“When I said I wanted a wedding gown, I meant/I am a wild beast, three leaps of the gazelle,” the poet Maria Kaylib Chavez, known as MK Chavez, writes in “Ursa Major,” a poem that examines desire within the context of a monogamous relationship. Each section of Chavez’s new full-length collection Dear Animal (Nomadic Press, 2016), describes a different class or species of animals, and by extension, the animalistic qualities–desire, anger–that suffuse the human spirit. Dear Animal arrives after the publication of Mothermorphosis (Nomadic Press, 2016), Virgin Eyes (Zeitgeist Press, 2008), Visitation (Kendra Steiner Editions, 2008), Next Exit: #9 (Kendra Steiner Editions, 2008) a collaboration with poet John Sweet, and Pinnacle, a collaboration with visual artist Mira Horvich (Kendra Steiner Editions, 2009). Chavez is also the co-founder/co-curator of the monthly reading series Lyrics & Dirges and co-organizer of the annual Berkeley Poetry Festival. She has been selected as a fellow at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, the Antioch Writers Workshop, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) workshop.
In Chavez’s Oakland apartment, the sea-green walls, dotted with images of Frida Kahlo, communicate calm, even as Delany Sun Ra, Chavez’s pet, a tiny, brown-and-white rabbit named after science fiction writer Samuel Delany and musician Sun Ra, hops past us. Both Chavez’s pet rabbit and the surprising whimsy of her poetry reflect Chavez’s interest in the weird, the supernatural. Chavez is a poet who describes the “Eat Me,” “Drink Me” protagonist of Alice in Wonderland (and who read Adventures in Wonderland five times in a row) as “Alice popping pills” and juxtaposes references to Star Trek and Creature Feature, the cult sci-fi television program, with frank discussions about mental illness, sexism, spirituality, and relationships.
Rochelle Spencer: Your poems reference several odd or surreal images–Joseph Cornell’s The Crystal Cage, Méret Oppenheim’s Object, Mark Ryden’s The Birth. Do you see the visual arts as informing your work? .
MK Chavez: Visual art very much informs my work. Art is a conduit for processing on a more collective level traumas that happen individually. All trauma, and much of life, should be shared. There’s a lot of suffering involved in life. I’ve been reading this Buddhist book, and I’m a bit of a cynic, so when a book feels overly precious, I’m resistant. But this book is about considerations for every day. Life is suffering–and sometimes life can be all suffering–but misery is a choice. We can’t get rid of things we’ve experienced. We can’t un-experience what we’ve experienced, but bad situations don’t have to last forever…And so art feels like a gift. It feels like the passage to the other side. With art, we make sense of the trauma and we’re not immersed in the suffering any more. With the new book, and with “For Broken Blossom,” the Joseph Cornell poem–and what an odd, beautiful duck he was!–I was listening. I’m an auditory observer, so I really listen to what people talk about. He spent the majority of his time alone and whatever his life may look like to us, there was incredible beauty in it. His art was full, and completely itself, and is now free to run off to be whatever it wants to be.
RS: Tell us about your new collection.
MK: Dear Animal is the title of my new collection. Animals are always going to be pretty prominent in my work. I have an inner creature, the way some people have an inner child. My best friend is cat head. We recognize each other’s creature-ness and respect it. Much of the world seems wild, uncontrolled, sublime. I’ve done my share of hiking, and sometimes you’re on a trail and can’t see what where it ends or what course it takes. You realize you’re very little. The trees, the paths–they completely overtake you. So the collection reveals that civilization is a term we should use very loosely…There’s also a lot of focus on women. The collection is witnessing women do amazing things. Women, dancers for example, can have this power of exotic danger that completely commands the stage–and men. The men think they are in control, when a woman actually commands the space.
RS: Some of your work has a surreal quality and there’s also a lot of humor…
MK: I was my family’s interpreter, and I would translate for my father and grandmother. It was so surreal for me as a child–I could translate the words and understand intellectually, but not emotionally…Another time, I was driving with a friend, and we came around a corner and saw all these police lights. We watched someone get arrested and the moment was so surreal: “we have to stop and watch the protectors.” That’s what’s normal now–and it’s absurd. So this kind of humor, it’s the laughter of resistance.
RS: Is there one particular message that you want readers to take away from Dear Animal?
MK: I’m not sure about that. The poems are about being of service to the community, being connected to social justice, but everyone knows best what to do. Still, I would love if those poems spoke to people in a positive way. Two young Latinx women–these two fabulous, bright, beautiful humans–came up to me and said that “grizzly bear lips,” a line from the poem that opens the collection, is how they sign off their emails to each other. We became friends on social media, and one day, I saw them sign off their emails that way! It’s astonishing to see a line from one of my poems become not my line but a combination from two different sources, mine and my readers.
RS: What’s your writing process like?
MK: I did a workshop with the poet Patricia Smith, and she said “you have a lot of questions.” I do have a lot of questions. My poetry is inquiry-based: ”what do you think?” and “let’s look at this.” There are few areas that I feel are 100% clear. So, I’m having a conversation with the reader, and I want to invite the reader into my questions.
RS: I interviewed a writer once and she said there were no subjects that she was afraid to write about. Reading your work, I thought you must feel the same way–you write about difficult topics, such as your mom’s schizophrenia, with honesty. Did you worry about how your family would react to your work?
MK: I come from a family from El Salvador where people disappeared–people were tortured and killed, bodies were found unrecognizable. My grandfather and uncles are no longer around, and today my family is one I’ve made. I have no one in my past to answer to. In fact, they owe me answers. I owe them nothing. My children get to have their opinions about who I am, the mistakes I’ve made. If you’re an orphan, it’s an incredible tragedy to have a blank slate and make your own life, but there’s also a freedom.
We’re taught we have to be angry at the people who hurt us, but I told the truth, my truth. When a trauma happens, people want you to be fully angry and feel no sorrow, ambivalence, or confusion. Or you have to be decimated. Neither of those things are true for me as a writer. When I first began “Mother of the Forest,” people wanted me to explain how terrifying it was to live with a mother with mental illness, but that wasn’t how I felt. My mother was sometimes terrifying but also brave and desperate to protect her child the best way she knew how. I wanted people to understand her.
When it was finally written, all the stuff about what you owe the world went away, all my defenses came down, and that’s when the poem was born.