44.1 Feature: An Interview with Leslie Sainz
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Leslie Sainz is a first-generation Cuban-American, born and raised in Miami, Florida. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of Devil’s Lake. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, POOL, Spoon River Poetry Review, and others. She is the Fall 2017 Writer-in-Residence at the Hub City Writers Project.
Interview by SAMMI BRYAN
Black Warrior Review: This may be a bit basic, but: what inspires you as a poet/writer? What spurs you to produce the work you do?
Leslie Sainz: Not basic at all! I think the perception of a writer’s inspiration is akin to the perception of their process; both can often feel shrouded and “mystical” in an untouchable sense, but in my experience everyone has a ritual or two that lures them to the page, and two or more that keep them there. There are things that I know will spark creativity and intrigue in me, such as particular paintings, songs, and the people I love, but I think the most interesting sources of inspiration are the unexpected ones. Overhearing something on the street, noticing a stranger’s specific mannerisms, the surprise of one or more of your senses being overwhelmed by environment. For me, active observation—the kind you can’t turn off—usually serves as a precursor to filling up a notebook, then transmuting those scribblings into a poem.
Once I’ve made the decision to write (these days it does feel like a deliberate act), I like to be quite methodical, even project-based. I enjoy subjects that ask me to do research, to become more informed and careful about my work. Right now, I’m working on my first collection of poetry, and the motivations behind that manuscript are very much cultural and political. My parents are Cuban exiles, and it’s taken me a while to grapple with that narrative, and not indulge in writing about it simply because I’m expected to. Representation is incredibly important, and so while I censored my own voice for some time, I was desperate to find models of Cuban and Cuban-American poetry that had canonical success in the states. Needless to say, they are few and far between. Perhaps it’s a combination of arrogance and earnest determination, but the work I write is spurred by a desire to fill that void—to demystify what’s been either silenced or fetishized by the tourist’s gaze.
BWR: One thing that particularly intrigued me (and the rest of our readers) about “Integer” was its incorporation of craft elements you might associate with fiction or narrative storytelling in prose not just in its form, how it appears on the page. There is something about the way time moves in this piece, the way dialogue and perspective are used that brushes against the “fictional.” Could you speak to that a little? Or, rather, how do see genre working in this piece?
LS: I’m incredibly envious of fiction writers—I don’t have the discipline or the bravery to create a world that lasts longer than a few pages. With “Integer,” however, I found that the typical craft elements of poetry failed me. I couldn’t, or rather, I refused to make what was truly an ugly event, beautiful. My undergraduate screenwriting instructor once told me that “every poem is about sex, every film’s about redemption, and every novel’s about forgiveness.” I still don’t know if I completely agree with that generalization but its rigidity has helped me examine genre through a different lens. “Integer,” is ultimately a narrative concerned with the difficulties of familial, and institutional forgiveness.
BWR: Another thing we admire about this poem is the treatment of its subjects—human and figurative. The entire narrative resonates with such complexity and care. What were you thinking about or felt the need to keep in mind when writing this poem? What details in particular did you want to focus on and why?
LS: “Integer” was hard to write for many reasons, although most of that difficulty appeared off the page. The poem attempts to reclaim the true story of a close family member who was incarcerated. I agonized for years over whether it was appropriate to share his narrative, (let alone lyricize it) and the ways in which it affected me and my family. There’s a familiar adage that says to have a writer in the family is to have a traitor in it. When I was writing work that resisted all personal risk, I didn’t understand it. Now, I might be all too familiar with that accusation.
I’m grateful that you felt a sense of care ascribed to the subjects of the poem, because it was both intentional and inescapable. How do you reconcile that someone you love did the unthinkable? Right after the event took place, it was nearly impossible to escape to the recapping of the story. “The report says he did this. Then this. I can’t believe he…” Then, suddenly, the denial stage took over. Nobody wanted to talk about what happened, or how we has doing—it became erasure. Writing “Integer” became a way of documenting what my family could no longer acknowledge, a way of humanizing and protecting a loved one who had become something other than living in the eyes of many. A good many of the details that stand-out in the poem where from the actual police report. I remember staring as his mugshot for weeks on end, and certain phrases never left me.
BWR: What advice would you give to poets grappling with writing about identity and community?
LS: I don’t know if that internal tug-of-war ever goes away entirely, at least it hasn’t in my case. However, I like to think that the energy of that battle can fuel the work, and can do so in a way that doesn’t compromise the mental health and stability of the writer. It’s a process, one that should be approached as methodically as possible. First and foremost, I think the important thing to do is interrogate the desire. Why do you want to write about identity and community? It’s not about second guessing yourself, but rather acknowledging the power you have in making that exploration a conscious decision, for you and you only. There are so many young writers of color that feel as though they’re expected to write about identity, that it’s the only topic they can own. In comparison to when writers of color didn’t think they had “permission,” to write about anything at all, let alone publish it, this is a small step forward, but the figurative constraints are still there. I suppose the second practical tip I could offer is to read voraciously, anything and everything you can get a hold of. While I’m a firm believer that everyone should be reading writers of color, and writers from marginalized communities, it’s also important to read work that doesn’t explore themes that mirror your experience, or the image systems you’re familiar with. Community is built, and while not every contributor has the same tools and materials, it’s the assembly and the embracing of the final product that’s important. Be in conversation with who you love, be in conversation with the work you dislike, be in conversation with who you’re confused by. You’re a poet, above all. Don’t let anyone qualify that if you don’t want them to.
BWR: What do you consider the role of poetry in doing so? Is there anything you think poetry can do that other mediums can’t?
LS: I don’t write well in other genres so I’m entirely bias here but I think poetry’s inherent ambiguity is what makes it so special. Even the quietest of poems still ask the reader to participate in its world. A reader’s acceptance of that request then allows them to bring their individual experience to the piece. Flexibility of meaning allows for surprise, and that’s crucial to my personal enjoyment. There are exceptions, of course, but other mediums can feel “solvable,” by comparison.
BWR: Finally, who and/or what are you reading right now? Any specific recommendations?
LS: In preparation for assembling my first manuscript, I’ve been reading a lot of debut collections. The catch is that I’m only trying to examine first books that were published between 1960-1999. We’re living in a powerful and engaging moment for poetry, but I don’t ever want to be so wrapped up in the latest releases that I can’t trace the career progression of the modern writers I admire. This mini-assignment has allowed me to discover new favorites, rediscover old ones, and has exposed me to a completely different set of stylistic trends and patterns.
I do stray from this every now and again, though. Lorca’s Selected Poems (New Directions), Erosion by Jorie Graham, the Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, and Among the Monarchs by Christine Garren are also in the current rotation.