The Fearlessness of Discovery: A Conversation with Analicia Sotelo about balancing archetype and autobiography, and writing genuinely about cultural heritage.
Analicia Sotelo is the author of Virgin, the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, selected by Ross Gay for Milkweed Editions, 2018. She is also the author of the chapbook, Nonstop Godhead, selected by Rigoberto González for a 2016 Poetry Society of America National Chapbook Fellowship. Her poem “I’m Trying to Write a Poem About a Virgin and It’s Awful” was selected for Best New Poets 2015 by Tracy K. Smith. Poems have also appeared in the New Yorker, Boston Review, FIELD, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and The Antioch Review. She is the recipient of the 2016 DISQUIET International Literary Prize, a Canto Mundo fellowship, and scholarships from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and the Image Text Ithaca Symposium. Analicia holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Houston and works at The Black Sheep Agency. She serves as an Adroit Journal Summer Mentor, a committee member of the Poison Pen Reading Series, and on the City of Houston's Millennial Advisory Board.
On April 12, 2019, Analicia Sotelo joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Miracle Thornton, Yanna Cassell, and Raleigh Walter sat down with her for a conversation about her poetry collection Virgin, balancing archetype and autobiography, and writing genuinely about cultural heritage.
Miracle Thornton: When did you know you were writing towards a collection?
Analicia Sotelo: I started my manuscript just before graduate school, but I didn’t know it was the collection it was going to be until almost a year or two before it was published. I try not to predetermine a project and say it’s going to do – A, B, and C things. I like to write poems with the intention of them becoming something that's going to excite and surprise me. If they don’t surprise me I feel like they’re failing. They might be very smart and pretty, but don’t have the impact I’m looking for.
MT: When did you know you were going to finish the book and what would you say is the most difficult part?
AS: I feel like books are never completely done, and in some ways are similar to human relationships. You spend time with a person and at some point you know it’s ending or it’s getting to the next stage of whatever it’s going to be. But it still has these residuals, this feeling of, “I wish I could have explored that.” But sometimes you didn’t and that’s life. I think one of the most difficult parts of writing a book is realizing that there’s a lot of work you create that will go unused and that the book will never be perfect. But that industry of the work you’ve done collects in your brain. At a certain point, all your learning suspends, and the writing is about the fearlessness of discovery. A lot of times we’re hiding, even if we feel like we’re talking about what we need to talk about.
MT: How has the book Virgin changed from your initial draft?
AS: I tried to intuit the poem order in the first draft, but it was missing the central impetus of the book. It wasn’t until I landed on the title Virgin that I was able to see it was a bildungsroman, or a growth of a young person, rising into an awareness of how sexuality and the intellect interrelate. Once I figured that out, I put it into different sections. There were what I originally saw as three types of poems in the book, until I realized they were all connected to each other. Intimacy, family, myth. But each of those sections had subcurrents: surrealism, Victorian life. The title Virgin rooted the manuscript in the idea that regardless of history, a power play exists in our relationships and can continue because of the historical context we all carry, and I was interested in that.
Yanna Cassell: When you were working in longer sections like the “Father Fragments (or Yellow Ochre)” How did you take so many disparate subjects and patchwork them together, particularly with the poems more than two pages long?
AS: I strongly believe creativity is highly associative. It’s not quite a patchwork although I like that description very much. To me, it feels more like the thread Ariadne gives Theseus for the maze. In “Father Fragments” specifically, I really wanted to tie in something that I thought the rest of the poems weren’t doing, which was the narrative of a young woman yearning for an understanding of her absent father. I wanted to connect that with the sleeping Ariadne who wakes up on the island and finds her lover is gone. There’s something in that poem about waking up as a young child and the father is suddenly gone that I thought was really vivid and represents how our awareness of our experiences can sometimes converge in a dreamlike way.
Raleigh Walter: We were wondering when “Do You Speak Virgin?” and “The Ariadne Year” were written and if they were always intended to be the first and last poem?
AS: I chose “Do You Speak Virgin?” because I wanted the book to begin with an assertive statement that would prepare the reader for something that was about virginity in an unexpected way. And then “The Ariadne Year” I put at the end because I wanted all the different interrogations of vulnerability to come together methodically and in a modern way without necessarily any direct resolution.
MT: How do you balance autobiography and archetype, knowing that some audiences conflate the speaker and the poet?
AS: I’m interested in how writing poetry is not about really about us as individuals. Truly, it’s about us trying to get at the thing that exists underneath everything else. I was initially nervous people were going to think it was me. But at some point, especially with poems like “Do You Speak Virgin?” and “Death Wish,” I had to let go of that fear and just let the speaker enact that psychic and collective and problematic world that we live in.
MT: Did you construct the personas to live within their respective sections, like Theseus and Ariadne contained in Myth, or do you see them living across the collection?
AS: The stages in our lives have echoes. Even though we transform and become different people, we still carry some of those other perspectives we have collected throughout our lives. Dreams, though I don’t talk about them a lot in this manuscript, are really fundamental to how it’s constructed. Dreams create a kind of logic that seems impossible or unrelated, but then are. That’s how I think of these personas relate to each other.
YC: I wanted to know how you incorporated the balance between humor and vulnerability in your poems. There’s one line, “I’m the [angel] whore of kale chips,” that drew my attention. I’m just curious because, particularly in the first section, the speaker is quite assertive and has pointed those about the male presence but as we move into the more familial sections, it’s a lot softer.
AS: I think humor is something that people don’t expect from a female speaker, historically. Especially when it’s mixed with someone who is sensual. I appreciate humor for its ability to speak to very dark topics in a way that seems to empower the speaker with a different kind of shield. In the family poems, a lot of that softness is the meditation of sorrow and of loss. Humor happens the most in the book when the speaker is enacting her own power that maybe the family narratives don’t allow.
RW: Through this collection, there are a varying sense of tones throughout your poems. We were talking about how there is a more assertive tone or snarky side, which somewhat leads to be a bit more lyrical in later sections or tends to be a bit more soft in others, like Yanna was saying. Did you find any difficulty fitting all of these tones in to one collections and how did you find the balance for all of them?
AS: I was thinking a lot about virginity, how it’s an incredibly big topic that we don’t talk a lot about in poems. At the time, I had met a lot of people who assumed that someone from a traditionally cultural or religious family didn’t know anything about the world.
I often explain this by comparing the two films, Real Women Have Curves and Can’t Hardly Wait. Real Women is about a young Mexican-American protagonist who is discovering her sexuality, but she’s at home all the time. She’s in the family structure, and her mother puts a lot of shame on her body. It’s clear that she is not supposed to have sex. Can’t Hardly Wait is a party movie about all these kids who live a white American life and it’s like, “Where are their parents? Do they even know where they are?” Probably not, but that is the life that some young people have. Both are valid, but what I started to realize is that the label virgin was not only something that was looking down on women, but was also looking down on underrepresented communities and their family structures. What I wanted to do was take the mind of someone who others might assume is a virgin and unpack that mind and all of its tonal registers, so that people who are reading it could see how rich and varied the life of a woman with a large intellect and a big heart can be.
YC: You intersperse both Greek myth and cultural references that are relative to the speaker. How would you say they are in conversation and how would you say they fit into the large of the book, as a whole?
AS: As a writer with a heritage that is Mexican, I was really interested in trying to genuinely write about my culture, in a way that was specific to me or specific to my creative practice. I didn’t want to over rely on the images that people expect from a writer of color. When I started writing, I could write about my culture in stories, but in poetry I had a harder time figuring out what I wanted to do. So I spent a long time interrogating that. You don’t see that in the manuscript, but they’re all foundations.
Again at some point, and you’ll see this in your creative practice too, you’ve absorbed enough knowledge and practiced writing enough poems that you can achieve an associative, meditative focus. There's a point at which you can just let go of all the noise and sit with something that is frightening to you or surprising to you. So the way that I did that, was that I didn’t do that.
MT: Since writing and publishing Virgin, do you have any up and coming projects that you like to tell us about at all? And do they possibly meditate on the same things as Virgin?
AS: Right now, I’m working on poems about race, ethnicity, color, and personal and cultural anxiety. It’s probably going to be very apocalyptic and ecological, but I’m not trying to premeditate what they’ll be. Some things I’m thinking about: How does the mind hold all of that anxiety? To live a life of joy and sensuality when it also feels like the world is falling apart?
From Virgin (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Analicia Sotelo. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org.