Interview: Rachelle Cruz

Rachelle CruzRachelle Cruz is a poet from Hayward, California. Her work has been featured in a number of magazines such as Yellow Medicine Review, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, and PANK Magazine. Cruz is a VONA writer, an Emerging Voices Fellow, as well as a Kundiman Fellow. She also hosts of The Blood-Jet Writing Hour and currently teaches creative writing at the University of California Riverside.

TCJWW: Please tell us about yourself. How long have you been writing? What prompted you to write poetry?

Cruz: I started writing as a child.  I remember stapling pieces of printer paper (the kind with the perforated edges with the holes; do you remember that?) that my mother brought home from her office to make “books.”  In middle school, my Language Arts teacher taught a unit on poetry.  She gave us notebooks where we were free to write anything (anything!) in — this was huge for me.  I remember we spent the majority of the class period decorating our notebooks and making collages, and it was the one of the first times I was given permission to be creative.  I was too self-conscious to truly write my own poems in the notebook so most of the pages were filled with song lyrics and Maya Angelou poems.  I continued to write in college and take poetry workshops, and fell in love with the work of Audre Lorde, Dionne Brand (a Canadian poet whose work more poets should read), June Jordan, and Gloria Anzaldúa.  I worked with amazing teachers, like Tina Chang, who introduced me to the incredible Asian American poetry organization, Kundiman, and Suzanne Gardinier who taught me to listen and read closely, carefully.  Once, I told Suzanne I was afraid of missing the train (I was often afraid of missing out or getting left behind in the poetry world, in academics, etc.).  She said, hey, remember — you are that train.

TCJWW: Who are some poets you admire?

Cruz: Oh my, there are several!  Reading Barbara Jane Reyes and Jessica Hagedorn was fundamental in helping me think about my positioning as a Pinay poet from Hayward, CA and what that means in the world.  Barbara is such a great example to me of literary citizenship, which means building community with others, sharing writing opportunities, celebrating others’ success, which is so crucial in a community that can be so easily bombarded with negativity and competition.  Other poets I love and come back to: lucille clifton, Anne Carson, Kim Hyesoon, Patrick Rosal, Aracelis Girmay, and Rumi.

Newer poets whose work plays with form and asks big, sometimes unanswerable questions: Jennifer Tamayo, Craig Santos Perez, Cathy Linh Che, Kenji Liu, Vickie Vertiz, Angel Garcia, Angela Peñaredondo.  David Campos’ new book, Furious Dusk, Stephanie Hammer’s How Formal?, Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Danez Smith’s [insert boy] are sitting on my nightstand and I can’t wait to read them!

Juan Felipe Herrera, who I’ve studied with, reminded me the importance of play and improvisation in writing, that it’s okay (actually, preferred) if I don’t always know.  Chris Abani helped me to discard the bullshit from my writing and allow the poems to be tender, awkward and vulnerable.

TCJWW: Self Portrait as Rumor and Blood starts off with “Once upon a time.” Do you see this book as a kind of narrative? If so, how does it differ from fairy tales that also begin with those words?

Cruz: The words “Once upon a time…” are a promise to the reader, and they often signal the familiarity of the fairy tale — its pattern, characterization, and imagery.  When I read fairy tales as a child, they were lovely, but often seemed so far away from me, a brown girl living in the Bay Area.  But I loved the grotesque imagery of severed step-sisters’ toes, a blood-stained key, and blue beards.  What happens if I use the words “Once upon a time” to reflect the speaker’s mythology — one rooted in the Philippines, not in Western Europe?  Do the speaker’s stories enter the fairy tale realm?  What happens then?

TCJWW: Probably the most vivid image that runs throughout the book is of the Aswang. The speaker of the poems is often compared to this character or sometimes even becomes this character herself. Tell me more about the Aswang and what that figure means to you. How has Filipino folklore influenced your poetry?

Cruz: My mother told me the story of the Aswang as a bedtime story when I was a child and has haunted me since.  The Aswang is ultimately a shape-shifter, and she can appear as a ghoul, weredog, viscera-sucker, vampire, or some hybrid of the above.  And the Aswang isn’t always a “she,” but after doing research on the creature, I’ve found that she originates from the babaylan (or female priestesses) who were once formidable figures in their communities and later demonized by the Catholic Church during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, which lasted over 300 years.  The variation of the Aswang I’m most interested in is the manananggal.  During the daytime, she appears as a “typical” housewife, but at night, her body splits in half, torso from legs, then pursues sleeping pregnant women to suck out their fetuses.

The creature began to pop up in the poems I wrote in college. When I would try to write about something else, she would appear, disguised as a woman in a bakery, or a passenger on an airplane — I recognized her snarl, her attitude and unfuckwitable nature.  She wouldn’t go away, which was fine because by then I was obsessed with Filipino mythology.

In college, it was more effective for me to write from the Aswang’s perspective, rather than my own, because there were issues with the body, family and secrets that I found I couldn’t access autobiographically.  Later, I found that my speaker is not only the Aswang who encompasses some of my experiences, but she also shape-shifts into the Anthropologist, the Academic, the Sister, the Daughter — all of these things– and isn’t simply an evil being.

I was interested in using the Aswang figure to explore gender expectations, the body (the split, the severed, the gendered, the racialized, the idea of a “whole” body), and the search for knowledge, historical and body knowledge.  I’m still researching her (and in that way, I’ve become an academic, or an “anthropologist” — which is another figure that appears in my chapbook), and I’m now interested in an Aswang spirituality.  What does this look like?  What do the spiritual practices and rituals look like?  Is it a recovery project?  What is the alternative to a “universal wholeness”?  What is the alternative to a kind of resigned brokenness?  What happens if neither of these suffice? How does the Catholic Church (my family of origin’s religion) factor in all of this?

A friend and colleague recently began to write about the Aswang and mentioned that she hoped she wasn’t “stealing” “my” idea.  On the contrary, I believe the Aswang belongs to everyone and to no one.  She is a shape-shifter for a reason, and I don’t think it’s possible for any one writer to pin her down (I don’t think she’d want to be anyway), and I love to see how various poets and writers approach her.  My good friend and writer, Melissa Sipin co-edited an anthology of Filipino myths, Kuwento: Lost Things, which includes some poems and stories about the Aswang.  It’ll be released later this year.

TCJWW: I really love the way you set up your poems visually (“Figure A,” “Self-Portrait As Rumor, and “(sst)”). What do you think these visuals add to the poem? How did you decide to format these poems this way?

Cruz: With “Figure A,” I was interested in counterfeiting, mimicking a page from an anthropological text — one that attempts to categorize the Aswang creature.  Hence, the list form present in that poem.  Anthropologist Maximo D. Ramos’ work has been exceptionally helpful in this process.

In “Self-Portrait As Rumor” and “(sst)” the speakers are a collective voice who participate and perpetuate gossip about the Aswang.  I wanted to play with gossip as a poetic form — the tidbits the listener hears then repeats to others, and the inevitable silences, or omissions that the listener must fill in.

TCJWW: Often your poems have multiple ways of reading them (“Self-Portrait as Rumor” and “dear”). How should readers read these poems? How did you come up with poems within poems?

Cruz: Again, I’m interested in that collective voice — the voices of mothers, fathers, daughters, aunties, cousins — that agree, fight, contradict, lie and love each other.  There isn’t a particular way that the reader should read these poems, but I do hope that she finds some point of entry, some voice that calls to her.

TCJWW: What does it mean to tame the Aswang (“Anthropologist”)?

Cruz: Ha! Great question. The Aswang can’t be tamed. The Anthropologist tries and tries to define her (much like the writer and the academic) but the Aswang is very much the trickster.

I’ve found that through my writing — I am Aswang.  And Anthropologist.  And Writer.  Academic.  Sister and Daughter.  Cousin and Friend.  I am all of these things.   Of course I’m thinking of Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  I don’t want to be tamed either.

TCJWW: How does poetry break silence for you? (“Litany for Silence”)

Cruz: I love how Aracelis Girmay writes about the challenge of not reenacting or perpetuating violence in her poems, even if the poem is about violence itself.  Girmay also writes about reading an essay by Elizabeth Alexander about June Jordan’s work as a writer and activist that mentions Jordan’s main, guiding question — Where is the love here?  Love as empathy, honesty and kindness.  How beautiful and necessary, and I think poetry can do this.

I’m interested in how poetry can question the silence of shame — family shame, historical shame — and try to understand it.  I’ve written what it means for the Aswang in my chapbook to inherit silence, which is often experienced as a weapon.  But there’s more — where is the love here?  And I’m still writing and thinking about this.

I also love what poet Li-Young Lee writes about silence: “The real subject in poetry isn’t the voice.  The real subject is silence….I would say that the real medium of poetry is inner space, the silence of our deepest interior.”  How to move beyond the silence of shame into the spirituality, the interior space of the Aswang?  This is still an unfolding process.

TCJWW: We’re interested in your writing process. Do you have a set way that you write or does it differ for each new poem?

Cruz: I try to write everyday.  Sometimes this works, sometimes, I fail.  I recently assigned my students something called an “Include Everything Process Notebook,” in which they’ll write poems, collage, draw comics, etc., for the next ten weeks.  I’m participating along with them.  Projects like these remind me how important the process is, not the product.

TCJWW: What are you up to now? Are you working on any new books?

Cruz: I’ve been submitting my full-length manuscript of the Aswang (see?  She doesn’t go away!) entitled I acquired a live subject.  I’m also writing new poems about saints, cyborgs and grandparents.  I’m editing and interviewing poets and writers for my poetics podcast, The Blood-Jet Writing Hour.

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