Sara Borjas introduces poems that focus on the connections between a particular, collective ‘us’—people connected by lineage or language, by place, or by the acts of writing and reading. She shares Layli Long Soldier’s exploration of wholeness and mother-daughter relationships (“WHEREAS her birth signaled…”), Juan Felipe Herrera’s centering of people and complexity (“Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way”), and Richard Siken’s breaking of the fourth wall to implicate the reader (“Planet of Love”). To close, Borjas reads her poem “Narcissus Complicates an Old Plot,” a celebration of mothers and daughters, language, and community rooted in place.
Watch the full recordings of Long Soldier, Herrera, and Siken reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Layli Long Soldier (2017)
Juan Felipe Herrera (2009)
Richard Siken (2002)
Transcripts for each episode are available here. Click on the episode title, then click on the transcript tab at the bottom of the player. Poems are transcribed as read and do not represent the published work.
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:03.18] Welcome to another episode of Poetry Centered, the show that introduces you to recordings of poets reading their own work at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson. In each episode, we invite a contemporary poet to select and introduce three recordings before closing with a poem of their own.
[00:00:20.70] The archival recordings come from Voca, our open access online audiovisual archive going back to 1963. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson the Poetry Center's archivist and outreach librarian. Today our host is poet, writer, and educator, Sara Borjas.
[00:00:38.68] Her debut poetry collection, titled Heart like a Window, Mouth like a Cliff won a 2020 American Book Award. She teaches at UC Riverside. In this episode, Sara brings together poems by Layli Long Soldier, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Richard Siken. Each poem in one way or another focuses attention on an "us," a particular collective "we" joined by lineage, language, place or even the acts of reading and writing. Sara, thank you so much for being our guide today.
[00:01:13.46] My name is Sara Borjas and I'm recording from Fresno, California. The first poem I like to share is “Whereas her Birth Signaled” by Layli Long Soldier read at the Poetry Center on November 2, 2017.
[00:01:29.10] I chose this poem for its subjects-- language being mothers and daughters which are also subjects I'm obsessed with. Layli takes her time reading, savoring each syllable. And I find power in her willingness to sit with their small sounds, giving each one due credit.
[00:01:56.09] This makes me think of daughters, specifically Mexican daughters and all the invisible eyes labor of women in Mexican families. Speaking towards her daughter, Layli writes, what did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces? Until a friend comforted, don't worry, you and your daughter will learn together.
[00:02:27.09] When I put myself together in poems, I feel I'm also putting my mother together and that my wholeness is dependent upon hers. She's first. I don't know how to save us, and I don't have children, but I am sensitive to the power of words. And so this is what I spend my life doing.
[00:02:55.71] This poem and how Layli reads this poem are meaningful to me for reminding me of that, am grateful for this poem because when I experience it breaks me a little. But I don't feel broken after I read it. This is Layli Long Soldier reading “Whereas her Birth Signaled.”
Layli Long Soldier:
[00:03:23.43] I had someone, sort of an interviewer, kind of ask me, probe me a little bit about why I write so much about my daughter. And I felt really embarrassed because I already knew I write about her-- she appears in quite a few of my pieces.
[00:03:47.21] So I was embarrassed because I didn't want to seem completely obsessed with her or maybe lacking material to work with. But I will say, that also in this work particularly she in a way represents her symbolizes the next generation, our young people and the responsibility that we have to them.
[00:04:18.10] So this is a little bit, another piece that she appears in. Whereas, her birth signaled the responsibility as mother to teach what it is to be Lakota? Therein the question what did I know about being Lakota?
[00:04:42.45] "Signal panic, blood rush, my embarrassment. What did I know of our language but pieces? Would I teach her to be pieces? Until a friend comforted, don't worry you and your daughter will learn together.
[00:05:08.19] Today, she stood sunlight on her shoulders lean and straight to share a song in Diné, her father's language. To sing she motions simultaneously with her hands. I watch her be in multiple musics.
[00:05:29.82] At a ceremony to honor the nation's first Poet Laureate, a speaker explains that each people has been given their own language to reach with. I understand reaching as active a motion.
[00:05:49.53] He offers a prayer and introduction in heritage language. I listen as I reach my eyes into my hands, my hands onto my lap, my lap as a quiet page, I hold my daughter in. I rock her back forward to the rise of other conversations, about mother tongues versus foster languages belonging.
[00:06:26.79] I connect the dots, I rock in time with references to a philosopher-- this is actually Derrida but I didn't write that. A master language thinker who thought of his mother. Two, mother to child and child to mother relationships.
[00:06:51.66] But as this philosopher's mother suffered the ill effects of a stroke he wrote, quote, "I asked her if she was in pain? Yes. 'Then where?' she replies to my question. I have a pain in my mother as though she were speaking for me both in my direction and in my place.
[00:07:25.57] His mother who spoke in his place for his pain and as herself for her own, did this as one and the same. Yet, he would propose understanding the word mother by what mother is not.
[00:07:50.55] Differánce. Forward, back, I lift my feet, my toes touch ground as I reminded of the linguistic impossibility of identity. As if any of us can be identical ever. To whom? To what? Perhaps to not.
[00:08:20.29] I hold my daughter in comfort, saying iyo-tanchilah mi-chuwintku. True, I'm never sure how to write our language on the page correctly. The written takes many forms. I don't know if any of you know Lakota, but there's a million ways to write any given word, seems like. They're still hammering out that-- certain things, in any case.
[00:08:53.35] Yet I know she understands through our motion-- rocking, in this country of so many languages, where national surveys assert that Native languages are dying. Child speakers and elder teachers dwindle. This is public information. But her father and I don't teach in statistics. In this-- dying, I mean.
[00:09:30.34] Whereas, speaking, itself, is defiance-- the closest I can come to differánce. Whereas, I confess, these are numbered hours spent responding to a national apology which concerns us-- my family. These hours alone to think, without. My hope-- my daughter understands wholeness for what it is, not for what it's not. All of it. The pieces." Thank you.
[00:10:19.71] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:10:24.69] The second poem I'd like to share is "Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way," by Juan Felipe Herrera, written in 1970, and read at the Poetry Center on March 14, 2009. Juan is one of my poetry guides, and is from California's Central Valley, like I am. Once I took my parents to a reading he did at Fresno State, excited to introduce them to a poet from the Valley, born in Fowler, thinking that was going to be some demystifying experience for them.
[00:11:01.02] Well, we ended up running into someone my mom knew from Pinedale, which is a small Chicano neighborhood in Fresno. And that person was also Juan's relative. And so before I could create my unifying moment that I had planned, we ended up chopping it up, like family. The poem reminds us to gather in a way that serves us. And that's what happened naturally that day when we were just ourselves, when I wasn't allowed to force it, when we weren't just poets, and we weren't academics.
[00:11:47.49] Juan and his work centers people. It's always "us" that's the subject, not "me" or "you." My education with the "us" in poetry has been a backwards one. I went to graduate school, thinking I was writing for my community, and ended up writing for the white gaze-- the "you" that I can never belong with.
[00:12:15.27] Later, I heard Cherríe Moraga say, "When we write for the white man we deprive the world of our truth, the complexities that have yet to be told." This poem reminds me to write the complexities-- from the garden of joys and the garden of struggles-- in a way that nurtures us. Sometimes that means the poem is more like a glass of water than an absolute banger.
[00:12:49.05] When I was a student of Juan's, he told me that not every poem had to be a banger. He told me, we also need glasses of water. This is Juan Felipe Herrera, reading "Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way."
Juan Felipe Herrera:
[00:13:11.68] "Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way." It's like 19-- 1970. "Let Us Gather in a Flourishing Way." And this is, I think, what we're all doing today. And Patty and Chris, and the whole team at the press is doing, and all the writers, and my nephew, Jesus, and all of you here today.
[00:13:37.43] Let us gather in a flourishing way with sunluz grains abriendo los cantos que cargamos cada día. En el young pasto nuestro cuerpo para regalar y dar felize perlas, pearls of corn flowing, árboles de vida en las cuarto esquinas. Let us gather in a flourishing way contentos llenos de fuerza to vida. Giving nacimientos to fragrant rios dulces frescos verdes turquoise strong carne de nuestros hijos rainbows.
[00:14:12.93] Let us gather in a flourishing way en la luz y en la carne of a heart to toil tranquilos in fields of blossoms juntos to stretch los brazos tranquilos with the rain en la tranquilos with the rain en la mañana temprana estrella on our forehead. Cielo de calor and wisdom to meet us where we toil siempre in the garden of our struggle and joy.
[00:14:38.19] Let us gather offer our hearts a saludar our águila rising freedom. A celebrar woven brazos, branches ramas. Piedras nopales plumas piercing bursting figs and aguacates. Ripe mariposa fields and mares claros of our face to breathe todos en el camino blessing seeds to give to grow maiztlán en las manos de nuestro amor.
[00:15:09.26] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:15:16.99] The third poem I'd like to share is "Planet of Love," by Richard Siken, recorded at the Poetry Center on November 23, 2002. Siken's collection, Crush is my first favorite collection of poems. The direct address, and implication of the reader, helped illuminate my own participation, and my complicity in the things I was writing about, and also presented the possibility of my intervention.
[00:15:49.93] I love how this poem breaks the fourth wall, and also admits that the speaker-reader motivates the script-- plays along-- simply because it's already written down and all they know. I feel this way about the literary canon we have inherited, and it helps me intervene in the one we're creating. This poem also reminds me of a play that inspires me similarly. And I think I love them for the same reasons.
[00:16:22.92] The play is, I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, written by Luis Valdez, which was produced in Los Angeles in 1986, the year I was born. Valdez started Teatro Campesino, a farm workers theater born during the Delano grape strike, in California's Central Valley, where I'm from. The play explores a search for an authentic Chicano identity against the limiting stereotypes and restricted possibilities afforded Chicanos in the 80s.
[00:16:59.17] Sonny Villa, the protagonist, wants to be a director, like Siken's speaker. They want to tell the story, but they want to tell the story that's true now. Siken's poem empowers me, reminds me that someone-- maybe me-- is watching, is waiting. This is Richard Siken, reading "Planet of Love."
[00:17:30.26] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:17:36.89] "Imagine this-- you're driving. The sky is bright. You look great. In a word, in a phrase, it's a movie, you're the star. So smile for the camera, it's your big scene, you know your lines. I'm the director. I'm in a helicopter. I have a megaphone and you play along, because you want to die for love, you always have.
[00:18:10.91] Imagine this-- you're pulling the car over. Somebody's waiting. You're going to die in your best friend's arms. It's a tragedy. It's predictable. And you play along because it's funny, because it's written down, you've memorized it, it's all you know. I say the phrases. They keep it all going, and everybody plays along.
[00:18:41.26] Imagine-- someone's pulling a gun, and you're jumping into the middle of it. You didn't think you'd feel this way. There's a gun in your hand. It feels hot. It feels oily. You've ruined everything.
[00:19:03.31] I'm the director and I'm screaming at you. I'm waving my arms in the sky, and everyone's watching, everyone's curious, everyone's holding their breath."
[00:19:22.73] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:19:30.10] Considering the poems I've shared today by Layli Long Soldier, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Richard Siken, it feels appropriate to share a poem that celebrates my mother, my daughter-ness, language, California's Central Valley Community, and new directions. So I'll read this poem from my collection, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff. And it's called, "Narcissus Complicates an Old Plot."
[00:20:08.12] "I am guilty of everything every woman I'm supposed to be has committed. I opened the letter on the dining table, addressed to my name, from a story I don't remember or want. I modify, elevate the plot and the stakes. I have another mouth on me. A history, a mother too quiet, and we live multi-dimensional. Men on horses trail us through a field of corn and Modern Family reruns. I cut the stocks with my chrome painted nails. We go cruising afterwards in denim jumpsuits. This is about definition.
[00:20:56.86] I complicate the novel I stole from my mother's hands. I receive a soccer scholarship. She comes home from work. My parents take a honeymoon. I never learned Spanish, but I love myself anyways. I cook pozole for my friends, and recite Sexton and Cervantes in political arguments. I can bend steel with my stained teeth or un-hate my mother, crawling around in me.
[00:21:33.08] It was never a weakness. It was a mythology-- a whole family of whizzing gnats. It's what I learned in high school and Friday night television. Someone needed to put it out of its misery. I'm a magenta wave of blood creating a radical curriculum. I open a letter on the dining table. I answer as glorious daughter of a woman I can forgive.
[00:22:11.17] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:22:17.39] Sara, thank you again for your time, and for choosing these poems that center communities. Listeners, thank you for being part of our community. We're so thankful to share this time with you. Check out our show notes for links to more of Sara's work, and the full readings that you heard portions of today. You can always find transcripts for each episode by visiting the Buzzsprout website for the show. We'll link to that in the show notes, as well. Two weeks from now, we hope you'll join us for an episode hosted by Khadijah Queen. Thanks again for being here.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:22:50.75] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the Indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado-- that's me-- and Julie Swarstad Johnson, with support from--
[00:23:20.99] Sarah Gzemski.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:23:22.37] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive, online at voca.arizona.edu.