“There are so many mythic versions of California that I couldn’t help but work out my own Latinx, women-led one.”
Inland Empire (Noemi Press, 2019)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I took my first poetry course in my last year of college.
I’ve always felt compelled to make things. Even now I devote a lot of my time outside of poetry to bookmaking, printing, and binding. As a teenager, I spent most of my creative energy painting, though without real skill. It taught me to love working out ideas in images. In college, I experienced the possibilities of prose writing and of its space for complexity and reflective thinking. Once I finally arrived in a poetry class, I felt that I’d found my form—one that allowed me to connect image and idea, to build expression and experience.
I’m glad to have discovered poetry so near the end of my undergraduate education since the timing forced me to learn to write and build a portfolio outside of a school setting. Much of my commitments to a writing life were built up over a couple years of working desk jobs. I only applied to grad school for my MFA after learning to write in my everyday life.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
My cat rotates through a series of napping spots in the house where for a few weeks she’s on the window at the radiator, then in the blue armchair, then the lounge, and so on. I do about the same thing but with an office chair and a folding table. I set up these temporary writing spaces for a while and then move somewhere new. I almost never use my real desk. I always have coffee or tea.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
These poems came into sharpest focus once I started writing about Calafia and the colonizing tales around California. Myths are ways of telling the story of who we are through the pall of the past; they are explanatory and yet can change to fit current needs.
My obsession with these concepts heightened as I realized how much there is to turn over in that place of allure and contradiction. It is a place where immigrant labor is ubiquitous and evanescent. A land of fire and on water. A geography covered in religious iconography and so often thought of as godless. How does one hold all these layers together at once? I began to see, too, how much of my own configurations of self, a hyphenated person of color at home and not at ease, also sat at the center of these tensions. There are so many mythic versions of California that I couldn’t help but work out my own Latinx, women-led one.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story? What’s the back story?
So many! The many poems reflecting on family are particularly meaningful to me. I expect that readers will immediately recognize the ways that the encounters with mothers and grandmothers are transformative to the speaker of the poems.
Alternately, “Open Armed,” is a solitary experience I often reflect on. This poem was built out of the indignities of air travel. It occurred to me during my routine secondary screening that spreading one’s arms is a gesture both of openness and powerlessness. I am interested in these moments where we experience the possibilities of all the roles we play at once. As I was being searched, I felt acutely how easily I could from one point to the other in an instant.
What was the final poem you wrote or revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The poem, “Santa Ana,” stayed relatively stable throughout the editorial process until the final months before publication. The poem offers a panorama of colonialism moving through that tract of land. However, it was only at the very end of revisions that I understood its importance to the whole collection and to showing how chronicling the past matters now. I then reworked certain sections during final manuscript revisions.
Describe your writing practice or process for your book. Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
I’ve revised individual poems and the collection as a whole over several years. As I revise, I keep records of every draft iteration of every poem. Keeping this kind of record of a poem has meant that I can more easily make necessary but hard changes and cuts because the previous version is always still there if I change my mind a week or a month later.
This system also brings unintended and useful insights for my future writing. At the end of writing poems for this book, I am able to sit down and trace the progression of ideas, obsessions, structures, linguistic features and tics in my poem over years. These drafts offer patterns and insight into the development of poems that I might not have been able to see otherwise.
What are some of your favorite books or chapbooks?
Overall, I feel like this is an amazing moment in poetry. There are so many new poets and powerful voices on the scene. I’ve been especially excited for all the great established and emerging Latinx poets putting books out now. Noemi’s Akrilica series is a great place to start for those interested.
There are so many transformative works of the past few years but two recent books that I’ve loved enough to read with my undergraduate students are Vicki Véritz’s Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. These are quite different books but each in their particular way does brilliant and surprising things with perspective and form. Buy these books if you haven’t had a chance to read them already!
Finally, my longtime favorite poet is Li-Young Lee. I admire his poetry’s restraint, vividness, and generosity of feeling. I return to his books often and continually find more there.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Be curious and a reader.
Take your work as seriously as you want your reader to take it.
Give yourself time.
Your voice matters; be honest.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
The process of writing is powerful and it is easy to get lost in its virtues. It took me longer than I care to admit to see certain gaps at the center of some poems. So, yes, it makes sense to attend to the language and structures of poetry, but craft can sometimes obscure the very obvious idea that one should have something to say.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
To the poets, what does poetry allow for that other forms you might write in don’t? That’s a long way of asking, why write poetry?
Leah Huizar is a Mexican-American writer and poet originally from Southern California. She holds an MFA from The Pennsylvania State University and is an assistant professor of English at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Inland Empire is her first book of poetry.