Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications 2016), a 2016-2017 Steinbeck Fellow, former Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grantee. She’s received residencies from Hedgebrook and Ragdale Foundation and is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her work is published in Acentos Review, CALYX, crazyhorse, and The James Franco Review. A short dramatization of her poem Our Lady of the Water Gallons, directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is a cofounder of Women Who Submit and the curator of HITCHED.
“¿Que importa?” an Interview with Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Nicholas Femiano. Of the process he said, “Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s poetry invokes so many emotions when I read it. On one hand I’m warmed by the complex relationships that slowly unfold in her writing, and on the other hand I’m stricken by the sobering reality of Border Patrol abuse. Yet Xochitl weaves both these subjects together with hands that know both love and terror, and holds within them the beauty of the enduring spirit.” In this interview Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo talks about her experience volunteering for a humanitarian organization located at the border, the current literary climate for women and non-binary writers, and her grandmother’s cooking.
Superstition Review: I love the title of your latest poetry collection, Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge. How did you arrive at this title? What about this collection defines it as an offering?
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo: That's actually a funny story because up until the final hours the book was titled, Built with Safe Spaces. When I got the final proof of the cover, I had a panic attack. It suddenly hit me how boring those words were: built, safe, space. Besides being boring they were too literal, and I wanted something more lyric. But I also wanted to keep the cover art, which is an image of my grandparents' front steps in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles taken by my cousin, Erika Medrano, so I knew I had to come up with something that matched the steps. I went looking through the poems again, and I decided to go with Posada because the poem titled Posada is about my grandmother's home being a refuge. It also felt right because a Posada is a Mexican Christmas pageant where a pueblo reenacts Mary and Joseph looking for shelter. They literally walk from home to home knocking on doors until finally one home let's them in and there is a big pachanga. It felt like a good metaphor for the immigrant journey. The second part "offerings of witness and refuge" was partially taken from the opening dedication in Juan Felipe Herrera's book Senegal Taxi (University of Arizona Press, 2013) where he states, "To the people of Darfur, of Africa, please forgive my limitations, this is a small offering."
SR: I’m really fond of the poetry you wrote specifically about your grandmother. I can certainly see why you chose to dedicate the book to her. Can you share with us a memory of your grandmother that you didn’t write about in this collection?
XJB: Oh, there are so many sweet, little memories with her. The funny thing is she didn't speak English and my Spanish is pretty bad, so we didn't say too much to each other, but it never mattered. She spoke a lot with her food, so most memories I have are of us sitting at her kitchen table and her cajoling me to eat more. No one could ever eat enough of her food. If you were eating, she was happy. One time we were sitting at the table just the two of us, and for some reason I told her I was sorry I wasn't yet married and with kids, and she shrugged and said "¿Y? ¿Que importa?" At that was it. It was a sweet moment because, if I didn't know it before, I knew then she loved me unconditionally.
SR: Some of the most moving poems in this collection are the ones concerning your volunteer work with the humanitarian organization, No More Deaths. What was your most eye-opening experience with this organization?
XJB: I think it was the discovery of how cruel and dangerous it is out there. It's a low-grade warzone. There are helicopters, drones, Border Patrol with all kinds of weaponry and ammunition, dogs trained to chase people, and now there is the border militia, which is made up of former military men turned vigilantes. It's frightening, and not only that but heartbreaking because this warzone is within our own borders. People are dying in our country. People are being hunted down and left for dead in a place I can drive to from my home in Los Angeles within half-a-day. There is a moment I mention in the poems. It was my first night out in the desert. I had had three days of training, and up until that moment, the experience felt a little like summer camp. It was dark, and we were all sitting around a campfire when a woman and man found their way into our camp. A volunteer left our circle to greet them and essentially offer them aid. I couldn't see anything, but the next thing I heard was the woman's high pitched screams for help. That's the moment I knew my country wasn't what I thought.
SR: To me, the most impressive poem in this book is “Meditation for the Lost and Found.” Aside from its visually creative form, it is also surprisingly rich with content. I felt the unique maze-shape helps readers conceptualize the struggles of migrants attempting to cross the border. Could you describe how you came to that form?
XJB: I was reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. The epigraph is from a story in the collection where the protagonist is walking through a small town that is basically sending him in circles. I was thinking of that story, and then I was thinking of labyrinths and how they are used for meditation. When I started playing with the form, I wanted to create a labyrinth-type shape. I thought it forced the reader to focus on the words and the journey. But it's really a spiral, not a labyrinth, which is in a way a metaphor for the lost people. A NMD volunteer once told me when people are lost in the desert they tend to walk in circles to the lowest point.
SR: I noticed upon translating “La Posada de Los Angeles” that its literal meaning differs a lot from the English “Posada” that it parallels. What is the significance of these linguistic variations? Additionally, what is the personal significance of weaving Spanish into your poetry?
XJB: I wrote the English version first, and then the Spanish. I like the Spanish version much more. I think it does a better job of turning the first and last line and the title of Silent Night. I guess I left them different because the Spanish version was written specifically for my grandmother who once asked me why I didn't write in Spanish. I wrote it after she died as a gift to her, so it felt right that the Spanish was the stronger version because it held more significance for me. As for weaving Spanish into my poetry, for the Los Angeles poems, parts I and II, I think it reflects my own relationship to Spanish. I may not speak it fluently, but I hear it every day. I came from one of those families where my parents spoke to me in Spanish, and I replied in English. It's how we talked, so it felt right to have both. For the Arizona poems, parts III and IV, I wanted to honor the language of the people I was trying to help, the people who were crossing through the area and fighting for their lives. In "Things to Know for Compañer@s," I say, "Tu español puede ayudar a salvar una vida...Do not be afraid to speak Spanish." This is very true of my relationship to Spanish. I am often ashamed of my lack of fluency, but being out in the desert, I realized that it was so much bigger than my own personal hang ups.
SR: I really like the poem “I Didn’t Know I Could Love the Desert.” There’s a passage that reads, “Dust sticks like guilt./Somehow, I think I could love the dust too.” Can you talk about the theme of guilt in this poem? What is the correlation between these last two lines?
XJB: I think I'm saying that I don't want to forget. The experience of being in the desert and working with NMD was a major turning point in my life. It was difficult, and sad, and dangerous, and exhausting mentally, physically, and spiritually. I didn't want to go to LA and get back into my routine and the comfort of my home and forget what I saw. I especially didn't want to forget the people. They stick with me, and hopefully, when people read the poems they stick with them too. That was the goal for writing these poems. I wanted to witness and not forget.
SR: The section titled “Things to Know for Compañer@s” is vastly different from the rest of the poetry in your book, both in form and tone. What was your mindset going into this particular section?
XJB: When you volunteer with NMD the first two or three days you are in Tucson in this old convent where you get training. We learned about the history of the area starting with Tohono O'odham people and moving into the 21 century. We learned about the effects each administration has had on the border and migration, we learned about first aid, we learned about our rights, so many things. And so my thought in writing this poem was to write a survival guide for new volunteers. I always wanted a book within a book. I got the idea from Kate Durbin's collection, The Ravenous Audience. Her's is Amelia Earhart's final journal, a fictional found object. I thought that was so cool, and I wanted to do something similar. I liked to picture mine as a pocket-size book that volunteers would carry with them as they patrolled the desert. Last summer, my friend Ashaki M. Jackson actually helped turn it into a fold-up zine-version with a map of the border as a backdrop. I sold it for $5 and ended up raising like $250 for NMD. That was a really cool moment. I just told her, "You know what I've always wanted to do with this poem?" and she was like, "Oh! We can do that!"
SR: I noticed a lot of the poetry in this collection is free verse, although some seems written in a loose blank verse. How do you go about deciding which form to use in a poem?
XJB: When it came to the Arizona poems, the content of each poem dictated its form. They were hard poems to look at. They still scare me today. There are poems in the collection I never read in public because of this, and there are poems I've read many times over, and they still make me cry. Playing with form was my only way through that. I used a villanelle in Diana Shuts the Water to Listen, which is a poem about rape. I needed that villanelle because without it, I would have never been able to write that poem. In Letter from the Desert I used a line from the Katy Perry song Teenage Dream. In Ventana I used long, messy lines because the world felt messy. And that's kind of how I moved through those poems.
SR: Congratulations on co-founding Woman Who Submit—an organization dedicated to supporting women in pursuit of publication. Could you speak about the mission of empowering women in this current literary and social climate?
XJB: Women Who Submit is focused on empowering women and nonbinary writers to submit literary work for publication. It was inspired by Vida, Women in Literary Arts, and the original Vida Count. Back in 2011, when the group started, our co-founder and visionary, Alyss Dixson was working with Vida. At that time, when the first numbers were coming out, Vida was asking the editors of these publications why they thought the numbers were so. The most common answer was that women didn't submit as often or resubmit as aggressively as men. It was Alyss's idea to respond to this answer by creating the "submission party" where women and nonbinary writers meet in a communal space to share resources, tips, news, and food, and get down to the business of submitting. The best part is every time a writer submits they announce it to the group and we all cheer. I like to say that Women Who Submit is an action created in response to the Vida Count. What's exciting is that gathering in community once a month with our computers and our journals has made a difference, and writers continue to share their successes with us.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
XJB: Right now, it's me sitting feet up on my couch with Luna the Cat curled up by my legs and a book resting on my belly with another by my feet opened up to the last page I read.