvert language, although not merely for the sake of subversion. It’s an attempt to reframe the questions, issues, and assumptions about what literature, especially US literature, should or can be and what [email protected] literature should say and what it should look like. It’s a means for jolting readers, including [email protected] writers, out of the conventional mindset they have about literature and writing. If I have a writing mantra, it’s José Donoso’s quote about the writer and writing: “A writer’s work is many things, among them, trying to find his or her own language.” I’m still trying to find my own language and I learn something new with each poem and story.
Still, the experience of literature, especially poetry, is a highly private and individual engagement, best relished one poem/one person at a time. The space I inhabit when I crawl into a poem and wrap it around me is unique to me. It’s not unusual for me to favor my reading of a poet’s work over the poet’s own reading of her work. In some respects it comes with the territory; everyone brings an individual and unique sensibility to a given piece of literature. It’s that difference that makes the work retain its life and resonance.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “When They Come,” which begins:
they never come
in comfort night’s
sweet dark ‘n’
Could you talk a little about “When They Come” and your process of composing it?
I’m not really great at explaining my process, because it’s largely a mystery to me. I almost feel as if I need to write another poem to explain the poem. But here goes.
“When They Come” was a fun poem for me — celebratory, dancing, musical, although it didn’t start out that way. It started in one emotional register and morphed into another.
The title actually came first, and it carried some vague notion about how we use the word “they” to convey a sense of otherness and the fear that often partners with it. I had thought it would be a darkside poem, but it quickly took a left turn and mapped its own way on the page. I followed and let it take me where it wanted. It led me to places of anticipation and exhilaration and outright audacity. I’m still finding places it took me that I hadn’t realized were there.
Except for the last line, it wasn’t a difficult poem to write because by the end of the first stanza I saw it and heard its rhythms in my head. I wanted the first part to feel like a lullaby. The second part had to jump. I had an image of a parade: a cross between Carnival dancers strutting their stuff and a New Orleans–style funeral procession, with all the ceremony, noise, music, and life of both. But that last line took months to find, especially the very last word. I knew how it needed to be, but couldn’t get the right words to mesh with the sounds and closure I wanted. I also knew the words had to be three, and single syllables — that’s probably why the right words were so elusive. I let the poem go for a while. Then one day ¡Shazam! There it was. Thank you, Albert Einstein.