Erika L. Sanchez

Erika Sanchez (photo cred Robyn Lindemann)Erika L. Sánchez is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. She is the author of poetry collection Lessons on Expulsion (Graywolf 2017) and the young adult novel Brown Girl Problems (Knopf 2017). Her poetry  has been published in Guernica, diode, Boston Review, POETRY Magazine. She has also been featured on “Latino USA” on NPR and published in Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation (Viking 2015). Erika is a recipient of a CantoMundo Fellowship, a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, and a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Her nonfiction has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and many other publications.





Girl

In the evening hum of traffic
and cicadas, you watch
the ugly curtains flutter
in hot wind: Little Orphan
Annie and her ridiculous flame
of hair. Outside two sparrows
bathe in dust, a man thrusts
against a prostitute who gasps
when she sees you in the window—
always the little spectator,
feral and plugged with squalor.
Finally, you’ve learned to crawl
inside the meat of your silence.
On the way home from school,
you study the factory’s chemical
blooms in the distance. A man
with a tumor glowing from his head
exits the rank motel on the corner.
You crash your bike into a boy
by mistake, and his porcine father
screams at you until he’s hoarse:
Fuck you, you motherfucking bitch.
Shaking, you run inside,
and for months you’re convinced
he’ll find a way to kill you.
Weed lot in the muted
sunset: the retarded boy pulls
down his pants and a circle
of kids laugh at his stiff, red penis.
It looks like an alien, you whisper
to your friend. The women
with black eyes and wizened faces
call you honey, call you sweetie.
A man on the street tears the gold
necklace from your mother’s neck—
this is how you learn that nothing
will belong to you. In your mangled
language, you’ll count all the reasons
you wish to die, the apartment bristling
with roaches. Always the smell
of corn oil. But what right do you have
to complain about anything,
with your clean socks and fat
little stomach? Burnt pies from
the thrift bakery you shove down
your desperate gullet. What can
you blame but your rootless
eye? Your mind so soft and full
of hysterical light. You’ve already
learned that your body is a lie.

Baptism

When the soft mouth of a word unhinges,
it is sticky, it is feral. Beneath the plum tree
I’ve woven my gray hair into a blanket.
Do you think I’m pretty crouched like this?
See, I am my own whore. Watch me
swallow my own fingers. My head a wild tangle
full of creatures. Do you hear that—the lovely hooves
and mangled pianos? The egg I hold inside my chest,
it’s what the darkness ate. In the hot swamp,
in the battering sunlight, I tie my braid
around my neck and bury my name
until it’s silent as a jewel. Feel my salt
burn in the cracks of your lips, feel the fat
pulse of my tender throat.
It’s the shudder of beauty. No,
no the shutter. Watch me dance
on borders in this dirty dress
until my wig catches fire.

Letter From New York

Every street—fried meat and onion,
smears of shit and a gaggle
of gadgets. What is the soul
but this endless circuitry,
the bright and pitiful idea
you carry of yourself?
Everything open open.
When you say available,
what you mean is pornographic.
Like a muted orgasm,
you are and brimming
with vague disgust.
In the subway station, a man picks
his skin and examines it—
feeling generous, he tells you
he’d like to share his findings.
Rat song, rat baby, rat cloud
in the heavens above. The rich smell
of baked garbage and coconut curry.
Fifth Avenue: a woman’s cupped hands
catch her dog’s excrement
as the dignified ferrets talk numbers.
Tiny mouths moist with want.
This is their desire: to slice
dollar bills and sauté them
in fragrant oil. Greed is Saturn
swallowing his own son, a man erect
with both fear and hunger.
The woman in fishnet panties strokes
the fruit in a street cart, musk
of hangover so warm and thick
you’ll carry it inside your mouth for days.
The sound of wet brooms.
Listen: froth, water, concrete,
the absence and sputter of evening.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
In your flamboyant despair,
you fail to suck the sweetness
from all that is good and holy.
Watch the pigeons so lovely
in their suffering! In the melted fat
of the hour, a crust-punk chokes
his dog in an empty park.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,
the dog whimpers, licking the filth
from his wounded feet.

Interview with Erika Sanchez by Phillip B. Williams

Phillip: Thank you so much for taking time out to speak with me, and on a Saturday! How have you been?

Erika: It’s no problem at all. Thank you for asking. I’ve been feeling 10,000 different types of ways, so it’s hard to say. Haha. Mostly doing well. Life is absurdly funny sometimes. Career-wise, I couldn’t be happier, though.

P: Let’s just jump right into the poems. Starting with “Girl,” can you tell us a little bit about how you conceptualized this poem? In your mind, who is the girl that’s the subject of the poem? She is rendered with so much precision that not only her but the city in which he lives is vibrant. I think her location says so much about who she is or is to become:

“ Outside two sparrows
bathe in dust, a man thrusts
against a prostitute who gasps
when she sees you in the window—
always the little spectator,
feral and plugged with squalor.
Finally, you’ve learned to crawl
inside the meat of your silence. “

E: I wrote this poem last year while I was going through one of the worst depressions of my life. That triggered a host of emotions and repressed memories, many of which are manifested in the poem. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily the subject, but I did draw heavily from my own childhood. I grew up on a street that had a motel on the corner that was primarily used by prostitutes. Some of those images still pervade my mind. The location is based on the neighborhood I grew up in, which as you know, is Cermak and Cicero, in the town of Cicero. There was a sort of bleakness that I desperately wanted to escape.

P: Is the speaker a speaker in that close third-person kind of way or is something more internal, like an older version of the girl speaking to us? I ask because the intimacy is of course incredibly detailed but also resonates as angry at what is being described. This could also just be that what is witnessed/remembered is harsh. I’m think of these lines in particular:

“You crash your bike into a boy
by mistake, and his porcine father
screams at you until he’s hoarse:
Fuck you, you motherfucking bitch.
Shaking, you run inside,
and for months you’re convinced
he’ll find a way to kill you. “

and

“ the retarded boy pulls
down his pants and a circle
of kids laugh at his stiff, red penis.
It looks like an alien, you whisper
to your friend. The women
with black eyes and wizened faces
call you honey, call you sweetie.
A man on the street tears the gold
necklace from your mother’s neck—”

What should we make, if anything, of these very dark moments (with this cutting language) rendered so beautifully? I’m thinking particularly of the use of the word “retarded” here, which is a word we know is out of use because considered offensive.

E: During this period of my life, my therapist said something incredibly beautiful and profound. She told me that I should be a parent to my younger self. That idea transformed me and the poem was a result of that. I wanted to honor my experiences as a young girl. To me, the speaker is an older, more compassionate yet angry version of the girl. That is a precise reading because that’s exactly what I intended. One of the most powerful concepts I’ve learned in my Buddhist practice is “changing poison into medicine,” which is what I aim to do in all my poems. I want to transform the grittier parts of being alive into something that is beautiful. As for the use of the word “retarded,” it was a conscious choice to use the outdated term. No other word felt true. I wanted to express the language that was used in that time and place. I can’t imagine that the term “mentally challenged” would have the same kind of force. “Retarded” captures the brutality of the environment.

P: I think that is true. This poem’s time feels late 1990s to me for some reason and we did not have the language then that we have now. We grew up not necessarily near one another during this time but in the same “city” so to speak, Cicero being a very close suburb of Chicago. Chicago in the 90s was a tough place and in many ways, though the news will say otherwise, there is an eerie peace over the city that feels very much in response to how we lived during that time.

In your poem “Baptism” you write:

“When the soft mouth of a word unhinges,
it is sticky, it is feral. Beneath the plum tree
I’ve woven my gray hair into a blanket.
Do you think I’m pretty crouched like this?”

I wonder about the place of this poem. It feels so much different than Cicero’s urban setting but the voice, surreal and well-edged, is not necessarily pastoral itself. Where are we in this poem and what does “baptism” as a term mean to you?

E: This poem is still mysterious to me. In writing it, however, I kept picturing the physical border between the US and Mexico, which is an obsession of mine. The border is also psychological and spiritual to me and I tried to meld those worlds together. I grew up Catholic, so I use a lot of religious iconography in my work. The idea of baptism is used ironically since there is no water or purification. In fact, it’s the opposite. Many people who cross the border die of thirst. The poem also expresses the sort of violence inflicted onto the female body both on the border and in Christianity.

P: Quick question, is your poem “Letter From New York,” inspired by Larry Levis? His name ran across my mind as I read it.

E: Interesting observation! I was not consciously thinking of Levis when I wrote this, but I have been so deeply influenced by him, that it makes perfect sense. Now I see what you mean. Levis has so many place-centered poems that express this kind of melancholy. I wrote this when I was frequently traveling to New York for this terrible job I had. I was really mad at the city at that time. I’d like to go back and make amends.

P: Yes there is rage and the grotesque throughout the poem. Some of the scenes even feel like a mix between paradise and hell, how the “baked garbage” and “coconut curry” mingle. There are so many beautiful lines here and the poem uses enjambment so well. I can’t help but feel pushed to move from one image to the next in a breathless pace that feels so much like my own experiences with visiting New York. If I had to choose one of my favorite sections it would be the following:

“In the subway station, a man picks
his skin and examines it—
feeling generous, he tells you
he’d like to share his findings.
Rat song, rat baby, rat cloud
in the heavens above.”

Something about this subway scene that then bursts into a short litany using the word rat is so spectacular to me, as though from his generosity comes song even when the only thing about which to sing is the ugliness around. What does the “ugly” have to offer us? How do beauty and what disturbs beauty actually share the same space?

E: New York is often seen as the apex of culture and opportunity, but the reality for most people who live there is a sort of ruthlessness. Not only is it insanely expensive, but space is so limited that the private easily becomes public. I’m very much a city girl, but during this time I was acutely aware of all the disgusting and overwhelming elements of city living. I had never heard so many rats chirp like that in my life. I honestly thought they were birds at first! I had a hard time wrapping my mind around that, particularly because I have a rat phobia. (There was a lot of shuddering.) Though I was nauseated by New York, both physically and spiritually at that time, I did see a lot of beauty in the squalor.

P: For the last question, I want to talk about your recent good news! Can you talk about your new poetry collection and young adult novel? Will any of the poems appearing here also appear in the book? How did you react when you heard the double good news?

E: Goodness, I am so excited. Both of my books will be out in the fall of 2017. Lessons on Expulsion, the poetry collection, is being published by Graywolf and Brown Girl Problems, my young adult novel, will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

I wrote the oldest poem in my manuscript when I was 21, so the book has been 10 years in the making. I got the good news while I was grocery shopping. I was in front of the peanut butter and got the email on my phone. I was so stunned that I stood there for a ridiculously long time. There were too many nut butter options and I just couldn’t make a decision after finding out that one of my dreams had just come true. I eventually chose chunky organic.I called my friend and mentor and wept as I finished my shopping. People probably thought I was crazy. And yes, I believe all three poems will appear in the book.

I found out about the novel while I was at a conference. I was supposed to be listening to a panel, but I had just received the email from my agent about the offer from Knopf, so I just sat there for the rest of the hour with my heart racing and looking around the room like a confused bird. Is this really my life? I wondered. I was so astounded.

P: Thank you so much, again, for allowing me to interview you. If readers would like to learn more about your work, where should they go?

E: Thank you so much for the opportunity! My website is probably the best resource for those interested in my work: erikalsanchez.com.

 

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