San Antonio poet Claudia Delfina Cardona can’t help but write about home. In What Remains, Cardona’s new chapbook, the chambers of her heart look like café and bakery Mi Tierra, the music of mariachis or cumbia plays endlessly, and the reader follows her through every park in San Antonio. Set in the colorful, poetic universe of her city, the collection is a study of desire, longing, and loss, seen both through personal heartbreak and gentrification in a changing city.
The short chapbook was released earlier this fall from Host Publications, an Austin-based small press that publishes primarily women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ2+ writers. Cardona spoke with the Observer about Austin and San Antonio’s literary scenes, her philosophy of writing poetry as archiving, and her advice for young Texan poets.
Texas Observer: Tell me about the title of your collection.
Cardona: What I originally had in mind was the title for my MFA thesis from 2019, where a lot of these poems came from, which was Temporary Tattoo. It fit more with the themes of desire and crushes and everything being temporary and fleeting. As I was revising over the summer, I knew that wasn’t the title for it anymore. I thought of What Remains because it was one of the recent poems I wrote, and I felt it encapsulated a lot of the themes that I was talking about with place and ancestry and longing.
I really enjoyed the introduction by Linda Rivas Vázquez. What’s your relationship with her?
I met her in my MFA. We’re both Mexican-American and we were trying to navigate this mostly white MFA and really kind of kept each other from going crazy a lot of times. Me and Linda started up a literary journal called Infrarrealista Review focused on Texan writers. We’ve been dead set on publishing more non-MFA, non-academic Texan writers because there are so many of them, but they just aren’t really elevated. Or maybe they published books but the press went defunct. We want to focus on people who don’t have the same access to journals, and eventually want to publish translations and chapbooks in fiction, poetry, and cultural criticism.
One epigraph you include is a quote from Dorothea Lasky, “I say I want to save the world but really I want to write poems all day.” Tell me about that.
I’ve had this push and pull between feeling the way that certain people feel about poetry, as this very self-absorbed, apolitical art that can’t change the world and feeling very nihilistic about that, and seeing poetry as an act of archiving, which is where I am right now. That’s why I wrote a lot of the poems in this book. Each poem just serves as my own personal archive and also the archive of people in my life, my grandmother, my dad, his parents. It’s really important to me to archive that. That’s political in its own sense. It’s not going to, perhaps, change the world at all. But it’s still important for me and for my audience, which is regional. It would be nice to save the world, but poetry is also its own act of survival.
My dad is also a poet. He grew up in 1940s Alice, Texas, and went to segregated schools. His mom was illiterate and his brother was illiterate. He had all of these factors piled up against him to not be into reading and writing, and yet he was. He’s also a high school teacher and has a few publications and awards, but he just genuinely loves the art and the poetry making, and that’s just really beautiful to me too. There’s no way that art can save the world, but it can save us on a personal level.
How did you start working with Host Publications?
I have been going to I Scream Social, which is the reading series for women and nonbinary readers that they always [pre-March] hosted at Malvern Books in Austin. A lot of my friends from my MFA program at Texas State were readers there. So I went when I started the program, and the way they do it, it’s like, ‘Oh, this person read, like, who are your writer friends? Maybe we could have them read.’ So eventually I got to read with them twice in 2018 and got published in their anthology. That’s how I met Annar Veröld, and in February at the launch party for Julie Howd’s chapbook, Annar asked me, ‘Are you working on a manuscript or anything?’ And I told her I was and I would send it to her, and they ended up asking me to submit to the chapbook prize. I was familiar with mónica teresa ortiz’s work that was published with Host and I loved reading her stuff, and on my goal list of the presses I wanted to be published with, Host was in those three names that I wanted.
Why were they on your shortlist?
Looking at the fact that they only publish women and nonbinary people for their chapbooks, I was very drawn to that. And my poetry is so centered around place that it would feel kind of wrong if I sought out publishers outside of Texas. I just really liked that it was close to home and run by people that I knew and trusted.
When you write about San Antonio, do you write for a particular audience?
People that do get the references to places in my work, people from Texas, from San Antonio or the Valley, Austin, San Marcos, I feel it just brings another sense to the work, a special lens that someone from outside of Texas maybe won’t have that same appreciation for. But I think it’s important to romanticize or archive those places. So many of those things disappear. They are disappearing currently. Especially right now, so much gentrification across so many cities has been happening and will continue to happen. San Antonio’s on the cusp of it, and I just feel it’s especially important to archive those places now before they’re torn down.
Who are your biggest Texan influences?
First and foremost I would have to mention my dad, Jesse Cardona. His poetry is much more lyric and, I guess, playful, optimistic, but his work is predominantly about place, so he writes a lot of his poems about Alice, Texas, and growing up there. And Gloria Anzaldúa. I feel very connected to her work and her theories and her mysticism. Not a native Texan, but lived here for a long time, Sandra Cisneros. I still remember the day that I read Woman Hollering Creek. I got it from the library in college, and reading all these stories set in San Antonio, I was just like, ‘This is insane.’ It was the first time I really saw San Antonio as a literary city. I would also say Dr. Ito Romo. He was one of my professors in college and he really radicalized me, talking about fiction and language and code switching. And—she was born in New Mexico but she lives in Austin now—Carrie Fountain. I took a workshop with her at St. Edward’s and her work, the way that she gets to her endings, has always fascinated me.
Do you have any advice for young Texan poets?
I would say if people want to be published, ask around. There are so many opportunities to get published in zines around Texas, and in every single major city. In San Antonio, a lot of presses will publish either in English or Spanish. The amazing thing about self-publishing and independent presses is so many of them are run by queer people or people of color, and it’s for a reason—it’s because we don’t have a lot of access to “normal publishing”. People have been creating their own spaces and opportunities for a while. Every young person can make their own zine, their own collection of work, and they can sell it and print them at like, you know, FedEx or at their job when no one’s looking.
I think there’s a lot of anxiety around not feeling good enough, in the sense of “No one’s gonna care about my work,” especially young writers and writers that are marginalized. But there’s always going to be someone that is going to relate to how you’re feeling. I will always remember when I went to a book club-type reading of Sandra Cisneros, a free event from Gemini Ink, and a woman in the audience was crying as the paragraph was being read, and afterwards the moderator asked her, “Hey, do you mind me asking why were you crying?” She was like, “It’s because I totally relate to that. I didn’t know that people wrote about things that I’ve gone through too, like my abuela, or the things that she ate or the things that she did.”
There needs to be more of an abundance of stories. We need to make up for lost time. Writing can really be powerful in that way, especially when you’re young. It’s an act of survival. As Audre Lorde says, poetry is not a luxury, it is inherent to our survival. It doesn’t have to be poetry but you know, whatever art form they’re interested in, it’s really important even if it’s not valued under capitalism, which of course it isn’t. But it’s also important to create.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.