The Love of Labor, the Labor of Love: An Interview With Carmen Giménez Smith

Rigoberto González
From the May/June 2018 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Her reputation as a prolific writer, dynamic editor, and supportive literary citizen has made Carmen Giménez Smith a notable figure in contemporary American letters. She calls herself a “Latinx feminista,” a designation that speaks to her interests as an editor and a publisher, but also to the political backbone of her poetry, which dares to reimagine fairy tales, to offer complex and uncomfortable views on identity, and to critique the landscapes of her varied experiences, from the difficulties of motherhood to the challenges of living in present-day America. 

Carmen Giménez Smith (Credit: Adam Ewing)

Giménez Smith is the author of five books of poetry, including her latest, Cruel Futures, published by City Lights Books in April, and Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press, 2013), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and the memoir Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else (University of Arizona Press, 2010), which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. She is coeditor, with John Chávez, of the anthology Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing (Counterpath, 2014) and is the publisher of Noemi Press, whose prominent Akrilica Series, a copublishing venture with the University of Notre Dame’s Letras Latinas, showcases innovative Latinx writing from poets such as Manuel Paul López and Vanessa Angélica Villarreal.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently a professor of English and creative writing at Virginia Tech, Giménez Smith, who is married to the writer Evan Lavender-Smith and has two children, serves on the faculty of Bennington College’s low-residency MFA program. She is chair of the organizing committee for CantoMundo, a national organization that nurtures Latinx poets, and since 2017 she has been a poetry editor (alongside critic Stephanie Burt) at the Nation

In Cruel Futures Giménez Smith explores family, femininity, community, politics, and Latinx identity. In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, somehow I managed to persuade the author to take a break from her remarkable schedule—she is currently working with poet-translator Zachary Payne on an anthology of a Peruvian poetry movement from the eighties called Kloaka as well as finishing her next book, Be Recorder, scheduled for publication by Graywolf Press next year—to speak about the love of labor, the labor of love, and, to quote her memoir, “everything else.”

You dedicate Cruel Futures to your “CantoMundo family.” Given the themes you explore in the book, does this suggest that the organization has become a kind of lifeline for you and other Latinx poets? How does such a community shape the work and vice versa?
I’ve been involved with CantoMundo—first as a fellow, then as a member of the organizing committee—for about six years, and I treasure how the retreat and the relationships that have resulted from it have deepened my relationship to my own Latinidad by offering me the community I require in order to love what I do and who I am. CantoMundo has also bolstered my resistance to types of aesthetic and cultural assimilation I have long struggled with, resistances and struggles too numerous to name. Like many other people of color, my MFA experience involved erasing parts of myself. I’m reminded of what Junot Díaz wrote in his [New Yorker] article “MFA vs. POC”:

In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. 

We definitely didn’t talk about race in my MFA program, back in 1995. The students of color I studied with all banded together and protected one another as best we could, but we still didn’t feel like we could do anything about institutional racism and the self-loathing it elicited. I recognized that it was an insidious form of oppression, but that knowledge didn’t make it easier for me to navigate. I had a long way to go toward learning how to deal with it, and CantoMundo gave me the space and community to discover I wasn’t alone. I’m now an organizer for the retreat because I want to help create this opportunity for poets who are struggling under similar circumstances. The world has changed since 1995, yes, but not enough for the Latinx poets who feel erased or distant from the landscape of contemporary poetry. Selfishly I also want to continue to learn and change as a poet among the influence of an incredible array of talent, which is something that CantoMundo obviously provides. 

I have read all your previous books, and I’m intrigued by how you address issues of identity in this one, more directly and explicitly than before. One example is the poem “TV, Mon Amour,” whose title references Alain Resnais’s film [Hiroshima, Mon Amour] about memory and forgetting but which speaks to a woman who has to identify with white characters on television. Why have your critiques of American culture and society become amplified in Cruel Futures?  
I have been writing lyric essays about television in recent years, some of which I have come to realize work better as poems; I think it was when I started compressing and distilling them that I arrived at a critique of American popular culture, amplified by the 2016 presidential election. As a ubiquity of screens—TVs, laptops, phones—project information, propaganda, mythos, and folklore into the world, I’ve been thinking about how twenty-first-century American identity is created. I’m most fascinated by how this construction is paranoid, polarized, and distrustful of conventional models for acquiring knowledge. We live in an age when a segment of the population believes the earth is flat, and that they can disprove thousands of years of scientific study by taking pictures of the ocean’s horizon. This doesn’t happen by accident. My conspiratorial dystopian view is that we are very purposely being steered toward a radically anti-intellectual landscape in order for oligarchs to rob us blind while we argue about the efficacy of vaccination.  

Whether we like it or not, these screens are major parts of how we construct our selves, our subjective identities. I often looked to locate models for being in the world when I was a kid, and, like so many others, my primary access to the world and models of being came through television. I loved Charo and Maria from Sesame Street if only because they looked or sounded like my mother. I decided that Lynda Carter [from Wonder Woman] and Janet from Three’s Company were Latinas because I wanted and needed so badly to see myself reflected back at me. This distortion or misreading of selfhood didn’t go away on its own. At some point I realized there was serious interrogation to be performed on this daily encounter with structures and apparatuses that diminish or limit or erase my sense of identity. 

One of the concerns many writers have is that the artistic work they produce during the current political administration somehow empowers the sitting president. You don’t shy away from addressing the present first family in poems like “Ethos” and “Excuses.” What is your own ethos about writing during these troubling times?
The morning after the election, my friend the historian Andrea Orzoff texted this to me: “In the larger historical context, 250 years or so is a good run for a democracy—and shifts to oligarchical authoritarianism are relatively common—but I had so hoped we would manage to avoid that.” This message functioned as a clarion call for me: I realized it was time to rethink my poetics...once I was finally able to get out of my bathrobe and clear away the boxes of Girl Scout cookies I was crying into. Today I do genuinely feel that artists with the privilege of doing so must commit to a take-no-prisoners attitude with respect to their artistic practice. My own perspective is especially informed by having familial threads in South America, countries where oligarchy has been so prevalent for so long. When I was a kid, my parents talked a lot about the political circumstances of their home countries, and as I was watching the 2016 election unfold, I felt a sense of déjà vu. I have always attempted to be political in my work, but I tended toward an amorphous and primarily first-world feminist critique. After the election I returned to reading poets like Roque Dalton and listening to the songs of Violeta Parra, artists who very directly and forcefully critique the oppressive institutions in which they find themselves attempting to live and create art. Because I see our country devolving into a condition of oligarchy, this type of direct and unmediated poetic action now seems to me to be the only appropriate response.   

The poem “Ravers Having Babies” explores the various stages of a woman’s life and her many roles. The speaker takes an account of both her journey into motherhood and her evolving relationship to language. At one point she says, “maybe that’s what a poem is / a flayed skin I can turn into a map.” But she ends on a more maternal gesture, noting, “my babies turn words over / with native wonder.” This moving poem strikes a melancholic chord, but it unequivocally celebrates, like other poems, a woman’s many creative energies. What’s it like to imagine and publish such a book during the era of the Woman’s March, #MeToo, and other feminist momentums? 
Today is my forty-seventh birthday, and I texted my friend Sarah Gzemski that I lay the 30 percent of discomfort I have about turning forty-seven at the feet of patriarchy. I love what I am, who I am, and what I’ve been, and if I had a time machine, I would go back to the twenty-five-year-old me and say it’s all good, you’re amazing and you always will be. I’d always wanted to write a poem with this title; as the poem states, my friend Jack indeed said that to me when I got pregnant—“Ravers having babies!”—in part because I was flying by the seat of my pants, more or less walking out of a dance club into parenthood, and I wanted to honor that person I was, the raver, because she was fun and crazy and desperate, and I’ve somehow coalesced all of those qualities into an aesthetic. My hope, as I attempt to look forward to my future poetry, is that I continue to push myself to become more and more radical, that my critique becomes more mercenary and pointed and useful. I want to be brave, in this respect. And my greatest hope is to inspire braveness in others. 

I’m intrigued by the various emotional tones in the book, particularly those that express vulnerability and inner strength. To communicate this complexity, you use humor at times, like in the metaphorical poem “The Bride,” or you use a touching personal narrative, as in the poem “My Brother Is a Savior.” What determines the mode of delivery in a poem? 
I’m aesthetically promiscuous; I like the feeling of feeling infected by forms deployed by other poets. I take what I like, I try it on, and though there are gestures and approaches I’ll never escape, I pick up effects and tricks from a crazy-wide range of poets. As I’ve gotten older—as I’ve felt less compelled to belong to some tradition or some poetry clique—it’s been more fun to let a poem tell me how it wants to be based on the last few poems I read and fell for. A collection of poetry can act as a historical document; with respect to the current political climate, I believe that’s a feature of Cruel Futures. My aesthetic journey, my desire to change—how I embrace new influence, how I attempt to learn from my past mistakes—are also, I believe, documented in this book. “My Brother Is a Savior” is an older poem written while I was working on a long poem called “Be Recorder” and part of a more general experiment I’m attempting by releasing my writing from the taut lyric voice I’ve so often relied on, letting myself fly without punctuation—my safety blanket!—and also employing more cloudiness, maybe more impressionism. Eduardo Chirinos’s book The Smoke of Distant Fires was vital to me with respect to this experiment; I learned a lot from his continuous line, though I also feel like there’s a Cocteau Twins vibe about the poem you mention, the one for my brother, who was, once upon a time, a shoe-gazer. 

Poems like “The Bride” are more in my wheelhouse. I love dreams and the surreal and I can’t escape a joke. When I was editing Cruel Futures, I found myself cutting out lines that I loved because they sometimes sounded like they would be followed by a drum sting. The humor also helps me temper the more pathos-laden terrain I sometimes perceive about my subject matter. 

Carmen Giménez Smith (Credit: Adam Ewing)

In Cruel Futures you write about love—for family, community, others, the self—very openly. I’m thinking of the line in “Liberate Me”: “I love my belly because the insides are all scarred up from living fast.” Love is hard-won—it takes work to love, it takes its toll. Why is the labor of love so necessary, and why is it necessarily part of your poetics?
I’ve had a lot of struggles with love—and I’ve always been saved by love: by giving it, by being in its grace. When I step back and imagine the sum quantity of all the poetry I’ve most enjoyed writing, I almost feel as if I’m able to boil down the enjoyment to two impulses: We want to be loved, and we’re afraid of dying—of losing the light of love. Love isn’t easy, though, and sometimes it requires an enormous amount of sacrifice and self-reflection to learn how to give and receive it. I may sound naive, but I feel like so much of our contemporary cultural fracturing is caused by capitalism keeping us at bay from experiences of pure love. I’m an atheist, but I appreciate how, across religions, love is so often valorized. Memes of Christ holding an AR-15 reify my feeling that we’ve lost our way, as do trolls who accuse Sandy Hook parents of being crisis actors or the relish people take in families being torn apart by ICE goon squads or, more generally, how we, moment by moment, minimize or even ignore the lived experience of any other human being besides ourselves who exists in a condition of suffering. 

You’ve been such an exceptional role model for young writers. Though I often wonder about this expectation of labor, particularly for women and people of color. How do you negotiate a serious work ethic with this notion that as a woman of color you have to work three times as hard? What advice do you have for your fellow Latinx feministas about navigating the profession?
The world must consider—and reconsider and reconsider and reconsider—how much harder women, particularly women of color, have to work to prove themselves worthy of genuine acceptance. I feel like I’m on the other side of a very steep ascent that has taken a great toll on me, on my life, and on the pleasure I desire from life. When I think of things I can’t do—touching my toes! running up a flight of stairs!—my first piece of advice to my younger sisters in art and poetry would be that we can’t give ourselves over too much to our work, that we have to continue to protect ourselves so that it doesn’t preclude our ability to take joy in the pleasures that we are due as human beings. In the same way that my mother worked seventy-plus-hour weeks so that my family would have a shot at one day becoming middle class, I work hard so that future generations of women don’t have to work as hard as I have. I try to break down barriers so the passage will be easier for the next generation, but I’ve learned—in working with tireless women like my dear friends Celeste Mendoza and Deborah Paredez, cofounders of CantoMundo—that there are a lot of us doing the work, and things will always be much easier if we work together. I would recommend that a young Latinx activist surround herself with fierce friends and trust that through their support, they will, together, build thick skin. My friends are like the collagen of my skin. Institutional racism makes a woman of color paranoid and unsure, so I often turn to my squad, to borrow a term from my twelve-year old daughter, for clarity, for humor, for support, for love. I have an ongoing text thread with poets Rosa Alcalá and Susan Briante that we use for the WTF moments or for when we feel doubt or need reassurance. They let me know when I’m wrong about something or when I’m misunderstanding a situation. The poet Ruth Ellen Kocher is my coach in all things diplomatic, and Stephanie Burt gives me incredibly pragmatic emotional advice. 

Thick skin is more necessary than ever because this country—and in many ways contemporary letters—looks down its nose at unruly women of color, I believe, as a form of control, of discipline. The world is unfair and difficult, and I wouldn’t survive it if there weren’t a part of me that didn’t give a shit, that feels, in some ways, fueled by the disregard and contempt with which the lives of women of color are generally considered. Rather than see that exclusion as a penalty, I’ve used it as a release to do what I want and how I want it. That perspective was vital for me as I wrote Milk and Filth, which was a turning point for me as a poet—thick skin and community made that turn possible. 

But perhaps the most important piece of advice I’d offer is that there’s no timetable for becoming a good artist. I so often see young poets holding their own work up against the material successes of their peers, which is anathema to artistic creation. I often remind my students that I didn’t get my first book published until twelve years after I got my MFA. During those years I regularly worried about the successes attained by people I knew, compared with mine, and it only served to paralyze me or, worse, caused me to put out work that wasn’t ready, to make terrible decisions about who I should be as a poet. When I’ve been with my work and thought only of myself as an artist who needs to learn and grow, regardless of what fulanito over there is doing, I’ve grown the most. Social media intensifies these feelings, so I think if you’re trying to get ahead and get discouraged because so-and-so has a book and you don’t, then get off Facebook. The reason we make art is to reach the readers who need it, not to win some race that involves an ever-changing finish line.  

You’ve been an ardent advocate for emerging and established writers through your various literary endeavors—CantoMundo, Noemi Press, and now the Nation. And it’s been heartening to see a growth in literary entities that serve specific communities and identities. It’s evidence of the profession finally listening to certain populations of writers and their needs. What do you hope will be the next step to sustain this level of outreach? Where do you see yourself in the next decade as a literary citizen and activist?
I’m heartened by younger generations and how much action they’re taking against injustice. I’m thinking specifically of students in Parkland but more generally of the young poets and writers who have called out racism, sexual harassment, transphobia, and male privilege. I truly believe our future is in good hands, and I’d like to see funding organizations honor this extra-institutional work by directly supporting young writer-activists. I’m going to continue mentoring emerging writers, editors, and activists and clattering the gates to allow room for the beautiful and infinite possibilities writers of all types bring to contemporary poetry. For me, it’s parity and equity, yes, but it’s also about possibility. Poetry becomes stagnant when only a small portion of the population has access.


Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine