Tag Archives: Writing

Artist Profile: Edward Vidaurre

Name: Edward Vidaurre

Hometown: East Los Angeles, CA

Residence: McAllen, TX

What is your earliest memory of writing?

High School. I would write love letters to girls and never give it to them. I loved words, I would write full pages from the dictionary and lyrics to favorite songs.

How did you become a writer?

I became a reader before I became a writer. I don’t remember reading a single book in school until my senior year. My English teacher was teaching Macbeth and I said something like, “No one in my hood talks like that, why should we even learn this?” The following day she gave me the book, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. The book changed my life not only as a writer but it gave me that hope that there was life outside of the hood.

Tell us about your writing process.

It’s unpredictable. I write when I am alone mostly. Early in the morning or late at night when my wife and daughter are sleeping. I surround myself with books, so when I get sidetracked from writing I start to read.

What are you working on now?

I am editing my 5th manuscript and a chapbook. The manuscript I’ve titled Jazz Violence and the chapbook is tentatively Ramona and Rumi: a love story during oligarchy… It’s about a poet I named Rumi and his muse Ramona.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I never attended college or any type of university, I don’t hold back in my writing in fear that it may not be good enough. I write from the heart, inspired by what I read, see and feel. But when I have short moments of it I read or write haiku poems.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

Richard Wright, Luis J. Rodriguez, Cohen, Lorca to name a few. I love the poetry of Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, but the one who I really give credit the most to is The BUK, Charles Bukowski, a bad motherfucker who gave no shits and just wrote. Let’s not forget the beat generation either, especially Ginsberg.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

Love is a Dog from Hell by Bukowski, Lorca in New York, Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen. I’ve been inspired by some C.S. Lewis, Brian Allen Carr, and recently, Juan Felipe Herrera and Francisco X. Alarcon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?chicano-blood-tranfusion

Read other authors. Go back to books you started and never finished and finish them, keep a journal, workshop with peers, submit your writings and celebrate the rejections. Be your toughest critic. Edit, Edit, Edit!

***For more on Edward Vidaurre, see:

Artist Profile: Denice Frohman

Name: Denice Frohman

Hometown: New York City

What is your earliest memory of writing?

In high school I had a special notebook where I wrote raps and jokes. Those were the two artistic forms of expression where I thought I could really be myself. At that time, I thought poetry sounded a particular way and nothing like me, so I steered clear of that until college.

How did you become a writer?

That’s a tough question because I think “becoming” a writer is something I’m constantly doing in a sense. Paying attention to my voice and how it evolves and develops feels like a supernatural thing to me. But to answer your question in a more straightforward way, I really stumbled into it. I didn’t know a world of writing and performance existed for me until college, but once I was introduced to writers that were speaking in a language that was familiar to me everything was a flood. I wrote frantically, filling up notepads, and finding a new thirst for understanding myself and the world around me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I feel like this is something I’m constantly developing a new understanding of: the “what works for me” question. And truthful it changes. I do know I’ve always liked writing very late at night. and I think it has to do with my subconscious taking over. In terms of writing the poem itself, often times the first line of a poem ends up somewhere in the middle of whatever I end up with, so that I’m really filling out what’s missing in the beginning and end. However, if I have a strong first line that captures some kind of unnamable feeling I have, then that’s always a good sign that the writing will flow a lot easier. I hate the feeling that I’m forcing something. It also means that I write way more poems than I end up finishing and I’m okay with that, because I think these freewrites (which I always save) lead me to the poems I really need to be writing.

What are you working on now?

My first manuscript of poetry.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I have and it’s quiet frustrating, but it’s always less about the writing itself and more about what I have going on elsewhere in my brain.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, and my students.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

  • The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Sister Outsider
  • La Frontera/Borderlands

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

Tell your version of the truth. Write authentically. There are so many reasons to be silent, often times I look into those rooms for what I need to say. Worry less about “how good it is” and more about whether you’re writing honestly. Chances are the more you write about the things you care about, the more the audience will respond to that.

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***For more on Denice Frohman, see:

Artist Profile: Malcolm Friend

Name: Malcolm Friendmalcolm-friend-2

Hometown: Seattle, Washington

Residence: Pittsburgh, PA

What is your earliest memory of writing?

This isn’t a memory of writing, exactly, but I remember that when I was really young (it was either pre-school or early elementary), my older sister had a goldfish. I used to draw pictures to place behind its fishbowl and as I drew them I would be coming up with stories behind them—almost like a movie or maybe even a TV episode since they always seemed to revolve around the same characters. In terms of my first memory of actually writing down some of those stories, it has to be third grade. We had journals we were required to write in and I would always write stories in them, fictions where my friends and classmates were the main characters.

How did you become a writer?

My mom likes to tell this story where I was first learning how to write and I kept bugging her to teach me some letter or spelling and I told her “I have to know because I’m gonna be a writer when I grow up.” While I have no idea whether or not that story is real (I take her word for it most times; sometimes I think it’s a sort of origin myth), I do know that I “became” a writer fairly early in life and really do have to go back to those early journaling experiences. There was a certain joy they brought to writing and also a certain ritual. There was a specific time of day every day that we were supposed be writing. When I switched schools in fifth grade, journaling was still a requirement, where we had to produce a certain number of pages per week for homework in Language Arts. All of that got me into the ritual of writing and the practice of setting time aside to write. By the time I was in seventh grade I had fashioned myself a writer and knew that’s what I wanted to be.

Tell us about your writing process.

My writing process starts before there’s any actual writing done. I’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, just repeating a line (in my head and out loud) that I’m obsessed with but don’t know how to place a full poem around. I’ll do this on the bus, in between classes, between grading papers, as much as I need to until I get another line or two that I think I can base the poem around.

Once I actually start writing, it pretty much always starts with music. I grew up in a household where music was frequently present. My dad puts on music whenever there’s nothing on TV and my mom plays music sometimes when she cooks and pretty much always whenever she decides it’s a cleaning day in the house, especially around the holidays. I got used to working with music in the background, to moving with a beat in my head. Plus growing up with three siblings I just got used to noise being in the house and kind of need it to work. If what I’m writing is related to a specific artist or song (as it frequently is), I’ll listen to that artist or song on repeat while I’m writing. Otherwise I put on reggaetón, because the beats are so repetitive and it allows me to stay within sort of the same space mentally.

As I’m writing I’m also saying everything out loud (or wording it, depending on whether or not other people are in the room). That way if anything sounds kind of funky, I can just scrap it immediately or change it into something similar that sounds better, or even switch up the order of the poem to where the different grouping of words sounds better. I keep up with this until I have a draft of poem that I feel satisfied with, sometimes meaning I feel the poem is done or just needs minor edits, others meaning I’m ready to share them with other people and get feedback on them, and then some others that the poem itself isn’t going anywhere but I feel I’ve gained something from the writing process and from writing that poem in particular.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, which will hopefully turn into my first manuscript. The work is really drawing off of my experiences growing up in a mixed cultural household (my mom being African American, my dad Puerto Rican), and how different influences (friends, family, pop culture, literature) affect how you interact with or claim a cultural heritage. In it I’m also interested in looking at different iterations of blackness across the diaspora as both of my parents are part of the African diaspora and, regardless of what heritage or heritages I claim, my body is read as such—as black—in many spaces around the world.

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Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Absolutely. There are good days for writing, when everything is running smoothly and there are bad days, when every line I write comes with difficulty and feels like the worst thing I’ve ever written. Usually I take it to mean I’m too much wrapped up in myself and not open to letting the poem take me anywhere. At that point I usually find some household chore that needs to be done (do the dishes, cook dinner, etc.) in order to pull myself out of my head for a little while until I’m ready to get back into that writing space.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

In terms of writers, I absolutely have to name Langston Hughes first. Hughes was the first poet I read and enjoyed and a good deal of my early poetry was me trying to imitate Hughes—the first form I learned was Blues and the Blues poem. And then I also have to writers like Rita Dove, Kevin Young, and Martin Espada, who gave me contemporary examples of things I wanted to write about.

In terms of teachers I have to give a shout out to Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles, and Beth Bachmann, who were all teachers of mine in college. I point to Jarman because it was during his poetry workshop as a junior in college that I realized I wanted to seriously be a poet (I had originally come into college wanting to be a fiction writer). He was also the person who turned me onto Espada, lending me his copies of both Imagine the Angels of Bread and City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. I point out Hilles and Bachmann because they believed in me and worked with me my senior year of college. I highlight this because it showed me the importance of teaching to writing, and what having people in your corner can do for a young writer. And along those lines I also have to highlight Yona Harvey here at Pitt. As my first graduate workshop teacher, she really whipped me into shape and helped get my poems. But she did it in such a nurturing way that I never felt like I couldn’t write and I could tell that it was out of care. She was also the first Black writing instructor I had ever had and that was a big for me. Her presence alone was an affirmation to my place in an MFA program but also her comments on some of my work, pointing out that certain things reminded her of experiences she was familiar with, affirmed me as a writer.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes– I first learned to write poetry by reading it and Hughes was a big part of that, really what made me want to continue writing poetry. During my junior year of college I checked out a copy from the Seattle Public Library and just kept renewing it, hoping no one would place a hold on it and that I’d have to take it back.

Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove- This wasn’t the first book by Dove that I read but it’s probably the one that sticks with me the most. Thomas and Beulah got me thinking much more so about how poetry can serve as something to document history and in particular to document family history.

La Carreta Made a U-turn by Tato Laviera- This book was big for me because going into my junior year of college I had never read a Puerto Rican author before. I mentioned Jarman turning me onto Martin Espada, and that made me want more. The Vanderbilt library had copies of all of Laviera’s poetry collections, and I dug in, completely caught by Laviera’s attention to Afrolatinidad and the connection between different populations in the African diaspora. Laviera was the first Afro-Latinx poet I read and made me feel for the first time that I didn’t have to choose between being Black or Puerto Rican because I could be both.

Reggaeton, edited by Wayne Marshall, Deborah Pacini Hernandez, and Raquel Rivera- This is a recent add to the list and the only scholarly/critical text, but I turned to this book last year while working on a project about Puerto Rican national music and what claiming reggaetón as Puerto Rican means. Going through the book and seeing how much a part of the African diaspora reggaetón is (having ties to Jamaican dancehall and hip hop in the States, being tied to Afro-Panamanian reggae en español, growing in San Juan neighborhoods populated by poor Afro-Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, etc.), reggaetón became something that I started writing not just through but about.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

First, read. A lot. I first learned how to write poetry by trying to imitate the writers I loved to read. And I’m not saying “just reproduce what’s already been done because that’s the only way to write,” but rather that there are things to learn from other writers. Some writers will teach you imagery, some will teach you form, somehow to turn a phrase—and good writers will take lessons and techniques from the writers they enjoy reading and turn them into tools for their own benefit.

The second piece of advice is to find a writing family. And there are a number of ways to do this, whether through school clubs, classes, or even outside workshops. It’s just that there’s this idea that writing is something solitary and I think that’s only half-true. Absolutely you need time by yourself, away from distractions, in order to reflect and write. But you really get better by opening that up to the world; by both opening yourself to critique through sharing your work and by surrounding yourself with other writers who push you to stay on top of your game with their own work.

***For more on Malcolm Friend, see:malcolm-friend-1

 

Artist Profile: Luis Galindo

Name: Luis Galindoluis-galindo

Hometown: Alvin, TX

Residence: Houston, TX

What is your earliest memory of writing?

My earliest memory of writing would be writing a letter to Santa Claus in the first grade, I think, and asking him how the reindeer and Mrs. Claus were doing and then launching right into my wish list of Star Wars action figures and skateboards and footballs and the like.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer when the stage became too small. I am an actor by training and trade and the need to seek out new avenues of self-expression became overpowering. I can’t paint worth a damn and my musicianship has remained at novice level for decades, so I picked up a pen, instead.

I was a member of a popular Shakespeare company in Los Angeles and I did Shakespeare plays almost exclusively for years, and then one day, even the bard’s words weren’t enough for me anymore, I wanted to say what was on my mind, I needed to, so I started writing down ideas. The words came out with melodies, initially and I thought, “ Oh, I am supposed to write songs.” but then the melodies went away but the words kept coming, so I became a poet instead due to the thoughts learning to take the path of least resistance from mind to page.

Tell us about your writing process.

The writing process is tricky. I sit down with every intention of writing a poem and I will just start. Writing freely and trying not to think too much. Then the idea will present itself, maybe in a phrase or a pair of words and that will lead me to the shape of what it is that is trying to get out, or an idea that I am trying to make, make sense. Other times the poems won’t let me sleep at night and I have to get them out or I know they will be gone forever. Also, if I let them linger too long I will lose interest or they will transform into something less powerful to me. Sometimes I just have to stop for a while and let the ideas percolate. Other times I will hear a word or a phrase in a conversation or on the news that will send me down a poem rabbit hole and I just follow it, hoping to find something worthwhile.

What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on a new collection of poems. It will be released in the next few months.

A very good friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles is editing it for me. (He also edited the first collection I wrote) We are almost done now. It is called Grace and Fury and right now is at about 60 pieces and I have no doubt that number will decrease in the next few weeks.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffer from writer’s block a lot and it is no fun. I try to be patient and keep at it but sometimes the sense of defeat is so much that I just want to quit all together. Other times, I am able to write my way out.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

The writers and teachers that have influenced me the most have been Juan Felipe Herrera, Dylan Thomas, Bukowski (I know, I know, but I believe he is truly great). Right now Matthew Dickman is what I am reading. I am really into his work right now.

I’ve never taken a writing class before. I think I probably should.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

I would say the books that have had the biggest impact on me have been Book of Lives by Juan Felipe Herrera, I was blown away from the first page and immediately re-read the whole thing as soon as I finished it.

Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame by Charles Bukowski—This one was a game changer. I was young and confused and dark and sad and this book made so much sense to me that it has remained one of my all-time favorites. It is very special to me.

Two books that are not poetry, yet I cannot escape from are Sexus by Henry Miller and Blood Meridian (Or the Evening Redness in the West) by Cormac McCarthy

Miller shook me up in a way that made me question everything I believed and made me laugh and cry while doing it. Truly magnificent.

As for Blood Meridian, well, it is a book that is so terrifying, so horribly powerful that I have to put it down after just a few pages of reading. I re visit it from time to time, but, only in small doses. Downright Biblical. These two books have impacted me as greatly as any music, painting or poem anytime anywhere.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

My advice to aspiring writers is, try to stop sounding like your influences as soon as possible. You have a voice and it’s the one we need right now.

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Luis Galindo in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Stages Rep in 2015

Artist Profile: Hugo Esteban Rodríguez

Name: Hugo Esteban Rodríguez Castañeda

Hometown: Heroica Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico; and Brownsville, Texas, U.S.A. To clarify, I was born and raised in Matamoros but came to adulthood in Brownsville, so I’m both from Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley.

Residence: Houston, Texas.

What is your earliest memory of writing? I want to say writing bad fan-fiction when I was 12, but I also have vague memories of the year before, being in the fifth grade and writing my own “school newspaper” and reporting on elementary school drama.

How did you become a writer?

I grew up surrounded by books and learned to love them because of my father and grandfather. It was only a natural jump to go from seeing how much books could do for people to wanting to evoke that same kind of feeling myself. I think the best way I can explain this is when I was reading the Harry Potter series as a kid, I felt actual regret that I couldn’t go to Hogwarts. I’ve always been enthralled by superheroes and supervillains, so I believe that being able to create those emotions with just your words is as close as I’ll get to actual superpowers. Plus, if videogames have taught me anything, it’s that getting bombarded with heavy doses of radiation isn’t exactly healthy.

Tell us about your writing process.

It’s a two-part process given that I am both a poet and a writer. For my poetry, I write out my poems in a journal I carry with me most of the time. Then I let them sit there for a week, then once the week passes, I take a look at the poem again and type it up. If I like it, I’ll save it in a ‘holding’ folder on my computer, then revisit it in a week and if it is good enough, I add it to my collection. If it at any point in the process I don’t like it, I’ll salvage what I can and then I start over.

For my fiction, I have a much more simpler approach. I just channel the inner voice that goes, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and write stories on that without placing limits on how weird, boring, or strange something is. I have a piece out that’s based on a time-traveling swimming pool. I have another that’s an ode to alienation featuring a man that is also a car, and I recently wrote a story about skin cells in a mattress. Hell, sometimes I’ll just stack up two poems together and make a story out of it.

What are you working on now?

A lot! My main focus right now is seeking representation for my first manuscript, a collection of short stories with the common theme of mental illness. My other projects include writing more flash fiction in the hopes of creating a second short story collection. I’m also planning on finishing the edits to my poetry manuscript. And ALSO I just added a vlog component to my website, so I’ve been pretty busy outside my day job.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

There are two kinds of writers: Those who have struggled with writer’s block; and damn liars.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

I’m blessed that every teacher I’ve had has influenced me in one way or another. But I’d like to take some time to honor them. In elementary school, my teacher Ms. Diaz really emphasized the importance of reading and writing. In high school, Mrs. Saenz really reinforced the importance of having discipline, which is absolutely instrumental for any writer. In college, Azenett Cornejo was the program coordinator for the student newspaper where I worked throughout my undergraduate career. There’s a lot of lessons I learned from her that I still employ in my day-to-day life as both a writer and as a grown adult, but if there’s one trait she nurtured in me, was the importance of having an eye for detail and thinking on my feet. Finally, in my MFA program, I had the privilege and opportunity of learning under the tutelage of established poets and writers. If I’m picking two, I’m picking Sasha Pimentel and Daniel Chacón. Professor Pimentel taught me to love poetry, and Professor Chacón, was instrumental in placing me on the short story track I’m in.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

  • Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
  • JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • William King’s Trollslayer (from the Gotrek and Felix series)
  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

There’s a lot of hard work involved in this field. There’s going to be some nights you’re going to pass out at your desk. There’s going to be times when you forget to eat. This field is going to take your blood, sweat, tears and time and…it’s going to be worth it. You are going to come up with something that’s going to make people feel and it is such a rewarding feeling when you see that. Another thing I’d advice is take on day jobs if you have to. There’s no shame in wanting to be gainfully employed while you work on a writing career. Some people glorify the “starving” part of “starving artist” and it’s a bit nonsensical. You don’t have to be homeless or unemployed to have the kind of hustle, hunger, and chip on shoulder necessary to thrive in this field.

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***For more on Hugo Esteban Rodríguez, see:

Artist Profile: Sarah Rafael García

Name: Sarah Rafael Garcíasarah-rafael-garcia

Hometown: Born in Brownsville, Texas and raised in Santa Ana, California, I claim both.

Residence: Austin, Texas and Santa Ana, California: one a residence with my life partner as he completes his PhD at UT at Austin and currently an artist in residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

What is your earliest memory of writing?

I started writing after the unexpected death of my father in 1988, I was thirteen. A bereavement social worker, at the hospital where my father passed away, handed me my first journal and advice to use writing as a source of consolation.

How did you become a writer?

In 2004, I ran away from Corporate America and the “American Dream” to live in Beijing as an English teacher and write my first book for 18 months. At the time, I was stressed and disillusioned about many expectations in my life—becoming financially successful, getting married, having children and supporting my sisters and mother. I have been writing since 1988 but never shared my work with anyone outside of my immediate family. I was waiting to retire (with tons a money) and spend beach vacations writing my childhood stories. Yeah I know, not realistic, but since I didn’t grow up with any mentors or support to be a writer that’s all I could imagine for myself, since I had to have a “real” career.

Tell us about your writing process.

I started writing by journaling, with the occasional poem sneaking onto the page. Then I moved on to writing memories, which led me to deconstruct my identity as a first generation college student, Chicana and woman of color—who never married nor has children. But of course that came after I completed a degree in Sociology. After my first book was published in 2008, I recognized I needed to learn more and wanted to offer more to my community. In 2009, I founded Barrio Writers. By leading writing workshops for youth, I broadened my writing interests as well as my style. I began to use more code-switching, experimental format as well as spoken word. Then in 2012, Barrio Writers led me to seek a M.F.A in Creative Writing. I had not written fiction until I submitted a writing sample for M.F.A. applications. Now, I write a lot of hybrid stories—a cross between fiction and non-fiction, contemporary narratives of women and my community. I select a gender role imposed on women or cultural community issue and find a way to tell a story through fiction—sometimes it’s like an ethnographic description, other times it transforms into a parallel world through the lens of magical realism. As far as the process, once I’ve done research into the theme and written 2-3 pages into a story, I become a weaver. I write, go back to the beginning and edit, write 2-4 more pages, maybe do some more research (read literature, look up relevant stuff), go back to the beginning and edit, and the cycle continues until I get to the ending. It’s a love-hate relationship, I love how it all turns out in the end, but some days I lose my patience with editing from the beginning over and over again. I’ve learned to see it as weaving—something that needs to be done to hold it all together, to create details at a micro level but eventually create a pattern only visible at a macro level. I would have laughed aloud and walked back into my 10×10 corporate America cubicle if I was told this had to be my writing process back in 2004. But here I am…

What are you working on now?  

I focus on contemporary female narratives, which include identity, gender and cultural themes. Currently, I am seeking to publish a travel memoir that shares my adventures as a Xicana crossing, literal and figurative, borders. Along with this, I also wrote a collection of feminist short stories as my MFA thesis. The short stories are inspired by news headlines or a quote that typecast female narratives. I use magical realism and play with point of view to deconstruct the role and stereotypes of women in our society.

As part of my artist in residence, I’m working on a special project from March 2016-2017. SanTana’s Fairy Tales is an oral history, storytelling project, which integrates community-based narratives to create contemporary fairy tales and fables that represent the history and stories of Mexican/Mexican-American residents of Santa Ana (inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tales).

The forthcoming exhibit at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California will present a multi-media installation, curated in collaboration with local visual, musical, and performance artists. The exhibit will showcase bilingual, single-story zines, a fully illustrated published book, an ebook, a large format classical book, graphic art by Sol Art Radio‘s Carla Zarate, an “open book” performance, along with composed music by Viento Callejero‘s Gloria Estrada, who is supported by local singer/songwriter Ruby Castellanos and members of the Pacific Symphony. The entire collection will be translated by poet Julieta Corpus and published by Raspa Press. The ebook will be produced by Digitus Indie Publishers.

SanTana’s Fairy Tales is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center. The exhibit is scheduled for March 2017.

Through Santana’s Fairy Tales, I hope to give back to the community, which instilled culture, pride and perseverance in my daily life as an artist. I returned to Santa Ana not as a writer, but as a storyteller/artivist who invokes real stories from real community members in order to offer a counter-narrative for the stereotypes and media headlines that feature Mexicans/Mexican-Americans from Santa Ana, California. By using multi-media, I want to initiate a literary discussion and preserve local culture through revitalization in the form of art versus the recent change Santa Ana faces through the influx of gentrification.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, and I’m not a big fan of folks who say it doesn’t exist. I think it does for some of us. There are many complex situations in life that keep some of us from creating. Although I recognize I’m in a privileged position as an artist in residence, my journey and sacrifices are not so easily forgotten, nor is my cost of living. Sometimes I can’t write because I’m trying to budget my money for next month and also my time to do community work. Other times, I’m busy chasing deadlines and I forget that I haven’t seen or spoken to my loved ones in weeks. Then there are those days that I question everything, I question if I’d be happier if I didn’t have to worry how I was going to pay bills next month or where I’m going to live next year. I question if I should go back to a “real” job and get rid of some of these tedious tasks of choosing between healthy food verses cheap food or a new pair of comfortable shoes, since I walk and commute via bike because it’s cheaper than maintaining a car. I question if having no health insurance is actually sane or humane. I question if I’m “academic” enough to land a job as an adjunct professor (even though the pay sucks), because I haven’t yet and I’m 42 years old. Then I’m told I don’t have enough experience on a campus, but folks admire that I’ve maintained Barrio Writers for the last eight years with little to no budget on various campuses in Texas and Southern California. So yes, in these moments I can’t write, all of such thoughts block my process—and they come often. Some days I have to convince myself to just breathe rather than write.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

I can’t say I have a go-to list of writers, because I’m a big fan of contemporary writers. So those who influence me change on a daily bases—most recently I’ve been enjoying poetry by Macondista Ching-In Chen and Juan Felipe Herrera’s latest collection. For fiction, I‘m currently dissecting Emma Donoghue and Etgar Keret. If I have to resort to those who made me feel like I wanted be like them or just escape this world by flipping a few pages, it all started with Judy Blume and Louisa May Alcott. Then as for the maestra/os, I admire Gabo, Allende, Esquivel, and Castillo. For descriptions, wit and male narratives, I bury my nose in works by Joe Jimenez, Junot Diaz, and Dagoberto Gilb. But at my bedside I have Texas Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero, Leslie Marmon Silko and Toni Morrison—and tomorrow I will add more to each section.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

Top 5 List + 1:

  1. All by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo)
  2. Aphrodite by Isabel Allende
  3. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Law of Love by Laura Esquivel
  5. Flesh to Bone by ire’ne lara silva

Plus 1, the latest read: The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits by Emma Donoghue

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

As writers who have to challenge stereotypes daily, I advise youth (as well as new older writers of color) to be their own mentors and rise above the microaggressions and dismissals from any part of society that seems to be an obstacle to reaching life goals—as so many have done before them. I tell all writers to push through, to write in any shape or form they desire, to adapt critical-thinking in daily life, to share their culture whether it be based on race or just your love for a particular type of music, to speak assertively, “Your voice is your weapon!” Don’t just be the bigger person, role model to those younger and older than you. I also remind all writers to find their support in their community. And if they can’t find it, then create it—begin your own community to empower others like you.

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Artist Profile: Raina León

Name: Raina Juanita LeónRaina Leon 1

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

Residence: Berkeley, CA

What is your earliest memory of writing?  I remember writing, really before I could write, criticism for a dance production my mother took me to see. She tells the story that it was an Alvin Ailey performance.  I remember giving the pieces letter grades, A through C, and telling my mother why the performance merited one review or another.  Considering that I had only ever watched dance performances on PBS before that, had just started dance lessons at 6, and definitely knew next to nothing about the craft, there’s something to be said about my perception of the value of my eye and regard. 

How did you become a writer?  Life made me a writer.  I instinctually was pushing back against institutional, systemic, and internalized oppressions from an early age.  Writing helped me to find my path within the insanity.

My mother is also a poet and brought all of the arts into my life at an early age.  If it was a choice between paying the light bill or for Scholastic books, she was paying for books, and she read all of my very sad poems and stories.  I wrote mostly stories as a child with very sad endings, nothing like the Scholastics books or Highlights stories.

My father made time to take us to the library and talk to us about what we were reading.

Life made me a writer but my parents; the librarians of elementary school and high school; Sr. Ave from West Catholic High; and countless other teachers and friends over the years who read and challenged and questioned and gave me more ideas and resources, they are the folks who helped me speak back to the calling that life gave me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I write generally between 10pm and 6am, and mostly during the summer or on long breaks.  As an educator, during the academic year, my creativity goes mostly into my work with students.  I teach evening classes, too, so I find that I need a few hours to shake loose of my teacherly commitments (this person needs clarification on this assignment; remind the students of this due date; etc).  Once I am home and after my husband has gone to bed, in the silence of a Berkeley night, I can get some writing done.  Even in the day, when I might have lots of time, my mind needs to decompress with court shows or walking the dog or something like that.  I can do academic tasks but rarely creative work.  Even if it means being sleep-deprived and cranky the next day, if I want to write something, it has to be at night, in anticipation of the dawn.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a full-length manuscript, which has become my way of exploring blackness as an identity in and out of time; generational trauma; ecopoetics that is connected to mythologies, spiritualities and communities; explorations of the lyric; transnational and translanguaging work; and Afro-futurism with a contemporary lens of tragedy and the inevitability of trauma within the conspiracy of control by hegemonic powers.  You know, nothing too deep.  As I’m going into this next step with the work, I am really interested in African deities, diaspora studies, myth and history around blood, water, and crossroads, and an Afro-futurist eco-poetics.  I am also very interested in crafting the character of Elisha, an Afro-Latino immortal, husband to the god in this world I’ve created.  He’s this complex guy who, despite having been a slave and suffered firsthand being dehumanized in multiple horrific ways, manages to nurture hope and light, laughter and love.  He’s chosen for the gift of immortality, because his strength is built on an internal light that never dies.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffered deeply from writer’s block in late 2014/early 2015.  With the inundation (that continues) of images of Black peoples murdered and violated through state-sanctioned violence and the lack of justice for the perpetrators of that violence (those stories that we do get), I found myself unable to write, unable to push through the horrors.  I became paralyzed by fear and mourning.  What does one do when you are trying to convince yourself that your Afro-Latina life matters in a time when Black Lives Matter emerges as a movement because the world would say we don’t?  I didn’t want to leave my house, let alone write a word.  I still have moments when fear and anger rise suddenly within me.  It’s in those small moments like seeing a police car in my neighborhood and then seeing it on the highway on the way to work.  Writing, for a long while, took a backseat to paranoia and mourning, and I’ve been in mourning for the last four years already for other familial losses.  That familial sorrow extended into sorrow for the world, which was massive and overcame any joy.

Of course, this block that I suffered came after I had just entered into a MFA in Poetry program.  I was supposed to be writing things, and when I began in the program, I had written a great number of poems, all the time, widely experimental, but soon enough I found myself staring into dark when I wrote and the dark staring back, baring its bloodied teeth. The only thing I was good for was reading the work of others and discussing.  Very little writing was happening.

I got into an online discussion with Teri Cross Davis about vampires, the hair of Black vampires, actually.  In some mythologies, a vampire has to be perfectly groomed upon being made, because that’s how they stay forever.  Sure, their hair may become lush and seductive, but the transformation builds on what is already there.   But what about slaves and those who became vampires while in that state?  They certainly weren’t going to be looking their best, stripped of their humanity.  Somehow Teri and I extended that Facebook conversation into a consideration of doing a collaborative piece, a crown of sonnets with an ancient woman vampire and her newly created male vampire.  Possibilities for plays on the Lilith myth, an homage to Octavia Butler.  Sonnets that shifted from Elizabethan iambic pentameter in the female voice to more experimental sonnets in the male voice.  It was all there.  Trying to get myself hyped up for the collaboration, I started imagining a world.  I didn’t want to work with the typical vampire myths so then I started thinking of elemental connection and causation of drought through the drinking of blood (a cosmic transference that allows both spirit through blood and body through water to persist over thousands of years), generational trauma and transference of memories, the possibilities that these “vampires” were really (nearly) immortals with the ability to have human children.  These immortals, in taking life, also drank souls and so carried and were influenced by those souls.  I started to think about how one would gift another with this immortality, what was the creation story of these people, and what was it like to be the human child and recipient of thousands of years of memory of an “immortal”, particularly one who has been marginalized, brutalized, dehumanized and still survived for the crime of being woman and of African descent.  I even had my partner create an algorithm to account for the population of immortals given certain scenarios.  Faced with the horrors of our reality I created characters who had dealt with worse, survived, and had something to teach through their lives.  I faced writer’s block through dissociation with reality and the revelation of a surreality, and in the oddest of ways, that is how I came back into encountering reality and writing about it head on as activism.  I had to create a world to enable me to encounter and deal with the world.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

My mother was the first writer that I studied consciously wanting to understand what she had done.  One of her poems was published in an anthology, I believe it was called Generations, and I was fascinated by the idea that my mother had written something in a book.  I never thought about it until this interview, but that may have been the birth of me thinking that I could write books, too.

As for teachers, Mrs. Burgess, Mrs. Tulba, and Dr. Steven Herb were the greatest.  They were the librarians of my life.  Mrs. Burgess allowed a little girl of 7 or 8 to convince her that she could read the books the big kids read AND that she should be allowed to take out more than 2 books at a time.  She let me take out up to 8 at a time, and I devoured them within a week or two each time.  She maintained the connection with me and my brother.  She came to my grandmother’s wake and to my wedding, two of the most difficult and most revelatory times for me.

In high school, my locker in my first year was literally right next to the library, and I took it as a sign.  I ended up the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, that Mrs. Tulba supervised, and I worked in the library all the time.  I would sit outside the library in the morning until she arrived, return during lunch to do work, and then spend time there in the afternoons for newspaper or just to work on school.  The library was a refuge then.

In college, my first honors seminar was lead by Dr. Steven Herb; it focused on folklore and storytelling.  For years, that group of students met with him over lunch in State College, CA.  He put his whole self into the class, and we responded in turn.  I’m still good friends with many from that time.  Many of us even worked in the library on fellowships because of his influence.  One became a librarian.  He ran the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, which contacted me a few years ago to do a bio on me.  It’s actually one of the most complete biographies that has ever been done, mostly through research from the Center for the Book.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

This is a trick question for me, because I’m discovering and rediscovering books all the time.

  • Wisteria by Kwame Dawes
  • The Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson
  • Alabanza:  New and Selected Poems by Martín Espada
  • Arcade by Erica Hunt with prints from Alison Saar
  • The new black by Evie Shockley
  • Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did, I would have these:  the ankh on my left wrist and “defy, defy, defy” on my right wrist.  The ankh would remind me of the eternal quality of the soul, that one must be true to the higher purpose, seek justice, and connection as the world beyond is watching and waiting.  The words would remind me to persist.  I’ve had many times in my life as a writer when I did not write, because I believed a critic that I was not worthy, as woman, as scholar, as poet.  Eventually, that need to write for my own sanity would win; I would write, because I believe that my voice means something.  It doesn’t come easy.  And when I found that much of none of my work that blended English and Spanish was getting published, I founded (with Eliel Lucero) The Acentos Review for the many I knew like me who were facing the same walls.  If they can’t understand the majesty of our tongues, then why not create a place that honors what we do, see, feel, breathe, are?

So my advice to writers is 1) to seek justice in one’s work, because writing is political activism, too and 2) be defiant and create.

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