Laura Villareal: I love the way Phantom Tongue weaves together religion, family, queerness, memory, and a complicated relationship with Mexican culture. With so many thematic strands, what was your approach to putting this manuscript together?
Steven Sanchez: In the beginning, I focused on writing into my obsessions rather than on creating a book—each poem was more important to me than figuring out how any particular poem might fit in with what I already wrote. My poems kept returning to the same themes and images, and my mentor Corrinne (Connie) Clegg Hales said that I should trust my subconscious, that there’s probably a reason why I kept obsessing over these particular topics. When it was time to put my thesis together, I printed all my poems out and started tracking what the main threads seemed to be and had a hard time separating them from each other.
My very first draft of Phantom Tongue had three sections. Connie asked me why I decided to use sections, and I didn’t really have a reason, other than it felt like a book should have sections. She said she didn’t really see a need for sections in this collection and I agreed with her. Then a couple of years later, I wrote more poems, replaced older poems, and tried out sections again—it was actually accepted by Sundress as a sectioned book. Sara Henning, my editor, actually brought up similar concerns about my sectioning and I re-read through Phantom Tongue and decided that the sections needed to go.
At first, I organized my poems based on their topics, but that felt too neat and sterile—I didn’t want a book that had a section of Queer poems, a section of family poems, a section of love poems, and a section of poems about language and internalized racism because those categories aren’t exclusive to each other—these categories, I realized, actually inform each other.
“On the Seventh Day” seemed like the best choice to open Phantom Tongue because a lot of the themes in the book appear in it. Next, I read that poem followed by several potential second poems in the collection until one seemed to fit, then I read that second poem followed by several third poem options, then the third followed by several fourth poem options, and repeated this process until I had a tentative order for the whole collection. (I ended up with dozens of different organizational possibilities to choose from.) The whole process reminded me of when I used to play Guitar Hero—you see the rows and rows of buttons coming towards you on the screen, but you just have to focus on playing the row of buttons closest to you. Eventually, the closest row disappears, then you can focus on the next row, then the next row, until you end up playing an entire song.
Laura Villareal: You have two chapbooks, To My Body (Glass Poetry Press, 2016) & Photographs of Our Shadows (Agape Editions, 2017), was the process of putting together those manuscripts different from organizing your full-length?
Steven Sanchez: I feel like I totally approached each chapbook with the Guitar Hero strategy. I definitely couldn’t focus on as many threads in each chapbook, though. For To My Body, I ended up finding all of my poems that relied on body-related imagery. For Photographs, I focused more on poems revolving around memory. Even with those two different organizational focuses, each chapbook still tried to address internalized racism and internalized homophobia, which ended up becoming the backbone of Phantom Tongue.
Laura Villareal: While writing Phantom Tongue were there any books that you drew inspiration from? What are some books that you love and recommend?
Steven Sanchez: Two of the books that had a huge influence on me, especially when working on Phantom Tongue, were Rafael Campo’s What the Body Told and Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language.
Campo handles bodies, particularly Queer and brown bodies, with such tenderness and compassion. His book was the first book I’d ever read by a QPOC and it blew me away by showing me the different ways a body is labeled, identified, and understood. It also encouraged me to figure out the stories my own body has told and continues to tell—it empowered me interrogate who shape(d)/(s) my body’s narratives.
Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language lead me to question not just the narratives assigned to bodies, but how language is a dangerous (yet necessary) tool. What’s named can be weaponized. But, what’s named can also give somebody control over their own identity. Dream of a Common Language begins with one of my favorite poems, “Power.” In this poem, the speaker observes that Marie Curie gained her agency through her research on radioactivity. The speaker also observes that her hands-on approach with radioactive materials ultimately killed her. In this poem, power comes from our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to the subjects that are most difficult to handle. While writing Phantom Tongue, I kept returning to “Power,” and as a result, I still find myself returning to it in newer poems I’ve been working on—I’ve adopted it as my own personal ars poetica.
In addition to these two books, a few more books I absolutely love and continue to learn from are Coal by Audre Lorde, Slow Lightning by Eduardo C.Corral, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero, Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto González, Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey, For Want of Water by Sasha Pimentel, My Alexandria by Mark Doty, Goodbye, Flicker by Carmen Giménez Smith, and The Taxidermist’s Cut by Rajiv Mohabir.
Laura Villareal: Something I admire about your writing is how you confront your relationship to Mexican culture. As a Latinx who can’t speak Spanish, I sometimes feel fraudulent or conflicted about my identity. I love the lines “small pigeons flying from her tongue, / carrying rolled R’s like small parcels / I’ve never been able to unwrap” in your poem “Past Tense”. I’m grateful for moments like those in your book. I guess I’m wondering, do you have any advice for confronting identity in poems when the relationship you have to it is complicated?
Steven Sanchez: That makes me really happy that you connected with “Past Tense,” I was really nervous writing that poem, especially because I felt like I was “outing” myself as a Pocho. I’ve been thinking a lot about my Pocho-ness, what it means for me to identify as a Pocho, and how this particular identity fits into larger systems of power. I don’t know if I have any advice, exactly, but I can totally share how I approached writing about my relationship to being Mexican and some of the things I got from that experience.
When I first started writing about my relationship to Mexican culture, one particular mentor was very encouraging. He pushed me to start including more Spanish in my poems, pushed me to start incorporating foods like nopales, tamales, and chorizo in my poems. He would say things like “This is so specific to your particular experiences and it’s great. You’ve really found your stride, keep it up.” And I did for a while, until I found myself writing poems to satisfy his expectations rather than writing poems that I felt genuinely connected to—I realized I was exoticizing myself and my poems to fit in with what he expected Latinx writers to write about.
Ironically, when I started writing about my queerness, he told me to stop letting my sexuality define my work and me.
I started understanding that when I was writing, I was writing with a straight, white audience in mind. I was making a Latino caricature of myself in my poems and downplaying queerness in order to reaffirm what some people think is an “authentic” representation of Latinidad. I think I fell into that trap because in workshop, we often discussed the “accessibility” of a poem, but whenever that word was thrown around, I didn’t comprehend that “accessible” has political implications—accessible for whom? People of color? Queer people? White people? Straight people?
When I started questioning who I wanted to access my poems, I realized I didn’t want to write for an audience who had a litmus test for the “authenticity” of my identities. I felt relieved, in a way, because it opened up a space for me to begin interrogating my own concerns about internalized racism, internalized homophobia, my inability to speak Spanish, and how those all affected me.
If I could give my younger-self advice, I would tell him that nobody has a monopoly over any identity. Not speaking Spanish doesn’t make you any less Latino. Write poems that matter to you. No matter what you write, people will label you whatever they’re going to label you, and that’s no longer your concern.
Laura Villareal: You reference religion quite a bit in your book. I feel like often religion and queerness can be at odds. I love where you say “Never forget what the Bible says: / when two people worship together, / they create a church / no matter where they are— ” in “What I Didn’t Tell You.” What’s your connection to religion and how do you feel it’s shaped your writing, if at all?
Steven Sanchez: I grew up as a nondenominational Christian, went to church every Sunday, was a member of a bunch of different Christian youth groups, and made sure to memorize the bible verse we were assigned each week in Sunday school—at one point I had memorized close to 300 verses. The interesting thing about the church I went to is that it was bilingual. The children’s Sunday school was exclusively in English, but the sermon afterwards for the whole church was entirely in Spanish, although the pastor occasionally translated some of his sermon into English. Prayers were almost exclusively in Spanish. That church also explicitly condemned homosexuality and banned open homosexuals from serving the church in any sort of capacity. In high school, I was the president of the Hanford High Christian Club and regularly attended services and youth events.
Needless to say, religion had a monumental impact on me growing up. You mention that Queerness and religion are often at odds, and that was definitely the case in my experience. When I started writing about homophobia, I noticed that religious imagery started creeping in without me even really intending for that to happen. When I started writing about internalized racism, religion also started creeping in. Religious imagery helped me interrogate the aspects of myself I was afraid to look at—as I was writing, it felt like internalized racism, internalized homophobia, and Christianity were inseparable. But, at the same time, I think my way of understanding the sacred is very much informed by Christianity even if I’m no longer Christian. I think, at least in some moments, using religious imagery in the context of Queerness was my way to reclaim and define for myself what is actually sacred.
Laura Villareal: The image system of your book is so tight. The visceral language makes it feel intensely intimate and resonate. All poets have linguistic obsessions, what are some of yours?
Steven Sanchez: Wow, thank you! I think one of my biggest linguistic obsessions, both now and when I was writing Phantom Tongue, is using “you.” I love the authority and force that comes from a direct address, especially in rough drafts. When I was writing about things that were particularly difficult, the second person address created a helpful distance between the subject and me. The second person made me feel inclined to write declarative sentences, and those declarative sentences built up my confidence as the draft progressed until, at some point in the poem, I gained enough confidence to trust my language, trust my images, and trust that what I had to say was important. Sometimes, the second person stays even after the initial drafts.
I think another reason I love the second person is because it fits with how I usually (attempt to) enter a poem—instead of thinking of a general audience for the poem, I find it more helpful to imagine that I’m writing the poem to a specific person—the images and language I use become my way of understanding my relationship to that person (and whatever topic that poem is trying to address). That being said, I think I’m particularly obsessed with fire, water, trees, and birds—those images made it easier to interrogate my relationships to some of the “you’s” I was writing to.
Another linguistic obsession I’ve noticed is that I love to list things in groups of three; I think it might be because of the way I was taught to end each prayer—“in the name of the son, father, and holy spirit.” It feels familiar and I get a sense of closure.
Laura Villareal: In June you’ll be teaching a month long workshop with Lemon Star Magazine focused on persona and social justice poetry, what made you choose those topics?
Steven Sanchez: I’m super stoked for that workshop! A few years back, Gary Jackson visited my school to read from his awesome book, Missing You, Metropolis—it’s a collection of super villain and super hero persona poems. One of my favorite poems in there is “Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit.” In that poem, the speaker is Magneto (of the X-Men) and he comes across two children who have been lynched on swing set for being mutants. The poem is a powerful response to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and it ends with Magneto imagining how he will destroy the world.
Somebody asked him why he wanted to inhabit the voices of so many villains in his book. He responded by saying that poems, ultimately, are a tool of empathy. When we read poems, we are forced to see ourselves in the speaker. But, nobody wants to see themselves in the face of villains, nobody wants to know the horrible things we are all capable of, nobody wants to see themselves complicit in violence and oppression. I think about that all the time, which is actually what pushed me write “The Gunman” in Phantom Tongue—placing myself in the mindset of Omar Mateen in the moments leading to the Pulse shooting scared me, but by the end of it, I knew I couldn’t have written that poem any other way.
Another poet, Maggie Smith, said something else about persona poems that I’ve been thinking about a lot. She was on an AWP panel in Florida and an audience member asked the question (and I’m roughly paraphrasing), “How do I, as a person with relative privilege, write about racism and the experiences of people who are subject to systemic oppression?” Smith responded by saying that if we’re entering a conversation from a relative place of privilege, why don’t we place ourselves in the poem as the oppressor rather than the oppressed? We have more to gain (and risk) by inhabiting the persona of the oppressor—systemic oppression and violence isn’t just magically inflicted upon marginalized groups, it’s perpetrated by specific individuals and when we refuse to name and identify their role in oppression, we are missing our opportunity to actually learn from and understand systemic oppression in a more nuanced way. (Of course, Maggie Smith conveyed these ideas much more eloquently.)
I wanted to lead a Persona Poetry and Social Justice Workshop because I think Jackson and Smith are both absolutely right: we need to be willing to see ourselves in the villains of the world, because then it will help us understand how each of us, regardless of who we are, are complicit in systemic oppression.
Laura Villareal: I know Phantom Tongue is just coming out this month, but are you working on anything new?
Steven Sanchez: I am! It’s actually related to the workshop I’m leading. I’m trying to interrogate my own privilege and the ways I contribute to systemic oppression, even as a QPOC. I’ve attempted some persona poems, I’ve leaned into the “you” a lot, and I’ve been journaling a lot about it. Nothing’s even close to ready, but I feel like these drafts—my new obsessions—are leading me to my next collection.
Steven Sanchez is the author of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications, 2018), selected by Mark Doty as the winner of Marsh Hawk Press’ Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo and the Lambda Literary Foundation, his poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod, Muzzle, Tahoma Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Glass: a Journal of Poetry, and other publications.
Laura Villareal earned an MFA from Rutgers University-Newark. Her writing has appeared most recently in: The Acentos Review, Freezeray, Reservoir, The Boiler, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from The Highlights Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar.