Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, four poetry collections—Milk and Filth, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. Milk and Filth was a finalist for the NBCC Award. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. A former Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she is the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press.
This interview was conducted over the phone by Interview Editor Lauren Fosgett. Of the process, she said, “It was such a pleasure to interview Carmen Giménez Smith. I enjoyed reading her memoir and her poetry collections and I felt a deep connection to her work. I was eager to ask her about her views as a feminist and Latina writer.” In this interview, she discusses the malleability of stories, feminism in the 21st century, and the synthesis of poetry and memoir.
Superstition Review: First, I want to congratulate you on the news that Milk and Filth is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. What kinds of emotions has this nomination brought on for you?
Carmen Gimenez Smith: Surprise and shock and awe have been the best description. I was nervous about the book I guess in the sense that this book is saying crazy stuff. I also felt a lot of pride that a book by a Latina feminist would get that recognition, and that meant a lot to me. And also I felt like it was an homage to the feminists who came before me. So I’m just really proud of it. But you know it felt like a prank, it felt like a joke. It took me a long time to actually believe that it happened because it’s supposed to be something that happens to really famous people.
SR: Do you feel that now that you’ve received this award that you’re more recognized for your work?
CGS: That’s a good question. I feel like most people are reading the book in a way that they may not have before, because of the award. In the way that any kind of recognition—I just had a great review in Poetry magazine and the close attention to the book was really an honor so I think people are coming to the book with an open heart and an open mind, which is exactly how I wanted. So I think it does help the book in terms of how people come to it.
SR: Do you feel this award is different from some of the other honors you’ve received?
CGS: I think any honor is important in a career, but it’s the biggest honor I’ve received. And I think what was really significant for me was that I was around people I’ve admired for so long, like Lucie Brock-Broido who has been such an important influence in my work. Not that I consider myself to be in her league, but just to be in her presence was really, really remarkable.
SR: Milk and Filth is divided in three parts: “Gender Fables,” “Small Deaths,” and “Becoming.” How did you decide to organize your collection in this way?
CGS: I wanted to for one, address what I found was problematic in uses of gender in fables and stories about women and the way fairytales get adapted. I wanted to do a kind of rehabilitation work. I felt like the subsequent sections were primarily—the second section paid homage to what I think were important Second-Wave Feminist strategies, primarily the personalist political and also just aesthetic gestures that I found really influential in the anthology No More Masks. The third section was my suggestion of a new mythology of new icons that feature Ana Mendieta, who is a strong influence in my work and that’s how that came about.
But this is organized by many people I had great feedback from my editors at Arizona. They’re one of the best presses in the world. I tried to listen to how they saw the book unfold and that order was one of their ideas. Earlier, the book didn’t have sections. We found a way of dividing the book to tell a story.
SR: In an interview with The Lit Pub, you stated the original title for your new collection was Gender Fables. What motivated you to change the title and how did you ultimately settle on Milk and Filth?
CGS: The book actually had really cranky titles for a while. One of them was A Womyn’s Manifesto. Another one was The Devil Inside of Me which was based on a work by Ana Mendieta. Gender Fables was too soft, and it was too liberal, that was the critique that I got from the press. I asked my very dear friend and a poet whose influence was also really important in the book, the poet Roselle Gala, what I should call the book and she read the manuscript and she said “it’s about milk and filth, it’s in the book. You say ‘milk and filth’, you should call it that.” So I did, and I actually didn’t think the publisher would go for it but they totally went for it. People love the title, they love it, so I’m glad we went that way.
SR: I love it. I think it’s brilliant, and I love that Gender Fables actually became the title for the first part and you were able to at least incorporate that into the collection.
CGS: I’m a hoarder. I don’t throw things away, so I thought if I can’t have it my way, let me have it this other way.
SR: What is most important to you when titling your work?
CGS: I have had very little hand in actually titling my own books. I’m trying to think, “Have I titled a book of my own?” No, I haven’t. I like titling poems; I’m good at doing that. I’m terrible at titling books. I think that the title of something is in a way the first line of something, but it also can work as a contradiction or create friction. That tends to be the way I title poems. It also can create context. For example if someone is writing a poem about their grandparents in a car crash, and they spend three stanzas describing it when the poem isn’t really about the car crash itself, it’s about how they feel about it. The shortcut would be to call it “The Car Crash” and that doesn’t always work, but I think titles can streamline things.
SR: You draw from mythology and literature in your poems, from the goddess Demeter, to the Virgin Guadalupe, to Nabokov’s Lolita. What themes or motifs do these myths help you express?
CGS: I guess I was thinking about a feminist mythological literary canon. In my first book I had a poem called “Prelapsarian” and I was interested in the way the mythology of Lilith has to do with a kind of silencing. She becomes this villain, and often women are either saints or villains. Villainy tends to manifest itself as a result of trying to take action, trying to change things, trying to have power. I think power is very, very threatening. An example is Amaldiche which is a very maligned character in history. I’m interested in how she, problematically, gained access to power, and thinking about that, to be maligned that way, that she participated in conquests, problematic conquests, but conquests nonetheless, is very interesting to me.
Another example is La Llorona and thinking about what is the source of her loss? What was her motivation? Why do we need her as a cultural figure? What function does she serve for us? We tend to think again of her as villainous, but circumstances are always behind a woman’s story, especially a problematic story, and I was curious to explore that.
SR: Do you find that that exploration is why you keep returning to these themes and myths in your work?
CGS: Yeah. The book Goodbye, Flicker is sort of my “beta” version of Milk and Filth in the sense that, my mom told stories, and yet she revised stories. She didn’t tell them the way they were canonically expressed. She told them the way she thought I needed them, or how she needed them. For that reason, I realized stories were malleable, and especially stories that women have access to, needed that malleability. In Goodbye, Flicker, I retold fairytales. I located them in relation to a young Latina girl from a poor family who wants the same things everybody else wants, yet has these limitations and has to create these alternate universes in which she escapes to find the sublime. I guess I’m just going to keep doing that in different ways.
SR: That actually reminds me of situations where parents are reading books to their children and their daughters want to change the protagonist to a female character. I heard a story where one father changed the story where Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit was a woman, and went through the tales as a female hobbit. I love that malleability and revising of stories.
CGS: It’s important. The idea of storytelling, even ironically or historically, they have been sort of female. They are female traditions that are then appropriated through male hegemony. Women were illiterate for a long time.
SR: One of my favorite lines in “Epigrams for a Lady” is “the best enemy against antagonism is more howl and less whisper.” How important is it to you to be an agitator?
CGS: Super important. The interesting thing about being an agitator is that first, you’re a trouble maker and a pain in the ass, and that’s really discouraged. I gave a paper at a conference once and I talked about the difficulties of being a woman of color in the academy. I described how one of the advantages of having white privilege is you can be disliked and still have agency. That’s not as easy for women, especially women of color, because there are all kinds of terrible stereotypes like the spicy hot-tempered Latina or the angry black woman. So those types of behaviors are really discouraged. They’re dangerous and transgressive, yet those are the only kinds of roles that change the world. People don’t change the world by sitting back and being quiet and reflective. People change the world by pushing people and making people uncomfortable and pushing people to see the things they don’t want to see.
SR: Do you ever find there are situations where a whisper might be more effective?
CGS: Absolutely. As a poet I have a commitment to the lyric voice. I think of the misty poets and ways in which that work, and say the work of Pablo Neruda who is a socialist and other political poets who use different kinds of rhetorical persuasion, and so a whisper sometimes is really effective. I think in urgent situations, desperate times call for desperate measures.
SR: “Gender Fables” focuses exclusively on the power struggles between gender roles. What is the message you want to send as a feminist in the 21st century?
CGS: The battle will never end. It is an ongoing battle. We’re not only fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for our mothers, and our grandmothers, and our daughters, and their daughters.
SR: How do you define feminism for the 21st century?
CGS: Equal rights. The most revolutionary thing that can happen right now, which is really ironic to me, is if the Equal Rights Amendment passed. There’s still a small cadre of women who are trying to activate the Equal Rights Amendment, but to have the government actually ratify language that says women have equal rights, because the top-down effect of that would be tremendous. I think that we have to protect our daughters from oversexualization and from having to deal with their bodies being their only instrument that gives them access to capital and change and agency.
SR: In a conversation with Sheryl Luna and other Latina writers, you mentioned that your identity as a feminist is “inextricably tied to my identity as a Latina.” What is the relationship between these two identities in your work?
CGS: I think it’s hard to be a woman, and I think it’s really hard to be a woman of color. The example is watching my mom try to succeed in a country, because she wasn’t good in English, because she was dark-skinned. One time I remember she was trying to rent a house and she couldn’t find a house and she kept calling all of these places and they would say “oh we’ve been rented.” I was skeptical of that, and I called one of the places she had called and said, “Hi, I’m calling about the house.” They said, “Oh yeah! It’s available, come in to take a look,” and it was a house my mom had just called about and had been told it had been rented out. I’m not saying that’s the worst thing that ever happened to my mom, but I thought “is this 1957?!” I couldn’t believe that had happened.
I also feel like, historically, the interests of feminism haven’t completely embraced the kinds of class and race issues that emerged for women of color and so I’m interested in a more inclusive feminism. That means that when I perform or speak as a feminist, it is as a feminist of color.
SR: How has your Latina heritage influenced your work?
CGS: When I was in graduate school I gave a reading, and one of my colleagues said, “your work sounds like even though it’s in English it’s in translation.” At the time I thought, “am I supposed to be offended by that? Is this not a good thing?” So you realize it’s a good thing because I have this deep syntax in my work that comes from the fact that Spanish was my first language, that English was something I acquired. There are also all these cultural oddities that have become part of the fabric of my world and a part of the stories that I tell.
CGS: I contradict myself all the time because there is a person in my life, in my world that I write to, in my mind. She is my audience, she is who I want to hear what I have to say. There’s a way in which that She then also becomes general. I begin writing with myself and privately because it gives me the permission to say things that I am afraid of or ashamed to say. I think the difference between poetry and memoir is that memoir’s specific function is to tell a story. Poetry uses a story toward a rhetorical end.
I think now in literature, the lines between genres are becoming more and more blurred. I’m interested to see what that means and how that changes what we do as poets, what we do as memoirists, and what we do as novelists.
SR: Your memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, is very much a lyric essay. In what ways did your poetry background influence your approach to nonfiction? How did you alternate between poetry and memoir?
CGS: Probably the idea of compression. My attention to just sentences, I realized I was writing sentences and there had to be a kind of progression that took place. I had to be able to compress action into sentences. Also with the form of the lyric essay, I had to think about how those gaps and silences were productive, and stanza breaks also require the same level of “productivity”. It wasn’t easy to do though, I had a lot of help. My husband is a fiction writer and he pointed me to places I needed to reorganize so I was actually telling a story, and that was a learning experience for sure.
SR: Has your relationship with your husband, writer Evan Lavender-Smith, influenced your writing? Describe what it’s like for two writers to live and work together.
CGS: Enormously. We talk a lot about writing, we share our work. He writes such gorgeous, dense sentences with such music. We’ve been married so long, that music has become part of my heart and my thinking, and I’m glad of that, I’m thankful for that.
SR: In what ways has having children affected your writing experience?
CGS: I just don’t have very much time to write. I have to be really economic about what I write. I also have to be thoughtful about how what I write might affect my children when they’re adults. I try not to write about them and when I do I try not to use their names, to protect their privacy.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
CGS: In my bed. I’m surrounded by books or my iPad. I don’t have a desk of my own.