The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Eloisa Amezcua about her new collection, From the Inside Quietly, bilingualism in poetry, saladitos, and the connection between whiteness and yeast infections.
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: The desert plays such a large role in this book. Can you talk some about how you view landscape as a part of your work?
Eloisa Amezcua: I never thought much about landscape or the way it informed my writing until I moved from San Diego to Boston in 2012 (where I spent four years). I think I had to be in a place that was completely foreign to me to appreciate the way it’d influenced me as a person.
My mom is from San Luis, Sonora, Mexico, which (while in a different country because of an arbitrary border) shares a landscape with Phoenix, where I’m from.
Brian S: Speaking of your mother, it was the second poem in the book that first told me I needed to think long and hard about getting this collection for the Poetry Book Club. “Teaching My Mother English Over the Phone” both hits the nature of the relationship you have with her and the complexity of language and communication.
Eloisa Amezcua: Yeah. I feel like I’m been helping my mom learn English my entire life, but there was a moment when I was younger where I didn’t speak English either. Being someone who translates as well as writing poetry has forced me to interrogate my own relationship with both Spanish and English.
Brian S: It made me think about the translation classes I took in my MFA and how bad I was at it because I lacked the necessary knowledge of the language I was working with. And how translation is so much more an art than most people realize.
Eloisa Amezcua: Translation is a very difficult art.
Brian S: I think a lot about that Julia Alvarez poem “Bilingual Sestina” where she talks about the closeness she has with her childhood knowledge of Spanish, that it was the first language she spoke, and how she doesn’t have that same closeness with English even though it’s the language she used most by the time she wrote it.
Brian S: How would you describe your relationship with the two languages?
Eloisa Amezcua: Well, being bilingual and bicultural has forced me to be comfortable with both languages but in different parts of my life. All of my schooling was done in the US (in English) so it’s very difficult for me to think creatively in anything but English. That said, my family life, which is very important to me, was mostly lived in Spanish, and I think parts of the book try to reconcile that.
Brian S: Right, like in the poem “Waiting with My Mother in the Calimax Parking Lot,” where you move between English and Spanish without translating. I like that, the expectation that the reader will either know the Spanish or will find a way to translate it on their own.
Eloisa Amezcua: I knew early on that I didn’t want to italicize or translate in the book because I wanted the two languages to carry equal weight, even if the book is mostly in English.
Brian S: Is that resistance to translation and italicization a relatively recent thing? I like it—I like the fact that authors are expecting their audiences to do work and not have the poem delivered to them.
I’m thinking back to my MFA days in the early 2000s and I don’t remember seeing it much, but I also don’t remember reading much multilingual poetry at that point either. So it could just have been a blind spot (one of many) for me.
Eloisa Amezcua: For me personally, it was a matter of the languages not being “italicized” or “translated” in my mind, right? I think between the two languages and switch from one to another with ease, and I wanted that to show on the page, to not call attention to it.
Brian S: Right, as though the language being not-English requires a big flashing signal. It feels very US-centric to demand that sort of signal or accommodation, or English-speaking centric perhaps.
Eloisa Amezcua: Yeah. And I think it’s okay, as a reader, to be uncomfortable sometimes.
Brian S: I mean, William Carlos Williams said he wanted to write poems that we would understand, but that we had to work hard, right? So that’s a kind of work. At least for a reader like me it is, someone who is basically monolingual.
Eloisa Amezcua: It is. And as a writer, you either have to be okay knowing that some readers will do the work and others won’t.
Brian S: I know enough French to have French-speaking people have pity on me and start speaking English when I try.
Eloisa Amezcua: Ha!
Brian S: As an aside, I’ve never heard of saladitos before that poem, and now I want to try one even though your speaker says she doesn’t like them.
Eloisa Amezcua: Oh they’re definitely not for me. Although, I haven’t had one in about fifteen years so maybe I should give them another try.
Brian S: How long a time period do these poems cover?
Eloisa Amezcua: The oldest poem in the book is from 2011 and the newest is from June, maybe July, of 2017. I snuck two in at the last minute. (Sorry, Adam!)
Brian S: What were the last ones you snuck in? I’m always curious about that.
Eloisa Amezcua: “Notes” and “Candida.” I wrote and was revising those at the same time as we were working on edits for the book and it felt like both needed to be in there.
Brian S: Interesting. I might have guessed “Notes”, but probably not “Candida.” How would you translate that title? It’s a cognate of candid, I assume, and the poem is certainly that.
Eloisa Amezcua: Oh, it’s the name of the bacteria that causes yeast infections! But yes, I also loved how it sounded like candid.
Brian S: Oh wow! Now I feel like I need to find the story behind how that came to be. Who named it that and why?
Eloisa Amezcua: Wikipedia says, “Candida comes from the Latin word candidus, meaning white.”
Brian S: Huh. Well, that’s interesting in a whole different way. Whiteness as bacteria that causes yeast infections.
Eloisa Amezcua: Which I guess candid comes from that word, too, as in, something is “pure, innocent, unbiased” and morphed into frankness at some point.
Brian S: The pure, unvarnished truth.
Eloisa Amezcua: Exactly.
Brian S: I shared the poem “E Walks Home Alone: An Inner Monologue” with another book group I’m in and a number of members, all women, said it was like you were inside their heads. Can you talk about that poem some?
Eloisa Amezcua: When I lived in Boston, I didn’t have a car and the public transit there is pretty unreliable so I found myself walking most places and I realized I was giving myself this sort of pep talk when I’d walk alone, particularly at night. I watch a lot of procedural dramas (Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds, etc.) and I think I picked up some tips from those but also from friends and other women.
Brian S: It really gets at the no-win situation our society has put women in, I think, because the advice contradicts itself in places.
don’t look scaredworriedpanicked don’t look
friendlyapproachableopen don’t look back
don’t smile don’t not smile
Eloisa Amezcua: Oh, definitely. You walk with a straight face by a man who tells you to smile. You’re smiling and walk by a man and he catcalls you. There’s no winning.
Brian S: Are you working on anything new?
Eloisa Amezcua: I am. I’m working on a collection of boxing poems based on the life of Bobby Chacon.
Brian S: Interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard of him, but Super Featherweights don’t get much attention in the boxing world.
Eloisa Amezcua: And definitely not in the late 70s-80s.
Brian S: Yeah, those were the days of either the heavyweights or the welterweights. I watched a lot of boxing when I was a kid because it was on most Saturday afternoons.
Who are you reading these days? Anything new we should keep our eyes out for?
Eloisa Amezcua: I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading lately, but collections I’ve read recently and love include Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen, Elsa by Angela Veronica Wong, You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid, and Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angélica Villareal.
Brian S: I love Carolina’s work, and I’ve seen those other titles, though I haven’t read them. I’ll look them up!
Eloisa Amezcua: They’re all wonderful! And there are so many more amazing books coming out this year!
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight and for this terrific book.
Eloisa Amezcua: Thanks so much 🙂
Brian S: Have a nice evening!