This interview between Hamid Bouaicha and Natalia Treviño focuses on Treviño’s book of poems, Lavando La Dirty Laundry (Mongrel Empire Press).
Hamid Bouaicha: My first question is probably one you have been asked the most. How did you become a poet? And, what drove you to poetry?
Natalia Treviño: This is such an important question. I became a poet by playing with song lyrics by my favorite bands when I was a teenager. I began to re-write their titles to create sentences. I felt like I was unlocking language by seeing and hearing new word combinations. It was in the act of discovery that I became a poet. I think there are as many poets in the world as there are people who love rain. Taking it to a professional level has taken decades, even a decade of silence in my twenties. When I saw the words created whole internal experiences for me, something inside me woke up, and put me in touch with intangibles that make meaning. I am forever at the service of those intangibles, much the way a quantum physicist is certain that there is more out there than meets the limited scope of reference gauged by our feeble instrument.
HB: Lavando La Dirty Laundry is a very rich book of poems, especially with its focus on women’s perspectives, feelings, breaths and emotions.
NT: Thank you so much. I really did struggle to figure out how the poems fit together, and I worried about unity, coherence, and theme, and then when I saw the poems spread out on my living room floor, the people and the pictures there sort of rose out of the floor and started to tell a story. I was able to see the breadth of voices and experience I was documenting. I feel like the book falls under a feminist lens celebrating voices of women who have been shhhh’ed!
I used to believe that feminism was the other half or final step of humanism, but today, my idea of humanism is shaped by the breadth of non-binary thinkers who are helping me see that the spectrum of humanity goes far beyond masculinity and femininity. It is human-in-ity: an inclusion of all expressions of humanity. Mine is just one voice in this chorus about justice and equality
HB: I like how you use the “Abuela” stories to tell us about people and their laundries. How did you come up with this idea to use the grandmother stories in this book?
NT: Those Abuelita stories emerged very organically from my attempts to make sense out of the bi-cultural experience I have witnessed and lived. In other words, it is almost impossible for me to understand something without thinking about my grandmothers, the matriarchs in my family who grew up a universe away, the early half of the twentieth century in Mexico, a culture dominated by patriarchy and machismo. I grew up listening to them, interviewing them, and swaddled in their love and nurturing. They gave me total approval, and they also pinned their hopes to me, telling me their regrets and their tough lessons. What a responsibility to have! When I had the urge to write about an issue that was gnawing at me, say, a phrase they had spoken to me, or a feeling of disquiet due to their own suffering or insight, I went back to them in my memory to write it out and see where they stood, what they said. I want their wisdom and story to be documented as part of the tapestry of literature about the human spirit. I liken their experience to that of many Mexican and Mexican-American women, and I know that if their story helped me, it can help others. Their laundry is much like my own, shaped by choices in love, by the cosmic experience of parenthood, and by the desire to re-invent one’s life after reflection, and after wisdom sets in. I had the choice to change my life because I was born just at the apex of the women’s rights movement in the United States. Liberated women here in the US were my teachers in public school. My own grandmothers did not have that education, culture, or choice. I honor them
HB: The poem “lavando la dirty laundry” seems to be a poem about the fact that people might be too worried and think others are just like them though it is not always the case. What idea motivated you to write this particular poem?
NT: When I was fifteen, my grandmother shared this story with me. It sat with me for years, the horror of it, the innocence I lost because of it, the nuance of love, sacrifice, and maturity that it taught me, how the fact that it was literally her ruined laundry that had pissed her off the most in the retelling of this story. When something blows my mind, I have to write about it. In some ways, it is the only way it will make sense to me, emotionally, logically, and psychologically. I could not get over the fact that it was through a story about laundry, a dirty pile of whites, that my grandmother experienced a terrible moment of “dirty laundry” that would haunt her for the rest of her life. How can you be mad at your beloved and deceased husband?
HB: The title, how did you decide on the title?
NT: For a few years, the title of this book was Eight Marry Wives because I realized there were eight wives’s voices in the book, two of them the author’s! Sandra Cisneros told me that this title sounded like a PBS special, so I went back to the drawing board. I wanted a title that reflected spouse-hood, and I loved the idea that in Spanish the word for spouse, esposa, also means “handcuffs.” I tried lots of versions of this in English and Spanglish, but nothing worked, and most of it sounded like the book would be an S&M guide, like Handcuffed to the …. One title possibility was “Handcuffed to the Heart,” but the imagery for that was utterly violent. I knew “Lavando” was the best title poem for the whole book all along, but I did not want to draw so much attention to such a painful poem. I listened to my own beliefs about courage, went for it, and got it accepted very quickly with that new title.
HB: Two of your poems were very moving — “Tia Licha” and “Well God” – and showed how much the grandmother cared for her friends and family, and the hardship she had to go through. What else could you tell us about these two poems?
NT: I would love to read more poems like these, poems about the women who did not go to school, who make sacrifices for the rest of us, and who show up for the less advantaged, stories of women whose sacrifices may be seen as sweet or soft-hearted, but are actually courageous and steel-hearted, stories about women who are fortified by a depth of understanding the paradox of love as a great pain worth waking up at three in the morning for, or adopting a disabled child on a sidewalk. There are terrible circumstances for both of these women, and yet they have faith and strength. I am inspired by that.
HB: The kitchen, the laundry, the chef, the chemistry, and Mr. Sky – an amazing combination of ingredients for these poems. How did you come up with this splendid recipe?
NT: That is so kind of you to call it a recipe! Rather than removing the poems from the manuscript because they were so different, I sought out what helped them all fit together. Love. Love makes them fit together. The whole book is a love story with many warm crevices and silky hemlines. “Waking Up with Mr. Sky” is about the speaker’s mythological love affair with God and man, a being who shakes up her spirit, mind, and body alike, just as the sky does every day with its dazzling daily appearances, joining these together in a new invention of selfhood, a positive selfhood that can be actualized by a good reflection, a good mirror. Great love is a great mirror, and can help us continually improve. The chemistry poem is the same. It is about love, and so is everything I do as a poet, mother and wife—at the computer, in the kitchen, and in laundry room.
HB: The melanoma seems to be the quiet explosion in the book, dominating and shifting the mood in the book. Am I accurate?
NT: Yes, this cancer story is part of the speaker’s own set of terrible circumstances that must be overcome through awareness of beauty and love; though we are ephemeral beings on the geologic scale of things, time is relative, and when times are tough, as in your new husband has a new and dangerous melanoma, there is a shift in consciousness that tinges every moment and action with a blend of its weight, its gravity, and its light. In the great love that is piled in with the rest of the dirty laundry in this book, and really, what dirty laundry is not, in some way, related to love, (love of money, others, or self) this darkness and fear had to be confronted. And because this cancer created a variety of poems, I had to include them. In a way, this cancer is Penelope’s Odysseus. It fucks her over. It is Jesus’s death to Mary Magdalene. It has the power to silence her forever. I did not want to be silenced by it. I had to speak up.
HB: Australia, Mexico, three rings, and foreign coins. All bring some sort of a paradox to the marriage. What else could you tell us about this?
NT: When my brother was in his twenties, he wrote a novel. It was about how Mexico and US were the only countries left in a post-apocalyptic setting. He said they were the only two left because they were the most underestimated, ignored countries in the world, and so they were not bombed. My brother is a physicist. He is smart. He seems to have a crystal ball and knew that Mexico and Australia would come together in my life to show me what is what. I spent my whole life going to different parts of Mexico to see family. The first time I went to Australia, to visit my then boyfriend from across the planet, I saw so many similarities between Australia and Mexico. People walk places. People hang their laundry to dry in the sun, out of choice, not necessity, people take a lot of time in their sentences and ordinary exchanges to say, “thank you.” People add cream to dishes I would never imagine adding it to. The sun. The love of life, and the warmth. There is much yet to discover in this collage. Both countries too, have a difficult relation to their indigenous cultures. There is much work needed to raise equality and increase social justice in both of these beautiful nations, but the spirit in them both makes me and my husband a perfect match.
HB: Could you talk more about “Mary Magdalena,” which brings a religious element?
NT: I am so glad you like this niche I made for her. She is such the silenced woman, the epitome of the silenced woman in our Judeo-Christian culture, so unfairly stripped of dignity, and perhaps of her true history, and how needed she is in the Catholic faith to assist with all elements of intolerance of sexuality, women, and humanity. How much damage could have been avoided if she were the wife of JC and were honored as an apostle, and were respected for her role? There is no real evidence that I have found to really substantiate that she was Jesus’s wife, but there was a question about it for a time, and that really sparked my interest in her and in the damage done to our civilization by not allowing women to become priests because Jesus only chose men, and by calling her prostitute instead of what she was, which was an apostle. Imagine that there had been a Book of Mary. It would certainly have something about doing Jesus’s laundry and about giving his children a bath while singing something to them about their really cool grandfather, the ever generous and yet hard-to-understand, all-seeing Big G. It would make the story more human and allow women to pursue priesthood and leadership without question. It breaks my heart that women have been so utterly left out of the history of the Catholic church leadership. Imagine the Crusades happening without torture. Would women priestesses have allowed that to have happened in the name of JC? My guess is they would say JC would have none of that in his name no matter how much land the Pope would acquire.
HB: Besides poetry, what other genres do you write?
NT: I just finished my first novel, Drinking the Bee Water! I talk about it a lot here in this interview with Ellie Francis Douglas. I also write non-fiction, which is where I really unfold without a mask, I think. I do not mean that the poetry and fiction are dishonest, but they are shaped realities, artifice, worlds created by choices I make in order to sing a certain song, whereas in non-fiction, I must depict the world as it is and knife my way through it in order to see something at the end of the path that is both brutal and eye-opening. I love the elements of these three genres. Each of them has its challenges and gifts. I think poetry will have the most longevity because it can be shared in a short time, make its powerful point, and enter memory, like breath is meant to enter the body: effortlessly.
HB: What advice would you give us students of poetry?
NT: This is the advice I give all of my students who have a dream. My advice is to believe you can do it, and then do it. I spent a lot of time wanting to write and thinking about that want, and feeling divided from it because my life limits and profession did not allow me time to reflect and truly engage with other poets or poetry in general. When I realized I was dragging my feet and delayed by wishing rather than acting, and that time was passing, and that I would be dead in twenty or forty more years, I realized I had to get on it, try, fail, try, push, and at least, by the laws of probability, get closer to my goal rather than further from it. There will be ten new great poets of your exact age in ten years, and they are alive right now and probably students of poetry like you are today. Why won’t one of them be you? Their talent does not outshine yours, their insights are much like yours, but their effort. That will be the main difference. Get busy, make time, put down the smartphone, say no to a few distractions a week, and do it. What is in you is a constellation of language so beautiful and important that it can cause a revolution of ideas, and we need those desperately.
HB: What else is on the horizon?
NT: I am working on a new collection of poems tentatively called Ala de la Agua, about the goddess, La Virgen de So Many Names! The Virgin Mary has so many identities, and I am enthralled, enslaved by them at the moment, by her many active miracles around the globe, by her enormous following, by the humanity in her divinity. There is so much to learn in that paradox alone. I am mostly working with a number of Mexican Virgins, who are also former Aztec goddesses: La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos/ del Valle (she has a twin in Texas), and the Aztec goddesses she is/and/or replaced, which include Tonantzin and Coatlicue. She is utterly interesting and connecting me thank goodness to my beloved, you guessed it, Abuelita. My Abuelita is worth my writing a thousand books. I hope to honor her with several during my lifetime—not because she is a rock star, but because she is a rock, and she is a great star, who gave me life, DNA, and the ability to resist injustice.
Hamid Bouaicha is a business student with an engineering background at the College of Business at Sam Houston State University. Originally from Morocco, he has always had a passion for Arabic and French-language poetry and is now enjoying reading and listening to poetry in the English language.
Born in Mexico City and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Natalia Treviño was raised in Spanish by her parents while Bert and Ernie gave her English lessons on the side. Natalia is an Associate Professor of English at Northwest Vista College and a member of the Macondo Foundation, a writer’s workshop aimed at encouraging non-violent social change. Her poetry has won the Alfredo Moral de Cisneros Award for Emerging Writers from Sandra Cisneros, the Wendy Barker Creative Writing Award, the 2008 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and the San Antonio Artists Foundation Literary Award. Often working the community programs to increase young adult literacy, she has taught classes at women’s and children’s shelters as well as teen detention centers. Having experienced a bi-national and bicultural life, she hopes to raise understanding between people divided by arbitrary borders. She lives with her husband, Stewart and son, Stuart just outside of San Antonio, Texas.