My Tribe Interview with Natalia Treviño

When I think of Natalia Treviño’s work, her poem “Tortilla Skins” comes to mind. It was the first poem of hers that I read, and I was spellbound by the poem’s gradually widening scope, its  physicality and texture, and its focus on the lives of women.    

Natalia Cover Natalia was born in Mexico City and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her first poetry collection, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, was published by Mongrel Empire Press in 2014. She recently finished a novel, titled Drinking The Bee Water, about an immigrant mother working as a servant in the U.S while separated from her daughter. She is now working on her second poetry collection, Alas de la Agua, poems for and about the Virgin and her many identities. Natalia’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in various journals and anthologies, including The Platte Valley Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Sugar House Review, and burntdistric. She has also been awarded  the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award, the 2008 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and the 2012 Literary Award from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio.


Since you write poetry and fiction, can you describe your relationship to both of these genres?

I am in love with writing fiction, but sometimes I convince myself that fiction does not love me back! Maybe it is a semi-requited love with fiction,whereas poetry is my mother who loves me unconditionally –always there when I need to center myself, not riddled with unapproachable expectations, there to heal and nourish me, to help me look at this world through a new and daring lens.  I am not saying my poetry is better at all or that it is easy because few mothers are really easy on their children. But poetry allows for more flexibility with form, room for mistakes, amazing rewards from experimentation, allowing me to edit and make profound and important curves in thought, magical possibilities  and changes I can swallow. I want my fiction to do that also but each sitting with fiction takes weeks if not months! My first novel will be coming out next year, and it has been a battle with every major aspect of it except the creation of new scenes when my characters were talking and doing with me out of the way–every change I made went on for pages and had to be cross-checked again and again. Even with all that eye and care, it has mistakes and oversights because it does house so many nooks and crannies! I made point of view shifts multiple times, structural shifts, going from cyclical to linear and back again and then back again, scenes in the past and present, scenes that were only scenes and not “real chapters” — whatever those are! This book wrote itself in many versions with me at the wheel trying to let it grow organically. I had to keep trying and keep trusting that this love of my life would sing along with what I had in my heart!  And as when a fickle lover finally stays the night, I am finally so happy with the result, I think, but emotionally exhausted.

Do you have thematic or stylistic “obsessions” that work their way into your writing, no matter the genre?

I am on a path to learn what those are myself! On the surface, I think they are motherhood and love, the two things that shaped my most important and life-changing decisions, the decisions that so many women face, and, due to nature or nurture, often allow to dominate their subconscious decisions and their conscious lives.  

Sorting out what those obsessions mean to Mexican women has really been my calling too because I am so influenced by them, good or bad. This group of women are often the ones who silence themselves or are silenced by a number of constrictions or antagonists! I know this is a reaction to my culture and to being bi-cultural in the U.S., and annoyed at the binary platitudes people in my culture often accept.

Below the surface, my obsessions are about the incredible teacher that is nature and her daughters, physics and chemistry as they apply to understanding the human nature and human dynamics as apex models of the human condition and the human limits we strive against every day. How do my electrons, for example, react to this stimuli and why? What receptor was there that allowed this tear to fall, or that fear to balance out? What is at the nucleus of this balm of answer, or of this soothing religion? Or of this enormous power over my appetite? Or of these barbaric politics? There is always an unseen world of actions and motives and reactions at work, and nature is a microcosm of humanity. For instance, a seed has the ambition, vision, imagination, and drive to become a tree. It is chemical, and so am I.  I want to stream that reality into my both my poetry and fiction.

What challenges did you encounter while writing your book of poems,  Lavando La Dirty Laundry, and how did those challenges differ from your experience with your novel?

Each poem had many iterations –that is true. And each chaplet or chapter in my novel has too. I  am attracted to the truth in each genre, and to the voices I want to hone and honor, but most of my poems can be revised in thirty minutes, and I may need to do that three hundred times, totaling 150 hours. Is that math right? Or more! But 150 hours spent on a novel is very different. After one or two hours revising poems, I am either hurting the poems or myself. There is such an intensity of language that it is exhausting, but short. What I am saying is that a poem can take a great leap in in one relatively short sitting, like while a pasta sauce is simmering. While it may take many many of those short sittings for it to become its full self, or to “get there,” as my mentor and dear friend Wendy Barker would always say, the novel is another beast.

The novel chapters take much longer periods of concentration, maybe five hours at a time concentrating on one section, and so who has four or five hour stretches of time? As a working mom and wife, I struggle to get the ample space of time to really concentrate on a scene or chapter without creating discordant idiosyncrasies in other chapters. It is sometimes the “hat problem” that Sandra Cisneros taught us in workshop: If you mention the hat in chapter ten, you better make sure you put that hat on your character earlier!  In a poem, a metaphor is earned by its own volition and beauty, in context of course, and enriched by a motif that sets it up, perhaps. There are no strict rules about this. In a novel, every literary leap must be earned in terms of purpose and my biggest weakness, plot. The plot of a poem can be evoked with an image. The plot in a novel needs to be clearly structured in, so that I can give my reader an easy ride through time and space. This is hard for me. Ultimately, a wonderful moment of possibility or insight in the novel, which would be essential to the poem, can become non-essential to the novel and possibly cut, quite easily by an effective editor with a sharp knife because it could be considered a digression from the story to the modern, time-challenged, multi-tasking, and plot-thirsty reader! So organization, time, and structure are very different challenges for a novelist-poet, or for this poet-aspiring-novelist.

I know that there is a strong and vibrant writing community in San Antonio; can you speak to how this community helped you develop as a writer and how they support you now?

I could not be the writer I am without the supportive writers in the San Antonio area. I have to begin with my mentor and dear friend, Wendy Barker, my first poetry professor, and my go-to and trusted poetry mentor today. More importantly, she is a great and close friend. Her enormous capacity for precise language, for delving into inner truths through outer language, for balancing craft and content, for pushing meaning, metrics, and sound with equal fervor has always ruptured my senses, opened my ear, crushed the essence out of my lazy, inflated language, so that my poems reach for clarity, symmetry, and beauty. Wendy is such a love and was such a popular professor back when I was at UTSA that there would be a line of students outside her door. Who did not want the amazing listening she provided and who did not become saved by her deep compassion. She literally restores any pessimist’s hope and faith in humanity because she is so centered and so wise, not to mention funny, badass, and brilliant. I call her my poetry mother. I will always consider her my poetry mother. She and another wonderful poet and professor, Norma Cantu, introduced my work to Sandra Cisneros by nominating me for the Alfredo Cisneros de Moral award.

That award allowed me to meet Sandra, which opened the door to me joining an amazing writing community in San Antonio, Macondo, which she created at her kitchen table over twenty years ago. Macondo is a homeland for writers who meet once a year here, who want to write for non-violent social change, and who have formed a collective made of an astonishing array of sensitive and generous professional writers from all over the country. This included Sandra’s friends like Luis Rodriguez, the poet, Ai, Richard Blanco, Helena Maria Viramontes, Dorothy Allison, Joy Harjo, and many many others. I was able to meet and work with the poets I studied and taught in my classes. What a phenomenal time that was, and while Sandra is no longer the lead, the group is emerging again under the auspices of The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, which has a long history of supporting the literary arts and has made a commitment to keep it going. Macondo also allowed me to meet and work with national treasures like John Phillip Santos, Carmen Tafolla, and Norma Cantu, who each, in their own way, have given me encouragement beyond my wildest dreams.

Apart from getting to know those super famoso writers, I met other prolific and kind writers at Macondo too, who work for social change, who embody integrity, and who live all over the country, and many of us are, as Sandra told me we would be, like a family. They opened up my horizons to see what was possible with a career as an academic and a writer. We tell each other the truth, pay attention to the whole person, not just the writer, and help each other when needed across the years and across miles. It is a love I cannot explain. We keep each other accountable, and we all understand the power of compassion and courage in writing because of our experiences at Macondo. I would not have gone to get my MFA had I not been working on my novel with my Macondo friends for years. With them, I had the chance to test the waters. In my MFA program at the University of Nebraska, I was able to dive in deep.

Now that my first book of poetry is out, I take part in more local literary events here in San Antonio, and I have met more of the local community members who have been active in the literary circles for many years. While I was a stay-at-home mommy and then a working mom, I was home a lot, either grading papers or taking my son to his extra-curricular activities. Now that he is older, I have a lot more flexibility to participate in local literary events and culture. I am in a poetry group that meets monthly, and included in this group are writers who are so accomplished, it is almost paralyzing, but I feel so loved and welcomed by them that I pretend I am not an imposter, take my infant poetry squiggles to them, and come away with great inspiration and ideas for improvement. Our group varies from month to month, but includes regulars such as Jim LaVilla-Havelin, Bryce Milligan, Glover Davis, Mariana Aitches, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Roberto Bonazzi, and their wisdom in letters are so far beyond mine that I feel like a child at the ripe age of 46. That is a good feeling to have at my age, and so is the joy, insight, and awakening that happens to me every time we meet.

Another fantastic literary community in San Antonio that has really impacted me is Gemini Ink, an incredible organization for the letters here in San Antonio. Gemini Ink is a local treasure that has allowed me to work with Yusef Kumunyakaa, Tim O’Brien, Reyna Grande (twice!), and others. Gemini Ink offers a fabulous reading series, classes for all levels of writers, and friendship and community for me. Sheila Black and her predecessor, Rosemary Catcalos, two amazing poets, have led this organization so beautifully, offering me jobs in community centers and schools to do the sacred work of bringing literacy and creative writing to some of the most deserving and underserved people I have ever met. Our town is brimming with comunidad, letters, arts, and culture, and we have the writers who put their sleeves up and are willing to share the power of language with all. They inspire me and keep me wanting to improve.

Similarly, what presses, journals, and organizations have made the biggest difference in your life and career?

Arte Publico press has made the biggest difference in my life and career. They introduced me to my whole voice by publishing Pat Mora’s book, Chants, the first book of poetry I read that allowed my bilingual mind to have a presence in my poems. I was 19 when I read this book and fell in love. I will never and can never go back to being a single-language and single-culture poet. Before I read Mora, I did not even hear half of my brain, nor did I let it come to the page. This made a drastic shift in the authenticity of my voice. Recently, that same press accepted my first novel. When this happened, it was like the heavens opened up. It felt like fate, and it also felt like coming home to receive that acceptance. I am thrilled beyond belief that this press sees me as worthy. I have a spiritual and cultural tie to this press. Other presses that I adore are Bordersenses, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Sliver of Stone, all of whom published me at a very vulnerable time in my life. I put the pen down for almost a decade while my soul was dying. They sort of told me not to quit. Burntdistrict a journal run by two of my best friends from Nebraska, has a great piece of my heart. This journal and their press, Spark Wheel Press, do fine work and keep discovering the next big Tupelo poets. I am so proud of them!

What writers do you think have influenced you the most, either in their writing or in their lives?

Wendy Barker, Pat Mora, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Luis Alberto Urrea, William Carlos Williams, H.D. (big time), and Mark Doty, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Naomi Shihab Nye. I have not met each of these lighthouses in the dark, but I know their work deeply, and I feel like my soul is interlinked with theirs, like we are comadres, friends, confidants. Sometimes I will talk to one of them while I am driving in my car, hoping they would understand. That is what literature does–it keeps you from feeling alone in the abyss. Humans would be lost without literature. I am sure I am not alone when I put William Carlos Williams as part of this answer. Anyone who can write while living the harried life of a doctor should inspire us all. There is time to write if we grab a pen instead of our smartphone, cigarette, or remote control.

You’ve worked in different fields in and out of academia. Did some professions inspire you or influence your writing more than others?

Teaching English is all I have ever really done, and while this is a broad profession, from teaching metonymy and critical theory to teaching that their, they’re and there are three different words, I am most influenced by my students. Their innocence, their personal, lived stories, their fragility keep me humble and keep my feet on the ground. I know what is real and what is important. I am a small part of their miraculous lives. I work for them no matter what I do. I want them to know they are not alone and that they can make their wishes come true, and so I am constantly burning the midnight oil in order to become the writer I have always wanted to be for them to see that a person like them can do it, and so can they.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received or read?

“Sacrifice the words for the work.” Wendy Barker. This is easy to understand and keeps me from attaching myself to the words, no matter how pretty they may seem. The work is more important, and so the words need to serve that.


Imitation Assignment

For their fourth poem assignment, I had my Introductory Poetry Writing students write an imitation. A copy of the assignment prompt is below:

In chapter 1 of The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser argues that “we teach ourselves to write the kind of poems we like to read. The more poems you read, and the more models you learn from and imitate, the better your writing will get” (9). In this poem assignment, you will pick a poem of your choice from Best American Poetry or the supplemental poems on Blackboard and write a poem that is stylistically similar. Your poem must include at least three similar traits, which you will explain in a reflection that will accompany the poem. There is no length requirements for the poem, but the reflection should be about a page long (double-spaced) and explain what you like about the poem you chose and the “writing tools” you utilized in imitating it.

To prepare my students for this assignment, we dedicated one day of class to practicing close reading. We wrote a list on the board of all the literary devices we had studied over the past five weeks, then looked for examples in the poem “Difference” by Mark Doty. I asked students to be specific about how the use of that literary tool contributed to the meaning and the reading experience.

After the discussion, I distributed the assignment sheet you read above. I also showed them a poem of mine that was inspired by a poem by Noelle Kocot. I explained what aspects of Kocot’s poems I imitated and pointed out these literary devices in my poem.

Lastly, I asked them to complete a close reading of the poem they chose to imitate as a take-home assignment. This assignment was simple: print a copy of the poem and turn it in to me with a substantial amount of specific notes in the margins.

I know that imitation assignments are far from new in Creative Writing pedagogy, but the student’s poems were so fantastic, I decided this was worth sharing. I almost enjoyed reading the reflections as much as the actual poems. I was so impressed by how quickly and eloquently they incorporated these words into their vocabularies. I felt like this assignment helped students realize how important reading with an eye for craft is, and how we can find inspiration from the poems we read.

I’ll end on a quote from a student reflection that made me especially happy:

The first time we read “For Jane,” by Stephen Stepanchev, I was very confused. However, the more I read over it, and the more we learned in class about literary tools in poetry, the more the poem began to speak to me.




Teaching Stanza Breaks

Building off of the previous lesson I posted, here is a summary of my lesson on stanza breaks for my Introductory Poetry Writing course:

1. Last class we talked about line breaks. Let’s review what we know about them (paraphrase on board).

  • There are two kinds: end stop & enjambment.
  • Line breaks indicate a pause, similar to punctuation.
  • Enjambment emphasizes the word at the end of the line or the phrase it is cutting in two.
  • End stop draws less attention to itself (allows other aspects to be prominent).

Today we are going to continue on a similar vein and talk about stanza breaks and punctuation, and how all of these tools contribute to a poem’s rhythm.

2. First of all, what are the functions of stanza breaks? They function much like paragraphs do in prose writing: they represent a jump of some kind, often in time, setting, or content. They signal to the reader that one thought or image has been completed.

3. All of the things we said about line breaks also apply to stanza breaks:

  • Stanza breaks utilize either end stop or enjambment.
  • A Stanza break also represents a pause, though a longer one than a line break.
  • Using enjambment at the end of a stanza emphasizes the final word of the stanza.
  • End stop breaks still draws less attention to themselves than enjambment.

4. Let’s look at some poems and talk about how the breaks influence our reading experience.

  • For Jane” by Stephen Stepanchev (ask for a volunteer to read aloud). What type of stanza breaks does this poem utilize? What did the breaks signal, or how did the breaks affect your reading experience? (Example of end stop line breaks).
  • Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa (ask for another volunteer). This poem doesn’t have stanza breaks. How did this affected your reading experience?

5. In-class exercise: Now we’re going to take the poem “Grief” by Matthew Dickman (a poem we had previously read and which consists of a single stanza), and we’re going to add some breaks where we think it could be appropriate or effective. (Copy and paste the poem into a word document, read it aloud, and add stanza breaks where students suggest them. With each suggested break, ask how that alters our reading experience.)

6. So, in our discussion, we’ve mentioned often how line and stanza breaks affect the speed we read a poem by showing us when to pause. In poetry, we call this rhythm. Rhythm has the same meaning for poetry that is has for music; it is the pattern of speed the poem establishes.

7. Along with line and stanza breaks, another tool that contributes to rhythm is punctuation.

  • “Proverb” by Kenneth Koch. Koch uses punctuation consistently in some parts of the poem and omits it in others. Let’s point to the punctuation in specific sections and talk about how they affect the rhythm.

8. However much punctuation you decide to use, I suggest being consistent. Set rules or patterns that you will follow through out the poem, so that your reader isn’t thrown off. For example, decide you are only going to punctuate at the end of sentences and stick to that rule.

Teaching Line Breaks

This fall, I am teaching Introduction to Poetry Writing at Oregon State University. I excitedly planned my lessons, assignments, and exercises during the summer, many of which I feel proud of and want to share. Here’s the first one.

Summary of my lesson on Line Breaks:

First I introduced the terminology of the different types of breaks:

  • End stop: when the end of a line coincides with the end of a sentence or clause.
  •  Enjambment: when a line ends mid-clause, and the clause continues onto the next line.

Line breaks function somewhat like punctuation in that they indicate a pause for the reader. Therefore, using enjambment brings emphasis to the end of the line. However, if you use enjambment haphazardly, it can become confusing and put off readers. Ted Kooser gives a great example of this in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual (which is one of the required texts in the course):

Mother and I went down to the shoe

store and she took along her white

purse so she could get a pair of

shoes to match (117).

Kooser explains that line breaks are a huge part of what gives a poem rhythm, and “the closer your writing gets to the pacing of conversational speech, the less it’s likely to call attention to itself” (118). Just like any other decision in a poem, it depends on the poet’s intention.

I added my own thoughts:

It is absolutely fine to not want your line breaks to call attention to themselves, to let other aspects of your poem take the spot light. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with using line breaks to create an interesting, more interactive reading experience. Whatever choice you make, take a step back and look at the poem like a potential reader, approaching the poem for the first time. Do the line breaks seem purposeful?

After looking at a few more example from The Poetry Home Repair Manual, we turned our attention to the poems they were assigned to read from Best of the Best American Poetry, the anthology I chose for the class.

The assigned reading for this lesson was “Dharma” by Billy Collins and “A House is Not a Home” by Terrance Hayes. After ask for volunteers to read each poem aloud, I asked them to look for specific breaks that they found especially effective, and I asked them to articulate how the break affected their reading experience. (I believe this was an effective angle to approach discussion, because participation was excellent.)

After all observations were noted, I added that I often don’t know what line breaks I will use until I try breaking the line at various points to see how the effect varies, then I passed out the in-class assignment, which students worked on until the end of the period (about 15 minutes).

In-class Activity

Finish this block of text by filling in the blanks:

In the dream, I woke up to find myself stuck on a boat with ___________________. It was a tiny boat, barely larger than ________________. Out of nowhere ____________________________, I ______________________________________. That’s when it started raining. Then I saw lightning. Then I saw ________________________. Then I saw a lighthouse. But the lighthouse looked more like a ____________________.  That’s when I realized I was dreaming.

Now take the text and break it into lines. You will do this twice. The first version should utilize primarily end stop line endings. The second version should utilize primarily enjambment.