Bigger Than Elvis: Erika L. Sánchez—Poet, Writer, and Creative Strategist

Millicent Bórges Accardi, Interviews Editor

In 2014, the poet Erika L. Sánchez was named One of Chicago’s 25 Writers to Watch. She is an activist for reproductive rights and women’s health and works as a freelance journalist, penning a monthly sex and love advice column for Cosmopolitan for Latinas, and she also writes articles for a multitude of publications including Rolling Stone, Salon, Jezebel and Ms. Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Witness, Crab Orchard Review, and Hayden’s Ferry.

In 2006, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico in 2010. She is a CantoMundo poetry fellow and a Fulbright Scholar.

MBA: You have a wide variety of writing gigs, from NBC News to Al Jazeera. How did you get started freelancing?


ELS: . . .a little blog called Oh Hells Nah: poetry, politics, and food, which I began writing four and a half years ago.
I had a job I despised, so the blog became my outlet. I ranted about pretty much everything. It started to get some attention, and I began writing for various websites. My big break came when the Huffington Post asked me to blog for them. From then on, publications took me more seriously, so I began pitching like crazy. I always say that I “clawed my way up.” I’m an extremely stubborn person.
MBA: Besides peace, love and hair barrettes, what do you never have enough of?
ELS: I’m obsessed with food. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. I’m constantly hungry! Whenever I travel anywhere, that is my main priority. I also enjoy cooking, but I’ve been so busy these days I haven’t been able to make any elaborate feasts.
Poetry is my number one love and I feel that so many of my obligations keep me from reading and writing as much as I like. I know this sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration, but I feel physically ill when I don’t write poetry.
MBA: How has your activism in reproductive rights/health informed your poetry?
ELS: I’ve been a proponent of reproductive rights since I was a teenager. (Imagine 16-year-old me telling her traditional Catholic Mexican family that she was pro-choice.) Now I make a living elevating reproductive justice, which is wonderful.
My poetry has always been centered on the female body and violence against women, so I think these two components of my life inform each other. I’m also working on a YA novel in which I explore issues of Latina sexuality.
MBA: What do you look for in selecting topics to write about?
ELS: I always say that the topics actually select me. Whenever I write a poem that is idea-driven, it ends up being terrible– strained, calculated, and boring. Usually, a poem begins with an image that I become obsessed with and have to explore. With poetry, I never feel an obligation to write about anything in particular.
Here is an excerpt from Sánchez’ poem “Quinceañera,” which received a “Discovery”/Boston Review Prize and appeared in the Boston Review (May 2013).


Summer boredom flutters its
sticky wings. You guzzle
cooking wine, gag on the old whiskey
you find in the pantry.
In the warmth of your bedroom,
you pierce your navel
with a safety pin, slice
the skin you hide beneath
your billowy dresses. Glitter-eyed
in the murky dance clubs,
you snort blow until the dregs
trickle down your throat and
shock your sluggish heart.
You dance in the frenetic
lights, the untz untz vibrating
your face and skull until
morning. But everywhere,
the pain suckles you. Everywhere. . .

MBA: There are many books which detail the male coming of age story and very few that I can think of which tell the women’s side. Why?
ELS: Don’t get me started!
I was so desperate for these stories when I was a child. I loved books like Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn, but I would have given anything to read a story that truly spoke to my experience as a young Latina. One of the few books I had access to was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which really spoke to me, particularly because she was from Chicago.
The dearth of female Latina protagonists has everything to do with sexism and racism in the publishing industry. For some reason, they still think we don’t read!
I truly don’t understand how they fail to see the huge demand for books like this. This is I’ve been working on a YA coming of age novel about a young Mexican-American girl in Chicago. I’ve been obsessed with it for months now. I just wish I had more time to finally finish it!
MBA: What is your heritage and background?
ELS: I’m the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who were formally undocumented. I always say Mexican American because no one in Chicago ever says “Chicana.” This identity always informs my writing.

MBA: How do you deal with failure?

ELS: I sulk, have a drink, and eat something bad for me. After a while, I go back to work with a vengeance. Not very healthy at all. This is something I need to work on. (Hello, therapy!)
MBA: Do you have any strange writing habits (like standing on your head or writing in the shower)?
ELS: So many of my good ideas come when I’m showering or washing my hands. Usually I run out and write it down before I forget.
MBA: Just as your books inspire authors, what authors have inspired you to write?
A: Man, I can go on forever. I will mix old school, new school, prose and poetry here: Larry Levis, Emily Dickinson, C.D. Wright, JD Salinger, Anton Chekov, Dana Levin, Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Eduardo C. Corral, Gillian Flynn, Lynda Hull, Mary Karr, Basho, Raymond Carver, Lucille Clifton, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Junot Díaz, Gabriel García Márquez, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rebecca Lindenberg, and hundreds of others!
MBA: What writing advice do you have for aspiring writers?
ELS: Be tenacious and unapologetic in your ambition.
MBA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you do for a living?
ELS: A chef or a midwife.