The poet and activist Karla Cordero completed her MFA at San Diego State University. She has achieved huge successes in poetry slams and keeps spreading inspiration by curating the reading series “Voice for Change”, and as an editor of Spit Journal. In addition to being published in magazines such as The Acentos Review, Word Riot, Toe Good Poetry and more, her first chapbook named Grasshoppers Before Gods was released in 2016 (read our review here).
The B-Side got the chance to ask her a few questions about what formed her as a writer, the political developments that move the country and where poetry comes in.
Let’s have an easy start. What are you reading at the moment?
Where shall I start… at this moment I’m reading a multitude of things (brace yourself), which are found in various parts of my house, car, backpack, cell phone, and purse. Poetry-wise I’ve been devouring The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, re-reading Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, and I just opened a collection of amazing work by Latinx writers titled Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzalúdan Borderlands, edited by ire’ne lara silva and Dan Vera.
I also love young adult fiction! I’m ten pages away from finishing A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and if you plan on reading this book, have the tissues ready! And when my mind needs some visual aesthetics that work brilliantly with narrative, I always have a comic at hand. I’m currently reading Hell Boy, Volume 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola. And as soon as I’m done with this interview I’ll be picking up some Rachel McKibbens that sits patiently next to my laptop.
Speaking of current activities: since much of your writing is highly political, how do you feel about being a female Latina poet these days?
I mean if one were to peel back the layers and begin to dissect the phrase “Female Latina Poet These Days,” I’d have to write a whole dissertation (even a book!), but for the sake of this interview I’ll keep it abbreviated according to how my life navigates through this world as a writer.
To be a “female Latina poet these days” means you carry the responsibility to resurrect your ancestors when they lack the tangible breath and bones to do so. It is a labor of love to harness your voice into existence when the spaces you inhabit are not expecting to hear your story. To be a “female Latina poet these days” means you are flawed and gifted by nature and history. You navigate the earth as Mestiza, being all, woman, Latina, daughter, student, teacher, verbal-artist, writer, activist, and politician, on the days your body is discouraged or enthusiastic for the world. It means exhausting and liberating. It means writing poems about Donald Trump, hoping to change ignorant minds one little stanza at a time during all the chaos and racism. It means embracing my culture, taking a breath, and writing for myself, for a readership that needs a story for both companionship and protest.
Your heritage is clearly visible in your work, as seen in terms like “cactus forehead” (taken from the poem “Nopal En El Frente” in Grasshoppers Before Gods). What was your upbringing like, and what made you develop an interest in poetry?
My upbringing begins with landscape. I was born in Calexico, California, a small desert city that borders on Mexicali, Mexico. As a child, my boredom and curiosities would entice me to cook eggs outside on a frying pan during 120 degree heated summers. In the winter time, I’d enjoy the perfect weather, a balance between dry cold and sun, and watch my first sunflower grow in a patch of clay dirt next to the ancient lemon tree in the backyard. Growing up I became familiar with the same land that was known for its sheep agriculture, farming, and its ability to decompose the bodies of immigrants who were unsuccessful at attaining the American Dream.
As for family, my parents were conservative Catholics who lacked a college education, but worked tedious hours to keep their four daughters in private school – a school that was 90% populated by students who would cross the border every day from Mexico. On Sundays we’d visit our Abuela’s house to eat bowls of menudo, drinking endless cups of Pepsi. Spanish and English would fly across the room, and my Abuelo would constantly lecture my parents in his machismo tone on how to raise their children.
It wasn’t until I graduated high school (a graduating class of 40 students) that I begged my parents to seek an education outside of our little city. With minimum knowledge and zero experience, I moved to San Diego in 2006, attending Palomar Community College. When I transferred over to CSUSM, I started to take courses in Literature that caught my interest.
In one particular class, focusing on Literature in the Community, Professor Sandra Doller encouraged the class to attend an event regarding literature happenings within our surrounding community. It was in that moment that I saw a flyer for my first Poetry Slam I ever attended. I wasn’t sure what to expect, aside from the possibility of being in a room with a bunch of old white dudes reciting Shakespearean sonnets. Since attending some kind of event was a class requirement, I said “What the hell! How bad could it be?”
I attended the Encinitas’s Full Moon Poetry Slam on a Saturday evening, and with the inclusion of laughter and tears, I witnessed the presence and performance of poetry by young writers. I was amazed how poetry had the ability to make me feel a certain way. I was inspired and captivated by the art form that would later be a vehicle to telling my own stories that needed to be risen from years of silence.
Besides your cultural experience, what are your greatest influences and how do they become evident in your writing?
I don’t think I’ve made that discovery as a writer in really analyzing my work and honing in on a list of my “greatest influences.” I still have so much to learn and to discover. However, I can speak on what motivates me to write on a daily basis: my mother and Natalie Diaz.
My mother is the first person I think of, her strength and endurance to survive any trial or tribulation is always encouraging. When the economy crashed a few years back, my mother lost her company. She made the decision to enter a new career path with no educational background to add to her resume. While I was in college, she moved into my one bedroom apartment with me and my younger sister, leaving my father who was a disabled worker back home. My mother studied tediously for months to acquire a license in selling health insurance. As my mother would struggle through learning the new language of health insurance and policies, I sat at the same kitchen table writing poems about our living arrangement, finding inspiration in her own frustration and her own successes through the process. I carry her work ethic with me every time I write a new poem.
Natalie Diaz, on the other hand, was a poet I came across when I read her book When my brother was an Aztec. At this moment in time, I was an MFA student, second-guessing my poems, my stories, and my intention. In that same semester, the one woman of color who was a faculty member in the MFA program, Marilyn Chin, made the decision to retire. I completely fell apart as a writer. I hesitated in the creation of every poem I wrote, and lacked confidence in my writing. I can’t remember how I discovered Natalie’s book, but I recall reading the first couple of poems, and before I knew it, I finished the book in one sitting. I was inspired by Natalie’s ability to carry such accessible and powerful narratives through poetry. I simply remember picking up a pen and paper immediately right after.
Later, when I was investing more time in performance poetry, it was the voices of Patricia Smith and Rachel Mckibbens that motivated me to write truth without fear.
How do you bring musicality and sound into your writing?
I tend to read everything OUT LOUD! Also, I love turning nouns into verbs, and verbs into nouns. It makes me find interesting opportunities to allow certain lines in a poem to create a sound that is unexpected and refreshing. Other times, I tend to memorize my poems. When reciting a memorized piece, I often make self-edits (word changes, line breaks, presentation) that heighten or enhance the sound, which tends to be naturally more pleasing on the tongue.
Besides that, I listen to a lot of music. I’m not sure if this contributes to the craft, but I’d like to say so. I’ll become obsessed with a song and play it over and over again for days at a time. I begin to study the skilled construction of the song, memorize it, and pick and choose words that I love the sound of for my own writing.
In that context, to what extent do you feel different about spoken word pieces and other poems, in writing or in performing? How do the poet Karla Cordero and the spoken word artist Karla Cordero differ?
When entering the MFA program and the spoken word scene, both worlds (at different degrees) exhibited a distinct segregation between what “stage poetry” and “page poetry” is and how they interact within the world. I found this separation exhausting and hard to understand, and I knew I couldn’t exist or be myself without embracing a hybrid of artistic expressiveness. I would argue that “poet Karla Cordero” and “spoken word artist Karla Cordero” are titles I don’t choose to wear on different occasions; in fact, I embody all of them to be a writer. I believe spoken word and poetry are both verbal forms of creation, both same in nature and purpose. Spoken word is poetry, poetry is performance, all working toward the same goal: expression, liberation, connection, healing, and awareness, the only difference is the reader’s experience and interaction with the piece.
A reader and listener may experience the writing differently. A reader can read a poem, be inspired, and be left with perhaps the author’s bio and picture. Whereas when performing a spoken word piece, there is a listener who is to experience a different kind of intimacy with the poem, and to gain the opportunity to view the writer in their most vulnerable position. However, at the end of the day, spoken word or any kind of writing are all just as valuable, needed, and powerful tools to speak to an individual or community. As an artist, performing poems and getting published are simply different outlets to reaching various audiences who thirst for writing. All forms of writing present themselves with equal skill, labor, and technique involved in the creation of a piece.
You teach and host readings and workshops. Through this and perhaps even more, what do you envision for your own future, and for the whole field of poetry?
Well, I’ll just be cliché and say “world peace,” because my goodness do we need it more than ever. I think my main objective and purpose in life right now is to build community and compassion through literature and the arts. We live in a nation (especially after the elections) where hatred continues to spread at a rapid pace, and I feel that it is my job as an artist to work on breaking and dismantling these forces. As a teacher, I have access to classrooms, which is where I practice the importance of student voice and social awareness. I also strongly believe that poetry as protest is catching interest within our youth, especially within spoken word poetry and hip-hop.
For my own future, I guess I’m taking it one day at a time, to grow as a writer, to read more, to listen more, to learn more, and to write more. My goals include finishing my first full-length book of poetry, performing in new spaces, continuing to build community through the reading series Voice For Change, and starting a scholarship for students of color who are aspiring artists.
For more from Karla Cordero:
Watch Karla read some of her pieces: