Associate Editor Jacob Saenz interviewed Poet and Writer Erika Sánchez, whose poem, “Recession Poem #3”, was published in RHINO 2012.
JS: First off, thank you for taking the time off your busy schedule to interview with us here at RHINO. We’re happy you agreed to do so and even more pleased to have your poem, “Recession Poem #3”, in RHINO 2012.
I love the use of white space in your poem, which seems to me to represent the “silence // so tentacled so deep” that seeps in throughout the entire poem. I also love that poem ends with the sound of wind chimes that seem to shatter the silence.
How many Recession poems have you written? Do they use a similar form as that of #3? Do you feel compelled to write more of them in this economic climate?
ES: It’s my pleasure! I actually had three recession poems at one point, but I am a ruthless reviser, so now I only have one. Also, this particular one has been transformed into something different. Many of the images remain, but the poem became much more emotionally violent and kind of creepy. (I can’t ever leave my poems alone. I have probably ruined a few by being so compulsive.) I originally wrote the series because I had this god awful corporate job after grad school for about two years, and I don’t think I’ve ever hated anything so much in my life. The poems reflected the deep desperation I felt during that time. While working in the Loop, I also observed jarring economic inequalities and overwhelming consumerism. I was both repulsed and fascinated… But mostly repulsed. Haha. I think I’m finished with those kinds of poems for now. Things are looking up for me.
JS: In addition to being a talented poet, you also write articles for The Huffington Post and NBC Latino. How do you approach writing articles as opposed to poetry? Do you have a writing regimen for either form? Do you find that your poetry and the articles you write have similar themes and/or topics?
ES: Usually, a poem begins as an image that gets stuck in my brain. I see or hear something grotesque or beautiful or both that startles me and then I become obsessed with it until it becomes a poem. Sometimes it takes me years to complete a poem. Sometimes they require me to leave them alone for months and months before I can revise them again. I know it sounds new agey and kind of mystical, but the poems tell me what they want. I also do a lot of writing exercises and free writing to make myself come up with fresh new language. Poetry feels like my brain giving birth to something painful and grotesque.
My prose, however, is mostly a reaction to anger. Honestly, most of my articles are about things I’m pissed off about. I can make myself sit down and write about domestic violence or racism, for example, but I can’t do the same with poetry. That always ends badly. I can also use humor in my prose, which I find nearly impossible to do when writing poems. Poetry is also so painstaking and image-driven for me. I find both genres liberating in completely different ways.
JS: Full disclosure: you and I both attended Morton East High School in Cicero, IL. I remember being an editor for Parchment, the school’s literary magazine, and how we had to turn down one of your poems because it had the word “cunts” in it. I remember liking the poem and feeling sad that we could not publish it but I also understood why we had to do so. I suppose it would’ve made some readers uncomfortable.
Do you enjoy that, making the reader uncomfortable or otherwise uneasy with your writing? What do you hope the reader to gain by such discomfort? In asking this question, I’m thinking of your article on The Huffington Post, “Why I Choose to be Politically Incorrect”.
ES: I love this story because it reveals how much of an asshole I was at that age. The hubris! Haha. I remember getting the response from the editor and I was all “how dare they censor me!” I remember I also got reprimanded after I read a scandalous poem at a school assembly. I suppose I haven’t completely changed because I still revel in making people uneasy sometimes. Part of it is that I think uncomfortable things need to be dissected and discussed so we can all heal both as individuals and as a society. To be perfectly honest, I enjoy joking about race, and I do it because it helps me cope and because it can make people examine their own privilege. (Or maybe they just end up thinking I’m a politically incorrect jerk. Who knows?)
I also don’t hesitate to let myself go to the weird and unsettling places of my psyche. I can’t tell you how many times I have creeped myself out with a poem. Recently, I wrote a poem about donkeys and when I was finished, I thought to myself– “did I really just write a poem about a donkey show?” I feel like readers appreciate that sort of vulnerability and honesty, though. I often get responses from other women, especially Latinas, thanking me for writing about this or that. I really appreciate being able to connect to people in that capacity. My articles have also pissed a lot of people off, particularly men, and I’ve received plenty of hate mail, but it doesn’t faze me anymore. I’m going to write about what I think is important regardless of the repercussions. I’ve always been brutally honest and it has both bitten me in the ass and served me well.
JS: As a Latina poet, how do you feel about nature of Latino/a poetry as a whole? Do you feel Latino/a poetry is well-represented in mainstream journals? If not, what could be done to address this?
ES: I don’t know what to say about the nature of it as a whole, because it’s comprised of so many voices and styles. I think it might take me a few months to come up with a good answer. I’m disappointed when I don’t see Latino/a poetry in mainstream journals, because there are so many talented Latino poets that I refuse to believe it’s because they don’t receive enough submissions. I think this is improving though. Latino/as have been winning big prizes and are being published by larger presses. The way that I personally address this problem is by submitting to these journals until they take my work. I’m very stubborn. I think it would also help if journals made an effort to make their editorial team more diverse.
JS: Who and what have you been reading lately that has inspired you? What books do you recommend? Do you have a go-to poet/writer?
ES: Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindberg is stunning– poignant and beautifully crafted. Wow. I love creepy poems so I really enjoyed A Larger Country by Tomás Q. Morín. Everyone and their mother, grandmother, and cat have been talking about Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral, and I will be no different. It’s undoubtedly one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read. Larry Levis is one of my favorite poets. I can read his poems over and over. They are so good they make my heart hurt. I’ve been into Emily Dickinson ever since I was an awkward and solitary teenager and she still makes me feel “as if the top of my head were taken off.”
JS: What’s next for you? Any projects/books/plans for world domination?
ES: I would like to get my poetry manuscript published soon. I feel like it’s finished now and would like to see it in the world. Recently, I also started writing a memoir and then realized that I actually need to write a novel instead. I hope to one day have time to complete it. The ideas are bubbling inside me, but freelancing sucks up all of my time. I’ve also been approached to come up with some ideas for other kinds of media. I’m eager to tell the whole world more about it but I think it’s too soon to tell what’s going to happen with all that. I’m very excited about the possibilities on the horizon. I feel like I’m on the cusp of something.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinasand a contributor for The Huffington Post, NBC Latino, and others. Her poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Drunken Boat, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. She has written book reviews for Kirkus Reviews and her nonfiction has been published in Jezebel, AlterNet, and Ms. Magazine. http://erikalsanchez.com/