Diana Marie Delgado
Diana Marie Delgado is the author of Tracing the Horse and the chapbook Late Night Talks with Men I Think I Trust. She is the recipient of numerous grants, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of Columbia University she currently resides in Tucson, where she is the Literary Director of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona.
This interview was conducted via phone by Interview Editor Natalie Cortez. Of the process, she said, “The poetry collection Tracing the Horse was fascinating, and as demonstrated in this interview, Diana approaches her writing with honesty and passion. Her grounded stories impact readers with a new modern perspective.” In this interview Diana Delgado talks about writing from personal experience, her journey to publication, and engaging in varied disciplines.
Superstition Review: In your debut poetry collection, Tracing the Horse, the themes of sexism, loneliness, and violence recur throughout your work—could you speak a bit about other writers whose work on these issues helped shape yours?
Diana Delgado: I think Sandra Cisneros, everything that she's ever written has in some way or another spoken to me about what it means to be a woman in Latinx culture and what it means to create your own identity. Lorna Dee Cervantes, her poetry, I read at community college and her work made me want to become a poet. I also find inspiration in the work of artists who are not writers. For instance, I'm into Marlene Dumas, a South African visual artist and Marina Abramovic, performance artist, and the dancer, Twyla Tharp. Luis Rodriguez too; for mentorship and for him just kind of being there to talk. We would touch base every few years, but every time we spoke it was really helpful for me to be able to just share my life with him and not feel ashamed or that I was damaged after having seen so many things.
SR: Can you talk about the publication process as a first-time author?
DD: I had a really protracted journey in publishing my first book. I graduated with my MFA, I guess, in 2008, so the book was being made for over 10 years, maybe even before, because some of the poems that I wrote in the Columbia MFA program appear in the book. So, it was a decade that I worked on it, and then the last years were attributed to me sending it to contests and finally being published. And during those times when it wasn't picked up, I continued to work on it and change things around.
Peter Conners, BOA Editions Publisher, who is so kind and amazing, called me on a snowy day in New York City, and said these really amazing things about the book and that they were interested in acquiring the book and publishing it.
SR: What reactions to the book surprised you and what was the most rewarding experience thus far?
DD: That's a good question. What has surprised me is that many readers ask if it's true. And, if the events that happened in the book happened to me, and that's been surprising. I think it might come from readers trying to understand or process the changing landscape of Latinx narratives, and also trying to understand, if this actually happened to me, how it is that I'm now in a place where I can actually write about it. I've also had people come up to me, mostly women, that say, "This is so courageous. This is so brave," and I've never really considered myself in that way, because the nature of poetry, for me, is to tackle the most difficult topic or idea that you have and try and make art out of it.
SR: A line in the poem, “Twelve Trees,” says, “In Mexico, the Devil is handsome and smiles in all his photographs.” Could you discuss some of the ways this symbolism informs your work?
DD: There was one review that talked a little about how I potentially might overuse the words sun, moon and stars. And related to the line you mentioned, for me those symbols kept coming up because there were a lot of moments in the book where I needed to revert to what is important to an eight-year-old girl. What's important to an eight-year-old girl is her mom, her dad, being outside, the birds, the sun, you know, all of those symbols that take on a larger identity in the book. So then, for me the devil works the same way. He helps me create a sense of the cosmos for this speaker.
SR: I really enjoyed the way you wrote that line especially, because when reading it, it's not the traditional way you would have described the devil and I feel like this took it a step further and like you understand the perspective of someone younger.
DD: Yeah, I agree and, you know, none of that was intentional. I never thought while I was writing, "I'm now going to go back and try and see what it's like or what I saw when I was those ages." I let it all come out and looked at all of it as if it was an altar. An altar of the people and experiences that I found profound in my life.
SR: In the interview conducted with Art for Justice, The Ford Foundation, you discuss the unconventional introduction you had into writing. How has that changed throughout your life? And how does it feel to be the literary director of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona?
DD: My mom was born in Mexico and didn't graduate from high school. My dad did, but it was a high school for struggling students. Then my grandparents on my mom's side, they didn't speak English. I bring this up, because there was nothing in my family's class or literacy levels that said, "you're going to be a writer."
It's been such a gift to travel; to live in NYC and attend Columbia University; to be able to study poetry because many times people with my kind of background don't get to live in both spaces. They are not able to cross many of the bridges that I've had to cross in order to simply make a life, and a living as a writer.
I feel very fortunate to work at the Poetry Center. I'm always surrounded by books, and poets! But that's not to say that it has not been a struggle or a challenge to serve in a university space as a Chicana arts administrator. For me, there is always this sense, here and before, to prove that you belong despite where you come from.
SR: One of my favorite lines is, “Spanish feels like eating roses sprinkled with lime; English, peeling potatoes, barefoot.” How has being bilingual shaped you as an artist?
DD: Being fluent in Spanish means that I have two cultures attached to me. For instance, say the word celosa in Spanish. Then say it in English. For me, the Spanish version, feels like, yeah, that's what it means to be jealous! Different languages have different nets that carry different emotions; and knowing Spanish offers me much more emotion.
SR: In certain parts of the collection you embed some Spanish, for instance, the title “Primo” or in the line “A car window rolls down. ¿Hablas español?” What are some of the challenges you face when using a second language?
DD: I don't know how, even though I took Spanish in high school, I, like, bombed it. I learned Spanish through talking and family conversations, by listening. Being fluent, but not being able to read and write, has brought up some challenges in my ability to engage in my culture more fully.
SR: Definitely. How do you alternate between fiction and memoir?
DD: In Tracing the Horse, I was particularly interested in the structural components of fiction and how I could write a memoir in poems. At some point in the development of the book, all I could write were these vignettes, snapshots or these Polaroids that consisted of little bits of prose, that for me, fuctioned like short scenes in a movie.
SR: Speaking of a Polaroid, the cover of Tracing the Horse really intrigued me since it kind of reminds me of an old family picture I’ve seen hanging at my grandmother's house. It reflects an old Polaroid picture with a grainy overlay. Did you get any say in the cover, and if so, why did you choose this specific cover?
DD: Yes, I did. BOA was very flexible with that, and they were generous in my sharing opinions about the cover. I started off thinking that what I wanted for the cover was something from a Chicanx visual artist. The decision about the cover came when I was leaving NYC and I began going through old photos and came across the one that's now the cover, and I immediately knew that was my cover.
The Polaroid was taken in 1975 at The Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. I had just been baptized. I’m covered in a white blanket like I’m dead and the looks on my parent’s faces, I think, are so amazing; including how my mom is standing beside and kind of behind my dad. That photo was taken the year I was born.
SR: What inspired you to name your collection after the poem “Tracing the Horse?” What is most important to you when titling your work? What elements of your poems do you try to capture in their titles? How does that extend to naming a collection?
DD: Yeah, so I have a problem with titles, and my problem is I have hundreds of titles! I put different titles on poems. It's almost like they're little hats; I put it on and take it off. I didn't intend to title the book Tracing the Horse. I wanted to write a poem titled that. But then the more that I read that poem, and began to understand the emotions I was trying to capture, I felt that that particular poem really summed up a question that I had not done prior. I felt that the book reflected a lot on my experiences with my dad and brother and I hadn't really left any room for my mother. And I realized, that even in my relationship with my mom, there was conflict. I think there's always a point in the making of a book, where you become braver, where you're able to talk about terrible things. The title of the book, then, is my honoring how I traced my life, and how in that tracing, I come closer to understanding the nature of my voice.
SR: I really appreciate you sharing that with me. Do you have any upcoming projects that you can speak about? Anything in the works?
DD: Right now, I'm in a research period, meaning that I'm trying to identify what will hold my attention for the next few years. I'm reading a lot of books and watching a lot of film. But I do have a project that might come to something. It's rooted in the encounters of Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes.
SR: You’re a writer, a poet, a playwright, an educator, and then some. You really do it all. How do you keep up the momentum and continue producing great work without burning out?
DD: You do burn out.
But let me add that I'm very proud that I've been engaged in different disciplines. I think it's important for me as a writer—and artist—to embrace all disciplines, and that my interdisciplinary practice makes me a better literary director. I do find myself thinking about time often and that's when I have to review commitments and begin saying, no.
Telling people, no, is probably one of the most radical practices—for women of color. It means that you are not going to be liked as much as you’d hoped for. The world, dating back to who knows when, has seen you as a source of labor and productivity. And when you try and change that narrative, things become dangerously uncomfortable.
The hope is the more you practice defining your own boundaries, that those who care about you will understand that it’s not an act of defiance, but an act of survival.
SR: The line, “I never read the whole book, just parts, words in a row, I read for feelings” deeply describes a unique experience reading can give. Will you talk about your reading life?
DD: I'm always reading, I always have a book I'm midway through, and I always have 7–10 books on a list or in piles in my home. I read at the Poetry Center Library. Libraries are my church. I go to the U of A library and I pick up books there. I'm always reading and I think it's important for me because that was how I first came to writing, as a reader.
SR: I've appreciated all the time that we've been able to discuss your book and I've been able to learn a little bit more about the process you went through. So in closing, I'd like to ask one of my favorite questions for authors, What does your writing space look like?
DD: My writing space has a lot of light. I have a bed on one end and a desk on the other. Lots of books in my bookshelves. On my desk there is a glass of water. I always have music on. So, a lot of light, a lot of sun, and a long desk where I spread my papers out. A lot of binders too. Binders keep me organized. It's simple but is a place where I feel most at peace.