The Journey: An interview with Laurie Ann Guerrero

By Kathi Stafford
Laurie Ann Guerrero has recently been honored as the winner of the Andres Montoya Prize. Guerrero’s full length poetry manuscript will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press next year. The judge of the fifth edition of the Prize, Francisco X. Alarcón, will participate in a public reading with Ms. Guerrero at Notre Dame upon the publication of her first book: A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013). 

Q. What were your first introductions to story-telling and to poetry?

I got my love of story from my mother—who still cuddles up with and reads books to me. But, it is my grandfather who holds stories in his body.   I grew up in a house he and my father built, which was on the same property as his own.  Between our houses was a large field where he grew vegetables.  In those vegetables, while we watered and weeded, I heard stories of picking cotton, making pies, brothers, sisters, love, vanity. There was magic in his hands when he described fishing trips, and his eyes twinkled when he spoke of his cowboy days.  

I understood three very important things when I was very small: One— grandpa didn’t go to school, but he was the smartest man I knew. Two—I wanted to share him with everyone. And three— I was going to tell stories like that. I see now that because we spent small amounts of time together—the hour between homework and dinner, Saturday morning before chores— and also because he told his stories for years, his stories were tight, well thought out, precise.  When I discovered poetry in middle school, I recognized my grandpa’s style: whole worlds in bite-sized bits. Grandpa, who learned how to record and revise in his head because he didn’t know how to write, was a poet. 

Q. Given my own heritage from West Texas, I would be especially interested in hearing how the geography and myths of Texas have influenced your writing. 

This is a great question— I think the geography of South Texas influences my writing more than I was consciously aware of or had ever articulated. I have deep, deep connections to this land by way of ancestry—we are Tejano: native. I’m still learning what this means— being able to trace our heritage back many, many generations to about 10 miles from where we live now, and having great-grandmothers who were full-blooded American Indian (Comanche, according to my own research) and Mexican and great-grandfathers who were Spanish and German—and what it means to be speaking from this place of ethnicity and race. I feel ties to the land where I was born, where I birthed my children, where our dead are buried. While Texas itself has been appropriated by Spain, France, The Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, Mexico, and eventually the US, the land never changes. And it is a beautiful land, and it is tragic. And I can feel the same hot sun my great, great grandparents worked under while they raised their babies, and I can grow the same resilient roses that grow alongside the cactus. Here, we walk in-between things all the time: languages, allegiances, spiritualties. Sometimes a life between worlds is very confusing and chaotic; this land is the only real thing I know for sure, even if the powers that be think they know it better than we do.

It’s very similar to being a woman. 

Q. What writing habits do you try to encourage in your students at Palo Alto College? 

One thing my students respond well to—I think this has everything to do with the in-between space we occupy— is getting them to dig deep to discover their truths.  When we live in two (or more) realms it can be hard to know which voices to hold onto and which to let go.  It becomes such that one’s own voice often gets muffled and drowned out by our own desires to be loyal, to belong to something. In my classroom, I try to help my students strip that away. And usually, their truth rises to the top.  My goal is to give them the tools to articulate and document this in a way that helps them see themselves as one whole self, not segmented or torn. 

Q. Please tell me about CantoMundo and its influence on your writing.  

Until recently, I had only ever had 2 Latino/a writing mentors. Being a part of CantoMundo has given me access to an abundance of Latino/a mentors who’ve experienced the kinds or racism, sexism and classism I have. I say an abundance, because as fellows from different places—in terms of geography, spirituality, sex, family, age, experience—we are brought together in our desire and ability to mentor each other. We take care of each other, and while I have participated in various groups, I have never felt as respected, as cared for, as inspired, or as capable of accomplishing my goals as I do here. 

Q. Who are some of the top influences on your work—both in terms of poetry and prose authors? 

I am most inspired by writers who explore and navigate hard realities, truth-seekers who are brilliant craftspeople.  I am definitely influenced by contemporary poets like Aracelis Girmay, J. Michael Martinez, Valerie Martinez, Rachel McKibbens. And I often go back to Pablo Neruda, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden. I do LOVE to read prose written by poets—at my bedside, I keep Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence and Of Woman Born, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Never in a Hurry, Carl Phillip’s Coin of the Realm, Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera and Thich Nhat Han’s Miracle of Mindfulness. I want to be learning always. 

Q. In one of your especially lovely poems, you note:

Put attention, grandma would say, as if attention
    were a packet of salt to be sprinkled, or a mound
           we’d scoop out of a carton . . .”
How much does the question of dual meaning across languages influence your writing style? 

Dual meaning across languages is part of that in-between space I mentioned earlier. It’s never a question. It’s a fact—one no border-walker would ever even think of examining until it’s brought into focus by outsiders, which is how I came up with the idea for this poem. Thinking back to the time when we as children laughed at our undereducated grandmother, how we wanted her to speak clear English because that’s what they wanted in our Texas public schools—I was very ashamed.  No one would know my parents’ first language was Spanish, and that because of this, my first language was English.  There is still a very real stigma that affects my generation, my parents’ generation, even my children’s generation. Already as children we had internalized this racism, and it is still being perpetuated in the community. It’s heartbreaking. And it really has nothing to do with language.   Banning languages—first indigenous languages then Spanish— is an easy way to render a people powerless. Centuries of powerlessness create men who do not see themselves worthy of education, voice, voting rights, and counter this worthlessness with surges of ridicule and anger at anyone who is different. To be a woman in this culture is to feel even less worthy, to be the receiver of most of that ridicule and anger. This is our history. 

Q. In your poem, “Wooden Box,” you write “When he is gone,/he will be gone./ I can make the box/myself . . .” This is such a moving work. Are you able to share more with us about your inspiration or the background of this poem? 

When I moved home from Massachusetts, my grandpa and I built a table for my dining room out of salvaged lumber. It is the most beautiful object I own. When we were building it, he was already very frail and talked about how he should just build himself a coffin.  We sat in his workshop and cried as he described the kind of funeral he wanted: nothing fancy. It struck me, though, that working with his hands to him was like painting to me—he could lose himself, clear his mind. I knew then his plea to work toward a coffin was really a plea to help him keep his mind from becoming overrun with worry or loneliness until it was time for him to leave this world. It affirmed my own need to hear the stories, write the stories, praise him now instead of at the time of his death. 

Q. It is so impressive that you managed to go back to school with three young children. What advice do you have for other women who want to go down that path? 

First: “The Journey,” a poem by Mary Oliver. I think it’s important, too, to trust your gut. As women, we are not taught to believe in our instincts. We’re labeled emotional or overly ambitious or just plain crazy.  These are all things I’ve been called—by those I love and strangers. Because I was moving 2000 miles from home to go to college, I was told I was “acting white.” Because I was taking a 7 year old, a 4 year old, and a newborn, it was said I had post-partum depression and was not thinking clearly. Because my husband was not divorcing me meant that I had emasculated him and that he had no voice. But none of this was true, and in my gut, I knew it.  I trusted it. It was never easy, but it was never wrong. I’ve been told I can’t or I shouldn’t all my life and for a while, I believed it. I don’t have to challenge that anymore.  My life speaks for itself. 

 One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
 —Mary Oliver 

Q. How do you recharge your batteries, given the many demands on your life? 

Physically, I clean my space so that I can rest in order and not chaos, which is unending with my babies now 14, 11, and 7. I like lavender oil in every room in my house, food with different textures, because it helps me write (I love food). Mentally, I listen to music—sometimes the Beatles, sometimes Nina Simone, sometimes Guns & Roses— or I paint.  Setting up my easel and painting for 5 hours forces me to focus on what’s in front of me and not what is happening outside my home. I’m not very good, but I will paint as long as I live. I get the same effect when I spend the day with my grandpa and listen to his stories.Spiritually, I spend time with my textual support system—Hahn, Lorde, Rich, Shihab Nye— which is how I meditate: I read, I write, I think, I praise, I write some more. And when I’m done, I curl up in the arms of my husband, Dave, or curl up with one, two or all three of my babies. Being connected to them is being connected to the earth. 

Q. Where do you go for inspiration, when you hit the infamous wall and can’t write anything at all?

I read work from another era—Shakespeare, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Lewis Carroll, Mary Wollstoncraft.
Or another place—Mahmoud Darwish, Lorca, Basho, Forugh Farrokhz�?d, Helene Cixous.
Or I read the journals of Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. 
Or, I go to the market to buy fresh beets. Their jeweled color, their earthy taste, their unwavering solidity and firmness—whole worlds in a small fruit—so inspiring!  

Laurie Ann Guerrero holds degrees from Smith College and Drew University and teaches writing and literature at Palo Alto College and the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Author of A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), her work has appeared in Bellevue Review, Feminist Studies, Huizache, Meridians, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. 

Kathi Stafford has served as poetry editor for Southern California Review and is a contributor to the Portuguese-American Journal. Her work has appeared in Rattle, Hiram Poetry Review, and Connecticut River Review.