Lucha Corpi: In Conversation with Ketaki Datta
Lucha Corpi and Ketaki Datta at Santa Barbara
Two Poems by Lucha Corpi
“Writing Poems was my Salvation”
My mantra is: “I don’t want to lie in my deathbed saying:
‘I could have written.’”
– Luchi Corpi
Lucha Corpi is well known Chicana poet, novelist, and writer of children’s literature. Some of her important books are: Death at Solstice: A Gloria Damasco Mystery (2009), Eulogy for a Brown Angel (2002), Black Widow’s Wardrobe (1999), Cactus Blood (1995), and Crimson Moon (Arte Público Press, 2004). Loa a un angel de piel morena (2012) (Spanish) is the first installment in the Gloria Damasco Mystery series. Palabras de mediodía / Noon Words (2001) is her poetry collection published by the Arte Público Press. The Triple Banana Split Boy / El niño goloso (Piñata Books, 2009) is her picture book for children. Her memoir, Confessions of a Book Burner: Personal Essays and Stories (Arte Público Press, 2014), talks how reading and writing have played an active role in her life. Some of her awards and citations include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Prize in fiction, and the Multicultural Publishers Exchange Book Award of Excellence in Adult Fiction.
Muse India presents a Conversation with Lucha Corpi and Ketaki Datta and two of her poems, ‘Emily Dickenson’ and ‘Woven Romance’ from her collection Noon Words with the kind permissions of Lucha Corpi, the translator Catherine Rodriguez-Nieto and Nicolás Kanellos (publisher, Arte Público Press).
Ketaki Datta: Welcome, Lucha Corpi, a famous litterateur in Chicano Literature. It is quite interesting to find that you create a bridge between prose and poetry. Many stalwarts like Thomas Hardy, Rabindranath Tagore and Matthew Arnold have done that before. But you chose a strange genre, ie, crime fiction. How can you make the two stand on the same plane as what is broadly termed as Literature?
Lucha Corpi: Thank you for your interest in my literary work and authorship, dear friend, Professor Ketaki Datta.
You ask why I write poetry and crime stories; the reason I went from “rhyme to crime” ?
To answer that question I must go back to my childhood in a very small town in the state of Veracruz, México. By one of those wonderful coincidences in life, or perhaps because it was my destiny to do so, I started primary school when I was four years old. By age seven I was reading very well, with a good degree of comprehension.
To keep me challenged in reading, my third grade teacher instructed me in the declamation of poetry. I memorised short and long poems by Latin American and Mexican poets, men and women. I declaimed them in public during holidays and school festivities. I fell in love with poetry, even though I didn’t start writing my own until 1970, already living in Berkeley, California.
By then, I was getting a divorce from my husband of five years, providing for my son and myself, expressing my daily thoughts in English, my second language, and getting my Bachelor’s Degree at the University of California at Berkeley. I felt alone, abandoned, and lonely. To cope with the pain, and with no support network, I began to write poetry in Spanish, my first language. I knew then that I had found my destiny: What I’d been born to be in this world, a poet. I wrote poetry steadily for ten years. My first collection of poetry was published in 1980.
When I was seven years old as well, I developed a taste for the detective story. My father, who had undergone a cornea transplant at the time, couldn’t read for long periods of time. He asked me to read to him from anywhere in the newspapers, except from the crime page. There is nothing more fascinating than that which is forbidden. Although my father removed the crime page to dispose of it later, I found it and read it every time.
Soon, I tired of reading gory and gruesomely detailed stories about accidents, fights among individuals, which escalated to violent and sometimes deadly confrontations. Repetitive. Boring. My interest shifted to those accounts of “criminal” acts where an “intelligence” was at work. Poorly or brilliantly someone plotted and planned down to the slightest detail to steal, murder or harm someone socially, personally or physically. Then someone else—usually a police or private detective—investigated the crime and brought its perpetrator to justice. In doing so, justice was served and the balance between good and evil was restored.
I began to dream about writing a detective story one day. My aspiration came true when, at age 45, I wrote my first crime novel: Eulogy for a Brown Angel (Arte Público Press, Houston, Texas, 1992), where my private investigator, Gloria Damasco, finds a child dead in Los Angeles, during a riot and violent confrontation between the police and Chicano (Mexican American) people peacefully demonstrating against the War in Viet Nam. Eulogy was followed by four other novels: Cactus Blood (1995), Black Widow’s Wardrobe (1999), Death at Solstice (2009). All of my crime novels have as background the history and socio-political reality of the Mexican American people in California and in the larger context of the USA. and Mexico.
These two life-changing experiences at age seven propelled me onto two life journeys, seemingly different, but both dealing with the same basic and vital question: What is justice? How does it work, separate from a socio-political system and the system of law? Although in quite distinct ways, I explore the nature of justice through both my poetry and my crime fiction.
I don’t write to preserve a reputation as a poet or a literary writer. I write to please myself first, to challenge myself and grow as a poet and a writer. To a certain degree, I trust my natural instinct for a story or poem well told. But I also rewrite as much as needed until I am satisfied. Usually a tug at my heart and a pinch on my gut tell me the poem or the story is finished.
I allow my creativity to go anywhere it needs or wants to be, with only one thought in mind, a kind of mantra: “Lucha, don’t get to your deathbed saying, ‘I could have written.’”
KD: In the preface to Noon Words [Palabras de Mediodia, 1980], Tey Diana Robolledo, aptly says, “With this book, Lucha Corpi firmly established herself as a poet.” Please satiate our curiosity by referring to quite a few poems and their making, in Noon Words.
LC: Palabras de mediodía/Noon Words, my first poetry collection, was first published by Fuego de Aztlán Publications in 1980, then reissued in 2001 by Arte Público Press. In 1990 I published a second collection of poetry, “Variaciones sobre una tempestad/Variations on a Storm (Third Woman Press, 1990). A third collection, Bay Area Blues, will hopefully see the light this year. Since I write my poems in Spanish, they are transferred to English by my good friend and translator Catherine Rodríguez-Nieto. Translation of poetry is an art in itself.
I didn’t start writing poetry until I was 24 years old; the organisation of the collection, Noon words, is not chronologically linear. At times, I might write obsessively about a subject or theme. But I know that not all the poems I produce will be included in a collection.
If I sense that some poems are not finished, they go into hibernation, until I have in me what they need to become whole. Thus, some of them might remain unfinished for a long time or forever. I take them out every so often and review and revise them. If I’m lucky, I actually finish some of them.
My poem “Del Ajdrez/Chess” is one of those poems that remained unfinished for a while. I used to play chess with a good friend every other Sunday afternoon for years. One of those Sundays, my friend couldn’t make it. I looked at the chess set on my table, at the black and the white armies ready for battle. I sat at my writing table and wrote the poem, but I wasn’t satisfied with it.
I would go back to it every so often. One of those times, I was doing my housework. I stopped and looked at the poem on my writing table again. Then, I caught sight of a spider hanging from a thread. I took a step back. The spider stopped in midair right above the chess board. A question went through my mind like lightning: What are you looking at, spider? Then came the “If” questions. What would I see /think if I were that spider? I sat down and wrote the ending stanza of my “Chess” poem. I laughed. The element needed, the catalyst for the poem had six hairy legs and was no bigger than the nail on my pinkie finger. Such is the nature of the poetic process.
Every so often, to my surprise, some poems are born with all their parts in place—complete! “Los poemas de Marina/The Marina Poems,” a set of four poems, which speak about doña Marina, also known as La Malinche. Her birth name was Malintzin Tenepal. She took the name Marina when she was baptized. She was the Mexican woman who aided Cortés in the conquest of México.
I wrote all four “Marina” poems within two hours after I first conceived them. “Romance Negro/Dark romance,” based on a true story a student told me, was another poem written in one sitting. Since it dealt with the subject of rape, I instinctively changed the subject’s name and some details to protect the woman’s identity.
“Protocolo de verduras/The Protocol of Vegetables,” and “Segundo dos de noviembre/Second Day of the Dead,”and “Carta a Arturo/Letter to Arturo (my son)” were all written in one sitting as well. But all of these are exceptions because I rewrite most poems at least twice before I’m satisfied.
KD: Do you like to see yourself more as a poet or as a crime fiction writer? In October, 2016, at University of California, Santa Barbara, you said that, you prefer to compose poems by night while in the wee hours of dawn you kill people [create Crime Fiction]. Why so?
LC: I see myself as both, a poet and writer of fiction, including crime novels and other stories.
Since I have also written two bilingual children’s books— Where Fireflies Dance/Ahí, donde bailan las luciérnagas (Children’s Book Press and Lee and Low Press) and The Triple Banana Split Boy/El niño goloso, (Arte Público Press), I also consider myself a children’s book author.
In Confessions of a Book Burner I explore the personal essay on a subject or theme, but grounding each essay in the personal and cultural soil of the four geographical places I have lived my life in: My childhood in my birthplace, Jáltipan, Veracruz; my adolescence in San Luis Potosí, in central México; my youth in Berkeley, California; most of my adult life in Oakland, California in the US. So, perhaps, I could also qualify as a memoirist or essayist.
I am now writing a “hybrid,” combining poetry in Spanish and/or English, flash prose (no more than 250 words per piece), and memoir. It’s a challenging literary experiment that might or not be successful. Whether it is or not matters little. I’m sure I will learn a lot and become a better poet and writer for trying.
Each of these genres has its own time and frame of mind. Out of emotional necessity I began to write poems while going through a divorce, near and past midnight. It was the time of night the house was quiet, since my son was already asleep and everything ready for the next day.
When I started writing long fiction, especially crime novels, while also working full time, the only time I could do it was between 5:00 and 7:00 am before I went to work. On Saturdays and summers, I wrote four to six hours a day because I didn’t have to go to work. Sundays are the only days I rest. That is why I said that while I write poetry near midnight, I’ve “killed people in the wee hours of dawn.”
KD: Could you please elaborate on being influenced by the political upheavals at Berkeley in the 1960s? How could these shape up your poetic self? Like the First World War poets, you mean?
LC: My life in Berkeley wasn’t easy, as I mentioned before. Writing poetry made everything worthwhile. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, and in particular the Third World student movement at UC Berkeley, were definitely reality checks for all of us at the time.
Chicanos (Mexican Americans) formed alliances with the Blacks, the Native Americans and the Asian Americans on campus to demand that the UC Berkeley administration admit more “students of colour.”
There was also the budding Women’s Liberation Movement at the time, which also influenced all of us, women, and encouraged us to seek social, political and human equality. But being an immigrant—a bilingual-bicultural woman--also shaped my poetry.
The language of my poetry is Spanish, as you know. I have written a few poems in English, but the emotional and cultural tug is different; more mental in English. People ask me why I write my poetry mostly in Spanish, since I write my fiction in English. Perhaps, it is because poetry demands a commitment of the heart, not just the mind. But the truth is that anything that catches my curiosity, my fancy, for more than a passing instant, may eventually find the poem or the story where it belongs.
Although it’s true that the 1960s and 70s helped me to form a socio-political conscience and the women’s lib movement also influenced me, my poetry comes from incongruent elements buried deep in my subconscious, which joined those in my conscience to somehow form a particular poem. I just have to allow that process to happen.
KD: Your autobiography Confessions of a Book Burner is title-wise a reminder of Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey. And here, you talk about your deep attachment to your brother and sister, Victor and Conchita. Did they play any role in your desire of becoming an author?
LC: Not really. My brother Victor and sister Conchita are definitely among my favourite people anywhere. But, as I said, I came upon writing (poetry) by a felicitous coincidence. Having no family near me in California and finding myself as a divorced woman with a young son to raise, while also working 30 hours a week, plus carrying 12 units of academic work at UC Berkeley was hard. Writing poems was my salvation.
I think that my introduction to poetry was having read many poems and memorised them during my childhood. And then, there was also music. I played the piano for many years. I believe that music, poetry and the visual arts are the closest to and oldest expressions of humankind. So, when music and poetry combine, they become the song. There is nothing more powerful than a song in any form: ballad, chant, popular song, among others. Music, singing, poetry—that’s what all my siblings and I share.
KD: It has been said by an academic-critic that, “Lucha Corpi is more of a poet than a Crime-fiction writer. Even in her fiction, she is a poet.” Do you have anything to support or oppose this view? In your poems, image-clusters shape themselves into a poem. Do poetic images in your fiction play any veritable role? How can a crime fiction be poetic?
LC: It is true to a certain extent. Poetry is always the constant in my life. There may be instances where my senses and my intellect as a poet may contribute to the writing of the crime narrative. There are many times that I have admired the skill of the poet in a writer’s prose; perhaps this is the reason we call some narrative “Poetic prose.” But crime fiction’s engine is the plot that drives the action and leads to the ultimate end, the apprehension of the criminal, usually a murderer. This engine is also fuelled by a quest for justice.
In my personal essay “La Págiina Roja (The Crime Page)” in Confessions of a Book Burner (Arte Público Press. P. 52) I explore the nature of justice and its relationship with poetry:
“Justice is a living organism, mutating, evolving. Like a poem, it takes substance and form from incongruent elements at various levels of consciousness and the subconscious. Both poetry and justice, however, are elusive. They both require from us that we stop and listen—acknowledge…
…Our sense of justice also requires that we act on the knowledge, that we calibrate our conscience with compassion and empathy, for without them true justice is not possible…
…For me, as a Chicana mystery writer, acting on that knowledge means writing.”
Crime fiction is no different from any other long fiction writing. It must provide, at minimum, credible plots and characters, and description of the places where the action unfolds. In poetry, however, unless one is writing an epic poem or some other long narrative poem that develops as a story in verse, plot is not always relevant or necessary. Whether lyrical or narrative, it is the image or the metaphor, where the emotional content resides, and the conciseness of the poetic line and its rhythms that become important in poetry. It is truly a case of saying more with fewer words: “less is more.”
KD: Your autobiography reads like a long poem. So you are basically a poet, dabbling into other genres. Do you agree?
LC: I suppose so. As I said before that when I write poetry I want for nothing—I need nothing else. A long work requires stamina, physical, emotional and mental endurance. Someone once asked me to explain what the difference is between writing poetry and writing narrative. My short answer:
Writing poetry is like having a love affair, a romantic adventure. The energy is orgasmic with all its sensations and feelings that drive us to a point of ecstasy. It is an emotional surrender in an instant. Then we rest and get ready for the next encounter.
Writing long fiction, however, is like being married, with lots and lots of children always demanding attention. It is a long commitment, where we are tested every day, even long after the “children” are gone.
KD: Personal incidents influence a writer’s life. I feel intrigued how you managed to balance the life after divorce with your first husband, rearing Arturo single-handedly and writing regularly. Can I call you a feminist to the core, who carves a niche in the literary world with her zeal, courage and the will to fight incessantly?
LC: Just to add to what I have said before, I might from time to time use a label, such as feminist, when I am asked to talk about myself. I am a very strong woman, dedicated to my family and my craft, willing to grow and learn as needed. I am determined to write till the end of my days in this world. No excuses. No pretexts. It also helps that I sleep only 6 hours a day.
My name, Lucha, which is really my nickname and writer’s name, means “struggle” in Spanish. So I fight for the causes I believe in, in person as in writing. By nature, I am a problem solver, who doesn’t shrink at the enormity of a task. I feel that failure shouldn’t be a deterrent or an excuse for not trying again.
I have learned patience by practising acceptance of circumstances I cannot change and changing those I can. However, I don’t believe I am an extraordinary human being. I am like many other people I have been fortunate to meet often, ordinary and yet extraordinary in many other ways.
KD: Tell us something about winning the Multicultural Exchange Book Award for Adult Fiction for your Crime Fiction trilogy.
LC: Actually, the Multicultural Exchange Book Award was given to the first of the crime novels—Eulogy for a Brown Angel—which also won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award. I was also awarded an Oakland Cultural Arts Fellowship for it.
The second crime novel—Cactus Blood—received the Latino Book Award for best crime fiction. The third and fourth crime novels—Black Widow’s Wardrobe and Death at Solstice—were awarded The International Latino Book Award in Crime Fiction
Palabras de Mediodía/Noon Words, my first poetry collection, won me a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry.
KD: How different is Chicano Literature from mainstream American Literature?
LC: If I were brave enough, I could write a book about this subject. But I see no need to do what others have done so well in this particular subject of Chicano and Chicana (women) literature, Indeed there are many books that treat this subject well and extensively. But I’ll try my best to give you an overview of modern Chicano literature from the decade of the 1960s.
Mexican American/Latino literature was being produced, in both Spanish and English, even before Mexico’s north-western territory was annexed by the US after Mexico lost the war with the US in 1848. This territory includes the largest states in southwestern US as well as California on the Pacific Coast. The literary texts of this pre- and post-US-Mexico war era (up to 1960) are now being collected and published by Arte Público Press in Houston, Texas, under their “Recovering the US Hispanic Literature Project.” The themes treated in this literature output and more modern Chicano/Chicana literary works coincide on many subjects. Authors then as now write in both Spanish and English, and being bicultural, to mention a few. The fluidity of cultures across the border between the US and Mexico, to name a few.
In modern times, the Chicano and Chicana Movement of the 1960s, 70s and 80s was meant to empower the Mexican American people politically, socially, and culturally, mostly, but not exclusively. It is also a literature of protest and a search for identity by Americans of Mexican descent throughout the southwest, and in other urban areas. For example, cities in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Georgia, Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, among others.
At the forefront during the 1960s was the struggle of the campesinos (farmworkers) for higher wages and better living quarters, safer working conditions in the fields where they were exposed to pesticides and insecticides. Many of them, being illiterate or having little schooling, in either Mexico or the US were at a disadvantage to advance their struggle for better contracts with the owners of large farms—the agribusiness. To make sure this happened, they also fought for the right to unionise, which the powerful agribusiness owners opposed.
Under the leadership of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta the membership eventually succeeded in creating the UFW (United Farm Workers). This was a peaceful movement, using boycott, protest marches, instructing the public in what was happening, and making the California judicial and legislative powers, and the people aware of the UFW call for justice for the farmworkers. If there was violence, it was created by the use of the Sheriff and his men and the powerful Teamsters union to use violence against the farmworkers. The Immigration officers were also there, detaining, putting in jail and deporting farmworkers.
The Farmworkers’ Movement brought to the forefront the need to have socio-political power through their union, but also the need for a cultural voice to educate and organise. The Teatro Campesino, headed by its director, playwright, and actor Luis Váldez, provided the forum where their many concerns were addressed through the performance of short plays, skits, in Spanish and English, with songs to illustrate the points. The Teatro Campesino performed on the back of a truck, which travelled to the many large farms throughout California. Many Chicano urban theatre companies sprang in the larger cities throughout the southwest and California as well.
In urban areas, the cultural voice translated into popular music and works of art, such as murals and poster art as two examples of it. In literature, Chicano literary voices expressed in poetry in the 1970s with bilingual poetry written in Spanglish, a combination of Spanish and English in the poetic line, for example. Poets, artists and musicians sought to show, dignify and raise consciousness about Mexican culture and empower Chicanos to seek justice where there was none; to reclaim their identity as people of two cultures and two languages, to fight against discrimination based on race, language or culture.
Although not the only one writing bilingual poetry and using Spanglish, however, José Montoya stands out in as the best exponent of bilingual poetry in California and throughout the southwest. Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzales, who headed the Crusade for Justice in Colorado, also wrote a long narrative poem “I am Joaquín,” which was very popular. The poet Alurista in southern California, whose poetry also drew on the native heritage and the contributions of the many Native tribes in Mexico, but more in particular those of the Aztecs. Nahuatl, the language spoken throughout the Aztec empire thus Mexico, was added to Spanish and English in Chicano literary production.
In short and long narrative is worth mentioning Rudolfo Anaya in New Mexico, Tomás Rivera in California, and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith in Texas, the last two authors writing in both English and Spanish. Also included in this generation of poets and writers are Sabine Ulibarri, New Mexico, Ricardo Sánchez, Texas, Luis Omar Salinas, California, Américo Paredes, Texas, Tino Villanueva, Texas, Oscar Zeta Acosta, California, José Antonio Burciaga, California at that time.
Other poets and writers during the 1970s and 1980s, and beyond (a list hardly exhaustive): John Rechy, Gary Soto, Benjamín Alire Sáenz, Luis Alberto Urrea, Sergio Troncoso, Francisco X. Alarcón who wrote poetry in Spanish, English and Nahuatl; Juan Felipe Herrera, who is now in his second term as the first Chicano/Latino US Poet Laureate.
What about Chicanas? How do the women’s literary production fit in? During the 60s and 70s Chicanas had to carve their own niches in the literary pyramid, dominated and populated by Chicano authors, playwrights and poets. There were many Chicanas writing, but their works weren’t being published.
Once Chicanas entered and took their place in the literary pyramid they were there to stay. In fact, Chicana/Latina writers were the trendsetters during those two decades. They felt freer to experiment, to not be constricted by demands of the Chicano Movement. The themes covered by many of them were still culturally, socially or politically relevant and related to the Chicano Movement, but not as overtly as their male counterparts. Their voices were just as strong, but they no longer saw themselves merely as mirrors that reflected the major themes of the movement in their writings. Issues of gender and gender preference were addressed by a new class of artists, poets, writers, and by Chicana scholars as well.
In the 1960s we have noted and published writers like Estela Portillo Trambley, El Paso, Texas, stands out as a playwright and musical play composer, and the first Chicana to publish a full collection of short stories. Angela de Hoyos poet, essayist, and publisher in San Antonio, Texas.
Among those emerging voices in the late 1970s and through the decade of the 80s and most definitely trendsetters in Chicana Literature were and continue to be: Lorna Dee Cervantes, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Denise Chávez, Alicia Gáspar de Alba, Ana Castillo, among many others.
I apologise for not mentioning so many other great Chicano and Chicana poets and writers, who well deserve it. There was a time in the sixties and seventies when we were able to read most of what was being published throughout the southwest and other parts of the nation. Not so any longer. Unfortunately and also felicitously, the lists of writers and poets has grown tremendously! So much that there is now no time to read everything that’s being written.
To find out more about Chicano and Chicana poets, playwrights and writers you might want to check the Internet for general references and individual authors.
Amazon.com provides a list of Chicano-a authors, and so does Barnes & Noble online bookstore. You might also check: http://www.arte.uh.edu for authors writing now, and those included in the “Recovering the US Hispanic Literature Project” I mentioned earlier.
“Chicano Movement” in 1960s https://wikipedia.org/wiki/chicano_movement
“The Chicano Civil Rights” in the Library of Congress for information and authors:
KD: Please say a word or two for the young aspiring authors, both poets and crime-thriller writers.
LC: Write as if your life depended on it; because it does.
- My mantra is: “I don’t want to lie in my deathbed saying: ‘I could have written.’”
- Publish your work, especially poetry, anyway and anywhere you can.
- Don’t talk about what you’re writing while you’re writing it. You want to conserve that urgency to write it.
- There are no writers’ blocks. There are problems to solve. And let the poem or story take you where it wants, not where you want it to go or be.
- Read, read, and read some more, and read again. Other poets and writers are your best teachers.
- Enjoy your time writing and reserve time to do it.
- Better if you write at the same time every day.
- If you can’t keep a writing routine, then make it part of another activity like going to a café by yourself, not with friends, or the library, or any activity at a place where you can isolate yourself enough to write.
- Keep pounding the typewriter keys. Keep your pencils always sharpened.
Good luck! Thanks a lot for being with me for this interview.