By Will Freeney
Will Freeney: “Aztlan” is a consideration of a feminine collective – “this patch of women’s bodies,” “the mothers … awake on a busted trampoline.” Do you see the subjects of the poem, in that sense, as its primary audience?
Sara Borjas: I don’t. This is for everyone. Women make the world go round. I think women are the primary root of all of humanity. I mean, we get made in them. Maybe this is why this imagined Aztlan is full of them. But I don’t think there’s no men. I’m just tired of them. I just pay attention to women.
WF: There is a winsome and wry, sardonic voice to many of the poems – and their titles. How easily did that voice come to you in writing these poems about ambivalence regarding identity, family, desire?
SB: Very. Firstly, I think I’m just a shit talker, and that honestly, is how my family shows love. We call each other out all sneaky style. Secondly, I think a state of unknowing and acknowledgment of that unknowing has become the most honest, stable state from which the speaker, and I, can truly express anything. Anything else would be a performance.
WF: What did you envision in choosing the character of Narcissus as the titular persona of your several “Narcissus” poems?
SB: I think poets get obsessed with questions and tensions. It’s true for me and the Narcissus poems, which I originally had no vision for, but definitely developed an obsession with. I had already been writing about that character in a sufi poetry course with Reza Aslan when I was confronting the idea of self-annihilation.
While I was working on this collection, it developed as a side series, but made more sense over time. I started acknowledging alcohol, alcoholism, and the large part they play in my life, and the imagery surrounding water, bodies of water, and Narcissus’ being stuck in it became a narrative that helped me develop and envision the subjects I was writing about. It was also a way to historicize it, give it lineage. I feel like folks expect Xicanx women to write about La Llorona and Malinche all day and that’s such an oversimplification of Chicanx people and culture, so when I realized what I was doing, I did it with the intent to make a political intervention. I also studied English literature and am most versed in western classics and mythology, so it was natural for me. Maybe if we hadn’t been erased in so many ways, I would have other characters in my mind.
I also was grateful to write about Narcissus, who is traditionally a male character, as a female, and in that act, able to defy gender norms of the speaker. I wanted to hold cultural traditions accountable for the gendered denial of Xicanas to individuate and love deeply without allowing one’s love to consume the self. In this narrative, the character is able to consume the reflection, and they don’t die in it. They actually go to their cousin’s wedding at the end of the collection and dance to oldiez.
WF: “Pocha Heaven” is a marvelous practical manifesto of the ideal. But “Island of Raped Women” presents another putative ideal, a more superficial (and white?) version. How would you compare the two?
SB: “Pocha Heaven” is preserved in the imagination, and desired, and “Island of Raped Women” is real, and is unavoidable. For me, and for the speaker and the women in the poem, that place already exists, and so to me it’s more of a record, a documentation of emotional experience, which, to me, is more real than intellectual experience.
Regarding the whiteness of the “Island of Raped Women,” I think that our capitalist society makes it hard to know anything other than white ideals. My mother read hella Danielle Steele when she was raising me and my siblings and was obsessed with having pretty, manicured hands. And in turn, I read hella Danielle Steele and became obsessed with having pretty hands. I don’t know that these are white things, but they are American things, and Mexicans are Americans. Whiteness permeates it all: our desires, our imaginations, our fears, and even what we are left with after we don’t get what we want are tools of whiteness. My mom was going to be a hand model. And when she wasn’t, she became a mother and a housewife. I wonder if her desires and what happened to them fell to whiteness or fell to patriarchy. Or if they transcended them. I think it depends on who you ask and when you ask them.
WF: There is a great, simple line in the middle of “Self-Portrait as Snake”: “I perform expectations.” Are all roles the performance of expectation – from pochisma to machismo, from the whiteness of ‘craft’ to the iconization of Andres, from sister to brother and mother to father? How does one escape those expectations and cancel the performance?
SB: I’m still figuring this out. However, writing this collection helped me see the performance and understand how I felt about seeing it. I think I’ve spent so much time these past few years trying to figure out why I want things. I investigate the sources. I want to keep myself honest. And I don’t want to put undue pressure on people I love unless my heart needs it. And so I don’t know that we can ever really escape performance, or escape the labor of holding ourselves accountable, but I think having people you love who check you is a start. A partner who prioritizes ethics and recognizes the complexity of a person is a good start because they can check you and love you unconditionally. I also think asking yourself why you want or expect something is a guiding question that not only protects us from performing but protects our desires from our dismissal of them. Ultimately, we can protect our pleasure this way.
WF: You write, in “A Heart Can Be Broken Only Once, Like a Window,” that “I think about words so I don’t think about loss,” but aren’t those words ultimately the means of addressing that loss?
SB: The words that follow, “pizza, poetry, Neosporin,” are addressing the thoughts (which do not have to be grand) that immediately follow the pain of heartbreak and loss. What comes is quotidian. This life is not Gone with the Wind, although many of us have been fooled into thinking so. People of color, and more specifically, women of color, have to go on living, working, raising their kids, etc., and they often don’t get to be swept up in the romanticism associated with loss. I listened to the VS. podcast recently and the writer, Camonghne Felix, talked about this when she said in literature, black women always struggle with pain associated with being black and not often with heartbreak simply to do with romantic love. I agree with that, and when thinking of Xicanx women and heartbreak and loss, that pain is not the end. We can move on. We can think about Neosporin and it can be because we want to get better, not because we aren’t capable of healing. But we aren’t taught this. We aren’t ever addressed as individuals who act for themselves. We are always concerned with everyone around us—children, siblings, parents, cousins, tias and tios, grandparents—and get our value from how well we prioritize these relationships, which is straight up tragedy. Which is some commodified love shit. When we are heartbroken, we aren’t at a loss. We are resourceful. We are still here.
Sara Borjas is a Chicana, a pocha, and a Fresno poet. She earned a BA in English Literature from Fresno State and an MFA from University of California, Riverside. She holds fellowships from CantoMundo, the Postgraduate Writers' Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts and Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Borjas is the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mesa Poetry Prize and is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Her poetry can be found in The Rumpus, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day Series, Ploughshares, and The Offing, amongst others. She lives in Los Angeles but stays rooted in Fresno.
Will Freeney is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Fresno State University and an editorial intern for The Normal School.