“Is it possible to use form to fill in the gaps where language fails?” – An Interview With Laura Villareal

I’m excited about debut full-length books of poetry for how their emergence begins to wholly encapsulate the work of an author, and how they are a commencement of a continual reengagement. The poems of Laura Villareal embody transcendence in their multitude nuances. Girl’s Guide To Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022) is a book of many strands. I first received an email from Laura in 2020 to let me know I had won a poetry contest for which she was a judge. I had already begun to engage with her work before getting to know Laura— and this exchange led us to a firm friendship. In this conversation, we discuss moving through intergenerational trauma, form, symbolism, the usage of white space, and more.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

I’m so glad to be having this conversation. How have you been, Laura?

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

I’ve been alright. How about you? I’m glad to have the chance to talk with you as I am an admirer of your poetry! I love your chapbook Ghost Tracks.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Thank you for the words of admiration, Laura. Congratulations on your forthcoming book Girl’s Guide To Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press). I was first excited when I read the titular poem selected by Ada Limón. I continue to reengage with the poem, and there are several junctures where I pause to record multiplicity. We begin with the title, where “running” is important for a girl, for which she needs a guide. This alludes to both; safety and as literal personification. Please tell us more about how this title came to be?

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

Thank you—that’s very kind of you to say! I’m both excited and nervous about my book entering the world.
I’m don’t remember exactly how the poem’s title came to be. I wrote the poem in 2018 while I was at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. At the time I was listening to Connie Converse and thinking about cultural expectations, gender, and superstitions/beliefs. Maybe it came from the culmination of those things?
I do remember how the poem’s title became the title of the book though. V. Ruiz, a brilliant poet I met in a summer workshop, said they loved the poem’s title and thought it would be a great book title. As the manuscript grew and I considered the thematic threads, I felt the title was fitting. V.’s first book, In Stories We Thunder (Sundress Publications) is coming out 2022. I’m so excited for their book!

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

I’m going to continue to speak about the poem some more. The poem has several highlight factors it carries within, like oceanic undercurrents. Consider the lines: “white owls with the faces of women”, “you know the remedy: hug / the curves until they croon for you”, “in the beginning, women sold their hearts / for freedom & were vilified in legends / you’re the first girl in your family / to never stop moving / your legend is that you write your own legend.” These lines speak to me from a standpoint of working through eliminating intergenerational trauma, and having to create oneself. Would you tell us more about your process of working through writing this poem?

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

For sure. Thank you for that reading of the poem. As I was driving home, late one night I swore I saw a white owl. In Mexican legend, a white owl is La Lechuza—a evil bruja. It got me thinking a lot about women in legends—so many are described as being evil/bad like La Llorona, Pandora, Eve, etc.. They’re faulted for their curiosity, their need to be unburdened, their quest for knowledge or power in a way that men in legends/myths often aren’t. When women in legends/myths mess up they are often responsible for more than just themselves. It’s not just a hero’s fatal flaw like their male counterparts— more often than not they are responsible for the downfall of others or even humanity as a whole.
I think there’s also a cultural expectation for women to stay home or close to home that I find myself resisting. Family is central to my life but so often I want to explore the world. When I was younger, I liked travelling alone because it felt like I got closer to understanding myself outside of the contexts of my relationships with family, friends, and others. That poem in particular wrestles with what’s expected and what’s wanted.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

I’m interested in the lineation in your poem “The Conditions for Existing as Proposed by X, Y, & Z (What Makes Sense, What’s Safe, What’s Productive)”. There is a prospect of violence in the poem, of pain and self-resurrection. The same way healing is non-linear, the poem has an intriguing pattern in columns. The reader can measure the distances between each. In what ways does lineation inform this particular poem as well as your creative practice?

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

Ah, that’s one of my contrapuntal poems! It can be read horizontally, vertically, backwards and forwards. I like the form because healing is non-linear and sometimes it feels like stumbling over the same language or feeling again in a new context like how the poem changes slightly when read in a new order.
Line breaks are one of the poetic devices that I most delight in. The line itself can be tenuous without the potential surprise, duplicity, or breath that a line break can provide. Robert Hass in his book A Little Book on Form says, “A single line is a naked thing. It’s both light and heavy.” I tend to think this is true and pay close attention to the line and how it breaks.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

What do you think about the approach of decolonizing language? The way I perceive it, as done so deftly in your poems and in a few contemporary works, it is primarily about incorporation. Your poem “Outgrowing a Home” includes Spanish. There is a liberating usage of space and context the same way as being bilingual. How does language translate for you into the fabric of a poem?

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

It’s important to note that Spanish like English is a language of colonization. It’s essential to acknowledge language’s role as a tool of colonization and violence against indigenous and black people.
Years ago I may have simply said that the Spanish I use is what feels natural or commonplace in my life—like how I reach for the word manzanilla rather than chamomile. In the context of the United States, the act of incorporating Spanish briefly de-centers English and the hegemony of English in U.S. literature.
As I describe in “Curas and Dichos.” I understand more Spanish than I speak, my brain is slower than my mouth. The words often feel clumsy when I speak them. The Spanish that comes up in my poetry is the remnants of generations before me that cast aside Spanish for assimilation.
For example, when my maternal grandmother was in school she would get hit if she used Spanish. Or how I didn’t know my paternal grandfather could speak Spanish—or even that his mother only spoke Spanish—until after he died.
In “Outgrowing a Home,” I use the (in)famous words of La Llorona who wailed after drowning her children and then rephrase it slightly when the house itself is speaking. I think it’s natural for my home to call out in a language that belongs to my mother, grandmother, and all the women before me. A language that has been drowned by English but which I still reach for. A language which I am rooted in even superficially.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

I’m fascinated with poems that look at memory from a physically less proximate place than the source. Your poem “The Astronomer’s Daughter” begins, reckoning: “I haven’t seen the stars since August, / but I remember each pinhole of light.” There is a similar sense of repetition with “I haven’t seen the stars since August” which reminds me, again, of the titular poem “Girl’s Guide To Leaving” where “in the beginning” sonorously echoes.

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

That’s a wonderful noticing, Sneha. I hadn’t thought about but now it has me buzzing!

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

There’s such a magnificent example of the usage of white space in a poem in “Inside All The Places I Cannot See”. How does form correlate as analogous for you? The two variables here connect— the title, and the last two lines, “to be certain that pain exists / even inside a place I can’t see.”

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

I’m often thinking about how poems appear on the page initially and how that might inform the reader. Some questions I think about: Where is the eye drawn first? How can I amplify the feeling of physical or emotional movement in a poem? How can I use blank space as a tool to interrupt sound or create a longer breath? Is it possible to use form to fill in the gaps where language fails? For the most part I feel as though I’m working to answer these intuitively unless I’m consciously experimenting or have set constraints on the poem before beginning it.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

There is an extrapolating energy to your poem “Mother // Monster”. The lines: “The trick is to tell stories like a man. / The trick is every story is a hero’s journey / if it’s told without remorse.” are engulfed with plethora. A stark contrast of temperament is visible. “My inheritance is my mother’s honeycombed sorrow, / my father’s deluged retreat. // I read once that female babies survive stressful pregnancies / more often than males. / Even at birth they leave when it’s too hard.” There is an epithelium, or major tissue of gender underlining this poem. As a side question, a lot of poets do write about grief, familial experiences, and pain, and it can be a difficult territory to navigate. Would you please tell us more about how you incorporate experiences with patriarchy, and look through memory interludes in your poems?

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

This is a bad paraphrase and I can’t remember who said it but “there’s the truth and then there’s the truth of the poem.” Memory is fraught and at times tenuous. I read once that memory deteriorates over time to the point that sometimes the memory has changed significantly or sometimes a memory is entirely fabricated. When I’m working with memories I’m trying to capture the feeling or questions it raises when I think back instead. I know that the lens that I look at my life continues to change as I learn more or gain new perspective.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

What is your advice to those creating during these times? I’m sure our readers would also be glad to know your process for submitting your manuscript, and your suggestions to those sending out their work.

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

Great question. It’s important to be gentle with yourself during this time of innumerable griefs. Find ways to bring joy or new knowledge into your day and it will inevitably beckon poems to arrive. I believe that most writing happens away from the blank page.
As for submitting, I used Entropy’s Where to Submit when I was looking for places to send my manuscript. I use a planner, sticky notes, and calendar reminders to help keep myself on track. I use these things with regular submission, but I think it helped a lot when all the days blurred together this past year.
Other advice: if you have friends who’ve published their books with a press you’re interested in definitely ask them about their experience with the press.
Recently I saw via Midst a fund to help poets pay for various submission fees. Sending out a manuscript is expensive so if you need financial help check out POMPOM.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Thank you for this lovely and vibrant discussion, Laura. I hope to speak again soon!

 

LAURA VILLAREAL

Thank you, Sneha. I look forward to talking again soon.

Laura Villareal

Laura Villareal earned her MFA from Rutgers University-Newark. Her debut Girl’s Guide to Leaving will come out in Spring 2022 with University of Wisconsin Press. Her chapbook The Cartography of Sleep was published in 2018 by Nostrovia! Press. She has received fellowships and scholarships from The Highlights Foundation, Key West Literary Seminar, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, VONA, National Book Critics Circle, and the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts.

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.