The Order of Things / An interview with poet Soledad Caballero

The Order of Things

by M. Soledad Caballero

As with all things now, I want order.
I want to take the strings of chaos, the
lonely stamp, the left over paper,
the bruised, too ripe peach, the thick
flyaway grey hairs and stack them.
Stack them in a row. Put them in a box.
Label each part, taking time to make
sure I noted the skin of the peach, the
wire tangle of the hair, the missing
colors on the faded stamp. I want
to make them whole again, full and
not dead or dying. Order is a place
of rest and stopping. Long ago I said
I wanted to be light, the way silk feels
light against the heat of the sun.
I imagined floating in this world, always
sure of how beautiful the mess would be.

But I have learned cells can grow to wild
proportions. Along the inside pulsing parts
of the body, carving their path with serrated
blades along muscle tissue, the pink inside
of the breast. Under the arm, reaching for
the small, jellyfish glands. This was more
than a mess. Those cells, an aching
mouth of angst and blood, urgent for
the rest of it, the rest of me. And I alone
in this jungle of living, a stumbling
wanderer. This is not the story I wanted.

First published in Memoryhouse Magazine 2018.


M. Soledad Caballero is associate professor of English at Allegheny College. She is a 2017 CantoMundo fellow, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a New Poet’s Prize, and has been a finalist for The Missouri Review’s Jeffry E. Smith poetry prize and  Mississippi Review’s annual editor’s prize. Her work has appeared in the Missouri Review, the Mississippi Review,  Iron Horse Literary Review, Memorius,  Crab Orchard Review, Anomaly, and other venues.

Soledad says she is drawn to narrative verse. She says, “I think my style tends, generally, to reflect this. I think my style can be over the top and I get really caught up in images that are ‘big,’ for lack of a better term. I like big sweeping poems, poems that make me gasp out loud after I’ve read through them, epic in their emotional qualities, and I am drawn to that in my writing. But, more recently, I have also been trying to be more muted and understated, more contained in my form. There is power to that kind of slow-burning in poems, too.”

Soledad and Bekah’s work—including the above poem—recently appeared together in Memoryhouse Magazine’s “Wander” issue. We wanted to know more about Soledad and her writing, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about the poem, “The Order of Things.” How is it representative of your work?

A~“The Orders of Things” is representative of a move in my work to be more structured in form and in images. I am trying to be less unruly in some ways, so I can tap into unruliness in others, if that makes sense. I wanted this poem to be muted since it was such a big thing I was writing about, cancer, my cancer and what it has meant to think through being sick.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~This poem felt like it came very easily, but that is only because I was sick for a long time, and I was in some ways writing it even while I was sick.  In terms of drafting, I had the form in my head, and I had the first line.  Usually, if I have the first line of a poem or the sound of the first line, its music, I’m ready to start drafting.

Q~What’s your writing process usually like?

A~I wish I could say I have this very disciplined writing process for poetry, but I don’t! For my scholarly essays I am very disciplined: research, drafting, more research, more reading and drafting. I get the sense of an arc there.

For poetry writing, I guess it’s more seasonal, but there’s no way to say what the seasons really are. I get an inkling, like a gut feeling, and that often starts the process. I just read a news article about the possible extinction of the North Atlantic Whale, that captured something for me. I do not usually write about nature in a traditional sense, but the ocean is something that really grabs me, so I started thinking about images for this poem. I like being in the world a lot and then seeing what feels like it sparks something. Another way I have done sustained writing is taking workshops. That kind of writing really forces me out of my usual subjects and forms. I’m taking a workshop right now, and it’s been very good for me, just to practice using different poetry muscles.

Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?

A~I learned English as a girl, and I actually hated all the strange rules of it. English seemed like very alien, and I think writing poetry was, when I was a girl, a way to get closer to it. Now, it seems to be the best way to capture the strange extraordinariness of living. I think reading poetry for me is like taking in something so rich and beautiful, as if I didn’t even realize how thirsty I was until I read poetry.

Q~Who was your poetry first love?

A~When I turned fifteen years, my mother gave me Pablo Neruda’s Veinte Poemas y una Canción Desesperada and said, “Estas lista para esto, hija.” It was her copy, a bilingual edition. But, even before that, when I was a very little girl, four or five, my mother had me memorize long poems in Spanish. I think that’s something that kids used to do in Chile once upon a time. She did it as a girl, and so she wanted me to do it. I still have memories of reciting those poems after dinner and at dinner parties when I was very young in Chile. I don’t remember the poems now but I remember the cadences of reciting long, beautiful words. That is how I fell in love with poetry I think, Neruda and Mistral just cemented my life long affair!

Q~Who are you reading now?

A~I am just finishing Nikky Finney. I also just finished Empire by Xochiquetzal Candelaria. On my list is the rest of Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Scar on/Scar Off by Jennifer McCauley, and Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied. I’m reading my CantoMundo gente as much as I can.

Q~What is the poet’s role in society?

A~By training I’m a British Romanticist, so I am sucker for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s idea that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world and of William Wordsworth’s idea that a poet is like all other people but also more attentive to things. I think we are living in an era of amazing poetry and poets. The list I mentioned above is just a small taste of that reality. I think we are seeing that poets and poetry are able to make connections across time and communities in unique, complicated, beautiful ways. Poetry is compact and packs a lot in it. That matters right now. I think Jimmy Santiago Baca said that poetry saved his life. Lots of poets and writers think of poetry that way. I know that sometimes people are scared of poetry or think they don’t “get it,” like poetry is an elite thing only for some people. I know why there is that feeling. After all the history of education in our country is hardly conducive to anyone thinking there’s equity and justice there. But, I wish for poetry to be everywhere, for everyone, just like movies or pop culture might be. I think we need it because it’s a striking mirror that shows us who we are, what we want and aspire to, and how we might be there as communities.

Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Honestly, rejection is simply awful. I think we undervalue that pain a little bit. Or, we make jokes about it. Or, we individualize or internalize it so it’s secret and silently shameful.  I think we need to be honest and open about that pain. For me, poetry is some of the most personal writing I do. Getting rejections, and I get a lot of them, is hard. It takes emotional effort to shake it off and keep writing. I think we need to be okay with feeling that pain, the pain of rejection. I think that honoring that pain more and being receptive to its truth may make it easier to pick yourself up the next day or next week and keep writing.

I write because I can’t not write, but that doesn’t mean it’s not painful. In some ways, it’s only more painful not to write than to write, and that pain isn’t only about that internal critic we all have. Rejections of our writing hurt. I really find it frustrating that there’s sometimes a denial of that pain. My advice is not to smother or deny that it hurts a lot to get rejections, and it make take you a minute to get back to your work or the page. That’s okay. I had to stop working on my manuscript for a while, several months, because it’s gotten a lot of rejections. I still haven’t sent it out again. Have compassion for yourself and for those folks in your communities who are getting all those rejections, too.

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

A~Here are links to some of my poems in The Missouri Review, Memorius, Origins Journal and Memoryhouse.

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