Sandra Cisneros can put you in a poem


“A poem is never done,” writer Sandra Cisneros told me in July over dinner at La Posadita, a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican town where she has lived for nearly a decade. . Wearing a black and white huipil and wearing two small high buns, Cisneros ordered trays of fideo seco and nopales for the table. We had met to talk about his new collection of poetry, “woman without shame», just came out of Knopf. Although it has been twenty-eight years since she published a collection of poems, she has never stopped writing them. “I would throw my poems under the bed, like Emily Dickinson,” she said.

Sixty-seven-year-old Cisneros is the author of short stories, personal essays, novels and three previous collections of poetry. But she is best known forThe Mango Street Housea semi-autobiographical vignette novel about a difficult childhood in 1960s Chicago. First published by Arte Público Press of Houston in 1984 and republished by Vintage in 1991, it has become a transitional adulthood, read in classrooms across the country and sold more than six million copies. As Ricardo Ortiz, an English teacher at Georgetown, told me, this helped make Cisneros an “indispensable voice.”

The only child of a Mexican upholsterer father and a Mexican American mother, Cisneros grew up with six brothers on Chicago’s West Side, a neighborhood so divided by racial and income inequality that in 1966 Martin Luther King, Jr. ., moved into one of its slums in protest. Throughout Cisneros’ childhood in the sixties and seventies, she and her family regularly returned to Mexico. Cisneros expressed his sense of dislocation by writing poems in his bedroom, the door of which did not close, leading to continual interruptions.

Cisneros attended Loyola University Chicago, and in 1976 entered the poetry program at Iowa, where she studied with Donald Justice and Louise Glück, learning alongside Joy Harjo and concurrently with Rita Dove. , both future poet laureates. Iowa’s poetry and fiction programs were separate duchies, but Cisneros merged the disciplines by writing prose poems. “It was a new form, but Donald Justice thought it was a waste of time,” said writer and historian Paul Alexander, a former classmate. At the time, teachers admired denominational poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. “We had no voice,” Harjo said, describing his and Cisneros’ feelings about being outsiders in Iowa. “Culturally, it was on the side. . . . We come from land-centered, indigenous places. Our relationship to land and language is essentially different. Cisneros said she felt “homeless” in Iowa, and although she continued to teach, she never found a permanent place at the academy.

While Cisneros was in Iowa, she began writing what would become forty-five lyrical vignettes – a book she titled “The House on Mango Street”. Influenced by experimental Latin American Boom novels, she wrote the book with the voice of Esperanza Cordero, who observes the poverty surrounding her Chicago family. “Dead cars popped up overnight like mushrooms,” reads one passage, describing a wasteland where she and her friends are playing. Reading “The House on Mango Street” has become a rite of passage for many Latinxers. David Bowles, a Texas-based Chicano novelist, met him as a child and felt recognized. “My mother, brothers and I had lived in Section 8 accommodation for several years,” he said. “It made me feel seen.” Latin Caribbean writer and artist Fragoza studied it in fourth grade, at a summer writing camp, a time when she remembers being “surrounded by white kids for the first time.” The book helped Cisneros win, among other awards, the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. The same year she won the MacArthur, Cisneros began teaching a class in San Antonio that became the Macondo Writers Workshop. Now in its third decade, Macondo offers workshops to a diverse student body on topics ranging from young adult literature to translingual poetics.

Cisneros’ home in the parish of San Juan de Dios de San Miguel is called Casa Coatlicue, named after the native goddess, and Latin archetypes such as Coatlicue and La Llorona resonate throughout his work. Cisneros, along with writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, and Cherríe Moraga, was integral to a late 20th-century Latinx movement that celebrated the subversiveness of indigenous storytelling. She was one of the first Latina authors to write mainstream publishing success books featuring abused women, and today her influence can be seen in writers such as Natalie Diaz and Reyna Grande. , whose complex poetry and memoirs limn violence in Native American and Latino communities. . « Discovering Sandra’s book [“The House on Mango Street”] was an eye opener,” Grande said in an email. “She gave me permission, and her blessing, to embark on my own writing journey.”

Cisneros’ success and support for programs such as Macondo has earned him a totemic reputation. “It’s as if Sandra exists in this paradise, this other space,” Fragoza told me. In conversation with Latinx writers, I’ve heard many stories about Cisneros’ magnetism and outsized generosity. Chicana novelist Helena María Viramontes said that when her husband was sick, Cisneros invited the couple to her home. Speaking with emotion in her voice, Viramontes recalled, “She read us like a gift. It almost chokes me. »

Cisneros’ magnanimous gestures sometimes backfire, such as when she jammed Jeanine Cummins’ book in 2020,”American dirta thriller about an Acapulco woman whose family is murdered by a cartel leader. “This book is not just the great American novel; it’s the great novel AmericasCisneros wrote. After its release, the book was widely criticized for its racial stereotypes. Backers such as actors Gina Rodriguez and Salma Hayek and poet Erika L. Sánchez have dropped their praise for the novel. But Cisneros refused to withdraw his endorsement, prompting viral criticism, especially in the Latinx community. Fragoza said Cisneros’ blurb is a “betrayal” that “exposed serious disconnects between Sandra and the writers today, Sandra being the untouchable queen of Chicana Latinx literature, and the rest of us don’t we’re just bottom eaters, trying to get into publishing”.

I asked Cisneros about those responses, and she said the reaction to “American Dirt” “was as bad as the far-right banning LGBTQ books.” Candor and controversy can perhaps be expected from a writer who regularly tackles taboo subjects ranging from poverty and violence to female sexuality.

Cisneros’ fearlessness runs through “Woman Without Shame,” whose poems capture her loneliness, erotic desires, and life in Mexico with rich language and sharp humor. I spoke to him in a series of interviews in San Miguel de Allende, and in subsequent phone and text conversations. The following has been condensed and edited.

“Woman Without Shame” reads almost like a diary – it’s full of sly references to past lovers and vivid descriptions of turning points in your life.

It’s more my diary than my diary. My diaries are like hieroglyphics. If you look at my diary, you won’t understand a sentence, a name or a quote. He won’t explain where things come from. It’s only when I write poetry that I explore.

There’s an incredible straightness to the lines, especially when it comes to writing about love and sex. In “Making love after celibacy”, you write: “I bled a little, / Like the first time. / There was pain. / . . . / And a winged happiness / Just out of reach.

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