interview issue 31 Miami Book Fair International

Sandra Cisneros on Woman Without Shame

by Ellie Gomero and Cathy Almeciga

Sandra Cisneros is an award-winning Mexican American poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, performer, and artist. Best known for her debut novel House on Mango Street, her work has garnered numerous awards, including NEA fellowships in both poetry and fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, and national and international book awards. More recently, she was awarded the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for her newest poetry collection entitled Mujer Sin Vergüenza, or Woman Without Shame. This collection is debuting as her first poetry collection to be released in 28 years. Ellie Gomero and Cathy Almeciga’s interview with Ms. Cisneros at the 2022 Miami Book Fair is below

Sandra Cisneros in Milano, Italy, in 2005. (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)

CA: So, you’ve technically been away from poetry for twenty-eight years now –

SC: I haven’t been away from poetry. You’ve been away from my poetry. I’ve been writing poetry for twenty-eight years, but I haven’t been showing it to you. So, it’s not that I’ve abandoned poetry; it’s that I don’t share my poetry, and now I am after twenty-eight years.

CA: What made you want to reshare your poetry with the world?

SC: Well, you know, if I think about sharing it can’t write it. If I think someone’s going to see it, then I sensor myself. So, to give myself the liberty to not publish it allows me to write from a more honest and brave place. I also am never satisfied with it, so I let it sleep, and it was only lately that I have the double fortune of having a very good agent and an excellent editor and that combination of these two men Stuart Bernstein my agent, and John Freeman my poetry editor. We looked at my unfinished, finished, and in-progress manuscript of poetry, and they encouraged me to let it go. I could still be writing this for twenty-eight more years if they hadn’t said OK.
And you know, I had that faith to show my unfinished work to someone. I don’t really like to show unfinished work to people unless they’re really close friends. It’s kind of like letting people see you naked. You have to trust.
At first, I shared it with my poetry coach Johnno Espinoza, who’s a fellow poet, and he’s been helping me like a coach, you know, get the poems finished and make them firmer and stronger. Then I shared them with Stewart, my agent, and Stewart said we had a manuscript and shared them with John, and John said let’s look at other ones that are unfinished and in progress and see if you have any there. A lot of the ones he picked were from my slush pile, and I was surprised because I would still be working on them for years and years. And some that I thought were done, he said no, and that’s fine, you know. I don’t feel that everything I write should be published. Especially if I’ve written that poem before my last collection, you know I don’t want to repeat myself.

EG: You talk a lot about fearlessness, and in one of your previous interviews, you talked about how you just wanted to write what you think and not be ashamed. How do you think a young poet can get to that space of fearlessness and not be ashamed of their writing?

SC: Well, I think for young poets, the way they define themselves as poets is if they perform or publish, and I think that gets in the way of the writing personally. I think a lot of times, you know, we’re thinking, “wait till I read this poem at the next slam” or “wait till this poet hears me,” and that gets in the way. Your ego gets in the way. I think real poetry needs to come from a place of ego-lessness, you know? From humility and truth, and if you’re performing, that’s the opposite. If you’re publishing, that’s the opposite. I think that publishing is important, but it doesn’t validate you as a poet.
One only needs to look at Emily Dickinson to see that she was a poet regardless of how little she published. I think the important thing is that we write poetry that’s strong, and that’s the most challenging we can write. And we edit and are disciplined about editing by sharing our poems, maybe with a small circle or with a professional poetry coach like I have. My friend, whom I trust. I think it’s important that we take the time to apprentice and learn our craft and if we spent more time doing that and less on social media, and less on slamming, and less on “look at me” and thumping our chest, our poetry would be a lot better.
I think it’s important to focus on serving your apprenticeship, honoring your craft as word weavers, and you know, eventually, when your master craftsperson says you’re ready, then to let it go. To do so, you know, methodically, it doesn’t have to be like, “I want to publish a book this day,” you know? I would work towards getting a grant rather than publishing a book. Look and see what an NEA grant requires. You know that’s what I aimed for. An NEA grant will give you time to write, and that’s what you want, time. So, you have to look and see what the requirements are for getting a big grant in your state, your town, or your nation. They may say you need a manuscript, or three poems, or whatever it is: work towards that. Work towards that. Don’t worry about everything else. Work towards that because if you keep your eyes on prize money, that will allow you more time to write. And to write your best work. So, look and see what all the foundations or fellowships are requiring you to do. If they say three publications, ok, work for those three but make it your very best. I think that that’s a good way to focus, like maybe to have a one-year plan that fits into a five-year plan, that fits into a 10-year plan, and then a kind of elusive, vague, 20-year plan. That’s kind of how I did it.
I worked especially, you know, on saying, ok, I need to get that NEA grant. I need this by the time I’m thirty. I need this by the time I’m thirty-five. You know, I had a plan, kind of like a business. I don’t know where I got that from because I don’t know anything about business. I just knew my whole life that everybody was going to be distracting me from my writing career. I made my living doing other things, and my family didn’t read my work, but my chosen family, my writer friends, are what kept me on track and kept reminding me who I am, you know? I just always had a circle of friends. We would go to cafes, nursing a cup of coffee, and you give me your poems, I’ll give you mine and work. We were working. I didn’t believe in workshops where people just got together and drank. That, to me, was a waste of time. If I’m going to get together with you, let’s do some work. I’m going to improve your writing; you’re going to improve mine. I was very disciplined from a very young age. I don’t know where I got that from.
I think I got it from my father, who worked, like you know, really hard as an upholsterer. He said don’t put your name on anything unless it’s quality craft. My father made furniture, and if he saw that the seams were crooked, he’d take it apart and do it over. He had real pride in his craft, and I feel like that about writing. That if we put our work out there when it’s too early, we’re advertising that we’re bad writers. You’re also advertising when you publish work in chapbooks or whatever you publish that you’re not a good writer. So why do you want to advertise that you’re an inexperienced bad writer, why don’t you wait a little bit? Do better work, and then when you put work out there, it’s always going to stand for quality. You want—and this is what I aimed for— you want the admiration of the writers you admire. That’s what my goal was in my life. I want the blurbs on the back of the book of the writers I think the highest of, and I’ve gotten that.

CA: So, you said once that your experimentation with genre and form is attributed in part to your cultural hybridity.

SC: Well, I didn’t say it like that because I never use words like cultural hybridity. Somebody said that about me. I don’t understand those words myself, but ok, maybe.

CA: So, I’ve noticed a lot of times that writers who come from immigrant backgrounds, including myself, tend to adopt a kind of cross-genre stance as they find their voice. Even though most MFA programs traditionally make you choose just one genre to focus on. Do you think the flexibility of being a cross-genre writer helps you both understand yourself more and fully express those sometimes-opposing identities that immigrants tend to have?

SC: Well, I would never say that way because I don’t think like that, and that sounds more academic. I just write. I have always been experimental and loved experimental writing. I still do, and the writers that I love do, and the community I hang with. Macondo, my writer’s workshop, we cross borders all the time. So, we don’t think about it. We just are. You know, we’re not thinking about it or trying. I’m just always trying to write something that’s beautiful. You know, I’ll read a writer and say, ok, this is who I want to write like. Or I’ll listen to a piece of music and say I want to do what Maria Carla says with her voice. How do I write a poem that’s as strong, passionate, ugly beautiful, as Maria Callus’s voice? How do I write something that has the energy and passion of Astor Piazzolla?
It’s not just writers. You know, we’re looking across genres. I want to do something that this painting is doing in my writing. I look at the other arts too. I’m also a visual artist, so I’m always looking at visual filmmakers.
I think about like what makes me different than other writers. Even writers within my own gender, ethnicity, and class. I’m always looking for what makes me distinctive. What do I know that no one else knows? I try to come from there, to find my path. So, I don’t purposely think, “ok, now I want to cross the border,” as much as I think of what I can add to my writing that I haven’t done before. It’s more like that, you know.
To find what my fingerprint is, I have to look very deeply within myself and find what makes me different from, say, anyone in my family. So that’s how I do it. On the other hand, people reading me would look at my writing and use the language you’re saying. Do you see?
I think whenever we draw upon what makes us distinctive as human beings, we’re coming upon our voice. That’s our voice. What makes me different from any other writer in my culture, in my gender, in my community, in my town, and in my genre? You know, the more you can split hairs and think about what you know that no one else knows and write from that place, the more you will find your voice.

EG: That is so gorgeous, especially for college students who are, you know, continually trying to find themselves.

SC: Yeah, well, you know they say, “write what you know,” but how do you know what you know when you’re twenty years old, right? You don’t even know yourself. I’m still figuring myself out, and I’m sixty-seven. It’s an endless journey, it is. The thing is, I know myself a lot better now, but I have a long way to go before I say, “ok, I’m an expert on me,” because we’re always in process.

EG: Yes, of course! So, in your new book, which makes me emotional as it’s so inspiring, and I was so awestruck by it, and in a lot of your work in general, you move between languages, Spanish and English, and in this book, you decided to put them side-by-side.

SC: Thank you. Well, I wrote in Spanish in this book. That’s the first time that I’m writing fully in Spanish– well, that’s not true. I had a poem that I, in one of my earlier books, I think it was Wicked Ways, I have one poem in Spanish, but that’s because I was in Mexico. I’m living in Mexico now, so when I wrote that poem, I was traveling and thinking in Spanish. Now I’m living in Mexico, so it came out in Spanish, and I translated it into English.

EG: Do you find it easier to write in English or in Spanish when it comes to poetry?

SC: Actually, poetry is easy to write in Spanish because everything rhymes. It has a lot of the same sounds at the end, and it was surprising to me how much easier it was. The problem is I don’t have the vocabulary in Spanish that I have in English. So, if you notice, my poems in Spanish use simple language because that’s all I can speak.

CA: You have a poem that talks about that!

SC: Yeah, about how I mix up the words. I say all kinds of strange things that make people laugh. You know I’m asking for pepper, and they bring me a cucumber or something.

CA: In reference to your poetry, I noticed in this new collection, you talk a lot about nature. Often with such detail and care. You’ve moved around a few times in your life, and I’ve seen in interviews that you’ve mentioned how those places have never felt like home. How do you think your relationship to that concept of home has changed now that you’ve gotten older, and do you think now being kind of semi-settled in your ancestral land has added to that feeling and idea?

SC: Ok, well, that’s a good question to talk about because even though I live in the land of my ancestors, it feels familiar, and it feels foreign at the same time. I mean, the familiarity is that longing I always had for that landscape. I think we feel at home in certain landscapes—each of us. Like my friend loves being by the ocean, but the ocean scares me. I like being near mountains, streams, and trees. I don’t like living next to the ocean. I would never be able to get to sleep. So, I think people feel a different state of being when they’re next to certain elements of nature. I like the solidity of mountains. I can’t live somewhere where there are earthquakes, though. So, I live in a part of Mexico that doesn’t have earthquakes. I feel like, for me, the valley of Guanajuato, where I live, is very calming and familiar and always has been someplace that I longed for even though I didn’t know that landscape before. It must have been in some collective memory.
At the same time living in Mexico is rather foreign for me as a single woman who’s independent because I’m an anomaly, being a single woman. The only single women are the nuns or the old maids. And I’m not an old maid, certainly not, and I’m not exactly a nun either. I like living alone, and you know, so it’s a little strange. When you tell people that you don’t have children in Mexico, they go, “aye porbecitta,” you know? They feel so sorry for you. Whereas I look at them and feel sorry for them. I think that sense of being at home in the landscape but not feeling at home, feeling the familiarity of the culture but not quite fitting in, makes me understand that the home I’m searching for isn’t a place. It’s me. I’m living in San Miguel, but my home is in myself, in my being, in my psyche, in my heart.
I wrote a line when I was very young in a book called The House on Mango Street where the witch woman tells the main character she’s going to have a home in the heart. I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about when I wrote that, you know? I really was working from my highest self, my intuition, and it came to be. I found a home in the heart, and I thought, “Oh my God, just like Esperanza!”
A lot of times, when we write, we become visionaries. We are the visionaries, and we write from a high place. Our highest self. We are the clairvoyance. We are the initiatives. I think that’s what I’m learning now that I’m older. That I’ve had all these gifts of intuition. In another society, I would have been the bruja, and I am that but in a different way. I’m a healer. I heal with my stories and with my words. I feel that I’ve found, at sixty-seven, after living in Mexico for ten years, my place. Mexico is helping me to find it because it accepts people with strong intuitions and accepts gifts of seeing. Of seeing the living and the dead. It is helping me to apprentice those gifts to a finer place. So, I’m where I should be, and maybe it won’t be there forever, but I’m serving my apprenticeship. I hope to become the writer I want to be in the next ten years.

EG: As a Mexican female writer, you’ve inspired not just me but so many other writers of color and specifically Chicana writers. If you could tell this specific group of people one piece of advice, or maybe perhaps if you could speak to your younger self who was in an MFA program, what would you say?

SC: Yes! I know exactly what I’m going to say! I would say if you’re in an MFA program, stay there because you need the credentials. You don’t need it for you so much as you need the credentials to get a job. It’s like you need a green card. You don’t need the green card, but you do need the green card, you know? What I’m saying is you don’t need it to become a real human being, but you need it to get a real job and get people who don’t believe that you’re a real writer. So that’s why you need the degree. It’s just paperwork, but it’s more for others, not for yourself. So, if you can, get it. You’re also going to need to find your writing community on your own. You’re going to have to find that group. I invite you to apply for Macondo, which to me, is for writer activists and for writers who don’t quite fit into an MFA program. Perhaps because of your sexuality, or your age, or your politics, or whatever. I created Macondo as an alternative space, and it’s a beautiful community of writers. I love visiting and reuniting with them. Next year Macondo is going to be in person again, yay!
The applications, I think, are only for the month of January, so you have to look up Macondo Writers to see the application. You know, I think we get 100 applications and accept maybe eight or nine or ten, so if you don’t get in, apply again! We’re looking for writers who have something to contribute, and our philosophy is one of generosity. So what do you bring to the table? Are you serving your community? If you aren’t, you know, work towards applying. Work towards the goal of the application where you can get in because it’s a great family. A chosen family of people of like-minded writer activists, and I enjoy it.
So, my advice would be to find your chosen family because your blood family probably doesn’t understand who you are. Your blood family is probably like my family. They’re going to hurt your feelings, and you’re going to have to fight them to be a writer, but you will find your chosen family. They’ll get it and understand you, and they’ll be there for your life. So that’s wonderful.
The second thing I would say is, don’t waste so much time looking for a partner because your alone time is what you need to write. Your alone time is very sacred. Use that to nurture yourself. I know no one’s going to listen to me on that one, but I’ll put it out there anyway.
I’m going to repeat the things I say to young people, earn your own money. If you’re in college, make sure that you’re marketable. Make sure you’re multilingual and that you know four languages. Make yourself as marketable as possible because you’re going to have to wear all kinds of hats to get jobs, as I did just to stay afloat, and no job is too humble. My first job out of Iowa was part-time minimum wage alternative high school. I learned so much from that. It shaped House on Mango Street. So, you know, learn from every job, and realize, “Oh, this is like an MFA program, this job. Sure, I’m selling purses and shoes, but I’m going to learn something here because I’m picking up dialogue.” Or whatever you think of it as. Think of it as a foray into your community or collecting moments. You may be standing there matching photos, but you’re writing little notes and poems and putting them in your pocket, like when I worked in a factory. You never cease being a writer, and you should use that in all the jobs you have, but it’s very hard to write when you’re homeless, so make sure you’re marketable.
So, Number 1: earn your own money, earn your own money, earn your own money, because the more you earn your own money, the more you control your life
Number 2: Control your fertility. It’s so important. You don’t want to get derailed from your brilliant career, male or female. Control your fertility.
Number 3: Solitude is sacred. That’s what I always tell young people. That time alone when you think, “oh, I don’t have any friends” or “I don’t have any partners,” That’s time for you. That’s the time the universe is giving you.
I added an extra one for this community of writers, and that is to find your chosen family. I usually just say earn your own money, control your fertility, and solitude is sacred. But I would maybe add a little sub-one to control your fertility which is to practice safe sex. That’s very important. Some people are same-sex partners but practice safe sex. I’m going to add that too! Ok, that’s my advice!

Sandra Cisneros is a poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, performer, and artist. Her numerous awards include NEA fellowships in both poetry and fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, national and international book awards, including the PEN America Literary Award, and the National Medal of Arts. More recently, she received the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship, was recognized with the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, and won the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. In 2022, she was awarded the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Ellie Gomero is a student at Florida International University, studying to receive her master’s degree in Poetry. Her poems have been published in Rust + Moth, The Orange Island Arts Review, and have received awards from Fred Shaw Poetry Contest, Bluapple Poetry Foundation, and Scholastics.

Cathy Almeciga is a poet, artist, and professional hand-holder. Born and raised in Miami, Florida, she holds a Bachelor’s in English with a focus in Creative Writing from FIU. She loves being silly, giraffes, Japanese nail art, looking for rainbows, writing about grief, her cats, lashes on cars, following butterflies, and visiting Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden on her days off.