Poetry is like a song, like a psalm, like a prayer. Poetry is different things to many people, and April being Poetry Month,
The Latina Book Club is celebrating by featuring Latino poets all week long.
Theresa Varela is a poet, an author, a friend. We are proud to feature her and her new collection of poems, Answered by Silence. She has graciously shared one with us, with interview questions following. Happy poetry reading.
I fall effortlessly down the stairs
Toe caught by the metal edging
My plaid skirt flips over my head
White thighs flail
Begging that no one sees
My bowl of uneaten soup
Eyes spill tears
Upper lip swells in the throes
Back at school
Sister Joan appraises
me with a stern eye
-You should have stayed home
and sit at my wooden desk for the rest of the day
Copyright held by author. Permission granted to reprint. All rights reserved by author.
A CHAT WITH POET AND AUTHOR THERESA VARELA
Q: You've written two wonderful books and now a collection of poetry. Which was harder to write?
Theresa: Writing poetry and novels are different processes for me. The one thing that is necessary for both is that I listen to whatever words are coming to me and that I write them down immediately. When I wrote Covering the Sun with My Hand I received different stories and first submitted my manuscript in short story form. An editor was kind enough, after multiple rejections from others, to suggest that I create a natural arc in terms of the story line. I took the original submission apart and recreated it as she suggested. But I knew my main characters, Julia and Rene, well. They had become real people to me and I had built relationships with them over time. None of their story went missing during the reconstruction because they would let me know what needed to be included. I often say that Julia practically sat on my laptop dictating as I typed. Nights of Indigo Blue was more of a challenge in a different way. I believe I created that story more than having it channeled to me as I did Covering the Sun. But I should add that Nights was still a mystery and I was as surprised to find out who the murderer was and what the motive was as any reader. When I write, if I listen closely enough, I hear the dialogue and write it down as the character sees fit. When I’m brave enough I revise what I’ve heard until the story is set and I provide detail for background, locations, and scenery. If I’m on a train I can write small sections of what I’ve heard and then put it together into story form. I don’t plan and outline stories in advance. I tend to read the story as I’m writing.
Poems come to me pretty much complete by the time I’ve transferred them from my head to page. When I hear a poem coming I write it down quickly, otherwise I will most likely lose it. Poems are like falling stars in a summer night sky. If I’m not paying attention they quickly disappear and I would swear that I’d seen the visual from the corner of my eye but the entire star isn’t captured. I find that I don’t do much revising when it comes to poetry because then I change the poem into something it wasn’t meant to be and it can become affectatious. Spinning a poem into something it’s not is unfair to a poem that should be simple and genuine to the sentiment it is meant to express. Poetry for me isn’t about how long I can make the poem. It’s not about how many big words I can use or how many people gasp or raise their fists in response. It’s about writing simply from my heart.
Q: Tell us about your Answered by Silence collection. A lot of your poems deal with childhood grief. Did you write some of these poems as a child?
Theresa: Answered by Silence is a collection of poems that I wrote about my experience of the time preceding and a few years after the death of my older sister, Mara Perez, to kidney disease when I was eleven years old. She was fifteen years old. I didn’t have the tools or the words to write poems as a child and many of my feelings were buried deep within me. The memories and images of those times have always been fresh in my mind and I recently began hearing the poems come to me from me. The idea of a collection manifested and I wrote them all over the course of a winter. The writing of these poems started as a private experience. They tell of the powerlessness I experienced in my grief and of the responses from adults and other children in my life at the time. I didn’t share these to get back at anyone. These are just my experiences. We all respond to life in different manners. I hope that by sharing the poems that others can share in the healing that I experienced in creating the collection.
My daughter, Mara Alicia Cordova, who I named after my sister and my mother, illustrated images that were reminiscent of those early times. My spouse, Patricia Dornelles, created the cover. We added pictures of me with my sister during our happier days together. My daughter and spouse have been instrumental in my healing as an adult after a childhood filled with grief and I’m grateful that they took part in the creation of this volume. This collection is a memoir of a life changing time in my existence. I work as a psychiatric nurse practitioner and for years have heard stories that have brought me to tears in the truth telling. I’m a hard sell when it comes to poetry and memoir so I think it’s a coyote that I’ve done exactly that— written a memoir in poetry form. Spirit must have tricked me into doing it.
Q: Share with us the healing power, the beauty of poetry.
Theresa: After the death of my sister I watched hours of after school television. My favorite movie was Splendor in the Grass. Actress Natalie Wood had the role of Deenie Loomis- a young woman who falls in love during a time of repressed love and sexuality in 1928. I felt Deenie’s agony as she struggled to make meaning of William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…”
I was a mere child but listening from the fractured self I’d become, I felt she was me or at least speaking for me. Those words reminded me that I while I felt alone, there was at least one other person in the world who spoke words that told the story in my heart and those very important healing words were spoken through poetry.
Q: What poets do you enjoy? Who inspires you?
Theresa: Interestingly I find it very hard to read poetry. When we were tiny girls, my mother read poems to us from a thick book that was aptly named, Best Loved Poems. My favorite was Abou Ben Adhem by James Henry Leigh Hunt. The magic of angels, spirituality, and visions was instilled in me through this poetry. More contemporary poets that I relish reading are Gil Fagiani, who wrote A Blanquito en el Barrio and Melinda Palacio, author of Fire is a Story Waiting. The legendary Pat Parker astounds me when I read her pages. A newer poet to me, Vanessa Chica, beguiles me with her poems of pure simplicity. There are many local poets whose writing is inspirational such as Manuel Melendez and Maria Aponte. The vividness of their writing is stirring and I find myself moved each time I read. This opens me to adding to my folder of poems that may one day make it to another volume.
Q: What are you writing now?
Theresa: My work in progress is a surreal thriller called Coney Island Siren. The protagonist, Magaly Fuentes, is a young nurse who is in a troubled relationship with Police Officer Frank Ramirez. During one of their forays to Maggie’s favorite flea market she discovers a journal belonging to Ellen- a woman who lived in Coney Island in the early 1900s. Maggie becomes captivated by the journal entries and is both enthralled and alarmed at the similarities in their lives. I’ve been working on this book for about four years. This writing began when I suddenly had the vision of a young woman enjoying the ocean view while standing on Coney Island’s famous boardwalk. Her boyfriend stepped onto the page along with a few sea gulls and the story emerged. Many of Ellen’s journal entries are poems and uses language that resonates with that time. This novel surprised me since it’s my first novel that is so dark and dreamlike incorporating raw themes of violence, substance use, and steamy sexuality.
Q: Share your social media addresses with us.
Theresa: My website is www.theresavarela.com and my twitter account is Theresa_Varela. We can be friends on Facebook at Theresa Varela and you can visit my author page Theresa Varela Author. While I haven’t spent recent days on Tumbler, I’m there as latinalibations where I match photos of my daily life with haikus. Those are fun to do and I’m inspired to begin them again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Award-winning Puerto Rican author Theresa Varela was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She is the recipient of International Latino Book Awards for Covering the Sun with My Hand in 2015 and Nights of Indigo Blue: A Daisy Muñiz Mystery in 2016. Dr. Varela holds a PhD in Nursing Research and Theory Development, and currently works with the mentally ill homeless population in New York City. She is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and a member of Las Comadres Para las Americas, and is on the Advisory Board of the Latina 50 Plus program. She is co-founder of La Pluma y La Tinta, a writers’ workshop. Her blog, LatinaLibations on Writing and All Things of the Spirit, can be found at www.theresavarela.com
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