Poetically Speaking with Tessa Gratton

poeticallyspeaking1Tessa Gratton is one third of the Merry Sisters of Fate and the critically acclaimed author of The Blood Journals as well as The United States of Asgard series which includes The Lost Sun, The Strange Maid and a companion novella collection called The Weight of Stars. Her latest novel The Apple Throne, which concludes the USAsgard, series will be available starting April 20, 2015.

Tessa is here today to talk about Gloria Anzaldua, the poet who taught her to listen and transform

The Poet Who Taught Me to Listen and Transform

In 1991 my dad was called up to serve in Desert Storm, and the night before he left my brothers and I spent hours on our scratchy old gray sofa with him while he read picture books to us: enough to fill up the front and back sides of a cassette tape. We all chose a few favorites, and Dad’s choices were Fox in Sox by Dr. Seuss and illustrated versions of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” and “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

I went to bed every night for at least a year listening to that tape – the player sat in the hallway between my room and my brothers’ room so we could all hear it. By the time Dad came home I had all three poems memorized. I associated poetry with comfort, love, and hope, and have ever since.

I’m a writer, but have never considered myself a poet. Poets, to me, are in the business of image and feeling, not story, and the things they can do with words blow me away: it takes me 90,000 words to communicate what takes some of them less than 100. Shakespeare, the patron saint of wordplay and language-inventiveness, caught my ear before high school, and I learned to check out poetry collections from the library to read all afternoon in the sun. I prefer reading poetry alone, because I’m likely to start reading out loud, or repeat one line again and again as I try to understand the feel of the words in my mouth.

But it wasn’t until I was in college that poetry directly changed my life.

It was my junior year at the University of Kansas. I was a double English-Gender Studies major, taking a course on Latina Literature with a great professor. We read mostly novels (Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia, Esmeralda Santiago to name a few), but at one point we were assigned several chapters of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera: the New Mestiza. It’s a book about the borders of language, race and ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and class in America. Anzaldua’s borderlands are “physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”

Though we were assigned perhaps 40% of the book, I devoured every word. The essays and poems weave together, and the language is what she calls “a new language – the language of the borderlands.” It’s English and Spanish and dialects of “Tex-Mex” and Nahuatl. It’s hard to read when you know English and French and a smattering of Japanese. But I loved it. I loved it because I didn’t know all the words, yet they felt lovely in my mouth, and I was freed from definitions and dictionaries, drawn into a strange borderland of my own that felt like a sister to the one she described. I was hungry for the imagery of heat and cannibalism, of deserts and pain, rampant goddesses, snakes, the ache of oppression. Everything in the book was complicated, layered, and asked me to look at my culpability in creating hard lines, in our racist, sexist, classist culture.

Like I said, I was hungry for it. I was a young feminist searching for voices to show me how to transform myself, how to listen.

Then I came to class, and realized most of my classmates were upset: they couldn’t read the assignment because they couldn’t read the Spanish. How dare this woman write this way! they said. I was shocked, though I instantly remembered once in high school reading a poem by Ezra Pound in which all the punch lines were in Latin and Greek, and I thought, what a dick this dude is for writing this way. It hadn’t even occurred to me to compare the two.

For me, Pound was purposefully keeping me out of his poetry because I didn’t have the advantage of his great snooty Western education. But Anzladua was creating new language – like Shakespeare, like explorers, a language of translation and sharing. But I could see my classmates unable to grasp the notion of privilege within language. And to be honest, before that book I’d never really understood it, or thought about it, either.

Here was a book of poetry that I loved for it’s beauty and thrilling wordplay and imagery, but also a text that truly opened a window in my own imagination to the power of language itself to be political. I’d thought of words as tools for politics, tools for change, tools that I could use to argue and analyze, to tell stories that in turn argue and analyze and change.

Gloria Anzaldua showed me through her poetry that sometimes language is itself political.

“I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.” – Gloria Anzaldua.

Here is a link to her poem from Borderlands/La Frontera, “To live in the Borderlands means you” http://www.gloriaanzaldua.com/?page_id=2

Some of my other absolute favorite poets:

  • Joy Harjo
  • June Jordan
  • Wallace Stevens
  • Audre Lorde
  • Judy Grahn
  • Adrienne Rich
  • Ted Hughes
  • Anne Sexton

Thank you again to Tessa for this great post!

If you’d like to learn more about Tessa and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://tessagratton.com

You can also find my reviews of The Lost Sun and The Strange Maid (as well as my interviews with Tessa about book one and book two and her guest post on Valkyrie) here on the blog.