By Jon Riccio
Iliana Rocha is originally from Texas. She earned a PhD in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University, and she holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from Arizona State University, where she was Poetry Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her work was chosen for the Best New Poets 2014 anthology and has previously appeared in Bennington Review, Banango Street, Blackbird, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Her first book, Karankawa, won the 2014 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Jon Riccio: Karankawa opens with the poem “La Llorona as Andrea Yates,” a blend of folklore and modern infamy (“Somewhere in Texas, a crowd/ predicts my death. They say it will sound/ like the scream of a tuba being born.”). Why is today’s gallery of rogues so readily interchangeable with the centuries old?
Iliana Rocha: In a broader sense, I think it is because our mythology concerning women has not evolved much past the dichotomy of monster/angel—either women are destroyers or creators—the nuance and complexity of women’s identities is a deep erasure women writers are still desperately trying to rewrite back into grand narratives. To open the collection with two notorious female figures (one from Mexican folklore and the other from American pop culture) is not only an attempt to bridge hyphenated gaps between identities, but also to illuminate the one-dimensionalized approach we have to writing about women, particularly “bad” women.
JR: We’re given a series of poems titled “Creation Myth,” the second revealing that “We are born ampersands, cleft-palated—/ curled into an imaginary distance.” in addition to the act of punishing “the earth with our own/ unavailable us.” How do you differentiate between an origin rooted in atonement versus one in belief?
IR: In this particular poem, I think it is difficult, if not entirely impossible, to differentiate between belief and atonement because they are so inextricably linked. Traditional belief systems are undergoing deconstruction throughout the book, mostly because they do not seem to apply to marginalized bodies, those operating in hybrid or third spaces. Interestingly, the Karankawa people themselves were known to have a third gender, called a “berdache,” so these poems vehemently argue against oppressive binaries, whether religious, historical, societal, etc. in order to demonstrate that identities are social constructs—“origin” takes on a performative quality in the book . . . it is more of a transformation rather than a definitive moment. An origin does not just happen at the moment of birth; it happens to various degrees many times throughout a person’s life, and the collection attempts to capture those slippery experiences.
JR: “Puberty” is populated with mermaids, antibodies, and “A motel ice machine. The sound of blue ice falling, Corpus Christi.” What sounds are unique to Texas? Your current city of Kalamazoo, Michigan?
IR: Sounds of Texas—empty beer cans knocking together in a trash can, lawnmowers, trains, my grandmother’s rolling pin on a kitchen counter, Houston rap music, the A/C clicking on, my brother’s laughter, my dad’s, the Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me album by The Cure. If nostalgia had a soundtrack, those sounds would be on it.
Kalamazoo—birds chirping, the Lake Michigan waves, snow crunching under my tires, silence. There is so much silence in Michigan, and I’m not used to it, having lived in Phoenix and Houston previously—I cannot tell if I like it or not. I think of my students reciting their beautiful poems.
JR: “La Estrella” commences on the falling of Polaris. Next it fleshes out the grandmother through her Ouija board and caged, dead bird, all building toward:
She will keep the star too,
when it dies,
grind it into powder
she’ll put in the throat
of her pistol,
then cough into the sky.
How would you repurpose a dying star?
IR: Since I am such a fan of glitter, I would probably find a way to put it in some makeup and do a fierce eye look or something. This might be made clearer in my next book, but I love makeup, aesthetics, and really any component related to performance. I spend so much time watching drag tutorials online, and the amount of talent and artistry that goes into that type of transformation makes my little heart tremble. It is also difficult not to feel resentful when someone belittles makeup or speaks to its supposed superficiality. Ah, if only if those critics could see me barefaced!
JR: I learned about chuthis (chuthis.net), Peter Chu’s contemporary dance company based in Las Vegas, thanks to your poem “Nothing Sticks (2011)—Excerpts.” I’m intrigued by the third section – “When I was ten years old” is a lie, as/ the past landscape is electrolysis on Monroe/Hayworth hairlines.” How was this inspired by Peter’s work? Has history suffered more from removal or concealment?
IR: “Nothing Sticks” was such an experiment for me; aesthetically, I am my most comfortable working with a single strophe with intuitive line breaks like in the “Self-Portrait” poems, but I had seen this modern dance performance and desperately wanted to convey its effect in words—what resonated with me was the texture of the performance, the multi-dimensional layers, and the efforts taken to rupture seamless transitions between pieces. I liked how it was disjointed—physical movements were jarring rather than fluid, and, musically, the soundtrack seemed composed of creaking doors and a deconstructed Motown, basically the coolest sounds I had ever heard. In order to honor the ways in which bodies moved on the stage, I knew I wanted to play with white space and fragments and apply that to a discussion of the family dynamic, its multitude of moving pieces. Distortion and fragmentation are also appropriate for memory and all the disjointed ways it reveals itself to us.
I would say that history has suffered because of omission, but the beauty and responsibility of being a writer is that I get to confront those gaps, but I must handle them with the utmost care. Toward the end of the book, the speaker says, “I recall truth not accuracies,” which sums up her relationship to a history constantly in flux.
JR: The central character in “Wharton, TX” is a Virgen de Guadalupe yard figurine who ranks as one of the more memorable statue-omniscient poem inhabitants I’ve come across. Nothing escapes her notice, be it a BBQ pit or an apron’s hem. In what ways does she mythologize her microcosm?
IR: Ha! In what ways doesn’t she? The Virgen begins as a foil to the grandmother figure, who functions as a reverse-Guadalupe. While the Virgen does have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality to her, the grandmother is the Virgen personified, with all her complexities, including loss and palpable loneliness. As the poem unfolds, the two female presences seem more and more transposable. In the microcosm, there is conflict with sexuality and domesticity, but there is also the question about what to do with grief . . . how does it manifest itself? Unfortunately for the grandmother, hers is in what she grills on the BBQ, burns into the food, packs away. But the longing is so strong, it illuminates everything around her, like a gilded mandorla.
JR: You dedicated “Women Go Missing” to Natalee Holloway, a touchstone for vanishings the world over. I was grateful the poem focused on the physical recovery effort, as opposed to the media aspects that so permeate the phenomenon. That being said, media is key to these legends of our time. Does this reflect in your post-Karankawa work?
IR: I am a self-proclaimed true crime addict, and even as a child, I was drawn into the abundant mystery of the world around me as opposed to what I found in fiction. Part of that is because I have always chased an obsession—my grandfather’s murder. He was shot in Detroit, Michigan, before I was even born, but we as a family have never gotten a conclusive explanation of why. Because of this, there are so many versions of how he died, and part of my new work explores other gaps, making the claim that the true crime genre is in and of itself a kind of performance. I have a series of deconstructed villanelles that I call “tabloid” poems that profile hyper-sexualized, fetishized, or sensationalized murders like JonBenét Ramsey, Lupe Vélez, and Lori Erica Ruff (and if you have not heard of her, I suggest reading up on her case—she was such a fascinating and complicated woman).
In the post-Karankawa work, I have found myself led from one obsession to another, turning to form so as to reconcile and rein in an expanse of emotion. Missing women figure more prominently in the new book—living in West Michigan now for four years, there have been several high profile missing women’s cases, and I cannot help but shift my focus from the outcome to the prevailing causes. Undoubtedly, there is a gender issue at stake here, a domestic violence issue, a race issue.
JR: The collection contains a preface of sorts by the artist R. Edward Moore: “The Karankawa Indians lived along the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico . . . much of the history of the Karankawa is lost. No one bothered to study them in any detail . . .” What artifact do you hope to impart on their behalf?
IR: I do not believe I have the ethos to do that, but I do want to call into question that almost instinctual need we have to fill in gaps and omissions in a narrative. Researching missing women’s cases has made me even more aware of this rhetorical impulse. The amount of speculation, psychoanalysis, hyperbole . . . sometimes it is just too much. This happened with the Karankawa people as well—when I first learned about them as a child, I was fascinated because they were characterized as a violent and brutal people who tore out their enemies’ hearts and drank the blood to obtain special powers.
The actual impetus of the book was the passing of my aunt ten years ago, and she lived in the heart of where the Karankawa thrived, so I knew I wanted to research the Karankawa history and draw parallels between their myths and my own family mythos. I was surprised to discover that their history had been greatly dramatized—they were actually a peaceful community, nomads, who resorted to violence only when defending their resources. Because much of the Karankawa history is lost, when a gap emerged, we filled it, whether accurate or not. This sparked a process of interrogation—how do we reconstruct our personal histories?
JR: We met at a reading you gave a day or so after one of your final PhD exams. Which aspect of your PhD experience had the greatest impact on Karankawa?
IR: Working one-on-one with (Western Michigan University faculty and University of Arizona alumni) Bill Olsen and Nancy Eimers was so special; they made the book happen. They are both generous readers and careful critics, and they got me. They understood the spirit of the collection. They were accessible. They were honest.
JR: One of our early exchanges centered on Tucson’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) procession that occurs each fall, as Karankawa’s cover features a phoenix-eyed Betty Boop adorned in traditional Dia de los Muertos face paint. When is poetry best as a processionary art? Stationary?
IR: For me, poetry is always in motion—it lives and breathes in the subconscious at all times, a perpetual Dia de los Muertos parade. It resists the law of inertia. Poetry is best when it is processionary, when you cannot help but keep it close and take it with you wherever you go.
Jon Riccio (U of A MFA 2015) is an incoming PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Current work appears in Cleaver, Dead King Magazine, and Ink in Thirds, among others. The poetry editor for Fairy Tale Review and contributing interviewer at The Volta Blog, he is a past staff member of Sonora Review.