Saying What Can’t Be Said: An Interview with Sasha Pimentel

by Matthew Larrimore

Born in Manila and raised in Atlanta, Saudi Arabia and the New York City tri-state region, Sasha Pimentel is a Filipina poet and author ofInsides She Swallowed (West End Press), winner of the 2011 American Book Award. Her work appears in journals such as APR, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review and Callaloo. Honors include the Ernesto Trejo prize and the Philip Levine Fellowship. She is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, where she teaches poetry writing, nonfiction writing, and women’s, Asian American and black literatures. She lives in El Paso, on the border of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Matthew Larrimore: How does working as a creative writing professor affect your poetry? How does living on the US-Mexico border influence you as a poet and educator?

Sasha Pimentel: Teaching is an incredible luxury. Sometimes professors can get carried away considering the things that don’t seem directly related to teaching but which can plague a full-time teaching position: committee work, the constant nuances of too much email, those always seemingly urgent presses of time—and I’m guilty of those days of complaint, when I lose track. But then I walk into a classroom and workshop a piece as I did recently in my undergraduate creative nonfiction class, in which the student’s father is being held hostage at the family restaurant by cartel members during the Ciudad Juárez drug war. The father watched his mistress get raped and was braced by the cartel robbers.

This essay laced that scenic conflict with the student’s experience of practiced invisibility as an illegal immigrant, how even as children he and his sisters learned to stifle their breath if the car was pulled over, or each time they walked into a government building. And though I’m an immigrant too, the immigrant experience in this country is so diverse, complex and layered that I never experienced that kind of self-quieting, such lack of breath at the appearance of a siren or the brick of a schoolhouse, but this student—at only twenty years old—made me feel that. As the writer, he controlled my breath as reader.

That is the kind of writing at stake in the classroom, particularly here at the border, because the people driven to study writing, the people so committed to writing, are often brought to the workshop because there is something terribly at risk, and exigent, in the stories they need to tell.

So all the other stuff that fills the crevices of one’s teaching life, it falls away. And then I get to do my job, I get to sight and articulate to this student and his colleagues how to craft this story into a tighter form, the contract of expectation between the text and the reader. I get to teach him how to balance how he reveals his narrative—the matter of his life he has already experienced—with the lyrical intensity of language, when a text lifts into a moment and time seems to stop. Or, how to unbraid his lived chronology into sections and plait them into repeating images… how to develop motifs and play with tense, syntax, perspective and point of view… techniques to lift from his experience a single and clear voice, a story which arrives at what it wants to say because of how it’s said.

How incredible it is that a good writer asks a reader to feel and experience outside, or larger than, the reader’s experience. This student did. How incredible it is that what a professor does is use her own study to scaffold a student’s enlarging study, his growing voice. In this way teaching is a privilege. But I know from Philip Levine’s essay “Mine Own John Berryman” that a teacher too must be “willing to take the heat, to be disliked if need be,” that as creative writing professors it is our obligation to say if in its drafted form a poem or essay is not true to what it can be, wants to be. It’s our obligation to point out the failures of writing too—certainly there is so much of my own poetry I fail at, but I understand that as part of my work now, whereas some students, still new to the hard necessities of writing, will inevitably get hurt. But what is important here is not the production of each single piece in workshop, or even, the semester’s workshop, but how those moments can come together into a larger learning of poetic or prosaic form for that student, and how such learning will unfold into a life’s arc as a disciplined reader, and hopefully, as a writer. That is a responsibility of teaching.

The way that teaching is luxury is that it teaches you to recognize in others lessons for yourself. There are always the lessons, of course, one learns in articulating techniques—if I learn to explain to a student that she can arrive at a more final breath at the end of her poem by enjambing her way there, and using commas instead of periods to overextend a reader’s breath so that by the final endstop the reader wants to breathe, I can later use that technique for myself. But there is the larger luxury of getting to profess, to articulate one’s aesthetics, particularly with graduate students, in getting to wrestle out what one believes is necessary in art. There is the luxury too, of watching others struggle so much with the writing process that when you struggle, as you inevitably will, it doesn’t feel so personal, so devastating, because if you believe in that struggle as necessary to your students’ artistic development, you must believe it for yourself.

Levine writes that his final lesson from his teacher Berryman, perhaps what was most important to Levine’s development, was that after the formal study of workshop was over, he realized that “[f]rom now on I had to travel the road to poetry alone or with my peers.” Meaning, ultimately no one can construct the artist’s study but the artist himself, and that such study occurs only over a disciplined lifetime. I will never touch the poetic brilliance of Levine nor Berryman, but I can learn from them, and certainly my job as a professor requires of me constant reading, writing and articulation—it is a lifestyle of study.
As an artist, I try to cheat a lot, I try to get ahead of my age to get that long learning in by reading the last books of writers—I’m obsessed with artists’ last works, last collections, paintings, symphonies—what is it people know and don’t know in their art before death?—but I have at least been teaching long enough to recognize that impatience, even in myself, because I see in my students such overflowing desire and need. Perhaps if I weren’t teaching, if I didn’t have such access to so many developing writers, I wouldn’t have learned to perceive that at all, would have only felt the disquiet yawp within me. Certainly that would’ve been a harder life as an artist, to perceive desire, but not desire as part of process.

But because of my position of distance looking at the learning arcs of writers, I can think it’s wonderful when your need to tell a story surpasses your ability: it drives you to study your craft. We know from Truman Capote’s papers that we would never have had In Cold Blood if Capote wasn’t working hard to use the techniques of fiction, poetry and nonfiction all in one genre to arrive at what he was intense to say, which was key to this country’s current sense of creative nonfiction.

I say “this country” because I work at the border. I have a stunning view in my office of El Paso unfolding into the hills, unfolding into México, and that is another daily influence on my perspective. The cultures of border are more fluid than I’d imagined before I lived here, but that is complicated by what is to so many people a political and physical border, a one-sided impenetrability I feel is unfair, and I don’t believe in. There is a major park here, where they run concerts in the summer, which was originally México, but when the river changed course, it became the United States. Here, when a factory burns down in one country, the other is submerged in smoke. How is it that with the United States passport I received in my 20s I can go unfettered almost anywhere in the world, but though I am the same person, had I kept my maroon passport from the Philippines, I could not? I know the arguments of economics between nation-states driven by fear, but I know more how privilege and limitation are defined by how those in power have socially constructed race. This is the only city in the U.S. I’ve ever lived in—except for the inner city of Atlanta, but there, only the inner city—in which I feel I can live as a brown woman in a community of color. That’s central to my artistic and scholarly life, because I’m free here to think and write without as constant and as many racial aggressions and micro-aggressions as other artists of color in this country encounter.

In the workshop that means we don’t lose valuable classroom time debating the basic things that other classes can get lost in when the majority student group is this country’s privileged, such as if a language other than English in a piece needs to be italicized, contextualized or given a glossary—because whether we’re monolingual, bilingual or multilingual here—everyone in the classroom has intersected with the multiplicities of language more than most students in middle “America.” Tagalog is my first language, and English my second, and I’d studied French, but when I arrived in El Paso I learned Spanish, and the languages most accessible to me now are English and Spanish. I understand—and my students understand—that meaning and perspective cannot be divorced from language, that Federico García Lorca’s “Verde que te quiero verde” isn’t just Green, how I want you green, but also the phonetic verte que te quiero verte, or see you, how I want to see you. Or, see you, I love you, to see you. Or move those commas in the translations, and see how the meanings change, though verde que te quiero verde, five words, encompasses it all. Or, in too many MFA programs, the writers of color are encouraged to self-exoticize their experiences towards always a white, middle-class audience, though here we can refute that is our audience at all. We can claim our tribes here.

Further, I teach in a bilingual MFA program where writers come to UTEP from all over the Americas, writing their theses in English and Spanish, our graduate classes in both languages, and our study always located in the awareness that what we are trying to say of our own experience is one among many. I write among North Americans, Peruvianos, Colombianos, Cubanos… what artist, when her medium is words, doesn’t benefit in access to a wider palette, more subtlety of shade?

As I speak to you now, it’s dark outside. The city lights of Juárez are pressed under the sky, are slinking together on black hills on top of El Paso’s lights, as in Anne Sexton’s poem “The Starry Night,” like an old unseen serpent swallowing the stars.

ML: Insides She Swallowed won the American Book Award for Poetry in 2011. The book works through topics of race, gender, and family, a trinity of identity if you will, while showcasing your technical expertise. Can you tell us about the book from your own words and what about it you are proud of / still gets you excited?

SP: It’s hard for me to look back at that book, which I wrote while a graduate student at Fresno State—it was my MFA thesis—without seeing the young woman who wrote it—I was in my 20s—without wanting to lay over her image what I know now, the things that will break, or break her (for a little while), and how such effacement will become part of her developing art. There are the poems I would take out now that don’t work hard enough, and I can see, with the distance of years, how my understanding of the poetic line then focused on the ending of the line rather than the whole line, and I can see how the desire in those poems are rooted in—perhaps so much so they’re limited by—family memory.

It’s very much a first book. When I met Shirley Geok-lin Lim after she blurbed my book—I asked my publisher to contact her because I was so viscerally touched by her reading of “Pantoum for Chinese Women,” the sonic layering—she was so kind to me, and she said that it was the book of a young person. I knew she didn’t mean it pejoratively; she was saying the book’s voice was passionate in a way that only the young can be so passionate—and while I glimpsed what she was telling me then, I’m understanding it more now, how Insides is from the lens of a woman learning to speak, and when we first learn we can speak, especially when the throat opens from a position of resistance, sometimes we try to speak so forcefully.

My partner’s daughter, Esme, is 15. She’s beautiful, bright, funny and so much smarter and more articulate than I was in my mid-20s, so much like J.D. Salinger’s Esmé with love and squalor. She’s more intuitive than me in my 30s now too, and I love to listen to her as she articulates her sociocultural politics, the force pressuring her words as she comes to understand the world moving around her, and how she can move in it. I watch her build a gingerbread house, the generous icing extruding between the squares of cookie, and the exuberance with which she moves in her body. She throws herself into hugs, into the ocean, into her laughter. I love it. That she thinks, speaks, and acts with such vitality is necessary, especially because she’s a woman. The world attempts to efface and limit women, and I see in Esme an intensity which will be cultured into strength and tenacity, her palm on the window. Esme will far surpass anything I can do, but I recognize in her something that I should recognize in my younger self too.

So though I can see the formal and technical limitations of my book, in my better moments, I understand the book as a marker, a point in time in an artist’s development. That the shifting of my aesthetics since should not invalidate what is said, and felt, in that book. I still like the sense of need that is under the surface of the words. The young woman in there at the edges of her body and her sexuality. The voice in there who, in speaking, is trying so very hard to understand. I hope that never leaves me. But I hope too that my work now can take such passion, and through craft, complicate it into artistic desire.

ML: Your reading brings a vibrancy to your poetry that not all poets manage. What’s it like to read a poem you wrote a while ago (I’m guessing some were written 5 or more years ago); is revisiting a poem like that a different experience then reading a poem you just wrote?

SP: That’s too nice. One of the reasons writers write is because they’re in love with language. When you first write a poem, it’s so thrilling, finding its shape, its voice, the texture of the music of words. Language is so seductive, but falling into the seduction of one’s own words gets in the way of producing good work.

I use reading performances of current poems to separate myself from the page so I can hear with more distance where the rhythms of my poems are working and where they aren’t working. Where stuff gets indulgent or clunky. Because I can still revise those poems, I want to separate myself from the thrill so that I can move on to what the work really demands. The performative aspect of being on stage allows me to depersonalize what I’ve written. But when I’m reading something of my own that was published some time ago, I do so with more distance; I’m trying to listen (and in reading represent in my physical voice) the music that’s already there, rather than the music that can be there.

Toni Morrison says: “I don’t trust a performance. I could get a response that might make me think it was successful when it wasn’t at all,” and I keep such distrust too, because our loyalty as writers has to be to the work, and not to how the work is performed, or received when there are lights and a microphone. Morrison says that one of the difficulties for her in writing “is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm,” and when I’m reading out loud, whether my own work or others’, like a madwoman alone in my dining room or on a stage, I’m trying to listen for that, the difference between measure and rhythm, the territory between what is said and unsaid.

ML: There are sequences of your poems, I’m thinking of the end of “Blood, Sister” for instance, that stand out sonically from the rest of your work; they seem to call attention to themselves with their use of sound. What is it about these sections? What, if any strategy is at work?

SP: I have this silly theory that poets become poets because they love music but lack the fingers or diaphragm to play an instrument or sing; that’s probably just me! If I could’ve sung, I would’ve taken a smoky bar over the solitude of me on my laptop.

When I’m working in sequence poems, to which I have an affinity because they have more room and allow for more breadth and breath, I’m thinking of the symphony. One of the pleasures of sequence poems is that you don’t have to follow a single narrative arc; each section can approach the subject from a different perspective, a different understanding. But the spaces between sections are more formidable than say, the spaces between stanzas, and one has to construct imagistic and sonic repetitions to trespass those spaces, those silences which can take over. So you construct a violin chorus in one section, and repeat that chorus in permutations in other sections, to start connecting them together in the body, beyond idea and intellect, into the ear and the mouth. Then you throw in a bassoon that picks up some of those notes. And of course the cello sections have to come in, the cello the instrument in closest approximation to the human voice. The imagery you return to throughout the poem can be the bass, keeping measure. So on, and so on. And then the pleasure of the sequence poem becomes the conversation of parts to parts in the sum, how multiple pieces speak to each other and swell, until—and this is the part I love most in a symphonic movement—they allow for the single violin to come through, that aching, clear and singular voice.

In a poem, that might be the moment when the poem is most lyrical, and intimate. When the momentum of the work stops, and pauses…just enough…and then the poem’s momentum takes over again. It’s the point of Roland Barthes’s punctum, or the part that touches Lorca’s duende, and I don’t know that I myself ever get there. But Philip Levine does in “Smoke,” or Arthur Sze in “Archipelago,” or Patricia Smith in “13 Ways of Looking at 13,” or C.D. Wright in the book-length poem Deepstep Come Shining. So I’m trying to build various voices together to earn that one hopeful and pained voice, like when the guitars and the saxophone finally give in to the singer in Peter Gabriel’s “Home Sweet Home,” and nothing, nothing can muddle the humanity, the utterance. It’s the part of song I’m most in love with.

But you can’t start there. You have to try to earn your way there in the work, no matter how long it takes. I wrote “Blood, Sister” because I had a picture of a sponsored Filipina child on my refrigerator door, and struck by the irony of it, I wanted to write a poem that could say the word “hunger.”

ML: How / When / Why did you begin writing poetry? Why is poetry important to you?

SP: College. Awful, sentimental poetry. I was an undergraduate during the beginning of social media, and I’m so glad that my LiveJournal account died quietly somewhere on the internet. All I had then was the need to express. But then I started practicing writing under Leon Stokesbury, Corrinne Clegg Hales and Sharon Bryan, and I began to understand craft, form, how important poetry was for how, in such small space, it could transform your sense of the world. It’s also the closest we get to a language which arrives at the thing, not the mini-mummy in a gas station in rural California, The Thing!, but William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things,” Picasso’s “thing,” that which is behind the symbol of words, or medium, what is under surface.

I learn more everyday what poetry can do. Not everything, as Edward Hirsch points out in a recent interview on his book elegy Gabriel—a poem can’t give your loves, your people back. A poem, though, “can give us some representation,” and as Hirsch says, “it does something better than almost anything in the world can do, but not life.” But something of life, represented, imagined, lamented, or asked in a poem? That’s a whole heck of a lot.

ML: Fill us in on your writing routine, how do you stay productive?

SP: I need a table, a hard chair, a computer. I like to start writing before the sun comes up, when I can still discern the subtleties of sound in the quiet morning like the hiss of a gas heater, or a train having passed by, before the eye can discern a rooftop from a hill, a street from shrubbery. I need to start then if I’m really to write that day. Then I write into the late afternoon. Some days I can go without speaking out loud to anyone. Or I teach at night. It’s the silence that brings me to sound, from what cannot be said to what can be said, and hopefully to what is between words.

I need to begin, as Richard Wilbur so beautifully juxtaposes in the poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” before “the punctual rape of every blessèd day,” or love calls me too much, too quickly, to the world.

If I’m not writing, I’m reading poetry or reading about poetry, or cooking or baking, and singing combinations of words in my head as the dough bubbles.

ML: When you’re writing poetry is there something in particular you try to achieve with a poem? (I realize this is a vague question I’m thinking about the big picture reaching an audience / giving voice to a topic)

SP: Punctum. Studium. Music. Imagery repeated and developed through its repetition. Momentum and resistance. What can’t be said. Lines saying on their own something different than their sentences. A balance between poem and whitespace. The feeling of a moment. What is beyond that moment. What my partner, Michael, looks like in the quiet dark. Sometimes a story. Voice to Desire. Form.

ML: Do you have any writing projects that you are currently working on?

SP: I finished a poetry manuscript titled Bodies, and Other Natural Disasters, about borders, war, divorce and sexual abuse, which took me about five years to write, and some years more, I’m guessing, to get published, but I think I’m one of those slow, quiet writers. I wish I wasn’t, but I think I am.

I’m playing with some poems and some paragraphs in prose here and there, but I haven’t yet found the thrust of a new project, or the first shape of what I’m writing about now. I have my table and my hard chair though.

ML: Who are you reading right now?

SP: A lot of villanelles. And Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop; I’m seeking solid ground as I’m between projects, and these writers are some of my “go to” poets in English, because they speak clearly, without ornamentation. Also the poems I fall into, one after another, in the clicking of links on the awesome labyrinth of the Poetry Foundation’s website. I just finished Alice Munro’s short story collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, Liz Scheid’s incredible The Shape of Blue, Aleksandar Hemon’sThe Book of My Lives, and I’m going back into Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City soon. And lots of essays! I spent last semester studying all the books of Philip Levine and Truman Capote.

ML: Who are some of your favorite poets?

SP: All the poets I’ve mentioned previously, especially Levine and Lorca, plus: Jorge Luis Borges, Andrea Cote, Luisa Igloria, Barbara Jane Reyes, Aimee Nezhukumatahil, Paisley Rekdal, Susan Wood, Gabriela Mistral, Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha Tretheway, Li-Young Lee, Cyrus Cassells, Maram al-Massri, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Dunya Mikhail, Wislawa Szymborska, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Czeslaw Milosz, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dorianne Laux, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds… This is the hardest of all your questions, because I know I’ll be doing something later today, and I’ll think, no, _____! Why didn’t I mention how important ______?

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Matthew Larrimore was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, but spent 6 years in the west. He lived in Colorado and Arizona where he received his Master’s degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing in May of 2012 from Northern Arizona University. Since then he relocated to Virginia to work on an MFA at Old Dominion University.  A veteran of six annual journals including serving as the managing editor of Thin Air Magazine 2011-2012, his own work has previously appeared in The ChimerasThe Crucible,Aproprosthearts.com. and The Minutiae.blog.com