Catharsis and Cultural Memory: a conversation with Erick Sáenz, author of ‘Susurros a Mi Padre’
“Susurros como vientos del Mar: Sáenz’s Susurros a Mi Padre is a glowing debut. These poems shine with a quartzite clarity that guides the reader through vital fronteras of Latinx experience. Weaving together a polyvocal lyric of familial inquiry, Sáenz’s poetry is a refreshing, reinvigorating looking at a Latinx narrative that so many live, and yet so few ever read about. May this Poet’s ocean of language change that tide.”
— Angel Dominguez, author of Black Lavender Milk
Greetings comrade! Thank you for talking to us about your process today!
Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
Hello! My name is Erick Sáenz and I am a first generation Latinx writer from Los Angeles. Self publishing is important to me because of my roots in diy//punk. I’ve self released two chapbooks of fiction and several zines. In addition to writing I teach high school English, follow baseball, and drink too much coffee.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist?
I’ve always felt comfortable with using writing as a means of self-expression. I can be a very shy person, and so finding an outlet that allows me to essentially put myself out there is important for personal growth. Writing is that for me. It’s also been very therapeutic for me as I’ve grown older and confronted aspects of my life I ignored before.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
Historically I’ve been much more comfortable writing fiction. Poetry was really intimidating for a long time. It wasn’t until I began experimenting with different forms outside of the school-taught curriculum that I really became comfortable with it. Recently I’ve gotten used to the idea of calling myself a writer, but I think teacher is the first title I think of for myself.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
I think a writer in the most basic sense shares stories or experiences in hopes to connect with the reader. That’s what makes us laugh, cry, etc. when we read something. I hope that I can help others similarly struggle with latinx-ness or family relationships and begin the healing process. This book was and remains very therapeutic for me. I am hoping it helps others in similar ways.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
I went through a rough patch in life and that prompted me to return to the small beach town where I went to college and “reset” my life. I always say that it wasn’t a conscious decision, but something drove me back there because it was the last place I was happy and I wanted to rediscover myself, that feeling, etc. From there I began writing some short stories and exploring a lot of the writing world that I hadn’t before (online journals, magazines, etc.) Around this time I also began experimenting with different poetry forms like separating blocks of writing with asterisks. I found that this was less intimidating and accessible because I could, as Carver said, “Get in. Get out. Move on.” I wrote several pieces that way and then realized that there was a theme forming about my cultural background. These ideas of not feeling Mexican enough, my relationship to Spanish, etc. I also found that it was a way to deal with emotions I bottled up since the passing of my father in 2001 about the fragile relationship we shared and how we never quite made peace before he passed. Parts of the manuscript were difficult to face because I hadn’t really faced them in more than 10 years, but it also felt extremely cathartic.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
So I wrote the four poems that make up the section titled “Memorias” first and began submitting those around. Editors seemed to be excited about the pieces. Once I realized that I had more to say on the subject, more and more sections began to take shape. Around this time I also started talking to my mother about my father and the past openly for the first time since his death. She seemed willing to talk about it, so I began documenting what she knew. It was odd to be hearing 3rd hand about the experiences my father had, but also was immensely interesting. My mother endured so much through the marriage and I am very grateful to her that she was willing to fill in the blanks for me when I needed it. Through all that, feelings came up and I’d write about them. The process went on and on. It was all very healing.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
I don’t know if I have any formal practices when writing. The only real ritual would be writing in the mornings for me. I find it more peaceful. I do a lot of note taking and pre-writing in my notebook, jotting down ideas, etc. I don’t have an MFA and so I’ve never gone through any “formal” writing instruction, but I do have to credit my teachers throughout my required schooling for pushing me to write.. As far as readings/writings…that’s a hard question only because so much has influenced me over the years. In regards to fiction, my biggest influence is Raymond Carver. I really love that he can be so concise in his sentences and not worry about adding “flowery” detail to them. It’s very easy to relate to and unintimidating. For poetry, a book that really helped in terms of the manuscript was Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez. I love how the book has these two voices, shouts/sings/whispers to offset the other. That was the first book I attempted to read in Spanish, with the safety net of an English translation on the opposite page. It’s amazing. An important person during the writing process was Li Patron, a poet from San Jose. Without her encouragement I am unsure the manuscript would have reached fruition. Angel Dominguez has been like a brother/mentor to me through this whole poetry thing. It seems I am constantly meeting amazing folx who influence/inform my writing in one way or another. Recently I participated in a Latinx Poetix Symposium with Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, Vickie Vertiz, Raquel Salas Rivera, and Farid Matuk curated by Angel Dominguez and Rachelle Linda Escamilla. During the two days I feel I learned so much about poetry, and not only from the amazing writers but also the students who participated/interacted with us. I think it’s a constant process. I am always experimenting with new forms.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
My father seemed to have two personalities: he was a very soft-spoken man, and (with alcohol) he was very loud and abrasive. I can only remember a handful of times we interacted when he wasn’t drunk. You can see it in all of the family photos that are still around, looks on everyone’s face that they are putting up a facade, aren’t really feeling happy. In fact, when I asked my mother to send me a picture of him and me together where we look happy, she only had one. That became the cover of the book. In terms of the title, it translates to “whispers of my father.” I chose this because, again, he was a soft spoken man when he wasn’t drunk and that is the version I prefer to keep to memory when thinking about him. I think there is a lot left unsaid between us, and in my head it translates as “whispers.”
What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice, your history, your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?
This work represents a way for me to make peace with my past (relationship with my father) and reconnect with my cultural heritage moving forward. I hope it helps others who face similar issues of displacement, questions of latinidad, loss of culture, etc.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
I think this book allows me to face/bury the past and release the bad energy that I always grew up with being around my father. As I said before, I never quite made peace with him before he passed. At the time I was a snotty community college student who was wrapped up in punk rock and he was slowly deteriorating at home, needing constant oxygen from machine and 24 hour assistance. I was very bitter that I had to come home after classes and take care of him until my mother got off work, even though she took the brunt of the work because she went without a break basically from then until nighttime. I wasn’t interested in talking to him and hashing things out, I was too selfish. To me, learning his history, and wrapping my head around the feelings I had really puts all that to rest. I feel like this book gives me the peace I’ve been missing since his death. And, I think the book also celebrates a sort of awakening in me to connect with my Mexican culture: speak the language, eat the food, call myself Latinx, etc. It has felt amazing to get comfortable with it again in a way of self-awareness I didn’t have as a child when I was more connected.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
I think the best possible outcome is that it reaches someone else who struggles with their connection to their culture and/or a fractured relationship in their life that has gone unresolved. That is my hope.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
I believe writing is absolutely a form of activism and should bend the rules in all aspects of life. Writing should be challenging and hard and a barrier that the reader has to break through. Writing should stand up to the status quo and force questions and provide answers. I think that especially in the time period we are living in (see: #45) writers have a responsibility to write/experiences that speak across race, gender, sexuality, and social/cultural backgrounds. In the increasingly chaotic atmosphere that (he) is creating, there is an absolutely critical need to stand up to injustice.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
Thank you so much!
Erick Sáenz is a 1st generation Latinx writer and English teacher from Los Angeles. He is founding editor of Lilac Press, a small DIY imprint. He was previously a contributing editor for the online place-based magazine Cheers from the Wasteland. In addition to several self-published chapbooks and zines, his work can be found at Entropy, Alien Mouth, Elderly Magazine, Pinball, Hobart Pulp, Five:2:One magazine, and others. SUSURROS A MI PADRE is his first book.