VERÓNICA REYES is a self-described “Chicana feminist jota poet from East Los Angeles.” And there is little doubt that she is also well on her way to making a name for herself in the poetry world. Reyes earned her BA from California State University, Long Beach, and an MFA from University of Texas, El Paso. She has won AWP’s Intro Journals Project, an Astraea Lesbian Foundation Emerging Artist award, and was a Finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry award. Reyes has received grants and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Montalvo Arts Center. Her work has appeared in many well respected journals including The New York Quarterly, ZYZZYVA, Calyx, and Feminist Studies. She is a member of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (MALCS) and the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her first collection of poetry has been published by Red Hen Press’s imprint Arktoi Books. Reyes kindly agreed to sit down with LARB for a virtual chat about her book and other literary matters.
— DANIEL OLIVAS
There are many ways to pay homage to one’s community and identity. You chose to do it through writing, specifically in your debut collection, Chopper! Chopper!: Poetry from Bordered Lives (Red Hen Press/Arktoi Books). What led you to choose the literary path and could you talk a little about the subtitle of your book?
I have been writing since I was 14 or 15 years old. At the time, I did not think of it as poetry. I just thought this is my “writing in the moment.” All my pieces were little scripts I wrote the moment the piece hit me. I wrote the words scrolling down in me. So they were my writing pieces. But at that age, I had not thought of them as poetry, yet.
It was later on after my first Chicano literature course, after being encouraged to take a creative writing class, that it dawned on me that I had been writing poetry when I was younger. I was around 23. At Long Beach State, I was in my first fiction class, my first short story was workshopped, and my professor was awed by my writing. I remember thinking, I have something in me.
By then, the early 1990s, I had read Chicano literature and saw the limited avenues for Chicana poetry. In essence, we were secondary. And clearly I noted that Chicana jota literature was still “pushed” to another level. I saw the triple oppression. And I was not going to have any of it. I was not going to stay quiet. I just thought I can give something to our communities of literature, but more importantly to our communities in el barrio. Home. Familia. I thought we deserved to have our stories/experiences told.
I thought there is plenty of room for more Chicana jota poets, and I was going to write pieces that reflected what I understood to be from el barrio. To be marimacha like me, to be “familia” like queer raza. To be a tomboy and find joy in it and not shame. To find pride in one’s self.
Clearly, my politicized self saw the need to add diversity not only within American literature and to shatter this “traditional” American image of what literature is. Basically, white-male-hetero, or white female heterosexuals, or white gay males, or white lesbian writers/poets are dominant. As well, I saw and felt the limited constructions of Chicano literature. The same narrow constructions of literature were being imposed: the vast majority of Chicano literary writers are/were straight males or straight females. Chicana lesbian literature is really just coming to exist in the 1980s. Even today, Chicana lesbian literature is clearly associated with two main writers: Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Rightfully, they deserve and merit recognition for their groundbreaking work. We need to acknowledge and respect that. But we also need to have more published writers. Poets/writers, who are firme/amazing, are not getting published. And this is the main issue I have with the “publishing industry,” including small presses.
I felt there could be more and should be more. I thought that “American” literature should be diverse as a beautiful rainbow like us, Chicana/o jotería.
This was my tool. Poetry. I knew I had something in me. I could write. And people got it. This is what mattered to me.
I wrote for el barrio. For existence. For stories. For women like my mama, who came to this country and deserved better, but society did not entirely give it to them. What they got was something less: health issues, government cheese, lousy medical care, and more. For hombres like my papa, who were hardworking men and did what they could to keep a family afloat in a country that did not necessarily want them here. For la jotería, who experienced homophobia in and out of our communities and still created safe spaces. I write for Mexicanos, Chicanas/os, for the next generation to see/read pieces that looked like us. That embodied us. I write to add the stories I know and understand and say this is us, the gente from North Sydney Drive. This was how we lived. We exist. We matter. This is our story.
And I hope it resonates with raza, la jotería, and to working class people. The everyday person. These are the people who matter to me. This is why I write.
As for my subtitle, Poetry from Bordered Lives, it was part of the original title of my book. I kept it. I decided that I wanted to have this subtitle that linked itself to my original manuscript, which I submitted to contests and never won, to presses and got rejected. I wanted that connection. To show the long road a Chicana dyke from East L.A. has experienced to finally get published. As for the book, the length and poems changed throughout the years I was working on it. But I wanted to have this link. It was important to me, this connection like a bridge from my years as a younger poet to now, a 45-year-old poet.
So I scripted this subtitle to include the lived experiences people are forced into. I thought it captured the idea of border on many levels: physical, geographical, emotional, national, the isms, i.e., racism, sexism, heterosexism. This idea that poetry was sharing narratives from individuals or people who experienced these enforced constraints/obstacles. Maybe the person does not have the word for it, but it is this lived experience. This poetry was deriving its existence from voices/subjects who were “bordered.” The subtitle was acknowledging more than just the frontera, but all the layers bordered can embody. It still comes back to: We exist. We matter.
As a poet, I liked the visual imagery. Like a poem where I can play and mold words together to create concrete images, I thought Poetry from Bordered Lives was like a painting or photo that is framed. The art is framed. The poems are framed. Their narratives are framed. (I hope in a respectful manner even when challenging societal constraints.) Like my cover image, specifically commissioned and created for my book by a local artist, José Ramírez. His painting ELA framed my manuscript. Everything worked together.
Of course, this last part was purely intuition. When I asked José to paint a painting for my book, I did not know what it would look like and how it would all come together in the end. I wanted a collaborative piece. To bridge a painter and a poet, to bridge a straight man to a jota’s life. To bridge our existences ’cause we both come from el barrio. It was purely a gut response. At a coffee joint near the East LA Civic Center, I trusted my gut and asked him if he could paint a painting that captured the energy for my book. Of course, we had talked for a couple hours and we met up a few times, and I gave him a stack of poems to read. I also shared a photo of my dad’s house, which has a big tree — one evening I had asked my older brother to take the photo. To José I said: “I trust you. Paint what you think captures the energy of our pláticas and my poems.” I thought he would do a wonderful job, and he did. The painting is beautiful, vibrant, very Mexican, and very barrio. The painting captivates people to stop and look at the book. When I originally asked him, when I came up with the subtitle, I really did not envision this. In the end, all these layers/narratives work together. But the original idea was to capture the experiences of people living in el barrio, whether straight, familia, or queer.
So Poetry from Bordered Lives was and is an intricate part of creating this book, as is the main title. It is about the people, us, me. A tomboy, a young girl, a femmy boy, a jota or joto who can see themselves in these poems. And recognize our experiences, because lives matter. It is about raza, queer or straight.
You describe yourself as a “Chicana feminist jota poet from East Los Angeles, California.” This multiple identity runs throughout your poems. In particular, your poem “Panocha Power!” begins:
the queer crowd screamed dreamy orgasms
books lined the narrow aisles of the store
an evening poetry reading was on its way
in the graffiti-layered streets of East L.A.
and like usual the poet was on Xicana lesbiana time
(allot fifteen minutes for each title)…
It is a wonderfully funny, soulful, proud poem, one filled with great images that almost convert the piece into a bit of flash fiction. Could you talk a bit about the crafting of this particular poem?
Well, the title, “Panocha Power!,” popped into my head at a dinner. It was at Lucy’s Café in El Paso. I was with friends, fellow grad students at UTEP, and we were planning for poetry reading. I knew the moment I said, “What about Panocha Power,” for the title of the reading that I really wanted the title for a poem. It really was one of those moments where you know this is going to be a good piece. So I volunteered the title; then took it back. It was mine.
As for the crafting, it was one of those pieces that came out flowing onto the typed page. At the time, I usually sketched a poem in a journal; I did not type up a poem. But this poem came into existence on my word processor. I just typed it. Once I found time to write it, I sat down, and it flowed out of me. I trusted the voice. I trusted there was something special here. So I did not question it. I just went with it. The poem’s voice took me on this whirlwind of a ride, and I rode it. All along, I was beaming. It was that type of piece. It was a fun piece. I could hear it being performed on a stage. I imagined being somewhere on a poetry stage and reading this poem. I said “Panocha!” and the audience yelled, “Power!” People getting into it. And to some extent, what I envisioned for its performances has come true.
Afterwards when I was “cleaning it up,” I reviewed it to see if I was happy with it. I liked what I saw and what came out. I knew spacing was very important; literally the typed space on a page. I knew I wanted lowercase text for most of the poem and certain words had to be capitalized. There was meaning there. I knew that I wanted to represent what it meant to be a Chicana jota/dyke from East L.A., a poet, and living in El Paso and existing in graduate school. So the images are meant to capture this strong, fighting mujer like a “Chicana kickboxing ruca” who is gonna shatter the barriers that exist. Shatter the isms, i.e., racism, sexism, heterosexism. Oppression. It is about claiming space. Acknowledging personal power. It is about honoring our female lineage, our mamas, and saying fiercely no one/no man/no patriarchal society can ever hurt her or negate her existence. It is a poem about empowerment.
So, I wrote this poem in graduate school. It is a 3-page poem. I always thought it did its “job.” It captured the story, the voice/s, the images, the battles against oppression. I will add this: When I was asked to prepare it for the galleys, I really recognized how strongly I felt about the whole piece and why it needed to exist on the page as it does, the aesthetics/spacing and really its powerful energy. I changed nothing from its inception in 1998. As a Chicana jota poet, I understood and knew why I crafted my poem in this form and why it needed to stay that way.
Getting a poetry collection published is no easy task. How did your manuscript get into the hands of Arktoi Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press?
Well, it took years of work — about a decade. After graduate school, I really had to learn on my own how and where to submit poems to journals. I worked and juggled my life as a poet and educator. At the time I was living in Toronto; I devoted some “spare” time the first few weeks of a semester for submissions to journals, writers’ residencies, like Vermont Studio Center. But once midterm week came, I needed to focus primarily on teaching. So a lot of my time was given to teaching. I had to squeeze in “poet time” into this framework, which unfortunately is the norm for so many writers. We do not have time to create or work on getting a book completed. I remember the first time winning a grant for a residency, and I could not attend because it did not cover the entire cost, and I could not afford to pay. I needed to work, so I gave it up to work. But the second time I was accepted and offered a grant at VSC (April 2008), I made a conscious decision that I was going to attend and suffer the economic losses. By this time, I was back in East L.A.
So there were many factors that took place over time. I eventually took all the tidbits of advice from residencies, writers’ conferences, and my own experience. I put it all together, and it made sense what I needed to do. I will credit that writer’s advice happened at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Macondo, and Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. At a talk about new publications, one poet mentioned he submitted to 70 presses and contests. I kept that idea in me. But I also knew I was not going to pay money for contests. After years of paying for postage and online submission fees, I was not going to pay for contest fees. I knew I would submit to small presses and university presses. After my VCCA residency, it became a firm idea in me that I needed one final poem. Summer 2009, I wrote “East L.A. Poet,” and it captured the essence of the book and who I was/am.
At one point, I was at Macondo Writers’ Workshop, and a fellow Macondista mentioned Arktoi Books to me. I kept this info. When I started to submit heavily to presses, Arktoi was on my list. So in August 2011, I submitted my manuscript to Eloise Klein Healy (she is the publisher/editor of Arktoi). A few days later, I remember getting an email from Eloise and feeling a good vibe. I really liked the last line of her email: “Nice to see a manuscript from a local gal.” There was something there for me. I just felt this one is it. I even wrote a note in my sketch journal a couple months later. And well, when January came, I was just hoping. By this time, I had submitted to 50 presses. I got plenty of rejections. And I received early on one very positive letter. A handwritten note that kept me afloat over the months. It just gave me hope to not give up even if/when a press says no; someone will say yes.
So in late January 2012, I’m home and get this email from Eloise. The moment I read her name I knew. I was smiling. I opened up the message, read it, and after years of hard work trudging it on this Chicana jota poet’s road, I sat in awe and then cried. I had to. I just had to let it all out. This was a long road.
This is how Eloise and I came to cross paths. And when we met in person, she had good energy. I felt my book was in good hands. Eloise was a very good editor/publisher, and I’m glad she chose my book, precisely because this was her imprint. She had her vision of a strong lesbian writer community, including our diverse voices. I was able to stay true to my poetic style and political beliefs. Eloise genuinely trusted and believed in me. Arktoi was wonderful.