When Trying to Return Home / an interview with poet Jennifer Maritza McCauley

When Trying to Return Home

by Jennifer Maritza McCauley

In the morning, I leave a panaderia on SW 137th
and a Miami browngirl sees my face
and says de dónde eres Miami or Not?
And I say Not, because I live in this blue city now
but she means where are your  parents from
and I tell her I have a Daddy who is Lou-born
and coal-dark and looks like me and I have a Mami
who is from Puerto Rico and looks like the trigena
in front of us who is buying piraquas for her yellow children.

The browngirl says eres Latina at least, and I say at least
in English. I look down at my skin, which is black, but
smells blue by the shores of Biscayne. She thinks my skin could
speak Spanish, a los menos. I want to tell the browngirl I was not born
by ocean rims or white-scuffed waves. I was not born
beside browngirls who speak Miami’s itchy Spanish. I was born
where my culture rarely bloomed—amongst Northern steel-dust and
dead skies, where my two-colored parents stuck out at any
Pittsburgh party. I want to tell her, I would love to be the type of girl
that says soy de Somewhere and everyone says, “Girl, I see”
or “you’re una de las nuestras
or “you belong.”

I want to tell her, you are right, in this blue city, I look like everybody
and everybody looks like me, and this is the thing I’ve always wanted:
to be in a crowd where nobody remembers my skin. I’ve wanted
this when I was a child, amongst grey buildings and steel-dust
where they called me unloved and weird-colored but here, mija,
I smell like blue and people who look like Mami can say funny
things like at least, at least.

Instead, I smile at the browngirl and she does not smile back.
Instead she says, in Spanish: If you are Latina, you should be so,
speak Spanish to me. And I say, in English: Yes, I could
but I am afraid, and she laughs in no language and judges me.

I want to tell her the history of my family-gods. They are rainforest-hot,
cropland-warm, dark with every-colored skin. They have mouths
that sound like all kinds of countries. I want to tell her these gods
live wild and holy in me, in white and blue cities where my skin
is remembered or forgotten, in cities where I am always one thing, or
from anywhere.

I want to tell the browngirl this while she turns and walks off.
I want to tell her that when she came to me, thinking I was hers
in that moment we were together,

at least.

First appeared in Aspasiology 2016.

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Jennifer Maritza McCauley teaches at the University of Missouri, where she is pursuing a PhD in creative writing. She is also Contest Editor at The Missouri Review and poetry editor at Origins Literary Journal. She has received fellowships from the NEA, CantoMundo, and Kimbilio. Her work appears in PleiadesColumbia Journal, Passages North, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is available from Stalking Horse Press.

Jennifer says her style “depends on the subject matter, the genre I’m writing, or the speaker.” She says, “I enjoy free-verse and experimental poetry and I’m drawn to prose poem/lyric essay hybrids. With fiction or non-fiction, I like my narrative voice to fit the environment I’ve created. I generally have an interest in the pop and snap of language, and the intense focus on an image. I love playing around with linguistic mash-ups. My real-life voice code-switches often, and that impulse is reflected in my writing, I’m sure.”

Bekah and Jennifer connected after a review of Jennifer’s new collection, SCAR ON/SCAR OFF, appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. We wanted to know more about this fellow Missouri poet and her writing, so here is our interview with Jennifer.

Q~Tell us a little about “WhenTrying to Return Home.” How is it representative of your work?

A~I’m interested in narrative poetry, how a poem moves, and how color holds literal and metaphorical meaning. In this poem, I wanted to tell multiple stories that explore the intersections of Afro-Latinidad, and issues of belonging, race, and cultural displacement.

Q~Did this poem come easily or was it hard to write? Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~It took some time! I wasn’t sure if I was ready to write about my own cultural disconnections yet. I was reading poetry that forced me out of my comfort zone, namely Nancy Morejon, and Cherrie Moraga, who are fearless. A few months later, I was asked to write a poem for Aspasiology in tribute to the wonderful poet Raquel Salas Rivera. I was inspired by Rivera’s poem  “suprasegmentacionalidades,” which has this terrific line “you are so much more than your translation. My jumping off point was thinking about how we are “more than our translation.” “When Trying to Return Home” (slowly) emerged soon after.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~Scattershot! Some pieces come out fast, others take years. I like writing late at night, and during writing sessions I warm up by reading something completely unrelated to my creative leanings. I’m a day-reader, and a night writer, unless I have a deadline. During the day, I’ll usually read work that is related to my research, composition exams, or creative writing. When I have a writing session, and I’m especially stuck, I like to read a short bit of something, but preferably unrelated to my project, sonically or subject-wise. I like my brain clear of direct influences. It might be a weird process, but the tension between me trying to figure out some problem on the page myself versus reading something unrelated to the project, helps me find my voice purely and gets the creative juices flowing. And most literature channels the human experience, so regardless I find access points and inspiration.

Before I started writing my historical novel, for example, which is set in the South during the Reconstruction Era, I spent much of my time reading as much Southern and period lit as I could, while doing on-site research and poring over history texts. During the actual writing sessions, when I hit a wall, I’d read Ezra Pound, Percival Everett or Pynchon. Completely unlike how I write and generally unrelated to the book. Before I write fiction, I often read poetry and vice versa. Many of the poems in SCAR ON/SCAR OFF I wrote at various times over the past few years, but before the actual writing sessions, I remember reading Lao Tzu passages,Octavia Butler interviews and Stanisław Lem, to name a few. I encourage my students to read outside of their interests, and I like doing the same. This isn’t a set rule for me during the writing process, but I find the trick helpful.

Q~In the review of your book in the Post Dispatch, they said you illustrate “with lyrical resonance how deeply intertwined family and social history can be.” Can you talk a little bit about the importance of this to you?

A~A through-line in my work, and especially in SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is how history, political landscapes, and familial ties influence who we become. I also like using poetry and lyric essays to explore subjects that are intensely personal to me. In this book, I wanted to examine how our ancestors, cultural communities and our connections to them reveal why we have scars, and how we heal them. It was important to me to pick apart my relationship to the collective, the personal, and the familial.

Q~Why did you choose the title, SCAR ON / SCAR OFF?

A~The title is a reference to the Rosa Parks quote: “Have you ever been hurt and the place tries to heal a bit, and you just pull the scar off of it over and over again.” The “you” and the “place” in that quote haunted me. Who the “you” and what the “place” of hurt could be, reflexively, generally and specifically. In Parks’ life, in the lives of my family, friends and communities, and in my life. I thought about why scars show up on our bodies, and when. We can ignore them, but still know they’re there. We can willfully pick at them or let them heal. The process of acknowledging, feeling bound to, or ignoring our pasts is its own kind of strength because we are taking back our agency. And, the scars that haunt our bodies might not be our own.

I was working on an essay about not liking my name and being distantly related to Rosa Parks and when I found that quote, I was inspired. My late friend, Monica A. Hand, wrote brilliantly about how the women we look up to linger forever in our lives in her poem “dear nina.” Her quote “The women I am from are wild; beautiful/This is what I know/When Lucille died, I tell my grand daughter/We are like Lucille trouble in the waters can’t kill us…” addresses scar-sharing and love, and the regenerative, healing power of connecting with our families, heroes, and children. The Parks and Hand quotes are epigraphs in the book. So, the title references ideas I wanted dig into in this collection.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~Pablo Neruda, because my mother used to read his poetry to me as a kid, in Spanish and English. Toni Morrison, because her novels are like a tight hug; her prose is poetic.

Q~You’ve had a lot of experience editing literary journals including being a contest editor for the prestigious Missouri Review. What insights can you offer from this perspective?

A~I’ve been fortunate to work for journals with editors who give their staff, writers, and collaborators a great deal of creative space. In the editorial roles I’ve inhabited (The Missouri Review, Origins Literary Journal, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Florida Book Review, Sliver of Stone, and Fjords Review), there has been a genuine interest in developing the journal with the times, while maintaining a cohesive vision.

Working at The Missouri Review has been special. As Contest Editor, I coordinate our two annual contests, and, in the past, I’ve read general submissions and conducted audio interviews. Our editor Speer Morgan has a deep love for literature and enjoys talking to people about their day-to-day lives just as much as he loves reading. The whole staff is excited about what we publish and the submissions we read; it’s a fun, productive place to work.

Every journal has a different process for acceptance, and a unique vision for each issue. The Missouri Review has been around since 1978, and we get about 12,000 submissions per year. Submissions go through several rounds of review with interns and senior staff before they are published, and each contest has its own review procedures. There are many pieces that are almost accepted, but don’t make it for whatever reason. We don’t have room for everything we love, but writers who don’t get into TMR or place in the contest, often get into the journal later. We enjoy publishing unpublished, up-and-coming, and established writers. At the core Speer wants the essay, story, or poem to have an “about-ness” to it, that it can be analyzed from different angles and has something interesting to say about the human condition. At Origins, which is edited by the marvelous Dini Karasik, we like stories, poems, and essays that directly explore how identity and upbringing inform a literary work. I’m happy I worked for every literary journal I have, and I always encourage writers to read submissions for a magazine, literary agency or publishing house, even temporarily. You learn a lot about your own writing from the experience. And submit, submit, submit!

Q~There are lots of publications out there. What are some literary gems you feel deserve more attention? Why will we love them?

The Missouri Review is currently looking for submissions for our 11th annual audio contest, judged by Avery Trufelman. (Deadline, March 15). Origins Literary Journal is looking for submissions in all genres. Some of my other favorite journals are Pleiades, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, LunaLuna, Glass Poetry, Kenyon Review, PANK, Vinyl, Kweli, Chicago Quarterly Review,  The Journal, Sliver of Stone, Fjords Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, and TriQuarterly. My amazing friend Ashley M. Jones, is looking for submissions from Southern writers at Southern Humanities Review. These journals take an interest in writers from all backgrounds and styles, and the work they publish is consistently engaging.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~My book is available on Stalking Horse Press’s website, on Amazon.com. Links to my work are on my website. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

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