Follow Harriet on Twitter
‘For me, writing is a communion and communication with my ancestors’: An Interview with Carmen Calatayud
LV: The title of the book evokes the idea that poetry is both communion and communication with the ancestral, that poetry is not an act done in isolation but rather an act of communal undertaking. How do you see the title of the collection speaking to this larger theme of poetry as community?
CC: The original title of the book was Cave Walk, which is the title of one of the poems I wrote while living in Tucson in the 1990s. In her innate wisdom, one of the book’s editors, poet Pam Uschuk, told me that I needed to change the title because it didn’t fully capture the manuscript. The new title came about as I having coffee in DC with Francisco X. Alarcón and my husband Ricardo Villalobos after the end of the Split This Rock poetry festival in DC in March 2012. I was eager to show Francisco the painting that would be on the cover of the book, a painting by LA-based Chicana artist Aydee López Martínez. The painting is of a woman in a white dress walking barefoot, surrounded by skulls floating in the sky. Francisco asked me what the title of the painting was. I told him “In the Company of Great Spirits.” Ricardo said “That’s the new title of your book!” and Francisco almost jumped out of his seat, saying, “Yes, yes, that’s it!” Pam suggested I take out the word “Great” and with Aydee’s blessing, the new book title became In the Company of Spirits.
For me, writing is a communion and communication with my ancestors, and the ancestors of the land where I live and have lived. This communion comes through at times when I’m alone writing. I use meditation, yoga, poetry and brainstorming with words that appeal to me to help me connect with my own spirit and ancestral spirits as I write. I’ve also found that writing with others is incredibly powerful, so in that sense, writing in a group is a communal undertaking.
The title In the Company of Spirits, I hope, opens the door to the theme of poetry as community, as you suggest. The community, for me, includes my poet and writer friends in person and via the internet, the spirits of my ancestors and the ancestors of the land, and the spirits of writers who have gone before me, living and dead. We keep them alive when we read their work and follow their inspiration.
LV: At times there seems to be a thin veil separating the various speakers in these poems. I am thinking of poems like “A Homeless Woman Speaks,” and “Hermana in the Sky,” just to name a few examples. At times it almost becomes difficult to separate the various voices inhabiting the landscapes in this collection. The voices become a single spiritual guide that help us navigate these violent spaces which are separated by time and space but interwoven together by this single voice, voice of a multitude of voices. Was this play with voice intentional on the part of the poet?
CC: This is a wonderful question. A part of me wishes it were intentional, but I can’t say that it is. I rarely plan to use a specific theme or voice when I sit down to write. My writing is much more organic in the sense that the voice and topic of the poem is what arises in that moment. Using different voices is how I write. It’s my hope that the voices come together in the collection as you’ve described, as a “single spiritual guide.”
Full interview here.