The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Erika L. Sánchez about her new collection Lessons on Expulsion, pushing back against sexism and misogyny, being a troublemaker, and donkeys.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: About your wonderful book: I don’t usually ask this question, but I was intrigued by the title because it sets up an interesting push against what titles often try to do, which is welcome people in. Can you talk about where the title came from?
Erika L. Sánchez: The book has seen a few titles: Contraband, Fuse, and Kindness, none of which felt right. It wasn’t until I wrote the poem “Lessons on Expulsion,” that I finally found the perfect way to encapsulate the book. In many ways, the book is about rejection, exodus, and other forms of expulsion. In the title poem, I write about the female body and the ways in which women have controlled their reproduction by any means necessary. I actually never considered that the title might alienate people, likely because I don’t ever worry about being palatable. Haha. I like to disrupt. My mother would tell you that I’ve always been a troublemaker.
Brian S: Ha! It didn’t alienate me; I was thinking more of the word expulsion itself, of that pushing out and away, and I definitely caught that issue of control in the poem. And then you follow it with “Hija de la Chingada” about this girl who is surrounded by people trying to control her sexuality. And even when she has control herself, there’s an internal pushback.
And I’ve never met a writer worth reading who wasn’t a troublemaker in some way. 🙂
Erika L. Sánchez: Haha. I see. Yes, much of the book is about women trying to push back against many different forms of sexism and misogyny. The world often tries to define us and control our bodies. It’s so utterly exhausting to constantly reaffirm your humanity. Unfortunately, we are living in a time in which we have to steadily resist and challenge. Our own president is a sexual predator, for instance. I really wish the themes in my book were no longer relevant.
Brian S: I’m a father to three daughters, one grown and a pair of three-year-olds, and I wish we were past those themes as well.
Erika L. Sánchez: One of my favorite signs at marches is, “I can’t believe that we’re still protesting this shit.”
Brian S: And that pushing against is one of the many things that drew me to your book, because those problems don’t go away or even reduce in number on their own.
Erika L. Sánchez: It’s a never-ending process. I recently read Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, and it truly inspired me. Many people think it’s pointless to resist because the system is rigged against us. It certainly is, but we have the power to fight back in whatever way we can. That mode of thinking, however, is lazy. There’s no sense of responsibility if we just fold our hands and say it’s too hard. I know I won’t see a just society in my lifetime, but I will continue to imagine what that looks like and chip away at oppression in any way possible. I’m in it for the long haul.
Brian S: I mean, it starts so young. In that poem you have men catcalling the speaker when she’s thirteen. And I was just thinking about that NBC article about the archaeological dig at Monticello and the headline writer used the word “mistress” to describe Sally Hemings—she was a slave, but also she was fourteen and Jefferson was three times her age, and there were no end of people online trying to defend that use of mistress, even when those two things were pointed out, just to “protect” Jefferson.
Erika L. Sánchez: That’s disturbing on so many levels. Not only was she a literal child, but she was also a slave. There’s no way a girl in that situation could consent.
Brian S: Yeah, I agree, we may never see a good society but we can see one that’s better than we have, but only if we make it happen.
Erika L. Sánchez: Right. We can’t sit back and let the world implode.
Brian S: Can you talk a bit about “Donkey Poem”? It’s such an empathetic look at an animal that seems to either be abused or mocked most of the time.
Erika L. Sánchez: That poem began when I went to Mexico about five years ago. I was riding the bus into the city and saw a dead donkey lying on the side of the road. It’s mouth was open. Something about that kept haunting me. I began thinking about the beauty of donkeys. They are strong and sweet creatures, yet they are ridiculed and abused. Thinking about that broke my heart and reminded me of the terrible things human beings do to each other.
Brian S: I know the look you’re describing. I’ve lived in rural areas more than once in my life, and had to bury animals, and it’s heartbreaking, no doubt. It was also interesting to me the way you started the poem, “Gentle beast, you carry Jesus / to Jerusalem,” which is kind of a punch, right? Like, here’s this animal you mock but it’s the animal that Jesus specifically asks for in the Gospel account, right? It’s been a while since I read it so my memory might be foggy.
Erika L. Sánchez: I honestly don’t remember where exactly it came from in the Bible. Haha. I was never a good Catholic. I forgot where I found that, but when I wrote it, I fell into a rabbit hole of research about donkeys and that detail struck me. The entire collection deals with the varied manifestations of cruelty and exploitation.
Brian S: One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book is the way you occasionally move between Spanish and English and you refuse to set the Spanish off. You don’t other it, I mean. Like, the expectation of me as a reader is that I’m either going to know this language that’s not English or I’m going to hit up Google Translate and do some work, like poems are supposed to do, make us work some.
That famous William Carlos Williams quote comes to mind: “I wanted to write a poem that you would understand for what good is it to me if you don’t understand it. But you got to try hard”
Erika L. Sánchez: Right. I’m very much against italicizing Spanish in my own work. I don’t do it in my novel either. The reader has the choice to look it up or use context clues. That’s how many bilingual people think. It’s a constant back and forth and sometimes you’re not conscious of the code-switching. Also, Americans often go out of their way to pronounce French words, so why can’t they do that for Spanish? I find that annoying.
Poems are work. I think that’s why some people are afraid of them. They perceive them as a code to be cracked, which I think has a lot to do with how poetry is taught in school. I always tell young people to first appreciate the language. It’s okay to revel in the mystery. You can read the same poem throughout your life and interpret it differently each time. What matters is the effort, I believe. You have to engage with it.
Brian S: Eduardo Corral has been talking about it a lot, and Barbara Jane Reyes has been doing that with both Spanish and Tagalog in her books for years now. And I agree—it’s on the reader to do work. I mean, poets raise hell about poems being too accessible right? So this is less accessible to English-only speakers. Take a minute; look something up.
Erika L. Sánchez: Exactly. We live in the US, where over 17 percent of the population is Latinx. If people don’t know any words in Spanish, or refuse to look them up, that says a lot about them.
Brian S: What poem(s) do you always read when you’re doing a reading? Or has that come up yet since the book is just out?
Erika L. Sánchez: It always depends on my mood and which poems I’m excited about at the moment. Recently, I’ve been reading “A Woman Runs on the First Day of Spring,” because it’s one of my few hopeful poems. It makes me feel good to read it aloud. Also, “Saudade” is fun for me because of the lack of punctuation. I meant for it be rushed and almost breathless. “Crossing” is a very old poem I wrote in grad school and I have been reading that one because I’m really concerned about immigration and border issues right now.
Brian S: “Crossing” is such a powerful poem. And a donkey appears in it as well! Maybe that’s a sign. 🙂
Erika L. Sánchez: I do love me some donkeys.
Brian S: The political ones disappoint very often, though.
Erika L. Sánchez: And yes, political donkeys are such cowards. They are a perpetual disappointment.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
Erika L. Sánchez: I recently read Bestiary, by Donika Kelly, and good Lord, it was stunning. The vulnerability and craft was so exquisite. I’m also reading Rapture by Sjohnna McCray, which is also pummeling my heart. I’m writing essays at the moment, so I’m really into nonfiction these days as well. The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Sielstra is excellent. Oh, and YA: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Dear Martin by Nic Stone. I always read a bunch of books at once.
Brian S: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, and for this amazing book.
Erika L. Sánchez: Thank YOU. So glad the book resonated with you.
Brian S: Here’s hoping it gets the audience it deserves. Good night!