ire'ne lara silva
in Conversation with
Leslie Contreras Schwartz
ire’ne lara silva is the author of two poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), which were both finalists for the International Latino Book Award in Poetry, an e-chapbook, Enduring Azucares (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015), as well as a short story collection, flesh to bone (Aunt Lute Books, 2013), which won the Premio Aztlán. She and poet Dan Vera are also the co-editors of Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2017), a collection of poetry and essays. ire’ne is the recipient of a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts grant, the final recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldúa Milagro Award. ire’ne is currently working on her first novel, Naci. Cuicacalli / House of Song is her newest collection of poetry. Her website is: irenelarasilva.wordpress.com.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz: I’d like to start about by entering your work in Cuiccacalli (meaning "House of Song" in Nahuatl) through the poem “you love a river”:
you love a river
for twenty years you love a river and every time
you cross it or sit to stare at it you imagine your suddenly
immense hands brushing over its calm ripples as if it
was fur as if it was skin as if it could touch
you back as if it also loved you as if it had
waited for you always this peaceful uncontested
river always serene so different from that other
river the river that has defined your entire life
the river you love is far but not that far from that other
river that other river sometimes muddy sometimes
dry sometimes green sometimes lovely but
you can never think of it without seeing almost two centuries of
blood shed over it can never see it without
thinking of the lives the pain the hurt the
losses crossing that river has cost you have always
loved rivers but is it still a river if it has walls
In this poem, you employ a rushing, sweeping syntax—combined with lineation that is broken and enjambed through the spaces—to create a song of longing for a river; in many ways it is a real river, the river, but it is also an idea of river. Can you explain your approach to the poem, and how this poem, like many others in the collection take this head-long leap into longing and seeking of song?
ire'ne lara silva: In both our literature (POC/Latinx/Indigenous/Mexican-American/border) and in the mainstream imagination, our lives are often not only marked, but defined, by our suffering. That way of thinking says: we suffer because we are people of color, our history and communities are defined by suffering, and only assimilation (and the forgetting inherent to assimilation) can relieve our suffering. Becoming ahistorical, apolitical, and phenotypically indistinguishable from the mainstream promises both success and belonging, or less articulated—survival, greater safety, and the end of alienation and oppression.
The counter impulse to that reality has been work (in literature, film, etc.) that speaks to only celebration, only the positive, only the elements of culture that are consume-able by the mainstream (food, music, art, dance, etc.).
What I want to do—not only in Cuicacalli, but in all my work, is to speak to the not-consume-aspects of our culture—to speak to the spirit. I want to uncategorically refuse to forget any part of our history while simultaneously refusing to be defined only by our suffering. I want to speak to not only how we have survived and endured, but how we have carved beauty of our lives, nurtured our joy, and suffused our lives with song.
I’ve found myself talking a lot recently about song. About all the ways we’ve come to see songs as entertainment only, at most, an emotional soundtrack to our lives. We listen to it, we buy it, we buy tickets to concerts, we become fans, we listen to more of it, we consume it. If we make music, we make it for others to consume. But what else is song? It connects us to place, to others, to memory, to communities. It gives us chills of recognition. It gives us a home when we are in exile, when we are far from our homelands, when we are in alien places. Song moves forwards and backwards in time. Incorporates history and culture and all the ways that history clashes resulted in beauty, literally in harmony, like South Texas Conjunto music with its blend of polka and accordion and guitar, Spanish lyrics, and sung by Mexican/American/Indigenous inhabitants on both sides of the border.
I believe that we learn what we love. That longing for what we love, what we dream of, is a potent source of power. That longing propels us and feeds us and defines us. And teaches us. What we long for and what we love are the source of song. For remembering, for declaring what is important to us, for expressing our gratitude, for sometimes rough-edged attempts to reconcile what we know and what we love.
Every day on my way to and from work, I cross the Colorado River/Town Lake in Austin, TX. Every day, twice a day, I give a little prayer of thanks as I cross that river. In my twenty years in Austin, I’ve spent countless hours contemplating that river, pouring love into it. It has been respite and delight. Faithful and constant.
The only river that has been more important to me is the Rio Grande. And on one particular morning, it came to me that I wanted to write about these two rivers—what they meant to me, how the love of one always reminded me of the other. How, even though I live a few hundred miles from the border, the border lives in me—in my memory, in my body, and constantly, in my thoughts.
LCS: Cuiccacalli is divided into five sections: “A Hundred Hands Deep,” “What Else Do We Burn,” “The Soul Speaks a Language of Light,” “Cuicacalli,” and an afterword in which you confront the issue of finding meaning through art in our current political turmoil and anxiety post-Trump. You start out with these wildly creative, speeding poems, like “poem for Tlaltecuhtli”—the goddess depicted as squatting in childbirth, with a baby emerging from her body—in which the speaker imagines herself in intimate encounters with the sacred: “you reveal / we birth ourselves /and we birth ourselves …. eyes gones half-mad with pain.” How do you decide how to enter into a conversation about relating to Mesoamerican goddesses and mysticism (some of which, like “walking the chupacabra,” and “roadtripping with Cipactli” (the crocodile monster earth god/dess of the Aztecs as part of their creation myth) are quite funny? How did this approach to modernizing indigenous gods—in turn serious, longing, then comical—play a role in determining the sections of the book? What were you reaching for in the writing of it?
ils: The intent wasn’t to modernize these deities—the intent was to say that they are not dead. That they still endure among us, that they still have lessons to impart, that they are enmeshed in our lives. Throughout my life, I’ve contemplated the visible ways in which we can see that Catholicism absorbed indigenous religions, translating concepts, incorporating language, and translating saints as the Catholic faces of indigenous deities. At the same time, we still know their names. I grew up with Coatlicue’s visage and with Huitzlopochtli’s name. It’s been decades and decades that the stories around deities, named and not named in this book, have shaped my thoughts about art and living. It was necessary to have the poem for Tlatecuhtli towards the beginning because for me personally, I wrote the book during an unexpected period of strenuous rebirth. But even before that, I’ve always thought that in my creative work, it was necessary to dedicate oneself to constant rebirth in order to grow as an artist, in order to reach in new directions. Although it’s also true that psychologically and spiritually, rebirth is a part of our lives as well.
There was no way of talking about the devastation of the conquest and the loss of lives without discussing Nextepuah, a deity of the afterlife, the ‘scatterer of ashes.” I always introduce “roadtripping with Cipactli” as being a poem I wrote while craving Whataburger, but it’s about more than that. It’s about what Cipactli represents—a monstrous life-force, an endless hunger, the loss of agency, and what it is in us that endures.
Coatlicue, in particular, needed her own poem because she has been and has become so important to me. I’m interested in starting discussions about my fear that in artistic and theoretical circles, we have become over-identified with the wound, with the wounded, even with the cyclically wounded and healed Coyolxauqui. A strong feminine deity has always been present in my life in different incarnations, primarily La Virgen de Guadalupe, but also La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos and Santisima Muerte. As I say in the poem, in my forties now, Coatlicue speaks to me the clearest now, wordlessly conveying what I am trying to articulate about strength, about survival, about the beauty of ferocity.
The placement of poems and sections was what felt like a natural progression as the manuscript twisted and turned in its exploration of so many themes and in the build-up to the final poem.
LCS: Despite the gravity of these poems that seek to find meaning amid struggle, to find song, there is a sense of playfulness in the craft of your poems that is often found in music like jazz. In your afterword, which is from a keynote you gave at the Chicana Arts and Activism Symposium in Topeka, Kansas, you state that “eventually, neither the wild weeping nor the hard knot nor the hard fist are sustainable. Instead, you train yourself. Every day, you train yourself not to admit in fear and worry. You train yourself to keep your eyes open and your heart soft and your hands ready and strong.” How did you use humor, lightness, playfulness, and song to write this book?
ils: I think the same way I use them to live. We can’t live in perpetual rage, in perpetual grief. Sometimes, we laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes we laugh because life is good and we are filled with joy. Sometimes we sing our hurt and sometimes we sing our joy and other times, we sing for every shade of feeling in between. We laugh and we play and we sing because we’re still alive.
I wanted, somehow, in this book to at least attempt to speak to how we simultaneously stay conscious of current events, remember our past, and still live in strength and joy and creation.
I like this comparison to jazz, the thought of us as expert musicians, bringing all the force of expert skill to improvise, to zig instead of zagging, to riff, to harmonize, to return—in a way in which instinct and intellect and heart and body work together seamlessly to create a new thing, a unique thing.
LCS: The longest, and perhaps most important poem in this book is the titular poem, “cuicacalli.” In seven sections, the poem serves as a microcosm of how the book as a whole aims to document indigenous history and the violence against indigenous people, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, process the consequences of that history, remember how one has been affected by that history, and find—in the end—something worth saving in the telling of it. Can you walk us through this poem, and tell us what problem you were working out as a writer? How did this poem emerge as a touchstone for the book?
ils: I didn’t know I was going to write the title poem until about three months before I finished writing the book. For a while, the poem for Nextepuah was going to be the title poem because I wanted to consider the long-term devastation of the Conquest, wanted to think about what it meant for us to be “born of a cataclysm.” But, as more and more of the manuscript was realized, it became clear that I needed to write something specific to Texas, to our legacy of being twice-dispossessed, as Indigenous people and then as Mexicans in this land north of the river. I decided to specifically span the time between the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1842 that established the Texas-Mexico border, ceded the land that became other states, and “guaranteed the rights of persons and property,” and now. A now marked by the femicides of Juarez and the high rates of missing Indigenous women across the Americas, the ongoing deaths of people crossing the border and the discovery of a mass grave in Falfurrias, TX, the separation of children from their undocumented parents and a government hostile to human rights. History and thoughts on song are intermixed, how song has never been silenced, how song has flowed through every impossible place, how song has saved us, saves us, and will save us.
I hope that Cuicacalli communicates itself as a piece of what I describe in the essay that finishes the book. Art created in the conviction that art, activism, and culture/history sustain each other, feed each other, propel each other. I wanted to say this is what love looks like, love of self and love of people—even in the face of our history.
A student recently asked me about we persevere in the face of all our failures, but how can we not persevere in the face of all our successes? All the ways we have survived? All the ways we have lived? All the ways we create? All the ways we build?
LCS: The poems in this collection address the singular, specific experience of being a Mexican American during our present time in the United States, but they also transcend that experience to include all experiences, drawing this community into the fold of all human experience. In “let us become want,” you say “become hunger with me become whole with me set flame to what was /extinguished i am and am not speaking of bodies but i am always / speaking intangible interior indefinable.” How did your heady, overflowing way of writing in this book, in which you “light a language of crave touch bite be burn a language of flame to create,” help you in your effort to capture the current Chicano experience? What did you discover in writing this book?
ils: I don’t know how much I ‘captured the Chicano experience.’ That will be up to the readers to tell me if they felt seen in any way. When I write, I always think of Toni Morrison’s advice about writing the book you need to read that doesn’t exist yet. As for my ‘heady and overflowing’ way of writing, well, that’s just the way I speak!
Cuicacalli is a book I needed to read that I hadn’t found anywhere else yet. I needed a space to write about this ambivalent undefined space between Latinx and Indigenous, between American and not-American, between being a body of spirit and a body of history.
I also remember Toni Morrison discussing in interviews how Faulkner didn’t write his books with her, a small African American girl child, in mind. Morrison also speaks about not writing for the white gaze, not writing with the “Western Canon of Literature” in mind. (Yes, if you couldn’t tell, Toni Morrison is a huge influence on me.)
And so I dove into the book, trying to describe the world as I saw it, what was just and what was beautiful, what was lost and what was infinite, what I love and what I wrestle with. Who is it that said, “In the specific, the universal”?
So this is my specific story, an Indigenous queer woman born and raised in Texas, born to parents born north of the river, who dreams a world without borders and without shame. A world where song never ends.