Poetry Against the Border Wall
Aracelis Girmay and Emmy Pérez in Conversation
This conversation was started in the summer of 2016 and completed in December of that same year, spanning the end of the campaign season, the elections, and their immediate aftermath. In it, award-winning poets Aracelis Girmay (author of Teeth, Kingdom Animalia, and The Black Maria) and Emmy Pérez (author of Solstice and With the River on Our Face) discuss the shifting nature of identity and of language, the physicality of poetry, and the symbolic and literal implications of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, the reality of which is now, seven months later, becoming increasingly inevitable. The Department of Homeland Security recently selected the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, “the crown jewel of the Rio Grande Valley wildlife refuge system,” as the first site for a border wall segment, and the nearby National Butterfly Center is also another possible site for the wall.
What follows is an excerpt from last year’s longer interview.
Aracelis Girmay: Your book is titled With the River on Our Face and it is organized in sections: Downriver, Midriver, Río Grande~Bravo, Cara, Boca. In “[Every person]” you write: “Every person, every ant path, every mesquite shell peck is a river,” and I think of a recent conversation with Patrick Rosal in which he asked, “What is the sea?” I’d like to ask you, what is a river? And what is your history, in rivers?
Emmy Pérez: This makes me think back to the poem’s first drafts, when it was longer. It was a burst of emotion, praying for rain to end the drought that year in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, lamenting the inevitability of the border wall (the so-called “fence”) being built bit by bit in the community, and our inability to stop it from rising. It was about literal walls and metaphoric walls, but I refused to end the poem in anything but hope for what is still here instead of focusing on despair. (This presidential election proves that one’s, or a community’s, despair is another’s twisted dream and platform, though when I drafted the poem in 2009, it felt like the worst had already arrived). When I was revising the book, which had other poems about the border wall and loss, I decided to only keep the end of this poem and tweaked it some.
After I wrote many poems for this book, I came upon Espada’s brilliant essay “I’ve Known Rivers . . . ” It gifts me with essay-clarity each time I read it: “Speaking of the unknown places means speaking of the people who live and die in those places.”
A river is a pulse, a pulse that gives life. An ever-changing community of pulses whose existence is determined by gravity, pulls, and continental divides. Living things are drawn to it for its water and food, for travel, for sacred ceremonies. A river is also something deliberately controlled and tamed by animals and people.
A river is a river of people migrating, bringing their will to live in safety, in peace, and with dignity, to survive, even though they know their dignity may be compromised on the trek or in the inevitable fields or sweat shops or other low-paying jobs as undocumented refugees. For many a literal river, there is a tributary, a mouth, a sea, an ocean—for a river of refugees there are the pulls of safety, safer, safest.
Mitochondrial DNA is a river that carries the ancestral mother lines in the living wherever we go.
AG: In your language here and in the book, I notice a constant shifting and reworking of subject or form. As if in order to talk about river, one must fill one’s mouth or blood or perspective with a vision of our unfixedness. In the early pages of With the River on Our Face, you include a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa: “The soil prepared again and again, impregnated, worked on. A constant changing of forms, renacimientos de la tierra madre.” Reading your book there are many moments when the “soil” of Anzaldúa’s quote might be replaced with “language.” Can you talk about how (or if) text, soil, river are related to one another in your work? And: what are poems in this ecology?
EP: Language as soil. I love that. In Borderlands/La Frontera, the quote you mention, as metaphor, is rooted in the literal sense of the land. (It’s important for me to distinguish that Anzaldúa knew the land with her hands and labor, unlike me.) Anzaldúa, as the “Curandera of Conquest” (as scholar George Hartley calls her), prepares the language-soil to enact her medicine, especially in later work like “now let us shift . . . ”
In another line from the same paragraph of Anzaldúa’s quote, she writes, “Below our feet, under the earth lie the watermelon seeds . . . They survive and grow, give fruit hundreds of times the size of the seed.” The seeds immediately grow hundreds of sizes in my mind, especially in the context of her Borderlands. They grow because of her brilliant leap in the writing.
My language-soil is often “prepared again and again” in my writing and revision. What grows in it is up to the reader. It might not have a genetic code like a fruit. Sometimes soil symbolizes country or homeland(s), which is also appropriate here. As a writer, my own unfixedness in geographic place (though I’ve lived in the Tejas borderlands—from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley—for 16 years) is also part of my fluidity.
Aesthetically, my Solstice poems tend to be image-based, short lyric poems and prose poems. I loved writing those poems. They helped me learn how to write poetry. Many of the poems in With the River on Our Face tend to be faster and longer, I think, in terms of form, with looser lines. The river doesn’t simply empty into the Gulf of Mexico—it merges into the gulf water. It doesn’t have an exact form. On the journey, it wants to make oxbow lakes, resacas, too when needed (this is the “unfixedness” too), though it’s more controlled now and not always allowed to do what it wants. These poems wanted to do what they want, the language-soil not always in a marked garden or plot. The river has many tributaries feeding it along the way, and sometimes I wonder—is it even the same river? It’s brownish and shallow in El Paso, and greener downriver after it’s been fed again by the Río Conchos and other sources. Sometimes I ask myself, am I the same writer from Santa Ana, California writing these poems? Where I am from nowadays? Sometimes a more f-bomb vocabulary than I hear in the McAllen streets appears in my work. Of course these things can’t be quantified or are only related to neighborhoods, but there’s something to it, for me at least.
Linda Gregg calls the writing seeds “resonant sources.” Sometimes these resonant sources disperse like seeds in El Paso dust storms in spring. Like grit in eyes. A seed can be the lyrics to a pop song on the radio I might have made fun of if not in love. Bottlebrush needles lining the concrete in the Valley. An owl I heard hooting in my back yard when heartbroken. These seeds don’t have to pass on their genetic codes or anything, so the “subject” matter can be anything, though many of these poems do flow through specific places. My mother was born in Ysleta/El Paso, two miles from the river. The river water kept them alive. That is my most profound resonant source.
The language-soil is repetition, informed by chant, the blues, remixing, and in the title poem there is some influence of rap, until some revelations, for the narrator, arise.
One generous reader of this book called the work more associative than my previous work. I agree. I felt an urgency. Creative and spiritual engagement with place and love. At times disrupted by injustice in these spaces. The Ysleta/El Paso parts of my books definitely help me build an ancestral homeland, one of them, through the words.
As I’ve written about before, Anzaldúa and my mother were both born around the same time—Anzaldúa where I now live in the Valley and my mother where I lived just previous. Experiencing and witnessing the borderlands now, within the context of what I’ve learned from these Tejanas, and trying to create poetry language out of it all, is also part of the ecology. People too are the constant changing of forms. I am changed by living here and taking some chances in this work. I remain unfixed at the thought of its existence as a book.
AG: This makes me think or wonder about the potential of association to be a kind of anti-wall. I know this depends on the practitioner and the kind of associative work happening. I have a feeling that I shouldn’t just describe it as an “anti-wall” (in terms of what it fights, what it’s not) but that I should think about what it reaches toward, or is. Maybe: a world insisting on being a world.
EP: Hearing this is a great honor because, as I’ve always known, some people might be put off by the work because it’s about the border—even Latinx poets who tire of thinking this is all we are “expected” to write about. This is my “facultad” speaking, and exactly part of why I wrote this book and had to part with other poems that didn’t fit in. I live here. This is a real place that too many people—politicians, journalists outside of the region, and everyday folks—have numerous opinions about, though they never or barely spent time here. So when you suggest the use of associative writing as a form of anti-wall or “a world insisting on being a world,” I can’t help but think of Alice Walker’s moving essay “Beauty, When the Dancer is the Self,” when the narrator’s toddler daughter asks her, much to her surprise, “Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?” What I mean to suggest is that the book is not only about its various subject matters and their geographic regions, though they are a big part of it—and this borderlands region too is a world, and more than worthy of being one, without border walls—but that the associative thinking in the poems is what it is, a world insisting on being a world in someone’s head and mouth and pen and now book.
AG: I am hearing you when you write “it is important for me to distinguish that [Gloria Anzaldúa] knew the land with her hands and labor, unlike me.” I wonder if you can say more about the reality of your physical body as you write. Are edges lost? Are you in motion? Is there something physical but languageless that participates in or informs the writing of the poem for you (sweat, heat, your children, a racing heart)?
EP: I think the various textures, rhythms, and sounds of the poems in the book reflect the sense of a physical, spiritual self in the world at the time I wrote them (before children). The opening poem in the collection I spoke a first draft of into a recorder while riding my bike through the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. There are also some poems toward the end of the book that represent more susto-like states, reflected maybe in more narrative or sensory distance at times, though the physical world beyond the body remains important. I wanted these poems in the book because some are about loss, and living at times, or so it seems, outside of the body as a coping mechanism.
In early 2009, I went to the Hidalgo Pumphouse, a World Birding Center near the border and across from Reynosa, Mexico, and accidentally came upon the wall-building. I was expecting beauty as before and saw disaster. It was a devastating feeling. Some naïve part of me thought a miracle would still happen. I went all up and down the Valley looking at walls and wall-building in different communities, landscapes I had come to know and love just a few years before without one wall. This is what I needed to do, just as I needed to face other pains.
These days, walking with my children on a Saturday morning in a place like the National Butterfly Center is another thing that contrasts with Anzaldúa’s family working together as farmworkers to survive. Sometimes my oldest sprints through short trails in the monte, and at other times one or the other complains their legs get tired from walking and want to be carried and I can’t help but think about the children trekking, in thin shoes, across Mexico from Central America to the United States.
I am deeply aware of how, in the last hundred or so years, the monte (brushlands) here in the Valley has been nearly all destroyed (at least 90% has been cleared) by the hands of hired laborers. Hard work to uproot mesquites. And here I am, fleeing to the remaining natural spaces I love that help heal me, or help me heal myself, while I am considering that “violence happened here,” thinking about state sanctioned violence throughout history. In another poem, I quote one of my former students as saying “They are making our people build it [the wall], to keep our people out.” Soon after I saw the wall building in Hidalgo, I asked my graduate poetry class, though only a few had time from work, to come with me to witness the building. Some of the workers looked, to us, like they were sorry to be there. Seeing its construction helped me understand, though I don’t understand, what was happening. Hence this book.
AG: In the fifth section of your book, “Boca,” you engage the notion of survival by explicitly recording, documenting, carrying, and thinking about who and what survives. (The etymology of “survive” or “sobrevivir” reminds us that the word means to live beyond or out beyond, which adds to my sense of survival as “outliving” in a temporal way this physical notion of “beyond” as a kind of living that can happen beyond said space or place, not just time.)
The poems teem with life: heat, the sound of laughter, music, “water, la sangre de vida.” But also, everywhere, there is violent law and surveillance. Border patrol, constables, la migra, the wall. I want to ask something about your imaginative practice here. What happens to the “decolonial project” and/or your resistance to the larger U.S. American project as the wall goes up? And what is the creative or imaginative practice in this context? With that wall looming, (how) does one write or exist or practice beyond its actuality or the “theory” that builds it?
EP: Decolonial healing both wanes and heightens. For me, it wanes because it’s heartbreaking watching walls being built before our eyes and knowing what they mean, the power structure like a slap in the face. And all the progress you thought occurred feels cemented over, barred, caged. It’s triggering. In retrospect, when I saw walls go up about eight years ago at a difficult time in my life, Anzaldúa’s seven stages of conocimiento were right with me. There were the various difficult stages, though not necessarily in the same order or for always.
The need for decolonial healing also heightens and appears in this work as I stopped giving so much of a fuck about the so-called aesthetic “beauty” of the poetic line. As a younger writer, I think I imposed certain expectations on my writing by internalizing the power structure of the poetry powers that be, even though I’ve always had my rebellions in my work. I used to love crafting a poetic line that is like a “station of the cross,” as Charles Wright wrote in one of his essays. A line that takes it time. A line that stands alone as a piece of the larger story. I didn’t neglect the potential impact of single lines altogether in the writing of this book, but I also didn’t worry about it as part of actually writing the poems. These poems were drafted, line by line, faster than I was used to. And writing more overtly about state sanctioned violence was a choice I made knowing the poems would not make it into most literary magazines.
Just before I wrote most of the poems in the book, when I still lived in El Paso, I was involved in efforts to resist so-called local urban renewal projects that abuse eminent domain and remove people and destroy homes, neighborhoods, buildings and replace them with more “beautiful” or “desirable” dwellings and business establishments (this happened just before the Secure Fence Act of 2006 would begin the process of condemning land along the Texas border for walls). There was a company hired to help with the El Paso downtown “revitalization” project that presented a PowerPoint slide with a picture of an elderly Latino man with the suggestion, more or less, is this what you want people to think of when they come downtown, as if Latinxs and POC have not had enough of these shamings that some internalize throughout their lives. A company from outside the community comes in and suggests that our grandparents aren’t good enough to exist downtown anymore, and that we are ashamed of them, the way they dress, their age, their poverty, and that we need to replace them with hip young people who would not dare wear vaquero/a/x hats. I’ve felt a fire to write against that kind of narrative in a lot of my work for the past decade or so.
In its very early stages, With the River on Our Face had a working title of On Blight and Beauty, from lessons learned in El Paso. They say that one reason the use (abuse) of eminent domain is justified is when a building is considered “blighted.” Which governing forces get to decide what is beautiful in this life about anything? And about the wall, if lawmakers and constituents north of the border don’t care about our US-Mexico borderlands as a place where people actually live (who would say a border wall is beautiful, except maybe one person I’d rather not name and his die hard followers)—if our whole border is a “blight” anyway in exaggerations that exploit and stir up unfounded fear, then who cares if it is further blighted with walls misnamed fences in steel and concrete running through people’s backyards and in front of our faces in places of refuge and cultural significance?
We all know how a certain individual has built a political career appealing to people’s fears, people relieved that someone has given them “permission” to shout-chant things like Build the wall! A college student who’d read my book for a class asked if I wrote the book during this election season and was surprised when I said no and talked about the history of wall building, before the ugly shout-chants. The next day, two weeks before the election, a white man yelled “Go back to Mexico!” at me near my mother’s home in Santa Ana, which is, as you know, a Latinx majority city. He was going to need to yell at a lot of people. At first I laughed, but later the larger implications of the forthcoming election sunk in. On one hand, it’s helpful for us to hear what already exists hidden or expressed through micro-aggressions. Now folks have this newfound “permission.” Younger generations who believe(d) we are a post-racial country have to understand or are coming to understand that this is not the case, nor has it ever been. These newfound or newly renewed or continued permissions are verbal violence, which supports institutional violence.
The decolonial project, decolonial healing, is a personal journey. It is not always a shared experience, though it’s possible when you belong to groups or communities similarly concerned about social justice. I lament, in the book, how little there is we can do sometimes as individuals to influence the system. That doesn’t mean, however, that I am willing to look the other way in my writing. At this stage in my life, when or if my poetry becomes complacent, it might be that I am feeling silenced or numb. Or maybe distanced from my communities. The progress in my decolonial healing would then become complacent, to believe that these struggles don’t affect me. Maybe some day I will be free and zen-like more often, like I feel at times in nature, through exercise, and while writing, and not be as consumed by what compels me to defend. Maybe that is closer to true wisdom. For now, writing from resistance helps me achieve more balance “until another [cactus] needle pierces the skin,” to quote Anzaldúa. It would be wrong for me to forget that I also write from the opposite of pain as well, from joy, from love, from gratitude. Maybe some day, institutional wrongs won’t hurt. That is hard for me to imagine right now, which for some might seem at odds with the desire for decolonial healing. For now, write towards peace.
What if I were to add to the brilliant “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” the words “crossing the Rio Grande”? It’s hard for me to not think this would still be a so-called “universal” poem. I am defending the existence of so many people, including family. We hear the flies buzz too when we die. Though it might not be in an Amherst home or crossing the river. Over the years, I’ve heard young writers of color say they purposely try to leave geographic detail out of their work to try and “reach more people.” If this is what is required to connect with other people, our world is in a sad state—though really it is our country (that produces and proliferates this desconocimiento). These young writers are actually savvy about racism, classism, and other isms and want to be treated as equals by, unfortunately, omitting parts of their everyday lives.
My writing practices continue even when I’m not writing. Clever Columbus Day ads abound, describing the loot one can get half-price, or one of my children returns from a well-meaning preschool here in the borderlands with artwork of the infamous three: la Niña, Pinta, y Santa Maria. One-and-a-half-year-olds learning the ships were important enough to make positive-themed art while not hearing a word of the genocide and slavery. Of course, the children are too young for those truths, but why start making heroes in their minds that will need dismantling later if at all? We have opportunities to do better by our children in every community in this country, though it’s going to take a long, long time, unfortunately, for mass amounts of institutional change.
Creative or imaginative practice gets redirected with the loudest definitions of blight and country that negatively affect policy. I see many of my writing practices as ways to explore such desconocimientos and try to find the language that helps me find spirit again.