Studs Terkel sits down with Sandra Cisneros to discuss her new book of poetry
BROADCAST: Dec. 21, 1992 | DURATION: 00:32:32
Sandra Cisneros sits down with Studs Terkel and provides behind the scenes commentary on poems from her new book "My Wicked Wicked Ways." She provides an enlightening history to them. "Curtains," "Velorio," "Arturo Burro," "I Told Susan Reyna," "Traficante," "In a redneck bar down the street," The Poet Reflects on Her Solitary Fate," "His Story," "Letter to Ilona from the South of France," "New Year's Eve" have been removed due to copyright restrictions.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Sandra Cisneros, you remember she was a guest on this program before with those quite marvelous short stories of life in Chicago in the Mexican-American community here, and a "Woman Hollering Creek". Was that a "Woman Hollering Creek"?
Studs Terkel And this is your poetry now. Since the publication of those two collections of short stories, you've lived elsewhere, and your reputation as a writer, that is, a writer of short stories as well as a poet,
Sandra Cisneros Yeah, I was always writing poems and throwing the poems under the bed, you know, no one much pays attention to poetry, but thankfully because his short stories have had garnered so much attention, the book, this book of poetry, has been reissued.
Sandra Cisneros That's
Sandra Cisneros Well, Chicago is home. I come back here several times a year. It's my six brothers, my mother, my father live here, and several nieces and nephews, so I'm always coming back in some way.
Studs Terkel What?
Sandra Cisneros Cisneros.
Studs Terkel Well then, why not pick that up, also the poetry. Well, first of all of this poem we just read, this very brief one, and three is, really old-fashioned phrase, we have three stanzas. You talk about curtains, a simple thing like curtains. You see, rich people don't need them, the curtains--
Sandra Cisneros Well, the reason why I wrote about that, I think, is because any time twilight begins, my mother always shouts for us to close the curtains, she never wants people outside to see in. And I always wondered why, 'cause we weren't running around naked or anything, but you know, there was that thing about the neighborhood that I grew up in. Soon as it gets dark, you've got to close the curtains, whereas when you drive through the wealthier neighborhoods here in Chicago or in the suburbs, people aren't as protective about their sense of space. They want everyone to look in to see what they own. And that's, I think, where that poem came from.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah, well, I think it's from riding so many "L" trains through the neighborhoods of Chicago and taking note of these draperies, or lack of, that were hanging in windows that I passed through in the back alleys, and I think that's where that poem
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros Well, I'm the one that was always trying to move on, or travel, or to live someplace else, and I've kind of been the black sheep of the family, and I'm the only daughter, so that's being very wicked when one considers some, you know, traditional Mexican role of the daughter.
Sandra Cisneros When you're a son or a daughter, you don't leave the home until you marry. And I just broke all the taboos, I left before marrying. I left before the brothers did. I kind of vagabonded the globe. I've lived in other cities, and so I've done all the things I wasn't supposed to do, and I wrote a book and that's pretty wicked.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah, I like fairy tales. They feature in my work a lot, you know, and this poem "Six Brothers" talks about the six swans, because it's about a sister who has six brothers and the brothers get changed into swans and the only way she can break the spell and bring them back into men is if she weaves six thistle shirts, and she keeps this vow of silence. And she finally manages to weave all of the shirts except for the last one, and her husband, who she marries, and he probably married her because she was so quiet and liked her that way, one day they were going to burn her at the stake and just about the point when she's done with the shirts, they're lighting the pyre and she's not quite finished with that last shirt, and all the six brothers swoop down, the swan brothers swoop down from the sky into the shirts, except for the youngest. He puts on the shirt that lacks the last sleeve. So all the brothers turn back into man and can defend her and she can defend herself and be saved from the fire. Except the youngest brother has a wing instead of an arm.
Sandra Cisneros Yes.
Sandra Cisneros That's right. So anything that you do, you know, was going to be, being wicked in some sense. You know, just by virtue of my gender. So there was a lot of breaking of taboos, and that's what this title is all about.
Studs Terkel "My Wicked, Wicked Ways". Yeah. In fact, there's one, that's, these poems are in sections, there's Chicago, you know, Sangamon, and then there's--"My Wicked, Wicked Ways" was probably outside Chicago, too, and the European poems. But even this poem. I'll do this, you--but there are also secrets, family secrets that now and then come revealed.
Sandra Cisneros That's the thing about being a writer. You can't tell a writer anything, 'cause they can't keep a secret. But I think that's also something about the Cisneros family, you know, you tell them something and they always exaggerate it a little bit. That's why I was made to be a writer. I'm very nosy and I can't keep a secret.
Studs Terkel I gotta read your father. "This is my father." [content removed, see catalog record] That's good. This is, so I was listening, as right here as we're talking, your mother, Mrs. Cisneros--
Sandra Cisneros Yeah, it's funny. How do we define "bad"? And I think that that's been something I've been looking at in all my writing. How does one define "bad"? Who says who's bad? You know, and according to this book first came out in '87 through Third Woman Press, you know, I think some men felt a bit disappointed by the provocativeness of the title. They thought I was going to be bad like "Errol Flynn bad."
Sandra Cisneros Yeah,
Sandra Cisneros That's
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Studs Terkel I wear a hat, you know, and the hat is kind of crooked and rotten. I mean, it's kind of, it's been stamped on, it's a hat that's pushed around and about. So it's kind of on the side, so it looks kind of rebellious-like, you know, so often, I get American people say to me, "That's a bad hat."
Sandra Cisneros That's right. And I think these poems that, you know, they're from my 20s. I didn't know what I wanted to be, but I sure as hell knew I didn't want to be good. You know? So maybe what these poems are about are trying to find that place, you know, that I wanted to be.
Studs Terkel Of course, the question I always ask is, what led you, what was it that impelled you that you could have gone another--I mean, obviously Sandra Cisneros couldn't constitutionally be this sweet, gentle, silent, obedient wife of stereotype. You know? But what is it that impelled you? Is there some--were there influences in your life that impelled you to become--well, eventually the writer?
Sandra Cisneros Well, you know, I think that, you know, when you grow up in the kind of neighborhoods that I grew up in like Humboldt Park, there weren't a lot of very positive role models out there for what you wanted to be. You knew what you didn't want to be. You knew you didn't want to wind up like the girl across the street who was pregnant at 14. Or you knew you didn't want to wind up like the wife of the man next door who locked his wife in before he went to work and she can couldn't come out until he came home. So there were a lot of frightening, you know, roadside models of what you didn't want to be. You didn't know what you wanted to be, but you know what you didn't want. And if it wasn't on the menu, you know, you found out eventually you had to start inventing it, you know? But I think that my--the person who gave me permission to be so bad was my mother. Sitting over--she's a "raise heller." That's what she is. And I think, you know, the fact that I was allowed to be bad and not cook and read books instead, that was terribly bad compared to my girlfriends, who were changing diapers and making meals and I was reading books. That was being bad.
Studs Terkel Yeah. There's one about your girlfriend [unintelligible] asked you to preface, prefatory poem which is telling about you as the poet. The one about the three of you. What is that, at the very beginning, somewhere there's a poem, oh, "Velorio", three, because you spoke of your girlfriends. And this is a childhood memory, isn't it?
Sandra Cisneros Not good for kind of--maybe it was good for some people. Well, it wasn't good for me, and I think going there made me realize my class difference, you know, my cultural difference very clearly. And so, what I tried to do was to write something that would be the opposite of my classmates, and that's how I wrote this, because I knew that if I wrote about people who had funerals in their living room, that my classmates couldn't say, "Oh, you're wrong," because I was an expert on this kind of thing, you see. That's how I wrote this poem. It's called "Velorio", which means, of course, wake. "Velorio". [content removed, see
Sandra Cisneros Yeah, those three little girls come back in "House on Mango Street", too, you know. And I just wanted to write about those things that to us was like a normal everyday occurrence, but was very bizarre and would be most bizarre in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, which is why I wrote
Sandra Cisneros She
Sandra Cisneros I wanted to use a language that was the opposite of the language I saw in the poetry of my instructors, my poetry teachers and my classmates, they were using a very, very academic language, so I thought, "What's the opposite of an academic voice?" Well, the voice of children, the voice of slang, the voice of the Chicago streets.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Sandra Cisneros, who you can gather is an original. She's out of Chicago originally, the Humboldt Park community, and traveled, and now lives in San Antonio, primarily a Latino city, or roughly Hispanic.
Studs Terkel So, Sandra Cisneros, writes Gwendolyn Brooks, "Is one of the most brilliant of today's young writers, her work is sensitive, alert, nuanced, full, rich with music and picture," and in fact many of the critics, a great many, speak of you as a new voice. Because you have that combination of the language, the idiomatic language, and the poetry that comes forth. Her previous books are the two very acclaimed collections of short pieces, short stories, a "Woman Hollering Creek" and "The House on Mango Street". And they're available, by the way, that's a small publishing house, the new one, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways", published by Turtle Bay, which is a subsidiary of Random House, and the other two are available in all the bookstores, too, "Woman Hollering Creek", and they're small, which, we know something happening. They're both Vintage, are they?
Studs Terkel "Caramelo"?
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros No, she was the one that took us all to the Chicago Public Library and made sure we had our library card before we even knew how to read. So it was real important, and more important than that, too, was that my mother set the example, unlike her neighbors she read, and she still reads books, and you know, she set an example. She didn't just say, "Read books," but she read books, and we saw her reading and we would stop and read also.
Studs Terkel But the opening poem of "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" is a preface. And you quote Mary Cassatt, the painter. So, "I can live alone and I love to work," using your takeoff on that. And the comedian, the film comedian, Cantinflas, what does he say?
Sandra Cisneros Yes.
Sandra Cisneros I wrote it this year. Yeah, I wrote it this summer actually, Studs. I wrote it this year, because I couldn't see these poems are from my 20s, and I wanted to make a commentary about them and about that period in my life. You know, it was kind of like having your old high school yearbook discovered and reissued, you want to make some commentary from
Sandra Cisneros It was hard. I didn't, at that time I did not like living alone, but I was trying to live like the models I'd seen in all of, you know, all the movies and books, you know, artists living alone in those garret apartments, painting or creating art, but it was hell. It was.
Studs Terkel But there again, there's that Grimm's fairy tale, the girl who "I chucked the life my father plucked for me," I just happened to find this, and you "leapt into the salamander fire." So there were risks, of course, the risks beyond her "father's rooster eye." And I'd gone on a solo--and then, but throughout you have this, as though you were looking in the yearbook, out of this comes the poet, though.
Sandra Cisneros That's right. Somehow out of all the mistakes you made, you know you didn't know what you wanted to be, but you know what you didn't want. You know, all the thunking your head against the walls, you figure it out after a decade, you hope.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah, it's where I grew up. It's one of the many neighborhoods I grew up, and this is something that people don't realize, that there were families like mine, that, you know, would relocate every year because we were always shuttling back and forth between Chicago and Mexico City.
Sandra Cisneros Well, my father suffered bouts of nostalgia, so we always had to go back to Mexico City, you know, and then we would come back. But I thought everybody did that, would get up and go to another country for the summer, and then come back.
Studs Terkel You know, it's so funny, because--oh, God, she's, forgot her name, a writer and a storyteller, Appalachian, Ann, Ann, Anndrenna Belcher! Appalachian family from Kentucky. And would go back even for a weekend, they'd drive for 24 hours just to spend the weekend, just to be back and, back at that family porch with the grandmother and the others.
Studs Terkel To do that just to spend a little time there. But also, you pick up a paper, you read or hear something happen in the Latino community, hear something happening in a Black community, hear something happening in a poor white community, you know, happening where the curtains are made into fists. You know, so "South Sangamon". Just that. It happened. You read it, "Oh, yeah, this happened yesterday, you see." And but you do it and you celebrate it in your way.
Sandra Cisneros Again, I was trying to write from someplace that, you know, no one else could write from. I was looking for that place of departure which I think all writers have to find within themselves. And these were kind of memories of neighborhoods I knew. "South Sangamon". [content removed, see
Studs Terkel I see her, as you, your friend, the other, or the poet's friend or the observer's friend and that guy--she's been married to him, or she wasn't married to him, a couple of kids, he's a, he's a kind of a brute, stupid, don't want to get rid of him, and he's gone away. And she's puffing that cigarette.
Studs Terkel And this painting on the cover, and it's a posada, like it's, in a way she could be that girl in the poem. She's lying there, oh, she's playing an accordion, has a mask on, it's a surreal thing.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah. It's a great painting by Terry Ibanez. You know, she's an up and coming Chicana artist and I am really happy that we were able to collaborate and do something together and she did the new hard-cover version of "Wicked Ways".
Sandra Cisneros Oh, I love San Antonio. I just love it. It's just a town that I finally found some place where I felt I fit in with the two languages I grew up, our public languages, you know, where there's much more in Spanish than simply, you know, something on a menu. It's all-pervasive, the language is alive and it's there and it's mixing with the English and it's creating this third language. So it's very important for me as a writer to live somewhere near the border. I can't live in Mexico, because I need the English. I inherited that English, and that's my legacy, too, and I can't live up farther north because I don't hear the Spanish enough in public. I hear it in private, but I don't hear it all around me, and I need to be able to walk down the street like I do in San Antonio and see the Spanish leap out from billboards or the mix of the two leap out, and to spark me, you know, to spark my writing.
Studs Terkel And we're talking to Sandra Cisneros. This is a new book of poetry, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways", and Turtle Bay Books, a subsidiary of Random House the publishers, and her two previous books are available now, Vintage, " Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories", and they're, to use an old-fashioned word, they're "peachy." Peachy. And "House on Mango Street" also. The first part dealt with Chicago, and the second to wandering about. There's one that's very moving. It's about a family that has a secret, often there's some child of the family who's a little different.
Sandra Cisneros I was taking, you know how children can make your name rhyme with something horrible? That's what I'm doing. "Arturo Burro", because to say someone is burro in Spanish means to say that they're a dunce, they're not very smart.
Sandra Cisneros Oh yeah, it's a fun--you know, people always think that kids are so wonderful and sweet but they're also very mean, and so I wanted to be able to write a poem that was like that, because, you know, there's lots of people like in my memory like Susan Reyna or children that are like this persona. This is called "I Told Susan Reyna". [content removed, see
Sandra Cisneros That's actually my mom's story. My mom used to tell me stories about someone in her class who would get ill and then they would get the whole day off, so everyone else would be jealous. And I decided to use that story.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros Well, you know, this Traficante's a real drugstore. I don't know if it's still there. It's over there on Taylor Street, I think, and Oakley? I think that's the street it's on. But it's funny because another Chicago writer, Ana Castillo, says she remembers, she grew up in the same neighborhood over there on Taylor, and she has a Traficante poem, too. So she wrote one for the same drugstore. I'll have to look.
Studs Terkel You know, that could be the corner druggist anywhere in the world, especially of a working-class community. So, bang! Smack. That's where the encyclopedia became great medicine. Therapeutic. Very funny. But then, then you read something else, something had, there's a--we know changing communities and the intermixture of cultures, and Appalachian people in Chicago, and there's one called "In a Redneck Bar Down the Street".
Sandra Cisneros Okay,
Studs Terkel It's
Studs Terkel And your book is divided in other parts. Then there's the traveling, then you hit Europe for a while. Different countries and different adventures and different people you met. And so, we come to, it was in Greece that you wrote that poem, that preface about becoming, that poem, but then there's also--I'm thinking about--well, you name some you want to read. "The Poet Reflects on Her Solitary Fate". It's a variation on the earlier one about answering Mary Cassatt, who says it's great, and look forward to it.
Studs Terkel That's a very, an early one. But then the next one concerns your father. This is "A Father". Now, here we come back again. A variations [sic] on the theme. Earlier we had this guy, this handsome guy who looks like Errol Flynn, who's a macho sort of guy, you know, half between Errol Flynn and Anthony Quinn, I'd say, a combination.
Studs Terkel Now, this is the fate, you see, here again, in it's your, it's bad blood. Well, here's the one, imagine this thing in a family where, or in a culture where machismo is presumed to be the flavor. You know.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros That's
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah. Well, I try to take, I always try to take things that are trans--literal translations in the Spanish, the idea of a crooked star really comes from a crooked route, which is what you would say in Spanish, and that's the nice thing about having the two languages, you have twice as many words to pick from. You can sometimes take a literal translation and say something in a way that's never been said in English before.
Studs Terkel Sandra Cisneros' book of poetry called "My Wicked, Wicked Ways". As you can see, it's good for reading out loud, too. Kind of, 'cause it has that quality, an aura of easiness about it, and Turtle Bay--Turtle Bay, isn't it? Turtle Bay are the publishers.
Studs Terkel And the other two books of yours, the short pieces, the short stories. "The House on Mango Street" and "Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories" are available now, Vintage. I know that now, being in San Antonio and writing, the novel and some more poetry, too, I assume, next
Studs Terkel So--oh, have you found that subject, we know that in the past 20 years or so there's been a more of a recognition of the Latin-American writers and novelists, something called "magic realism." You know.
Sandra Cisneros Yeah.
Sandra Cisneros You know, this is something that I think scholars are becoming aware of, that the Latin-American writers that live in the United States, of course, are influenced by many, many influences, including the Latino boom, you know, from Latin America. So yes, we were influenced by those writers, I've been influenced, but I don't think what I do is called this "magic realism." I think it's "realism realism." Or been realism. But sure, only all my favorite writers are a roomful, and Manuel Puig, Borges, Marquez, and more recently I've discovered the women writers, because those women's [works?] weren't being translated. They still aren't to the degree that they should be. Elena Garro, Elena Poniatowska, all of the Latin-American women writers that I'm slowly unearthing, because their books are not available in English, and so I have to travel to Latin America to find their books.
Studs Terkel In Latin America, women writers. And so, all these play roles. You start way back in Humboldt Park, you know, and in your travels. So hit some of the poetry. Which do you like? I like a whole bunch of them, in the latter part of it, you choose some.
Sandra Cisneros You know, one of the things that was such a novel experience for me as a woman traveling is that regardless what country I went to, it seemed like the borders didn't exist if you were women. We had the same problems, and I met this woman Ilona when I was traveling in Italy, and later on I went to the south of France and to Barcelona, but I was traveling like, you know, the American tourist on a bus. I was just with a backpack and some bread sticks in my pocket, and I'd get on a bus or train, and if a place looked good, I got off, and if it didn't I got back on. The train would go off, and it was kind of hard because, you know, I was an only daughter, and I'd always been--grown up in these tough Chicago neighborhoods, but with the six brothers. So this was an experience for me to travel alone. Coming from the city as a woman, you never go off on your own. And if you do, you do with a lot of trepidation. So I wrote this poem about experiencing something I'd never been able to experience in the United States, and this is called "Letter to Ilona from the South of France". [content
Studs Terkel That "Letter to Ilona". You know, as I'm talking to Sandra Cisneros now, she's reading her poetry. Here's the hour. It's up to some extent. I think maybe let's slip in one last. I'd like that for the last one. "New Year's Eve", page 99.
Studs Terkel Many songs came out of the revolution, and this is by way of thanking Sandra Cisneros as she reads the poem "New Year's Eve", and "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" is a collection of poetry that's available now, and Turtle Bay Books the publishers, and the other books, "Woman Hollering Creek" and "The House on Mango Street" are also available. Vintage. And thank you very much as you read this poem.