Mothering the Self: An Interview with Jenn Givhan by Sonia Arora

I love the cover of “Belly to the Brutal,” two birds with their insides showing, one full of strawberries and the other with its organs. Tell us about the image, the artists, connections to Frida Kahlo, and how this image relates to the themes of the poems in this book.

 

The artwork is Christina Mrozik’s “My Apology,” which I came across while searching for surreal images for the cover and fell in love with for exactly the reasons you mention. It reminds me of Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas,” in which one Frida is holding the scissors, and the other, the heart. This speaks to my collection in a myriad ways, mother to monstrous m/other, to daughter, to mirror, and so on. The artwork like the poems do not shy away from the grotesque but neither do they seek to repel. There’s beauty and light even in the darkness. The sometimes painful, haunting, traumatic sometimes enchanting, hopeful, lyrical, and even whimsical experiences of the speakers of this collection remind me of these birds. Visceral, vulnerable.

 

This collection has so many rich connections between mothers and daughters, between a granddaughter and her bisabuela. Tell us about these relationships and their importance to this collection.

 

My goal is to show the wounds through the womb, and to heal both forward and backward.

As a Latina and Indigenous writer from a small desert community on the California/Mexico border, one major goal for my writing is to try to speak the multivalent voices of the women I grew up with—the mothers, daughters, childless women, aunties, and nanas who have become the voices of my writing. My poetry is concerned with the complex relationships many of us Latina/Indigenous women have with family; it is both a liberating and subjugating force, can be both buttressing and repressive. It is both mythical and real. I write about the violence against women and mothers on the border, but also about the resilience and strength we women and mothers evince every day of our lives.

Audre Lorde writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Every moment of writing, for me, is trying to find a new language, a new story, a new way of flashing the blood, standing up and proclaiming what has been done to me (and my family, my people, those girls and women who have been violated and brutalized) and yet to sing strength, resilience, and renewal. Philosopher Julia Kristeva posits a semiotic chora that is prelinguistic, on the edge of language and verbalization, and has the capacity to rise out of culturally constructed space. She aligns it with a mother’s womb. And I think of this chora space as the landscape of my own writing and the #metoo stories I recount. Yes, we must tell our truths. But our truths are not limited by the violence. They did not begin in violence, and they will not end there. Violence may have been etched into our stories, but they do not define them or us.

And this is what I hope to convey. The horror and dystopia are only one depiction of what we’ve undergone, our forebears, perhaps ourselves. But every poem or novel I write is meant as a guidebook for my daughter—a survival manual for how to stay the hell away from the dark forests I’ve traversed. And how, if the darkness does surround her, to fight back.

I’m writing forward, speaking the past, healing the present, and paving a way for my daughter and all the girls, women, femmes, and marginalized folks who need these survival stories.

Knowledge is power. My mother couldn’t show me how to escape, but she told me what to watch for. And though her #metoo story still became mine, I have every hope that writing the horror outside of the structures that have sustained it—writing on our own terms, changing the rules—our #metoo stories will not become our daughters’ stories.

 

Nicole Cooley, my professor at Queens College, recently shared a draft of a poem by Eduardo Corral and how he gave himself comments that were sometimes funny and sometimes tough. What is your drafting and editing process like? Do you have a sample poem that you can share with us that reveals this process?

 

Many poems I dredge up from the underbelly on a descent that often feels like the hero’s journey, and then I must sort through the sludge and muck on the page to find the gems. This is one of my favorite ways to write because the material that comes up often feels revelatory in that it comes from a subconscious place, otherworldly, mysterious. I’ve battled the duende and survived, and creating the poem is a kind of celebrating that survival.

Other poems come out whole and there’s not much beyond changing diction and perhaps tightening up, but what’s usually happened to get to this point is that I’ve dwelled with the duende and jotted notes and freewrites in my journal or notes in my iPhone, so I’ve been doing the work I described above on a subconscious level.

 

In BELLY TO THE BRUTAL, The poems/sections that comprise the poem “Domestic” originally began as three separate poems written during a NaPoWriMo stretch, writing thirty poems in thirty days in April of 2017. When one is writing in a daily practice, as I was during April, one tends to find that themes coalesce across the work, and where I had several poems that were not quite working on their own, I found that if I honed in on the hearts, the brutal beating in the center, and pulled those hearts from a few poems that were fairly listless on their own, when juxtaposed or Frankenstein-babied with other likeblooded poems, the thrumming began, the painbody flowed. And so began “Domestic,” three different time periods in the life of the speaker, indicated by the numbers, which are ages, but could just as well be serials in a neverending periodical.

 

Once the hearts found their sisters and the pounding was clear, I could begin the work of shaping, and the poems were clearly parts of a larger whole, which spoke to me as prose poems–again, their serial nature, their feeling of being excerpted from a darker, lengthier battle than what was appearing on the page. The caesura within the poems speaks to that haunting unspoken–what’s seeping in the cracks, in the unsaid, in what the reader can infer is happening in the in-between underbellies (i.e., the years stitching together 18 to 27 to 33 and so on… and notice they’re all uneven, shaky, odd). An earlier draft of these sutured/slip-stitched poems was titled “Pain Domestic Spectacle” but I decided, and thank God for it, that the Pain and Spectacle are inherent in the poems themselves, and it’s truly the Domesticity that cleaves. And so the poem was born.

Here is one of the drafts and the revised/final version:

 

Draft:

Domestic/Pain Spectacle

                                       18—
When the boy I loved enough to sponge the reddened
Kelp bed of my uterus had a baby with another girl
& she’d dropped out of college & I’d pointed blame
like darts into my throat until I was emptied again.
I was working as domestic help blocks from where his baby’s
mama lived in a trailer with her mama
me pretending the kids I watched were mine
though they called me names for Mexican & fat
& missed their white mother I was instructed to lock
from the house if she came round with her boyfriend
I mean I was that lonely & scrubbing toilets felt like home.
The news boasts grizzly headlines like a case stuffed
with trophy heads. A maid falling from a balcony & calling
for help was videotaped by her employer as she lost her grip & fell
nine stories. Caught by canvas & a broken arm
she lived. Those toilets I carry with me & the broken
calling you’re not finished—there’s much more to be said.

                                       27—
I’m imagining breastfeeding my miracle girl in the car
but when I remember properly it was a pump
the windows not tinted enough but sky dusking & cotton
draping my chest my students & colleagues passing & the tugging
at my nipples the cow’s lowing in a field that inky
sound it was there or a bathroom & I could stuff
cold tacos into my mouth in the parking lot.
There have been other appendages to memory &
other empty lots outside freshman dorms even churches
the shame I carried deeper than embarrassment
or harassment or jail time which also came &
clutching my clothes in my hands & always
running from something indistinguishable
in the murky centers where I pull like taffeta
the dresses I could’ve worn or I’d already shorn
from between my thighs all that milky red gauze
there is no telling what mouths I’ve filled for love
what mouths have gone unfilled for the same.

                                       33—
I tried carrying a watermelon aisle by aisle I held it
searching for Andrew & at the spices and bakings goods
I dropped it. He’s forgiven me the burn marks
on his arms when my hands were fire. I bent over & stripped
for how angry I am for the pictures his coworker sent
he must have requested he must though he won’t tell me different
how I see her face plastered over mine & my ass hers.
I judged myself against her & women with heart-shaped pelvic bones
clogging the pipes like ritualistic organs playing their distress
I dislodged from my own chicken parts & freed
every moment I recovered some piece of the darkness
handprinting the face every iron rodding the ass
& girlhood skirt lifting too high & too hard I judged the women
who could eat such tiny fills & be filled (though maybe they too were hungry).
Hunger lifts a veil doesn’t it? Mornings I watch for coyotes
straggling our yellow lines scavenging past foothills into our neat rows
& it’s not the babies or cats I worry for. That watermelon
grew inside me. Black seeds as blossom—splitting into love.

 

Final Version:

 

 

 

 

I saw so many different forms and ways in which you configure poems on the page in this collection. How do you find the right shape or form for each of your poems? How do you know it’s working?

 

I don’t always know what the right shape will be and often experiment and play until the poem’s shape emerges. I trust my gut and a lifetime of reading poetry, and I’ll often ask for feedback at some point or send the poem out to journals. If it comes back, I’ll take another look, and that time away has often lent me new perspective. I sense that the poem knows when it’s ready. Knows when it’s time.

 

This whole collection feels like a journey toward healing a woman’s wound. Tell us about the healing process for you as you wrote this book. What wounds remain?

 

I’ve likely been writing the same book again and again. Tony Hoagland calls this the mythical wound. Emily Dickinson’s flood subject was death. Mine is mothering. But I’m grateful. We mama poets don’t necessarily get the attention we deserve, just as mothers in society don’t receive the true respect and care from society that we need to mother our children, especially marginalized women. So I’ll gladly keep writing these books as long as I need to. I sense I’ll keep writing them until the collective wound is healed. Yes, I’m specifically writing the intergenerational and personal trauma of the speaker of my poems, but the hope has always been that this will call attention to the necessary healing of the collective, of the whole.

 

I adore the way your write about your daughter, your children in this book. I understand that you and your daughter are writing a book together. What are you working on?

 

I’m so excited about the YA/middle-grade book my twelve-year-old and I finished during the pandemic when I was homeschooling her, then completely rewrote last year at the urging of our agent. We’re gearing up to send it out again soon, fingers crossed. It’s an indigenous girl-powered Percy Jackson of sorts—called PI LUNA AND THE BROKEN GODDESS. I truly can’t wait to share it with you.

 

In “The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers,” Bhanu Kapil composes 12 questions she asks South Asian women in an airport. Based on the responses, Kapil composes poems. I’m going to ask you my favorite question to end our interview: Describe a morning you woke without fear.

I’m still leaning into that morning. I’d say perhaps it was the morning after I gave birth to my daughter, but while a new strength was born then, so was a new fear. That fear has given birth to all my books though. So in many ways, I’m grateful for it.

 

***

 

Sonia Arora is still trying to find the right balm to cure her diasporic funk. She channels her angst by writing poems and insists on walking every day. When it’s too cold she does Bhangra at home. Sonia has been published in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Lunch Ticket, bioStories, Sonic Boom and more. In her free time, she fights fascism and makes pumpkin roti. Last year, she received a grant from the New York Council on the Arts to work on a collection of poems entitled Rewilding: Native and Invasive Species. She lives with her son, husband and cat in a town by the bay.

 

Jenn Givhan is a Mexican-American and Indigenous poet and novelist (author of Trinity Sight, Jubilee, and River Woman, River Demon), who grew up in the Imperial Valley, a small, border community in the Southern California desert. Her family has ancestral ties to the indigenous peoples of New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico including Ysleta del Sur and the Tigua Indian peoples of the Ysleta region of El Paso.

Her honors include a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellowship, The Frost Place Latinx Scholarship, a 2020 Southwest Book Award, an Honorable Mention for 2021 The Rudolfo Anaya Best Latino Focused Fiction Book Award category from the International Latino Book Awards Foundation, The 2019 New Ohio Review Poetry Prize chosen by Tyehimba Jess, Cutthroat Journal’s 2018 Joy Harjo Poetry Prize chosen by Patricia Spears Jones, The 2017 Greg Grummer Poetry Prize chosen by Monica Youn, The 2015 Lascaux Review Editors’ Choice Poetry Prize, and The Pinch Poetry Prize chosen by Ada Limón.

Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, Best of the Net, Best New Poets, AGNI, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, POETRY, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Blackbird, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Salon, The Rumpus, and Prairie Schooner, among many others.

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