An Interview with Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

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Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the author of the forthcoming collection of poetry Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge  (Sundress Publications, 2016). Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge is a feminist collection of poetry straddling borders, and arose when daughter of Mexican immigrants, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, traveled from Los Angeles to the Tucson-Sector of the U.S.-Mexico border in August 2011 to volunteer with the humanitarian aid organization, No More Deaths. She hoped to gain a concrete understanding of the “wall,” and the result was a book illustrating a speaker driven to activism by a need to honor her family’s journey.

Bermejo spoke with our Editorial Intern, Kristin Figgins, about her influences, her family, the work that helped inspire the collection, and more.

Kristin Figgins: Cacti are present throughout Posada.  What do you find so intriguing about the cactus as a plant or as a symbol?

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo: Before I went to the Tucson-sector of the border, I imagined it as a sandy, desolate plain vacant of any life. But when I got there, I found breathtaking peaks and canyons as well as all kinds of animals and vegetation. I think I was drawn to the cacti for their resilience in inhospitable terrain, and I found their blooms hopeful. They turned into a symbol for the people crossing in the area.

With the prickly pear cactus, the nopal, I feel a connection to my grandmother and my Mexican heritage when I see them. I like how they grow wild all throughout California, and how they can thrive with so little. They make me feel proud.

KF: Many of the poems in Posada are after other poets.  Who are your biggest inspirations or influences as a writer, and why?

XJB: The biggest influence is Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us. She doesn’t have a poem in my book, but when I read her poetry in grad school, it was the first time I saw how my passion for activism and my poetry could marry. I don’t know that there would be a Posada without Forche. Another great influence was Michele Serros’ Chicana Falsa. I thank her in the acknowledgements because I read her book around my 3rd or 4th revision, and I fell in love with her voice and how unpretentious she is. After reading Chicana Falsa, I went back into my poems and tried to simplify–to look for those spots where I was trying too hard. I’ve always felt dumb, and had a fear of people discovering that, and because of that I sometimes overcompensate, so I was really thankful for the reminder.

KF: There are many beautiful relationships in Posada: mothers, daughters, aunts, and grandfathers.  How much do you draw upon the real relationships in your life in your poetry?

XJB: This collection was written for my grandparents and my parents. I don’t know what will happen with future poems, but this one was all about them. From a young age, I knew my parents were immigrants, and I was interested in their stories and celebrating immigrant stories. I think I was always acutely aware of negative words, sentiments, and policies toward immigrants when I was a kid because that meant mom and dad. I wouldn’t have gone to the border if it weren’t for them. They are a huge part of my poet identity, and they are huge supporters of my work. In Sandra Cisneros’ new memoir, A House of My Own, she talks about how she had to move away from her family to be a writer. But for me, I couldn’t be a writer without my family.

KF: You write at the end of Posada that you were influenced by your work with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, which polices the Mexico-U.S. border.  How did that experience inspire or influence your writing?

XJB: I wouldn’t call it policing. They patrol migrant trails for support, medical care, and to be a witness to Border Patrol atrocities–but they aren’t policing anyone. They are fighting for accountability.

When I went to the border, I was two years out of an MFA program. I thought I was writing a book, but I didn’t really know what I was writing about. When I went and worked with No More Deaths, my book got its center, and I had something to put the other poems into context. I didn’t really have a book until I went, and though only half of the book is about the desert, it’s all in context with that journey, who the speaker is, and why she went.

KF: Posada is very interested in borders, not just in the sense of the Mexico-U.S. border, but also in the sense of pathways, being lost, and not quite fitting within the tidy borders of the world.  Do you think poetry can help people feel like they have more structure, tidier borders as it were, or can help them feel found?  Is this true for you?

XJB: Gregory Orr’s book, Poetry as Survival, talks about how writing a poem helps to bring order in chaos, and I definitely think that’s true. Through a poem, I think it is possible to create new structures, new understandings, and break out of old patterns. I think I wanted the poems about being lost or not fitting in to be a comfort.

KF: Throughout Posada, you play with language and what it means to be bilingual.  One of my favorite poems is “to chew     the empty spaces,” which omits articles and some prepositions, a common grammar “mistake” of bilingual individuals.  How does being bilingual influence the way you think about language?

XJB: I wouldn’t call myself bilingual. I grew up in a Spanish speaking home, the youngest of four, and though my two oldest brothers are fluent, me and my other brother aren’t. I was spoken Spanish to my whole life. My grandparents only spoke Spanish, but with my parents, I always answered them in English. So I know Spanish, and when I speak it, it sounds pretty good, but I’m not fluent. I tried to show that with “Ode to Pan Dulce” with the way the Spanish weaves in and out. I feel like that’s how Spanish feels in my ear and on my tongue, it comes and goes without much thought. With the first half, I was trying to illustrate that sense, but with the second half, I wanted the Spanish to honor the language of the people I came into contact with as their first language.

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KF: “Meditation for Lost and Found” opens with a quote from Jorge Luis Borges and then follows a labyrinthine pattern.  Other poems, like “Photograph of a Secret” seem to flirt with magic(al) realism.  Do you ever find yourself inspired by Latin American authors like Borges, who use magic(al) realism as a way to portray the emotional reality of the daily lives of people living in countries that are dealing with economic and political upheaval?

XJB: Those two poems are heavily influenced by Borges and the possibilities held in a moment. I like to use magical realism to find possibilities when there don’t seem to be any, or to create some purpose, honor, or visibility when there isn’t any. “Meditation for the Lost and Found” is for the desaparecido, a word that has no direct translation in English, but means those who cease to be, disappear from the world without a trace, usually at the hands of a corrupt government. My hope with that poem is that by forcing the reader to focus on the words through its strange form, I am making a journey, a life visible again. I try to do something similar in “Our Lady of the Water Gallons.” The poem is intended to be the safe place because there are no safe places in the desert.

KF: What book is on your nightstand right now?

XJB: I just finished the YA novel, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. It’s about a 13 year-old girl who immigrates to the US from Aguascalientes, Mexico when her family experiences a tragic change of fortune. It’s a Depression era book, and I’m reading it for inspiration for my current project, which is a novel set in 1930s California.

KF: What piece of advice have you been given that was instrumental to your development as a writer?

XJB: Eloise Klein Healy told me to push myself to be personal and to do the work. It was her advice that encouraged me to volunteer with No More Deaths, so it was pretty instrumental in the development of this book. Before that, I was doing a lot of persona poems on immigrant stories I found in history books, mostly from the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment. Her advice made me realize why I cared so much about immigration rights and reform, and it all stemmed from my own parents.

Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge is now available for pre-order with free shipping from Sundress Publications!

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Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a first generation Chicana born and raised in San Gabriel, California, who fondly remembers weekends spent haciendo traviesos with her cousins around her grandparents’ Boyle Heights home. She wrote this collection while living in a house in the shadows of Dodger Stadium in historic Solano Canyon.  Bermejo is a 2016-2017 Steinbeck fellow and was previously honored as a Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund/Money for Women grantee, and Los Angeles Central Library ALOUD newer poet. Her poetry received 3rd place in the 2015 Tucson Festival of Books literary awards and has been published with The American Poetry Review, The Acentos Review, CALYX, Crazyhorse, and Tahoma Literary Review among others. She has received residencies with Hedgebrook, the Ragdale Foundation, and is a proud member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. In Los Angeles, she is a cofounder of Women Who Submit, a literary organization using social media and community events to empower women authors to submit work for publication, and curates the quarterly reading series HITCHED. She received a BA in Theatre Arts from California State University of Long Beach and an MFA in Creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles where she is currently a book coach and workshop instructor with the inspiration2publication program.
Kristen Figgins is a writer of fabulism, whose work has appeared in such places as The Gateway Review, Sleet Magazine, Hermeneutic Chaos, Sakura Review, Menacing Hedge, and more. Her story “Track Me With Your Words, Speak Me With Your Feet” was winner of the 2015 Fiction Award from Puerto del Sol, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Micro Award, and Write Well Award. Her first chapbook, A Narrow Line of Light, is available for purchase from Boneset Books and her novella, Nesting, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications in the Summer of 2017.

 

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