The Craft and DRIVE of Cervantes

Lorna Dee Cervantes, photo by Bryce Milligan

When I first met Lorna Dee Cervantes, founder of Mango Press—one of the first in the country to publish Chicano writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, and Jose Antonio Burciaga—I was 21, fresh out of college and recently returned to San Antonio. I still remember the force with which she read her poems—and the pauses that let me slip away and imagine her metaphors, slip away and see the vatos locos, carnales, cholas, and Chicano protesters from her California neighborhood—so much like mine. But her work wasn’t just about her Chicana roots; she wrote about her dreams, philosophy, and love.

Fifteen years have passed since her last book, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger. It won the Paterson Prize for Best Book of Poetry and the Latino Literature Award in 1991. It has been 25 years since her first, Emplumada, which won the American Book Award in 1982. Now Cervantes comes to the microphone again with DRIVE. Published by San Antonio-based Wings Press, the book (or what Cervantes calls, a “literary pentych”) consists of five sections and covers many topics: war, poverty, violence, love, suicide, play, motherhood, and more. Cervantes has a natural ability to connect to contemporary language, rituals, family life, and lifestyles. Her spirit is humble, loving—and forceful.

The following interview is adapted from a series of e-mail exchanges with Cervantes over several months about craft and DRIVE.

Texas Observer: You were a major founder of the Chicano literary movement and canon. What is its present place in American literature? How has this development affected your own work?

Lorna Dee Cervantes: The present place of the Chicana-Chicano literary movement is pretty much where I predicted it to be 20 years ago, when I was first asked that question. The poets who came before me, “Walking Behind the Spanish,” as Luis Omar Salinas once titled a collection of poems, created the way for me as they walked. I like to think that my work can be a freeway for others.

TO: In an interview for The Michigan Quarterly, you said, “The poetic consciousness is an indigenous consciousness.” How did this view influence your work on DRIVE?

LDC: My indigenous grandma from California always said, “The proof is in the pudding.” Some puddings require slow and steady preparation, and a constant presence, a constant stirring of the pot. For some books instant doesn’t do.

I was raised to believe that there is a right and a wrong way to do things and that “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” she would say. And I took that to heart.

This is why I chose to publish with a small, independent press with a reputation for literary excellence. I was able to take my time. To do it right. And I was able to do it myself. I designed the book, which is actually five separate books in one, a “literary pentych” of my own invention. What I recover, however subconsciously, from The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot is that meaning, that content of the form. Four books. Five books. I always intended that ambiguity. In DRIVE there are four wing books, the four quartets and what I’m coming to understand as the “fugue,” the long book-length poem, “Letters to David (A. Kennedy): An Elegiac Mass In the Form of A Train,” a weave of all of the elements contained therein. DRIVE is like a permanent gallery hanging of five separate paintings, which, together, form a new, and different, composition.

TO: How did the writing and revising of each section differ? For example, the “Letter to David (A. Kennedy)” and the first section on war?

LDC: The writing and revising of the books (which is what they are, how I think of them, and how they were conceived, as separate books) could not have been more different. I see the entire pentych, DRIVE, as an ever-evolving “book,” a lifelong process of revision and refining. Re-Vision, as I like to encourage my students to think of that phase of the poetic process. Like Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, I intend to publish another version of DRIVE soon, and revised editions thereafter.

As for “Letters to David (A. Kennedy): An Elegiac Mass in the Form of a Train,” I privately refer to it as the only poem I’ve never read, and I don’t mean out loud. I wrote it, most of it, in the dark without reading it. The two workings of the poem, besides the initial writing and the first draft, were more like giving birth, that involuntary giving over of your body and consciousness to the page and this “voice.” It’s very different than, say, forming a book. The first section of DRIVE, “How Far’s the War?” is more like an athletic activity, like a sport you train for, and is a very structured, deliberate activity. Writing “Letters To David,” which came years after my mother’s murder and rape, during a time when I had sworn off ever writing poetry again (as “poetry wasn’t possible in a world where that could happen”), was more like what happens to the woman who lifts the SUV that has just landed on her husband’s chest. How can you revise that? Thanks to comments from John Crawford at West End Press and Bryce Milligan’s careful reading, I was able to “give birth” to another version. But it was odd going; I have to deliberately disengage my interpretive faculties, just reduce it all to rhythm and syntax and a path of images leading to a symbolic resolution rather than reading the words on the page—and engaging in their meaning.

TO: I love the “Play” section of the book. What courage to publish poems that you wrote in seven minutes. I also see on your blog that you do this daily, write seven-minute poems. Tell me more about your writing habits or rituals.

LDC: I’m not sure I have writing habits or rituals. I like what the astrophysicist and quantum theory mathematician, Hans Bethe, had to say about it: “I get up in the morning, I pick up a pencil, and I try to think.” But I do believe, as my father once wrote, that “ceremonies heal.” My writing is a ceremony that heals. Writers write. And I am only a writer when I am writing. I try to write when I can.

For April, National Poetry Writing Month, I wrote “7-Minute Poems” poems every day. Not writing in a group, like the ones in the book, but alone in front of my computer clock, scribbling the poems from topics-words on scraps of paper left over from my various workshops. Also I wrote one-minute, one-a-day hay(na)ku poems from a Web site, “oneword,” that gives you one word a day and has a cool rainbow 60-second timer. And I did weekly “Unconscious Mutterings” poems from another site which gives you a list of 10 words you are to respond to spontaneously. And I spent 26 days writing 26 hay(na)ku poems for a collection of abecedarian hay(na)ku poems, one for every letter of the alphabet, all of them written in words in alphabetical order. After writing 30 poems in 30 days, I’m a little glad to be over that experiment. But I really like them. They are a zen practice, a commitment to the moment and craft.

As for writing, and writing well, the more the better. It takes a lot of tending of crocus bulbs to produce enough saffron for the paella.

TO: How does motherhood affect your craft?

LDC: It was listening to a lecture given by the fiction writer, Helena Maria Viramontes, at U.C. Irvine years ago, that got me to thinking how so often a woman’s Muse takes the form of her children; whereas for a man, the Muse typically takes the form of a young and strikingly beautiful woman, usually with long flowing hair. (Silent laughter.) For me, it is the awareness of my own mortality that affects my craft. Motherhood will put you there, especially single motherhood: My Greatest Fear—realized.

Single motherhood, to me, meant poverty and no less than the death of the self. I thought I would never write again, at least not well. What I wasn’t prepared for was that overwhelming, ever-present fear for my child, a paper in the throat that never goes away. It rubs off in a concern for my own physical well-being, especially as I embarked upon this journey at 40, much older than most moms. The sense that there is no one to care for my child if something should happen to me—this rubs off in my attitude about my writing and the books. I have to write them now. I have to finish them. I have to get the poems on and off the page—as there is no one to care for them should something happen to me.

I think we do some of our best writing after motherhood, those of us who can, because we can and we have to; just look at Cherrie Moraga, Ana Castillo, Helena, Alma Villanueva, and others. For different reasons. But there is a need to leave something solid and lasting, and worthy of the time it takes in the creation.

TO: What are your hopes for poetry in the 21st century?

LDC: I would hope that it would be recognized as the rare and valuable process that it is. Rare not in the elitist sense or the collector’s mentality of inventory, but in the face of the fact that any activity which allows you the leisure and pleasure to take total control over any process from beginning, middle to end is a rarity in this day and age when we are stuck making parts of things. We serve on the side in a side role, or we sit and suffer in our cubicles—our souls stuffed quietly into cubbies—and make possible the machinations of an invisible empire, as was pointed out by one of my early mentors (in head and heart if not in actuality in any time-space), Stanley Kunitz, in his prose book, A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly.

But you are asking the wrong person this question. I’m a home girl, not a hoper. I don’t hope or wish for anything. I believe in history. And in the force of truth. I believe in the power of language. I believe in the power of good poetry to—in the words of Carlos Santana about music—rearrange your molecules. For the better—I would hope.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza is a poet and freelance writer based in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST