Writer to Watch: Erika L. Sánchez
Writer to Watch: Erika L. Sánchez is a Fulbright and Bread Loaf Scholar, CantoMundo Fellow, and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston Review Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Pleiades, Witness, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, diode, Boston Review, “Latino USA” on NPR, and is forthcoming in Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation (Viking 2015). She is also currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas ,and has contributed to The Guardian, BuzzFeed, NBC News, Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera, Truthout, Salon, and Cosmopolitan.
Phillip: Thank you so much for lending your time to this project. I am very excited to have the chance to talk with you one-on-one about all of the work you do, which is a lot of work! As both a creative writer and journalist, you move seamlessly between genres and ways of thinking about the world. But I have to ask, which came first for you?
Erika: Thanks so much, Phillip. As you know, I’m a big fan of your work, so I am honored. That’s an interesting question. I have always loved books.
“When I was a child, I would read until my vision was blurry.”
Haha. My mom always worried that I would ruin my eyesight. It was a way for me to escape my circumstances, like it is for many people. I read and loved all genres, but when I was in sixth grade, I really fell in love with poetry. Edgar Allen Poe was my hero. I connected to his solitude and the beauty of the language. “That’s it! I’m a poet!” I declared. I’ve been writing poems ever since. I still love writing in all forms but poetry is what I love the most.
P: You knew very young, then, that poetry would have and did have power over you in a positive way. I wonder if that is how it goes for a lot of writers, that the passion is realized early enough that it digs deeply into them. Were you always encouraged to write? Even with passion I think it is helpful to have someone in your corner letting you know you are not crazy for wanting to express yourself.
E: I’ve actually been discussing this a great deal in therapy. As a child growing up in a working class neighborhood, and as a daughter of Mexican immigrants, I often felt like I didn’t have a voice. I just didn’t fit in. My parents tried their best, but I think they simply didn’t understand me and had no idea how to deal with such an odd kid.
“I was certainly not the daughter they expected and that was really difficult for me to grapple with.”
I also suffered from depression from a very early age. I felt very isolated and so I sought refuge in books and writing. It was very empowering to express myself and write something beautiful. My parents always bought be books and took me to the library, so in that sense they supported me. I was mostly encouraged to write by my teachers. I look back on all those wonderful people who cheered me on when I was young, and I’m really grateful. When I was older, my brother also gave me poetry he was reading in college. “Atlas of a Difficult World” by Adrienne Rich changed my life. But yes, I have often felt crazy. Even now.
P: In your own poetry, which is beautiful by the way, what do you strive to achieve? Do you work from a place of intentional investigation? Do you let intuition lead your pen? Or do you find it is a combination of both?
E: Thank you! I’m an incredibly introspective person. I always have been. That’s probably a result of both my nature and my circumstances growing up. I cultivated a rich inner life early on. I am constantly investigating my thoughts and feelings and it is simultaneously intentional and organic. My poetry mirrors my psyche. When I first write notes or a draft I try not to censor myself in any way. Sometimes I even end up scaring myself. “Donkey Poem” is a perfect example. When I was in Mexico a few years ago I saw a dead donkey on the side of the road and it haunted me for months. I kept asking myself why I cared so much about the donkey, why this particular animal held so much significance for me. When I finished my first draft of the poem, I startled myself. The last image was so dark and disturbing, I was like, “what the hell is wrong with me?!”
P: It sounds as though you begin with a haunting of sorts, something that intrigues you then simply doesn’t go away until it is transcribed, which is ironic because in some sense you immortalize what you put down. Do you think at all about who will read your work? I’m wondering if expectations of a particular audience ever play a part.
E: I honestly don’t think of an audience while I’m writing. As you said, something haunts me until I write it down. I write about what matters to me. I’ve thought a lot about this as a Latino/a poet. I’ve been asked if I feel obligated to write about certain things and the truth is that I don’t. I feel a responsibility to myself first, and then hope that others will connect to what I’m saying. I become paralyzed with fear if I think of an audience.
“I consider myself a Latina/Chicana writer because that’s who I am, not because I write about certain subjects.”
That identity is very much a part of my work, but I never set out to write about specific topics. If I write a poem about sexual violence in the drug cartels, for instance, it’s not because I think it’s a good idea, it’s because the image just won’t leave me alone.
P: This is a perfect segue into the work you do as a journalist, where audience expectations play a different role than they do in poetry. What was your first journalistic piece and how did it come into being? Did you learn how to submit articles/essays/etc. from mentors or did you move independently of mentors when you began?
E: Yes, it’s totally different. With articles, I definitely have to keep an audience in mind. I research to see what hasn’t been reported and consider who would be interested in the subject matter. Editors want work that will drive traffic, so I always keep that in mind. In my journalism, I definitely feel obligated to cover certain topics (i.e. immigration, gender issues) I began writing a blog about five years ago, and as the audience grew and I persistently pitched to editors, I was able to get published in some really great places. I was asked to be the sexpert for Cosmo for Latinas because the editor had been following my blog and thought I was funny and honest. It was so flattering! I’m not quite sure which was my first real article, but being asked to blog for The Huffington Post was definitely a big break for me. This was all a result of both scrappiness and support from other writers.
P: Many of your articles deal with being Latino, being woman, being feminist. I find a powerful advocate for sexual freedom and sexual wisdom in your work. You are also very aware of the current political climate and how it affects particular cultures be they LGBTQ, Latina/o’s in art and business, immigration reform, or women breaking into their 30s. What brings you to these topics and do you ever fear that you are leaving something or someone out? Do you feel pressure being an advocate for so many people?
E: The female body is often at the center of my work because as a woman of color, I’ve often felt as if my body didn’t belong to me. There is just so much shame about sex and sexuality in our communities, which I have always found incredibly harmful and dehumanizing. I write about those topics because I want to help dismantle stigma. It’s also been incredible to see the change in attitudes regarding LGBTQ issues throughout my lifetime. There is a lot more work to be done, but I see that people are much more open and accepting now. I’ve witnessed this in my own family. I write so much about immigration because my parents were undocumented immigrants. I do often think of who or what I’m leaving out, but I also realize that I’m only one person with a demanding full time job and a million obligations. I do try my best, though .
P: Writing for NBC News is huge, as is for Salon, and Al Jazeera America. You have major publications under your belt that I find well-deserved as your writing is so precise, so clear and honest. You get to the political pulse that many try to avoid. Our readers are budding artists, entrepreneurs, and thinkers. Can you, to the best of your knowledge, lead us into how you landed stories with these major outlets?
E: I’m a very stubborn person. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been rejected. I just kept pitching and pitching until I caught a break. One friend in particular shared a lot of her contacts with me, which I will forever be grateful for. Once you have one good publication, it’s much easier to be noticed and be taken seriously.
“My advice is to be persistent and not be afraid to ask for help.”
P: As we close out, I want to thank you again for your time. This has been a great conversation and I am thrilled to have spent this time with you. I want to ask about any future projects you may have. Is there a book in the works? Are you also writing fiction or a collection of essays? Where can people get in contact with you if they want to hear a pitch or see more of your work?
E: I have a poetry manuscript titled Kindness that I’ve been trying to get published. I wrote the earliest poem when I was 21, so I guess you can say that it’s nearly a decade old. I’ve reworked that thing so many times. My goodness. I’ve been a finalist in several contests, but it hasn’t been chosen yet. The thing is, I only send it to a handful of presses that I truly love, so the odds are not great. But as I said, I’m stubborn! I’m also currently writing a Young Adult novel about a Latina teenager. I’ve talked to a few agents who are interested in it, which is so exciting. It’s just been very difficult to finish it because I work so much. I’m close, though! I hope to finish it in the next few weeks. You can reach me at erikalsanchez.com , firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @ErikaLSanchez
Thank you so much for such thoughtful questions. I can’t wait until your book comes out!
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