AUTHOR INTERVIEW with Elena Cisneros

Elena Cisneros is a poet living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She received her BA and MFA from Hamline University in Saint Paul, MN. She is the author of The Sad True Tales of J. Strait: In Which There Is Contemplation (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2012) as well as Dark Stars w/ artist Susan Solomon (Red Bird Chapbooks 2014). Her poetry has appeared in the St. Paul Almanac, Sleet Magazine, Red Bird Broadsides, Coffee House Press Coffee Sleeves Project and the Minnesota Book Arts Winter Book: Lessons For our Time (2012). She was also a finalist for the Loft Mentor Series in Poetry and Creative Prose in 2016-2017. Elena also was an assistant poetry editor for Water~Stone Review. Her first book In the Shadow Country is being released in January (2019) by Tavern Books.

Halee Kirkwood is a first-generation graduate of Northland College and a MFA student at Hamline University. Kirkwood is a descendant of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Their work has been published or is forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, ctrl+v, Cream City Review, Midwest Gothic, and others. Kirkwood is current associate editor for Runestone and was selected as a teaching fellow for the 2019 Desert Nights, Rising Stars writing conference at Arizona State University.

Conner Dolezal is in his fourth year studying for his BFA at Hamline. His academic focus is in fiction, though he also maintains an interest in screenwriting and amateur film making.

Note: The questions we brought to Elena were pulled from more than one hundred amazing questions that the Runestone editorial board created and submitted ahead of time.

Hieu Minh Nguyen in Runestone Journal

Elena Cisneros

Halee Kirkwood: Thank you for coming tonight, Elena. Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you choose the title of your poetry collection, In the Shadow Country?

Elena Cisneros: I think of where I come from, the Pine Ridge Reservation, as a place that is filled with shadows, and my life is sort of like that too. I didn’t specifically set out to call the book that, but when I wrote the title poem, it just seemed to encapsulate a lot of the images and feelings that I wanted in a first book. It was never in my mind that this was ever going to be published. But that was one poem that seemed never to move from its place. And I think it’s because it’s an overall view of how I see the world; where I come from, and the life I’ve lived on the reservation, the Pine Ridge Reservation. So, I think it kind of fits, as my first book is sort of an introduction to how I see things.

HK: Can you talk a little more about your decision to make the first poem in the book the title poem? Was there a decision to emphasize that phrase specifically?

EC: No. I remembered that when I was in grad school though, and took classes with Jim Moore, and Deborah Keenan, and Patricia Kirkpatrick, that they always said you need a sort of introduction. You know? How are you going to let people into your book? Now whether “In the Shadow Country” is a friendly introduction or not, I don’t know. It’s my view of the world–where I come from. The things I’ve seen. That kind of stuff. It was sort of like a catch-all: here is me, right here in this poem.

Connor Dolezal: The forms in In the Shadow Country vary greatly, from brief lineated poems to prose blocks. How do you decide on form? Does form influence content or vice-versa?

EC: I’ve always had a problem with form. My teachers can attest to that. I was never a fan of form because I thought of it as kind of a constraint. That was true at least until my last year of grad school, when I really got into form. Then it was all I could think about. I wrote a bunch of sonnets and things.

In terms of this project, the poems are all pieces of me in different parts of my life. Some of these are part of my MFA thesis, but the other ones were written afterwards, after a huge loss in my life. Form was never in the forefront. For me, it’s all about content, because if I don’t have content, then what’s the point of form? At least that’s how I think. I do sometimes look to see how a poem looks on the page, but for me it’s not really the technical forms of poetry. It’s not something that I seek out all the time. I’m free verse all the way.

HK: How did you first know you were a poet?

EC: I have to thank Deborah Keenan for that. She was the first instructor I had as a graduate student, and she was also the person who interviewed me over the phone for my grad program. The reason I got in to Hamline was [for my] fiction, but I ended up taking a [multi-genre] class with Deborah. Poetry worked for me as a conduit for the grief I was dealing with at the time. I had lost my grandmother, and I hadn’t really dealt with it, and it wasn’t until I started writing poetry that it all started coming out. That had never happened before. So, I ended up going to poetry because it helped me deal with things that I couldn’t deal with otherwise. I have to thank Deborah Keenan for helping me see that.

CD: When did you start writing? What was your first writing project?

EC: I’ve always been writing. But it was fiction mostly–short fiction, short stories. But I wouldn’t say I ever had a project. It was just something I used to sort of deal with what was going on around me. It wasn’t until I went to college and grad school that I actually started thinking, hey, I could actually work on somethingsome project. So, I would say it wasn’t until grad school that I ever had a writing project per se.

HK: You were an assistant editor for Water~Stone Review, can you talk about what has been helpful to your development as both an editor and a writer during your time as the poetry editor?

EC: Always fight for what you believe in. There are a couple poems in the issues I worked on that would not have been there if I had not spoken up for them. So, I would say fight for what you believe in. Have a good argument–don’t just say it’s “because I like it.” But definitely fight for that voice that wouldn’t be there had you not been in the room as an editor. I learned that from Patricia Kirkpatrick.

CD: Can you tell us what makes a stand-out submission for you? What can I writer do to better prepare a submission?

EC: Editing. (Laughter) Show it to a bunch of people! Don’t just think because it came from you, in one shot, it’s perfect, because odds are, it isn’t. I don’t know about stand outs, or what a stand out should be. I would say it’s just the voice that I want to hear. I mean, that’s as simply as I can put it.

HK: What specific qualities do you think make a poem meaningful?

EC: God, that is so hard. Meaningful… that’s a very individual thing, I think. Well, I guess the poems that are meaningful to me are ones I can relate to. Ones that sort of speak to me at the time, and it’s so hard to say exactly why that is. Because everybody’s different. Everybody has what works for them, and what doesn’t work for them. It’s strictly an individual thing. I don’t have a general answer for that one.

CD: How does life on the Pine Ridge Reservation inform your poetry?

EC: I would say the voices. The people. The fact that you have to drive so far between places just to get groceries, or to go to work. Travel, landscape, all that kind of stuff really informs my poetry. I would say this book in particular changed from here to there, and now I see it more as a student, and also as a child who lost their mother. I think that in between, there are landscape scenes that come specifically from Pine Ridge.

I personally wouldn’t try to write a book about Pine Ridge because I think that would be really hard, but also think it would be really obvious. When I was a student here, instructors were always trying to get me to write more about my home town, but I was like, that’s why I left! I don’t want to write about my hometown. You know it seeps in every once in a while, but mostly for me, it’s all about the landscape. Because if I step outside my house and I have the porch light off, I can see the Milky Way. I remember when I was in school [in Minneapolis], I couldn’t see the stars, you know what I mean? It’s very strange to me that people can live in the city and not really see the sky. So, in terms of Pine Ridge [informing my poetry] I would say it’s the landscape. If I go any deeper than that it kind of gets depressing for me, because of how life can be out there.

HK: We noticed that there are allusions to religion in your writing, like in the poem “Jesus in Mankato” and “Prayers With My Little Plastic Jesus.” What role does religion play in your poetry?

EC: Well, when I was a kid, where I grew up, there were two schools. You either went to the Catholic school (because of course there were boarding schools on the reservation) or you went to the government school. And my mom said, you’re going to Catholic school because they are all about your education, and other one isn’t. So we were always surrounded by Catholicism.

I wouldn’t say I’m a religious person–I’d say that I’m more interested in the story. You know, the story of Jesus, the man who walked into the desert. I mean, to me, that’s a good story. I guess, in a way, when I was a child, I was religious because that’s what we were taught, but as I got older and as I lost people…I’m not a religious person at all now. Even in terms of, say, my native religion. These poems are looking at me then, rather than at me now. At one time, religion was important, because it was all about the stories.

I’m a very story-driven person. When we were growing up, my mom would tell us stories. When we didn’t have any power, everyone would get together and tell stories to scare each other. It was just the way it was. We told stories. So, in terms of those poems in particular, I think it’s the story of Jesus that fascinates me.

HK: We also noticed a lot of insect imagery–can you talk about the significance of insects or any other reoccurring themes, images, or motifs that are important to you in your manuscript?

EC: It might be that I don’t have a really good imagination! When I was in one of Jim Moore’s poetry classes, I wrote a poem that was all about fireflies. When I was a kid, I lived down in this place called the Canyon, on the reservation. I’d go outside and all the trees were on fire with fireflies. We don’t have that anymore; I can’t find the fireflies where I live. I think of those things I related to when I was a child, when I thought a lot of stuff was really innocent, and I could do whatever I wanted, and the world was huge. So I think I use those [recurring images] as a way to get back that feeling. I’m not particularly interested in insects, but I mean fireflies are definitely one of those motifs that I go back to, because they remind me of when I was a kid, and of a time when everything was new, and everything was fun. When you get older, you realize everything’s not like that all the time. So, I tend to go back to fireflies, or stars–that kind of stuff–those images are very comforting to me. The road is another one.

CD: Is there a certain poem in In the Shadow Country that you found especially challenging to write, in terms of line breaks, forms, or emotion?

EC: There are more than a few. I would say half or more of this book is very hard for me to read because [the poems] remind me of when my mother died, which was very hard for me. It was unexpected, and it’s still very difficult.

There was one poem in particular I wrote right after she died, I think it was “Evidence of Existence.” It was just a list of the things she left behind after she died, like a pair of shoes, a jacket, things like that. That poem was written really fast, but it, in particular, has become even harder to look at. “The Reality of Limitation” too–that one in particular is really hard emotionally. As I get older, and as the years get longer since she passed away, for some reason that poem has become a lot harder to look at. I never thought that one would bother me, but it actually does. I am going to keep it in the book though.

In terms of form and that kind of stuff… not really. I mean, I wouldn’t say they were easy, because they were revised over and over again, but I wouldn’t call that part difficult or anything, because I do believe that revision and editing is a huge part of the process that you shouldn’t ignore.

HK: Switching gears, we were told you are also a painter. How has painting influenced your writing and vice versa? Do you have any thoughts on what a writer can learn from spending time in a visual medium?

EC: I went to painting because I couldn’t write anymore. Painting doesn’t necessarily–at least not that I’m aware of–do anything to my writing. I use it as therapy. Where I live, there is no mental health help, and I was having a really hard time not being able to write after my mother died. I thought, I’m never going to write again, why did I get a degree, I wasted my time, all this stuff, and it wasn’t until I got into painting–just picking up cheap acrylic paints and what I could afford at the time–and just painting, that I calmed down. It’s almost like playing music, you know? You can get lost in just mixing colors together for an hour or so on the canvas.

I wouldn’t say it informed anything, but it helped me get back into writing when I had lost it after my mother passed away. I wrote hard at first, for like six months, and [my former teacher] Jim Moore can attest to that. I sent him all kinds of stuff, in every form you can think of, and then it just stopped. And I couldn’t write anything anymore. That lasted for a couple of years. It was really hard. I’d always been fascinated by painting, but I never did it because I thought, well I can’t draw, so why would I bother with something I can’t do? Then I got desperate enough that I just ended up saying, whatever, I ‘m going to do this until I can’t do it anymore. It helped me get back into writing again. Since I’ve been writing again, I haven’t been painting anything.

CD: How did you know you were ready for grad school? What about grad school did you find the most helpful?

EC: I didn’t know I was ready for grad school. I knew I wanted to do more than what I had done with my English major. I knew that I was writing, but at the time, I was writing fiction, and I just sent out a bunch of applications and Hamline was one of the schools that wrote back.  I had my interview with Deborah Keenan and I was accepted, so it was a fluke really. I mean nobody where I’m from goes to graduate school. Everybody thought it was weird because I wanted to go to grad school for writing. “What are you going to do with that?” At the time, even my mom asked what kind of job I was going to have if I went to grad school for writing. I said, I don’t care, I want to go…even though it’s put me in debt.

The best thing I found about grad school was that I had time to really focus on the thing I love. And then, of course, meeting people who have the same drive as you, or the same passion. I still keep in touch with them. I mean Gretchen [Marquette] was the one who invited me here to talk with you. Even though I’m nine hours away, I can still keep in touch with people from that community. I never really did that before, because I am so shy. I don’t necessarily make friends very easily, because I’m so quiet, but I remember that in my first class, I ended up sitting next to Gretchen, and she just kept talking to me. I knew that she was one of those people that was nonjudgmental–she was very open, and we ended up being friends. And then of course I met Jim [Moore] and Deborah [Keenan] and Patricia [Kirkpatrick] and Caitlin [Bailey] and various other people. It was just about finding them. You’re lucky if you live in the Twin Cities, because you have that community. Where I’m at, there’s nothing. I’m so happy for the internet, because that’s my way of connecting with people. Grad school is really all about that: learning craft, and making a community.

HK: It sounds like grad school was a very rewarding experience. Can you talk about any other rewarding experiences you’ve had because of poetry?

EC: I think about sitting up in the attic of the creative writing program’s house, reading for Water~Stone Review with Caitlin and Patricia, just hashing out submissions. Those little moments were really rewarding. It was never about being published for me. I think that’s changed a little as I’ve gotten further away from graduating. But at the time, it was just about getting together with people and talking about poetry and talking about poets and how they’ve lived their lives and how they create work. That was really rewarding for me because it fed what I wanted to do.

CD:  Speaking of other poets, what poets, contemporary or classic, do you read and recommend? Are there authors or books from your youth that significantly influenced your engagement with writing?

EC: I remember that this came up during an editorial board session of Water~Stone Review. We were talking about our influences, and Patricia asked about mine, and I told her Jack Kerouac. And she was a little shocked… I think everyone in the room was shocked when I said Kerouac, because he’s an alcoholic and he does all this bad stuff, but when I was a kid, and I found On the Road, it completely took me away from the hell that was high school on the reservation. It got me listening to sound; the sound in sentences, the rhythm of how he wrote.

The other, oddly, would be Jim Morrison from The Doors. Because, one time in an interview he said something about Arthur Rimbaud and symbolist poetry, and I was like who’s Arthur Rimbaud? So, of course I went into our small little library and looked up Arthur Rimbaud, and hey! they had a book on symbolist poetry. I stole it from the library. But no one else was checking it out! The last time someone checked it out was in the ‘60s. So those were the two people that got me thinking about sound and thinking about poetry.

In terms of poets I read, I thank the stars that I found Frank Stanford, the poet from Arkansas. (I think that’s where he studied?) I graduated, and six months later, my mom was dead. It was the greatest time of my life and then the worst. I had “The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You,” that huge poem of his, and I remember just getting lost in that. It helped me deal with the strangeness of that loss. So I definitely recommend Frank Stanford.

Over time, the British poet Ted Hughes has become another big influence, specifically his book Crow. I love Alice Oswald, and her book Memorial. I was always a fan of–but also afraid of–Anne Sexton. I think it’s because her poetry, at least generally speaking, is very confrontational, but also very vulnerable. There is something about that dynamic that made me afraid to read her, but I had to do it, because she was so good.

HK: Do you still write in other genres? What about poetry speaks to you more than fiction or other genres?

EC: I came to writing though fiction, which I still write once in a while. I’ll write a short story out of the blue, just to get those people out of my head and onto the page. But poetry helps me deal with grief. It helps me deal with confusion. I really don’t think it’s a small thing to say that poetry has saved my life more than once. Poetry has been the way for me to be healthy about my grief, and about pain. I mean, it’s so easy to flip into the really bad stuff, but all you have to do is pick up a pen and a piece of paper and then work the badness into a poem.

HK: Some of us are interested in your inspiration for “To the Wolves of Chernobyl.” How does that poem relate to the rest of the poems in In the Shadow Country?

EC: That question woke me up! It made me think about how the unconscious can get into poetry. When I was younger, my mother had a book, and on the cover was a little Native boy, and the title was “Give Me My Father’s Body.” I was like, What’s that about? And she told me it was the story about a boy who engaged in a long legal battle with the Smithsonian, because they had his father’s bones displayed, and he wanted his father’s body back. I think that “To the Wolves of Chernobyl” is sort of about that.

Where I work right now, there is an archive, and they are always working on retrieving items taken by museums, or taken by others. In a way, that poem in particular is about being a Native person who can’t speak their language anymore, whose family members are missing all over the country, or even lost in another country because they were taken to Paris and “shown off.” That kind of stuff is what that poem is really about. It’s about loss of identity while you still exist in this world. In one of my classes [on the reservation], I asked a group of college students to work on a research paper on the resettlement of refugees. As they were working on it, one student said, “this reminds me of us.” At the time I was writing “Wolves of Chernobyl,” I couldn’t tell you what it was about. I think that was the unconscious coming in.

HK: We noticed that there are a lot of references to Walt Whitman in the book. Why Whitman? We sort of touched on who your other poetic influences were, but if you’d like to bring up any more…

EC: Whitman. There was one semester that I told everyone in my class that my final project was all about Whitman and Jesus. Because at the time, Whitman was very welcoming. I didn’t need to take out a dictionary to look up what his every word meant. I’ve always thought of Whitman as very open, very vast in his views, almost prophetic, if you will. And sometimes I really dig that kind of voice and that kind of view of the world. Whitman has always been one of those touchstones for me.

In terms of other influences, I would say some of the Beats. And lately it’s been Dylan Thomas and John Berryman. I recommend that you read it out loud. Read Dylan Thomas out loud. Read John Berryman out loud. When I was first introduced to John Berryman by Jim Moore, I didn’t get him at all. Not at all. And then I read an interview he did with the Paris Review where he talked about his method, and I started to read it out loud. And it became like music to me. Same thing with Dylan Thomas. So, I think those are poets I go back to every once in a while.  

CD: It seems you’ve traveled a lot as a poet. What effect would you say this has had on your poetry?

EC: As a kid, being one of three, to a single parent who worked all the time, we had to move a lot, because sometimes a job would begin or end. I was born in LA. We moved from there to South Dakota, to Montana, to Oklahoma, to all these different places. So, in a way, even driving [here today] was nothing, except for the weather of course, and the way people drive in the snow. But I mean, I could do that standing on my head, driving back and forth, eight hours, because that’s how I lived my childhood–in the back of a Buick, eating Trix because that’s all we could afford, and washing ourselves in the river. That’s how we did it, because that’s how we traveled.

I prefer traveling at night, because the lights are so bright, and because you can come upon a refinery and it looks beautiful, even though you know it’s bad for the earth. There’s something about driving at night and driving long trips that really get me in touch with being a child again. Having that as my place. I had a big family, and nobody had their own space. But in a car, I’m there by myself. I can do whatever I want, and think about whatever I want, and have the vast open landscape to myself. That’s one of the reasons I never last in a city, because I never feel like there’s any room. If I go back home, the next person is two or three miles away. There’s a light over there that lets me know somebody is there, but I have all this space. I really value having my own space. Even in a car.

Plus, you know, our country is very beautiful. You know what I mean? There are beautiful landscapes, beautiful sky, everything. And I really enjoy that quietness. I enjoy being able to get in that headspace because I think that really helps me a lot. It helps me calm down. Even though I don’t look very anxious right now, I am very anxious. Driving helps me center myself and calm down. Even though as a kid, I never knew where we were going, and it was dark, and all of the sudden we were in a new place, or at somebody’s house, and I didn’t know where I was, I accepted that was just how it was. I think it’s affected how I view landscapes, how I put a lot of poetry, if you will, to the night sky, to a gas station in the middle of nowhere–the only lights you’ll see–to me that’s very beautiful.

HK: As an addendum to that question, if you could travel anywhere you haven’t yet, where would you go?

EC: When I was an undergrad, I did a study abroad in the Yucatan that was awesome. I really enjoyed that. But the one place I would go is to the Atacama Desert in Chile, just so I could look at the sky from there. It’s supposed to be the clearest place on the earth and I would love to just lay there and look up at the sky.

CD: Do you ever get stuck when writing a poem or a piece? If so, what helps you overcome that obstacle?

EC: I send a flurry of emails to either Gretchen or Jim. I mentioned before, but six months or so after my mom died, I went into a major writing block. I would suggest if people get into a writing block to just walk away for a while, find something else creative to do, whether that’s music or painting, or whatever it is… playing video games even, just to get your mind off of that block. But also, start reading more. That’s one of the things that helped me. I started to read more fiction. Right now, I’m on a Stephen King kick. I read all of his earlier books, and his collection of essays, and that in and of itself gives me another voice in my head besides my own, saying I can’t write anything anymore, or I’ll never write again. That’s how I would work through it. It’s hard to do if you’ve never dealt with that before, but it’s something you can get through; it just takes some time. A little tweaking, if you will.

HK: Is there anything you’ve learned since graduating pertaining to the literary world that you wish someone had told you sooner?

EC: The first thing I thought of, I’ll just be honest with you, is that it’s all a game. That there’s a certain formula they want, that kind of thing. But it might just be that I haven’t been in the game long enough to know how it works. I remember that even working on Water~Stone, it felt like though we were a group of individuals, we sort of started to think the same. And Patricia Kirkpatrick was always good at throwing a wrench in, to make us think differently. I would say to you is what Patricia said to me. Start reading all of the literary journals you can. Start seeing what they’re printing, see if that’s something that speaks to you, and then send it there. That’s what I would do. Read the literary journals, read where people are getting published and see what fits. I might be wrong, but to me, it looks like that’s how it works, in terms of publishing.

CD: Can you share with us what you’re working on now?

EC: Right now, it’s sort of all in here [motions to the manuscript on the table.] I can’t say for sure what it is, because it feels so new, but I’ve been playing with an idea I spoke to Deborah Keenan about a long time ago, about my landscape poems mixed with photography, because I also take pictures. So that’s something I’m going to start working on. Right now, where I live, people are getting nervous about the election, and they’re worried about things. We tend to be forgotten on the reservation, at least on my reservation. This is bad enough, but then again you also don’t want people to start paying attention to you either.  But I think I want to start taking those pictures, and maybe even start working on those landscape poems that I was meant to do before things changed, after I graduated. I think that’s going to be my next project.

HK: Do you envision it kind of like a collage of photography and poems?

EC: I really recommend Journal of a Prairie Year, by Paul Gruchow. Patricia Kirkpatrick taught that in one of her classes, and it was structured around the seasons. That’s something I could think about doing, in terms of the landscape and the seasons–it changes so much where I live. I want to find another thing to grasp on to, because this in itself [gestures to the manuscript again] is really a couple versions of myself, and if I’m able to do a second book, I kind of want to get away from myself. I’m tired of me. I don’t like looking too close.

HK: I can relate to that. Ok, I guess our last question is, if you could choose one thing to be remembered for, what would it be?

EC: I don’t think it would be a thing. I teach–I never thought I’d say that!–and one of the things I tell my students is to be curious. If anything, I would hope I’d be remembered for being curious. I’ve always been that way. So much so that people thought I was weird, because one week I was all about this type of film, and the next week I was all about this type of music. I am just a naturally curious person. I like learning things and learning about people and how things are put together. I hope I’d be remembered for being curious, and not just taking somebody else’s word for it. That’s another thing I would say, don’t ever just take anybody’s word for it, because odds are, they’re just trying to sell you something. Be curious.

After Halee and Connor completed their interview, we opened the floor to questions from the audience.

Audience Question: I noticed when I was reading your work that you have a black stallion in there a lot, and I was wondering what kind of significance that has for you?

EC: I guess the answer would be that it’s sort of about death. I know that’s probably not that interesting, but as a child–and even in the past couple of years–I’ve lost a lot of people in my life. They just keep coming and coming and I’ve started to equate it with a black stallion. You know the black dog, of depression? The same thing for me would be that black stallion.

Where I live, people have a horse farm, and there is always a black stallion hanging around. I equate him with death. I was born into a very traumatized family that had dealt with a death that was completely unexpected. And it affected everybody. I think that, in turn, affected me. As you go through life, however or wherever you live it, at least on my reservation, there’s always something happening, and it’s not always good. So, I sort of equate that black stallion with that. It’s always there. No matter where you go, you’re going to see it. So that’s what it’s become for me.

AQ: What is your favorite place to be to write?

EC: My bed, with my dog with me. My little dog is always right by me. It’s my comfort zone– lying in my bed with my little light on. I shut the door and everything’s out of my way and I have my little dog there with me, breathing and sleeping there with his little paws. That to me, is my version of heaven. Having a good book, all quiet, a little dog there and just reading and getting lost. I finished Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, that’s an awesome book–I highly recommend that book. Even if you don’t like horror novels, that is an awesome book. I sat there reading that book, getting scared and everything, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Just being in my bedroom with a book and my little dog with me is perfect.

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