Emilia Phillips Interviews Carmen Giménez Smith at 32 Poems
In conversation with Emilia Phillips, Carmen Giménez Smith discusses her compositional process, the "autobiography" of her feminism, lyrics that come from the body and lyrics that come from the mind. More:
Emilia Phillips, interviews editor: In your long numbered poem “Parts of an Autobiography” from your most recent collection Milk and Filth, you write: “My mouths don’t speak the same language.” I’m compelled by the idea that there’s a kind of untranslatability within all of us, between our thoughts and actions, our motives and our excuses, the language we first experienced as children and the language we now speak. Would you mind talking a little bit about this poem? Also, do you see yourself as having more than one means to speak? What are these languages, literal and figurative?
Carmen Giménez Smith: In Tongue Ties: Logo-Eroticism in Anglo-Hispanic Literature, Gustavo Perez Firmat (h/t Rosa Alcalá) distinguishes Spanish for the bilingual speaker, as lengua, idioma, or lenguaje. The differences he describes are both political and personal. He writes, for example, “Whereas a speaker possesses his tongue entirely, an idioma, no matter how native, is possessed incompletely.” I have intimacy with Spanish, my mother tongue, which is the language for most of my emotional life. I also know English through Spanish; I see the etymological, and thus historical, relationships and implications that Latinate words. For a long time, English was a mountain I had to conquer. Add to that the ideas regarding inscribing the female body that I learned in college, and you’ve got a cacophony of discourses that, as a poet, I attempt to synthesize and illustrate. “Parts of an Autobiography” is a poem that tries to integrate these discourses into a singular lyric voice, whose historical backdrop is the confessional poetry of second wave feminists. Poets like Anne Sexton or Adrienne Rich were willing to write about how their private lives were shaped under the dominion of patriarchy, and both of them were hugely formative poets for me. Add to that the complex class-based dictions we use in the U.S. as currency—the language of the academy, the language of the intellectual—and how I, a daughter of immigrants, integrates and resists them playfully and deliberately, and there you have my various languages. I grew up seeing (a very specific type of) English as a key that opened doors my parents were unable to open, but as a poet I can play with how I inscribe myself, which is a big part of the poem’s ambition: the autobiography of my feminism.
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