Ask a Poet: Sandra Cisneros

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Welcome to the Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.

Today’s featured poet is Sandra Cisneros!

XCisnerosKeith Dannemiller

Hey! What’s new with you?
I’m doing a lot of projects at the same time, so many it feels like I’m doing nothing.  I’m working on interviewing immigrants for a Ford Foundation “Art of Change” project, and this means I travel a lot more than usual, and I have to carry microphones and a recorder with me like a journalist.  It’s a lesson in humility, because I have to remind myself this is not a conversation.  My task is to do what the politicians are not doing and should be doing—listening.  I also have to take care to not project what my final project will be; theater, poetry, narrative, testimonies.  I have to remind myself to get out of the way.  That means being open to where the work takes me and not imposing my will on it.

I’m also collaborating with a composer, a photographer, and a clothing designer on various projects that involve writing, with song, with images, and on clothing.

And I have a new chapbook coming out this October with Sarabande Press, a bilingual edition of a short story, Puro Amor.  The big deal is that it includes illustrations by the author.  Me!  First time I’m publishing my artwork.

What are you currently reading?
I just finished reading Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons On Expulsion, poems like handkerchiefs wrinkled with tears, and re-reading Dorothy Allison’s The Women Who Hate Me, whose ferocity takes my breath away.  Both books make me feel like writing, and I love books that inspire me to dash for my pen.   I also just re-read John Water’s Role Models, a book that makes me laugh out loud and again, makes me want to write essays.  He’s brave and out there, and I love that in these times when people are afraid to speak their truth.   He uncensors me!  Also, on my bedside are towers of books, essay, biography, short stories novels.  Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Haifen and Gregory White Smith.  Whew!  It’s an incredible labor of love that easily must’ve take a decade of their lives!  And I’m re-reading The Haunting of Hill House, on the recommendation of writer Samantha Chang, but I only read it in the daytime because it’s too scary.  And poet Juan Armando Rojas Joo in Columbus, Ohio, gave me an anthology he and Jennifer Rathbun edited called Sangre Mía, Blood of Mine, poetry of the border, aptly titled because it makes your blood freeze.

What is the role of poetry in today’s world? 
Oh, I don’t think I can answer that.  But I can say what the role of poetry is FOR ME.  For me poetry is the room in the house of the spirit to say whatever I want.  This is especially important as a woman, because I’ve had to work my whole life to gain a public voice.  Poetry is a space for me to discover myself.  And what I discover isn’t always flattering, but it’s always illuminating.

Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience. 
I once read in Saratoga, New York, to an audience equally divided among folks who only spoke English and folks who only spoke Spanish.  I realized this as I began, because, luckily I asked the audience before beginning.  Fortunately, I’m good at improvising, so I began by singing a song in Spanish, a real torch song anyone could understand even if you didn’t speak Spanish.  Then I went back and forth in English and Spanish.  It was exhausting, like playing ping pong by myself.  But it was also thrilling!

What is something miscellaneous from your life that you would recommend to other people? It could be a person, a habit, an idea, anything that brings you happiness right now that you would like to recommend.
I recommend that folks use sunrise or sunset as a bell to remind us to forgive everyone who bugs us, to remember to ask forgiveness of the same folks, because for sure we bug the hell out of them, and finally to forgive ourselves.  This is a good practice even and especially if you don’t feel like forgiving.  Little by little it starts to sink in and work, but you have to practice it on a daily basis.

Sandra Cisneros is a poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, whose work explores the lives of the working-class. Her numerous awards include NEA fellowships in both poetry and fiction, the Texas Medal of the Arts, a MacArthur Fellowship, several honorary doctorates and book awards nationally and internationally, and most recently Chicago’s Fifth Star Award, the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the National Medal of the Arts, awarded to her by President Obama in 2016. The House on Mango Street has sold over five million copies, been translated into over twenty languages, and is required reading in elementary, high school, and universities across the nation. Founder of awards and foundations that serve writers and a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, Sandra Cisneros earns her living by her pen.

Photo Credit: Keith Dannemiller

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