Litdish: Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, Poet; Amy Shimshon-Santo, Poet; and Mireya S. Vela, Author
Named for Ernest Hemingway, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is a prolific poet. Alongside three books (So Many Flowers, So Little Time (Red Mare Press), Flashes & Verses…Becoming Attraction (Unsolicited Press), and Between the Spine (Picture Show Press)), Adrian’s fourth book, La Belle Ajar (CLASH Books, 2020), is a collection of cento poems inspired by Sylvia Plath’s novel. This year, Adrian was awarded Pasadena City College’s Inscape Magazine Poet Alumnus of the Year. His poems have been published in more than 150 publications, including Cultural Weekly, Frontier Poetry, Yes, Poetry, 24Hr Neon Mag, poeticdiversity, Tiferet Journal, Rigorous, Palette Poetry, Rhythm & Bones Lit, Neon Mariposa Magazine, and Lunch Ticket Special, to name a few. This year, Adrian was awarded Pasadena City College’s Inscape Magazine’s Poet Alumnus of the Year. Detroit-born then raised in San Antonio, Texas, he holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BA in English from University of Texas. Adrian lives in Los Angeles with his wife and spoiled cat, Woody Gold, and is found on www.adrianernestocepeda.com.
Amy Shimshon-Santo, a writer, educator, and urbanist, believes the arts are “a powerful tool for transformation,” both socially and personally. She connects the arts, education, and urban planning in her work. Holding a PhD and MA in urban planning from UC Los Angeles, an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and a BA in Latin American studies from UC Santa Cruz. Amy is an associate professor at Claremont Graduate University where she heads the Master of Arts Management program. She has been recognized on the National Honor Roll for Service Learning. Amy lead the ArtsBridge program for UCLA Arts and her efforts provided the foundation for the University of California’s first visual and performing arts education degree in the state. Amy represented the State of California at the National Endowment of the Art’s Education Leadership Institute, where she was a founding member of Create CA. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in creative nonfiction and Best of the Net in poetry. Amy’s essays have appeared in Entropy, and have been published by SAGE. Her work has also been published by University of California Press and State University of New York Press, and can be found in Rose Quartz Magazine, Public, Teaching Artist Journal, Tiferet Journal, Critical Planning, Entropy, Yes, Poetry, Zócalo Public Square, and Lady/Liberty/Lit, and more. Her book of poems, Even the Milky Way is Undocumented, is forthcoming with Unsolicited Press in 2020. Amy is found on www.amyshimshon.com.
Mireya Vela is a Mexican-American storyteller and visual artist. Addressing the needs of immigrant and Mexican families, and the disparities they face every day, is a core aspect of her work. Vestiges of Courage, Mireya’s debut book, is a collection of essays. She has received four Pushcart nominations. Her work can be found in Hippocampus Magazine, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Not Your Mother’s Breastmilk, The Nasiona, Miracle Monocle, Blanket Sea, and Collective Unrest. An inspiring speaker and expert research specialist, Mireya holds a bachelors in English from Whittier College and a master’s in creative writing from Antioch University. She is found on www.mireyavela.com.
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How are great works created? Mysterious power aligns the stars to shoot a winning story into a writer’s brain. Well, no. The days of lore with a divinely sparked pen are long past. Ask every successful writer what is the key to churning out original work, and the same straightforward message repeats: writers simply must write.
A focused, mostly solitary art, writing can be isolating. Often, writers are floating on islands, passing each other in a great ocean of readings, launch parties, conferences, and occasional coffee dates. Usually, it’s in dedicated quiet spaces, hunched and headphoned, where writers are hacking away at words.
Three successful Los Angeles-based writers have found a path toward community through shared passions and mutual respect. Poets Adrian Ernesto Cepeda and Amy Shimshon-Santo, along with nonfiction writer Mireya S. Vela, form a tightly bonded trio, challenging racial and cultural biases in their writing and beyond.
These dear friends, active and committed writers, discuss the vitality of community, support, and camaraderie. At the Antioch University Los Angeles Writing Center conference room and by email, Adrian, Amy, and Mireya, share the group’s origin story, how they workshop, how they regard each other, and what pushes them to generously give their time and talent.
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Andrea Auten: How did you both meet?
Amy Shimshon-Santo: Over lunch. How appropriate for Lunch Ticket.
Adrian Ernesto Cepeda: One thing I loved about Antioch, they have the lunch buddy system, where they take upperclassmen, people who have been through the program and they have them connect with new MFA writers, just to give them advice and show them the ropes. We were paired up and then we ended up—
AMY: Actually being buddies. It’s one thing to be assigned a buddy, it’s another to choose a buddy.
ANDREA: To choose one, right. And did you have other buddies?
AMY: The art of creating a buddydom is like creating community. We always talk about how important it is to have a writers’ community, but I think that the buddydom that Adrian and I have enjoyed is really what it’s all about.
Mireya S. Vela: Amy and I met my first semester at Antioch. We were in the trenches together in a genre workshop. I met Adrian more recently. Amy and I were talking on the phone about craft and she told me she’d recently had a writing get-together with Adrian. Amy told me that he was telling her about this artist’s work he was following that was inspiring his poems. When he showed her the work online, she realized the work was mine. I officially met Adrian when I attended a literary event at Antioch. He was reading that night.
ANDREA: How do you see your work?
MIREYA: I think my work is revealing the lives of the Latino culture. People think they understand what it’s like to be a Mexican-American in this country, but they don’t. It’s only when you see more extreme situations like mine that you get a better picture of what most people are dealing with. My situation was extreme, and I also don’t think it’s uncommon. I think abuse was normalized for a lot of children. My work is about advocating for the lives of Latinos who live in poverty and on the fringes. I discuss ethnicity, linguistic isolation, color discrimination, mental health, and special needs. I want to highlight and address what it’s like to be a young mother with a special needs child. I want to show people what it’s like to have a mom with mental illness.
AMY: Right now, I am in a place of deep humility to the creative process. I raised two children, and then I have the writing. I write prose and I write poetry. Everything has its own life, but the poems come like they were dropped. The energy of them—the drop of the energy when it comes— is so profound and I’m trying to make myself be a better catcher. I’ve never played baseball, but it’s absolutely like a catcher’s mitt, or catching a pretend child from the sky, from the stork. It just lands so hard and I feel touched.
I’m always thinking ahead and not trying to be satisfied, because I think it’s one of the worst things you can do as an artist is to be satisfied, so I’m always trying to challenge myself. But basically, I feel like my goal nowadays is to be somebody who inspires other people, show them I can do it. Because I did it you can do it too. (Adrian)
AMY: In that way, it’s probably more of a mystical relationship than anything else in my life right now. I don’t know where it comes from, and I’m not trying to over-romanticize this, but it actually is that powerful when it lands. It’s like an arrival from another place, and I don’t even know where this place is. It helps me see not myself and into human beings. I have a background in social sciences, and I’m always trying to understand things. But the poetry comes in a way where it goes straight to the flesh and bone, straight to the cartilage, the lymphatic system, it’s pulsing right there. It moves me in my body and my heart, and it seems so much more real in a way. It’s like it includes your mind but it goes straight into your DNA.
ANDREA: Adrian, how do you see your work?
ADRIAN: Well, I feel like I’m in a transition now, because I’ve already had a couple of books out, and I’m trying to figure out what’s the next path. It seems like I’ve climbed this mountain, and soon as getting to the top of this mountain and getting published, you realize there’s another mountain you have to climb. I’m still learning what to do, and what not to do, and right now I’m using whenever I write, especially, to heal. My mom passed away a year-and-a-half ago and I’m working on a collection of poems for her. I’m trying to decide what to write, but I still write every day. And that actually helps a lot because it’s then about what happened before. It’s not what’s going on or what’s going to happen tomorrow. Even this past time when I had my last collection published, that same day, I got word from my next publisher, Clash Books from New York, wanting to publish my next thing.
I’m always thinking ahead and not trying to be satisfied, because I think it’s one of the worst things you can do as an artist is to be satisfied, so I’m always trying to challenge myself. But basically, I feel like my goal nowadays is to be somebody who inspires other people, show them I can do it. Because I did it you can do it too. Trying to foster community mentorship in terms of support, poets who just can publish and to let them know, yes, your book got published and congratulations, but there’s going to be stuff that happens, that you don’t realize what’s going to happen because then they never tell you after you get published. There’s no guidebook, so you’re going through these minefields, you’re making mistakes because nobody’s ever told you. It’s really difficult when you do it alone because you really can’t complain to somebody, “Oh, this is so horrible.” And they’re like, “Oh, so sad that your book got published and you’re going through trouble,” nobody really cares, you know? Basically I’m trying to assist and be a supporter to people who are trying to get published, encouraging people to put together manuscripts because we need more unheard voices to people of color, women, and the disenfranchised voices to publish works because I think it makes the world a better place. Like I always say, “The personal is universal.” Whatever I write about or someone else writes about, even though it’s unique to me, someone else is going to connect to it.
I do a lot of social media. Mireya had a posting, where she posted that her husband was playing blues records for her, which I thought was really romantic and beautiful, so I wrote a poem for her and her husband. Reading her work is just so harrowing and so inspiring, it’s like the human moment that I thought was really beautiful, so I wrote this poem. That’s what I love about Amy’s work and Mireya’s work, because I may not have gone through what they’ve gone through… It felt like wow, it’s like it’s coming alive on the page.
ANDREA: Well, this personal is universal, do you have more to add to that?
AMY: Sure, yeah. I mean, one of the big shifts in my life—and my writing brought to me—was deciding how to write the personal. I was working with Erin Aubry Kaplan. I have an intercultural family, and I’m a mother, and I’m a teacher, so I was always very afraid to—I didn’t want to hurt anybody, accidentally, in real life or real life of the page. I thought, ‘How do you write about children, or how do you write about other people that you love who are positioned differently?’ You know, by age, or class, ethnicity? How can you be a respectful interpreter, while not sacrificing your own voice?”
Erin, Gayle Brandeis, and Dan Bellm helped me to get to a point of not editing out my complexity. What I mean specifically is, if I belong to a family that speaks more than one language, more than two languages, that practices more than two faiths, that comes from three different continents, you can write about that. People are just used to seeing us all in boxes, like your children are black, or your children are Latino, or you are Jewish, or Middle Eastern, whatever the boxes are. Identity is there for a reason. But for some of us, we are deeply woven with more than one. For me, learning to figure out how to write the personal has been really important. Because if you say things, it becomes normal. It exists on the page and now you can say it. Oh, yeah, it’s okay to have Portuguese and English and Spanish, or even Yiddish, or something kicking around in the same life. In my life it does, but to put it on the page it says, this is a fact.
And the other thing—personal and universal— is that some of the most challenging experiences of my life, like being a single parent (being a parent has been a joy, a miraculous experience), but it also came with a lot of responsibility and sometimes it was very difficult. Luckily, I have amazing kids. It’s so worth it. One of the biggest things that writing has done for me, is to be able to give voice to those things. One, interculturalism and polylingualism, and two, different kinds of families.
ANDREA: Excellent, thank you.
MIREYA: I can give a direct example of how Amy affected my work recently. We were having a discussion about how pain and trauma move through the body. That helped me rethink my writing practice. I would say that both Amy and Adrian impact how I do my work more than the work itself. Adrian sends me writing references to help my work become more lyrical. He also sends me submission opportunities. Amy helps me to emotionally process things. We frequently talk about how mothering affects our work.
How do you write about children, or how do you write about other people that you love that are positioned differently?’ You know, by age or, class, ethnicity, how can you be a respectful interpreter, while not sacrificing your own voice? (Mireya)
AMY: It’s really important to find people who can read you in the rough stages, because some people will just throw up their hands and be like, “Oh, not quite ready,” or some people might be overly aggressive and actually move things around too much. Try to figure out with your editorial buddies what helps. When we get to together, we’ll exchange, we’ll read some new works for each other, and we’ll tell each other how it lands. It’s kind of a pre-editing which I think, really good work needs—unless you have an editor who knows your work deeply—there’s a lot of fiddling. There’s a lot of crafting.
They say that writing is in the editing, but it really is. Be able to be in a vulnerable place. Show it to a colleague. Get used to each other and find a way. I think that’s really important. That’s the depth of knowledge of the person’s life and writerly life, which is really deep. It goes long beyond, for example, a degree or a program. It’s a relationship.
MIREYA: I hope that I’m supportive of most writers. I think this is a really difficult field. It’s easy to become isolated and alone. One thing we do for sure is check in on each other and include each other in reading opportunities. We’ve read together a couple of times and we’re really good together. Which is interesting, because our writing themes don’t overlap. More specifically, I support Amy and Adrian because they are great people. We are all working to succeed. And what better than to do that together, in service to the greater theme of “social justice and inclusion.”
ADRIAN: One of the strongest pieces that [Amy] actually introduced us to in the now defunct [Tenacious] Quatrains poetry group, was the one about your daughter’s friend, that’s in the book about her…
AMY: The sexual assault?
AMY: Yeah, so for example… How do we talk about queerness in the family, interfaith-ness in the family? How can we be able to talk about violence, be able to talk about love? We can talk about that through art.
ADRIAN: I remember a line from that, where she cut her hair short and she wanted to be… In it there’s a dialogue between you and your kids.
AMY: In this poem, I always feel really protective, like even talking about this poem is hard. I had to fly all the way to Florida to read this poem out loud, because I didn’t want anyone else to be around and I was afraid of hurting my daughter. I asked [her] for permission to be able to read the poem, or submit it for publication, and she asked her ex-girlfriend if that would be okay. And that was the accountability I wanted as a writer. I’ve heard women read about their own sexual assault, but I haven’t ever heard a parent write about their child’s sexual assault.
ADRIAN: That’s why it’s so powerful.
AMY: On one hand you shouldn’t be writing about that, you want to protect your child and it’s not your story. But on the other hand, it is your story, because you’ve raised a child that’s not safe in the world because there is sexual assault. You want to protect them. That was what it was about.
ADRIAN: Yes, it’s a very strong poem.
ANDREA: I’d like to see it, actually.
AMY: “Cabelo.” The subtitle used to be “an assault in seven acts.” How do you raise children in a world that is unsafe?
I have another poem about my son, because raising a young African-American, Afro-Brazilian man in a world with this kind of police violence where black men are under fire, it’s just—how do you find your power in a situation where you have some power, and in other aspects of your life you are powerless? Powerless to protect your child from sexual assault once they’re out in the world. Powerless to protect your son from a police officer that might do the unthinkable.
ADRIAN: There’s power in what you wrote, because it makes people read that, “Oh, my sister went through that, my daughter… my mother… my brother’s girlfriend…”
AMY: #MeToo is about everyone speaking up together to say, this is a part of our culture that we will not normalize, this is not acceptable and we’re not going to take that.
ADRIAN: I was trying to write a poem about somebody who had just divorced, although I am happily married, it’s a challenge as a poet and a writer to get inside that mindset of someone else who is different from my own voice. So, this poem was inspired by the main character from the Hulu show Casual who is basically feeling empowered for doing this one thing. It’s still in rough stages, because I try to write in voices other than my own and as a writer it’s important to challenge yourself. Saying that, it’s the more personal stuff that I write, whenever I read my stuff, the things that people connect to is the stuff with my speech impediment. Those are the ones they liked the most. I’m really surprised because those are probably the hardest ones to write, because it’s based on me and all the trouble I had growing up and having the voice I had, and trying to come into my voice, so I think those are the ones that people connect to even though they may not have a speech impediment, at all.
I think this idea, the lone artist, the special artist is just stupid. Don’t we want to have everyone have a more fulfilling and creative life? So how can we help each other along with that?” (Amy)
ANDREA: Right, something very authentic though.
AMY: I don’t know any other poets who read publicly who have the stutter—what you call the speech impediment. I don’t see that as an impediment, but I don’t know what the right language is for it. There’s something really inspiring about hearing someone’s mouth just shape the words and the rhythm that it creates. And the fact that you’re like, “This is the way my voice is.” It’s not your voice. Your voice is fantastic. It’s the rhythm. The rhythm of your sound. And you’ve published so prolifically on the page, you could have chosen to not read in public and say, “I’m going to be a writer that writes on the page.” And you don’t do that, you let people hear you. And it opens up all these other possibilities for people who have that same thing.
ADRIAN: One of the reasons why I think it’s so important to do it, is I feel like these days for the younger millennial generation—who don’t really communicate with each other openly—they just know how to communicate with each other through phones. To let them know that if you can actually communicate, you can actually write something, you’re going to be successful in whatever you do. And if you’re shy—well, if I can come up here. I get invited to classrooms, and if I come here (the way that I talk) and [am] able to talk, to successfully do it, why can’t you do it? I feel like it’s important that kids need to know.
ANDREA: What impels you to write about the body? And how do you see this as a social justice act?
ADRIAN: I think a lot of people nowadays are made invisible by the times that we live in, like a certain people don’t matter because their skin tone isn’t as light as others. So I think the more you describe and get down to the details, it makes people who wouldn’t normally be seen, come to life on the page when you read it. One of my most personal poems was one that I wrote, it’s called “Fear of Driving.” Because I was graduating, my wife and I flew down to San Antonio and we were going to drive back in the car, and I was really nervous because this was at the time Sandra Bland got killed by the police. I was really nervous about driving. And as we call it in our house, “driving while brown;” because my wife, as an “Anglo” American, realizes that she doesn’t have to worry about it. I was really worried (this was the day before we were supposed to leave). I was reading this book called The Fear of Dying, by Erica Jong, so I’m about to go to sleep, and I woke up and I realized: Fear of Driving; that’s when I hatched it. I wrote the title down. And I went to sleep, and I woke up at the three in the morning and I wrote the whole poem. And then I showed it to my wife, and she said, “This poem is worth coming here for this trip.”
When I read that poem at the event, there was an African American gentleman there who said, “I felt like you were writing that poem for me.” And I wasn’t writing it for anybody else, I was trying to explain how it was. When I was seventeen years old and I graduated from high school, me and my buddy were pulled over by some cops because we matched the description of two gangbangers who’d robbed a house. It was just scary that anybody could go through that.
But I feel like the body for me, why I write about it so much is because one of the first poets that I was introduced to when I was an undergrad was Pablo Neruda and I always wanted to write like Pablo Neruda. Then it took me a while to navigate my personal life to be able to get to that point to be intimate with somebody. That’s why I’m really proud of the book [Between the Spine] that just came out because a lot of it has to do with the body. We’re writing about some people’s bodies who maybe aren’t seen as desirable in this age. I like to highlight that a bit, talk about, maybe redefine what is beautiful; if my poems can do that, I’m fine.
ANDREA: Yeah, what’s your favorite Pablo Neruda poem?
ADRIAN: Wow, the first book I ever bought was The Love Sonnets. I used to have the CD when Il Postino came out and all these actors would read. There’s one that Andy Garcia read [“Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines”]. It’s one of my favorites. He has so many. Actually, Alma Luz Villanueva—one of my Antioch mentors—was trying to get me away from writing all the love poems. She’d been reading me one of Neruda’s poems about going into more political, going to Peru.
Speaking of political, one of my most politico poems “A Donde Esta Mi Mama y Papa?” was just published by Glass Poetry’s Poets Resist series. Something that Alma instilled in me, during my time at as an AULA student still resonates with me now in my career as a working and published poet is that I do not just concentrate on the carnal and the body, I also can pen more political poems with a personal voice that connect universally with all readers. Neruda’s book [The Heights of Machu Picchu] opened up this path to me.
MIREYA: I’m a pretty kinesthetic person. Touch is very significant to me. I’ve been on the receiving end of kind touch as well as unkind touch. I think when you are a brown minority, the first thing you are to people is a brown body. Most don’t see deeper. And if you are a woman on top of that, are you anything BUT a body? I don’t think so. I think you are more than that only to the people who love you—or the people who work hard to see beyond that. My body is something that I ignored for a long time. I’m in a place in my life where I’m putting the focus on it. Because I can now. I’m in a safe space where I can reflect on the trauma and pain my body carries. I’m also at an age where my body is beginning to highlight these pains. I think about all the ways I twisted about trying to please others, and I’m sorry for it. I regret all of it. And my body doesn’t forget any of it. So, it’s time to give it a voice.
I think in American literature, we’ve spent a lot of time inhabiting the bodies and internal spaces of white men. It’s time to change that.
ANDREA: Agreed. Let’s defer over here to Amy on this one now. You referenced the body a little bit when you were talking about the stork coming and what it’s done to you when you’re down into the sinew.
AMY: Okay, so my mother is a visual artist. And I wanted to be an artist; my sisters were musicians and I wanted something that was just for me. I couldn’t play music very well, so I became a dancer. I still remember from my first creative experiences of just rapture, was a creative movement class my mother took me to, where we would take off all our shoes and put them in the middle of the room, and we were just children, and we’d run and leap over the pile of shoes, and I ended up becoming a professional dancer. And you know, they’re like, “How are you ever going to have a life as a dancer? You’ll be impoverished, blah, blah, blah…”
I had many iterations of life in LA, New York, and back and forth to Brazil, with different careers in dancing. A dancer is… a somatic person who experiences a heightened awareness of movement and the body, whereas, for example, my son is also a mover but he’s a musician. I noticed when he was a little boy that he could hear the sound of a song changing on the radio before I knew the song was even over.
For me, I have experienced the world, first and foremost in my body. I mean, everyone has, but I have in a way that probably not everybody does, that other dancers do and other people who are really involved with physical activity do, athletes. I would get up in the morning, and the way I warmed up my whole life, the way I greeted the world, was all through how is my hip socket, where is my knee, how are my shoulders, where is my breath, where is my alignment? That was every day for decades and decades. When I first transitioned out of dance, it was like, “You guys just sit around all day? You sit around at a computer?” I thought I was going to die. How did these people do this? How did they think without moving around?
So, how does that come into the writing? I felt like if anyone should be able to write about the body, a retired dancer should be able to. Okay, so how does it get into writing? Lots of different ways. There is a poem I wrote about… The sex poem.
ANDREA: The one I love?
AMY: The one you love. “A Good Fuck Poem: A Definition”—How do you talk about desire in a way that doesn’t feel raunchy? And how do you talk about the actual physical experience of that? It was easy for me to write, but it was very vulnerable, and I would have never in a million years shared it with anyone. That would be my poem for the vault, you know? But not for the public. I read it first here at Antioch. I think my pre-comment was, “You probably look at my body and see my silver hair even though it used to be dark brown and you probably think… You don’t think sexuality, or you don’t think desire.” Women are not supposed to get old; people do Botox and surgeries and paint their faces and dye their hair. I’m sure some guys do that too, but women commonly do that and it’s this expectation that you won’t age.
I think as a dancer, whether I’m dancing professionally or not, I hope I have a relationship that’s an informative, iterative, emotional and spiritual relationship to my body.
“Tambor” is a poem I wrote while my son was playing music in the living room. He started playing the conga as I wrote. I felt the music, the sound, inside me at the cellular level.
I read a couple poems to my son recently, he said, “Mom, you’re writing about race.” One of the first things, when I was a mom, my son’s grandmother called from Brazil. She wanted to know what he looked like. She said, “Ele é cabo verde?
ANDREA: What is the word?
AMY: It means Cape Verdean. Yeah, it’s a place in Africa. Here is my former mother-in-law, a black woman from Brazil, asks what does my grandson look like? His skin tone was a part of the first conversation upon his birth, from the black side of our family.
“Cabelo” is the poem about my daughter’s girlfriend’s assault, or a mother’s interpretation on her daughter’s girlfriend’s assault. How can you talk about the violation of a body? How do you talk about pleasure? How do you talk about racialization, which is all in the body, enforced in the body? How do you talk about violence in the body? How does that feel that emotionally?
I’d been writing these really sad poems after a breakup with someone I loved very much, and it was written on the body. How do you feel sorrow? I feel it in the body. Rationally, I’d say, “Get over it. Move on.” But my body was just… The sensations were so strong. “Piñata (Effigy)” was like that. The breakup was like being a piñata that’s been busted open. It’s emptied onto the floor, onto the ground. You’re just empty. You’ve been beaten, and you’re kind of a carcass. I’m seeing this carcass hanging from a tree and I knew I gotta write that. But the carcass is actually me. It’s the body, you know? So sometimes that thing you’re trying to write about, it’s an object, or it’s you.
The poem that just came out today, “Evacuation,” was a dream where I’m looking down on this household and I’m seeing all these family members leave, and its emptiness looking down. And I’m like, where am I in this story? I’m not even one of the bodies. I’m the air around them. I’m the space between them. I felt that in my body, and it was actually air.
That’s why I’m saying. Having a relationship with poetry is not just like having a relationship to a car or having a relationship to anything else that I’ve known. It functions at the physical level, the rational level, the intuitive level, and what it absolutely is, is the unknown that walks with us every minute of the day.
ADRIAN: Yeah. Since we’re talking about the body, I have a manuscript of poems inspired by my mom and her passing. One of the poems that Amy helped me with is, “My Mami’s Nurse Lucilla Practices Tonglen.” It’s basically how one of the nicest people we met with, right before the end. There’s this nurse that would come and talk to my mom [who] couldn’t communicate at all, like she was just there, and she would do this procedure where basically they rub her skin. It was just the nicest thing and I actually wrote a poem. I was reading in another book between the poet and their instructor and the poet was dying, or he’s having problems with cancer. There’s this one section of the book where he talks about this practice that he had learned about and I realized that’s what the nurse did, and so I wrote a poem about how she would move the skin and how it was just so beautiful and how when my mom passed away the nurse was just so… Because she didn’t see a person in that state, she saw somebody that she would talk to as if somebody was in the salon, getting their hair done. It was really, really sweet and the people at the hospital were so nice to my mom and took care of her.
I had to write something about the nurse, because those people don’t ever get… It’s another one of the voices that don’t ever get heard, is somebody who works at the hospital, in the wing of the hospital where they’re basically taking care of people before they pass away. No one ever acknowledges the work that they do, so I kind of felt like someone’s got to do that. Amy helped me with that poem that was just published, I had no problem with that one.
ANDREA: And how wonderful that you worked with each other on that one.
AMY: I don’t know how writers do it without a buddy.
ANDREA: What are other means to honor each other whether in the past or upcoming in the future?
AMY: I think that writing, at least poetry, is inherently a really vulnerable act. It’s not like anything else that I’ve ever done or known. I feel a sense of vulnerability about it at a level that is not comparable to any other thing that I’ve ever done. I needed an Adrian. I needed my buddies to be able to say, it’s okay, you can say that thing when you’ve been socialized to think you can’t and you shouldn’t. Adrian would do that for everyone. “Submit, submit!” You could have tattooed it on his forehead from telling other writers.
Adrian’s always [saying], “Hey, this publisher might be interested in your work.” And then if I pursue an event, I invite him. It’s like bringing each other along, acknowledging each other for our work. I think this idea of the lone artist, or the special artist, is just stupid. Don’t we want everyone to have a more fulfilling and creative life? How can we help each other along with that?
ANDREA: Yeah, how about you, Adrian?
ADRIAN: I guess one of the ways that I honor [Amy] is: I try to mention her to many people that I know.
ANDREA: That’s great.
ADRIAN: But that’s one of the things, it’s like I have a lot of friends where their stuff is really good and they haven’t put their stuff together, but she did. I remember a long time ago, I read this piece from one of my favorite writers, and when he was starting out, he had all this assistance and help from other writers so when he became famous, he didn’t help anybody. I was like, why would somebody do that? I pledged to myself if that ever, ever happens, I’m never going to be that way, I’m going to be the opposite. To be able to be really, really supportive and I may not be able to go to as many readings as other people, but I try to buy their work and to champion their work. And when the people go checking this work, because to be able to see from the page grow to where it’s at, it’s like being in the studio with another musician and seeing a song come to life. That’s what it’s like working with another poet and how would you not want to listen to the song, because it’s really, really good.
How many people are writers who don’t feel like they belong? I feel like that’s one of the card-carrying characteristics of a writer.” (Adrian)
ANDREA: Yeah, and you’ve mentioned Mireya couple of times, both of you, how about that question about Mireya?
ADRIAN: Mireya is somebody who I only read recently, because apparently her mentor was Terry Wolverton, who was so kind to me when I was coming up, and the thing about Mireya is her art is fantastic. One of the big things of mine, my forte is the process of ekphrastic poetry, poetry inspired by art and/or photography. And so she sent me a drawing that she says was inspired by working. It was somebody and there were bees coming out of the mouth and so I wrote a poem for her and I gave it to her.
ANDREA: Oh, is that the origin of that poem? Or have you done two? You mentioned something about listening to blues and then you were saying—
ADRIAN: No, no, that one was a Facebook post thing. The other one was that she sent me a drawing that she goes, “When I read your work, this is what it feels like.” Wow, okay, cool, and I was writing a poem about it, saying thank you. She’s also like a double threat, because she’s a great writer and a great visual artist which is awesome.
ANDREA: So, you guys do cross-shares. How about you?
AMY: I met Mireya in a creative nonfiction workshop because I did CNF, and a crossover to poetry too. Mireya is also a social scientist. She does evaluation and research, which is something that I also do. It’s not common here, when you’re in a creative writing program that you find a social scientist who’s in your group. She was writing about domestic violence, and I could see her just… There’s this piece by Martha Graham called “Lamentation,” where a dancer is in the cloth. She’s stretching the cloth, and you can see it’s this woman trying to come out, being born. A woman trying to birth herself. In earlier drafts of Mireya’s work, I was like, are you saying what I think you’re saying? Because she was talking about really traumatic stuff, and I don’t think she had fully stepped into it in the way she has now. This is similar to what Adrian was saying. It’s like, “Why wouldn’t you want to support someone?” When the song goes from a sound into a real experience, right?
I remember just really appreciating having her in the room with me. I knew she understood. There were issues that had to do with gender and race that were really deep in the workshop process that really pissed me off… It’s not easy. Mireya was there, and we became friends because we knew each other through the community work. She’s been involved with arts education work and social service work with children and families, and issues of evaluation, and the non-profit sector and public service. All that kind of stuff that I’ve been doing forever, she’s also been doing. I really appreciated her seriousness. She just grabbed the staff and held it in her arm and shook that thing and said “Here I am. I am a writer, and I am going to hold my space as a writer.” I’m really impressed by the work that she’s created in the last few years. It’s been beautiful.
I think Adrian and Mireya have been this kind of loving circle. We have a text thread where any writerly stuff that comes out during the week, we know we can just quickly chat about it. And I think we have shared values, and we have shared sensibilities, even though our voices are different, and our work is so different. We want to create community. There is a seriousness about the work, to steward the work, to hold and honor it and get it out there. Because otherwise, if the stories are coming to you and you’re not caring for them and sharing them, then they should be going to someone else.
ADRIAN: [For those who] read this, I would hope that they would want to get together and run the path like we do, because our stories and poems are interconnected, this is more than just about where we met. Because it takes a village of people to take a look at their work and plus going through what you know, and people you meet and you’ve shared your work with, and it gets out there, it helps to have somebody in your universe that understands what you’re doing and supports you.
AMY: And the understanding part, like even though we come from different specific culture stories, there’s common ground in understanding that nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language are common things that we’re grappling with in our lives and in our work so you don’t have to start from scratch. There’s just a natural common ground that we share—which I need.
How do you talk about the body, how do you talk about race? Race is a really big thing. It’s a big thing in my family, a big thing in the world. Erin Aubry Kaplan said, “Amy, you introduce yourself, but you don’t introduce the ethnicity of other characters, you just describe them physically.” So-and-so has these beautiful traits, “Why don’t you just say what it is?” Just say this is a black person. This is a Latino. This is a Middle Eastern person. This is whatever, right? And I realized that I was afraid that the reader might be racist and see the character in a certain way as if I just was that 2D. I realized I need to figure how to talk about things as they are in a racialized world, in a world where white supremacy has bloated out the literary imagination… It’s this idea of color blindness, which is so full of shit, which is if we don’t notice each other’s differences, that, somehow, we will create equality by not noticing them. We do notice them. We are them. Let’s sing to them. Speak to them. Because otherwise we end up inadvertently reaffirming whiteness, which I just fucking refuse to do.
Some of the things we share among many—which are kindness, camaraderie, generosity, care, patience—but, also, all three of us live in a world where race and ethnicity and nationality and language and identity have all played a big role. So that’s common ground. We can talk about it and there’s no stupidity in the room.
ADRIAN: I agree.
ANDREA: Where have you felt the most isolated, the most singular in your cultural perspective, and how did you navigate this. How has your approach changed over time?
MIREYA: In my family. When I’ve been talked about. When I’ve heard them talk about how I don’t know how to be a woman, or a mother, or a daughter. What they mean is that I won’t follow norms, and they are right. I’m not a Mexican woman or mother or daughter. I’m a Mexican-American person. And I’ trying to figure this out without conforming to the abuse I grew up with. I’m trying to create something better for my own children.
ADRIAN: Well, I’ve always felt like I’ve never belonged anywhere. I always felt like I’m always the odd person out in everything, even in my friendships at schools. I feel like I married into, my wife is Anglo and so even though they’re loving, even though they took me in, I feel like I don’t belong. So I connect with writers who feel the same way and so it made me feel like instead of being, “Oh, woe is me,” it gives me a unique perspective to go in and out of these subcultures and be able write about it, so instead of feeling bad about myself, I have a unique opportunity to be able to write about the different things. To be able to go in and out of these areas or subcultures in the world and to be able to be accepted but not really be involved, enmeshed in them, and I can actually go write about this. And I guess one of the things that helped me was when I was depressed, I was dealing with my mom’s passing away and this court case, and I was trying to find something, and then I ended up, I wanted to do something to get myself out of the depression and the gloom, and I rediscovered The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and it was unique that this author who always felt like a stranger in her own universe, in her own time, could actually connect with it and create something out of it. That someone like that can actually take me out of my depths and inspire me, I felt like that’s what writers are supposed to do. So that helps when you’re not the only person who’s gone through this—being personal is universal because if you’re feeling gutted emotionally and you put it on a page, someone else is feeling that too, so they’re going to be able to feel that also. It’s magical because the art we make is not only helping ourselves heal but is connecting us to our readers and the universe at large. Our poems and stories are saying, although we may seem different, in fact we are more alike than most people seem to want to realize. It’s a beautiful thing, this why I feel lucky to be in the same creative realm with these two amazing artists.
Like I said, I feel blessed and fortunate connecting with Mireya and Amy—to be the family or the community that we’re fostering that we actually, even though we are different artists, who feel the same way, it helps a lot because it makes you feel like, okay, we’re going to do these performances or these readings together. Some other writers would love to be able to do something like that and so, having the support actually helps, but I feel like not belonging is one of the things of a writer. How many writers are people who don’t feel like they belong? I feel like that’s one of the card-carrying characteristics of a writer.
ANDREA: How about you, Amy?
AMY: I never felt like I belonged, but that was in the US. I just never felt that way. My mother is from the Middle East. There was no word for what we were. My father was a different culture; they were the same faith, but different nationalities. We weren’t supposed to talk about that because we shared the same faith. I ended up marrying a guy from Brazil who is black, and me being… Our thing was never regular. You couldn’t fully fit in.
Adrian talks about navigating these different subcultures. It comes with a lot of code-switching, comes with a lot of editing. So it’s a relaxation to be able to speak with people where you can share that common knowledge. In a way it makes sense. The idea that I’m a part of this one culture and we only know ourselves and we don’t have to deal with whiteness or white supremacy, or we don’t have to deal with other people from other cultures—that’s not real. How can we belong in our differences? How can we be in communication and in a relationship? That stuff really matters.
Another thing has to do with abilities like Mireya writes a lot about… She has stories where she’ll come in and she’ll write about different things with her son. I’ve never read from a mother with a special needs child who grew up into an adult, and never heard what it was like to be a part of that family. When Adrian was launching his erotic book, he asked us to bring in something that had to do with sexuality or eroticism. I knew I had to read, “A Good Fuck Poem.” Mireya was like, “No, everything I write about is sad, I don’t know what I’m going to write about,” and she ended up choosing a story where she talks about her son coming up to her gleefully and saying, “I want to have sex.”
ADRIAN: Fantastic story.
AMY: Right, fantastic story. And she’s like, “Why are you telling me? It’s not like you’re going to have sex with me.” Her son functions in his own way. The three of us belong to this idea of having family in different countries. We belong to this idea. We are committed to eviscerating patriarchy and white supremacy. And we have differences in our families from nationality, language, ethnicity, ability, and there’s a space for all of that. And we can look at the joy and we can look at the trauma and the pain. So that’s a great thing to belong to, and I definitely feel less isolated. I don’t think I’d have a chance in hell—I mean who’s going to look at a midlife writer and say, “Okay, now you want to write poetry?” I’ve been writing poetry my whole life. I have stacks and stacks of journals where my whole life I’ve been writing poetry, but it took Adrian to say “You’re an organic poet. You are a poet. Just be who you are,” and, oh my gosh, my little soul needed that.
ADRIAN: I know for me, to get to that point where I am poet, it took a long time.
AMY: It’s a big thing.
ADRIAN: For me, it took having letters addressed to me—Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, the poet—arrive in the mail. Okay, this is who I am. When it comes in the mail, it’s going to come Adrian Ernesto Cepeda: The Poet. And that’s the first step, where someone offers you a package from UPS and, “Hang on a sec—oh, you’re a poet?” and to be able to acknowledge it. So that really was difficult for me, and that was when, “Okay, this is what I am.” For a long time in my life, when I would try to do stuff just to make some kind of capital money—I would run into walls, and it wasn’t until I focused my creative energy toward my writing that doors started to open up for me. That is when I realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m a poet, I’m a writer, and it helps to be around the community or writers who understand that.
ANDREA: Do you have anyone in your family who is an artist—performing, visual or otherwise artist?
ADRIAN: No, my mom used to tell me that my dad used to write her poems and letters, actually he is a doctor so there isn’t anybody who does it. My dad is a psychiatrist, my older brother is a psychologist, and I’m the poet so I’m the black sheep. They’re so supportive, my parents have been supportive, throughout my career and my journey. Like I said it takes a village and I am lucky to have the support of not only my parents but my wife, my brothers and whole extended family.
AMY: That’s good. I’ve heard people say poetry is the ultimate art form. It’s like the final frontier. There are some snobby poets out there enforcing the boundary of what is and what’s not poetry. We carry these iconic poems with us as if they’re kind of markers of who we are or a specific time or place. We know they matter and at the same time, the idea of being a poet is very romanticized, or it’s seen as—
AMY: My family is an immigrant family so it’s like, sure, you can have your art, but you better have… My mom literally said, “If you’re going to be a dancer, you have to be a plumber too,” because no one came from money, no one had money, everybody was afraid they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills.
Committing to an art form was, it could mean that you’d starve to death. It wasn’t like someone who had money and then said, “Oh, well, I have an inheritance, I’m going to go write my poetry book.” I think for people who have material concerns, it’s a scary thing.
For some reason, it’s a scary thing to claim, but I think that poetry comes to save us. I honestly think the poetry comes to save us. What could be more important? If it helps you want to live, if it helps you understand your life, what could be more important?
ADRIAN: Absolutely, and poetry has saved my life, absolutely. I remember when I first was at the information session here, and we had to introduce ourselves and I said, “Well, I write the poetry that I write. People who don’t like poetry, usually connect to it.” I feel like, in some ways, my poems are the gateway drug to poetry for people who don’t usually like poetry, and they read the stuff and go, “Okay, that’s poetry?”
But it was like to show them you can write a poem about anything. You can write a poem about David Bowie, about Billie Holiday, about a show that you watched. One of my new poems from Between the Spine, “Salty Caramel,” was written while I was watching the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Everybody thinks that poems are about the moon and the clouds, and it doesn’t have to be that way. And what I like about the work of Mireya and Amy is the fact that it’s concrete, it’s about emotions, blood, body, stuff that we experience every day and that’s why I think we connect so well.
AMY: Riffing on that, Adrian’s poems as the gateway drug to poetry. When I started having my poems published, I thought this would be the end of me. I will lose my job. I literally felt like I would be shunned. It sounds like a really big overstatement. I never felt that way about an essay being published, but when the poems were published, it seemed like more was on the line. And instead of that happening, instead of losing everything, people came out of the woodwork to say, “Would you look at this poem I’ve written? I am a poet too.” I mean, in every walk of life, from academic conferences to my children’s friends. Maybe everyone has poems in them, and they’re just afraid or they’ve been told not to show them, so when you all of a sudden stand in your poetry, people can say, “I too can let my poet out.”
ANDREA: There’s something about the sharing of writing. People coming into [the Writing Center] with an academic paper or a personal reflection paper and they have the same body language of “Here it comes, and it’s not very good,” and you get all of this confession.
Well, can you think of anything else even though I do say that I love this ending, of poetry comes to save us.
ADRIAN: Yeah. It’s true though.
AMY: It’s true, yeah, it’s not an overstatement.
Andrea Auten is a writer and a visual and performing artist. A writing specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles, she is the youth content coordinator and Visual & Graphic Arts lead editor for Lunch Ticket. Currently working on a collection of short stories, she lives with her husband, sons, and beloved writing partner, Dusky, the family cat. Find her at andreaauten.com.