Analicia Sotelo: How I Wrote “Do You Speak Virgin?”

A heritage speaker is someone who hears a language at home, understands it, and may or may not be able to speak it fluently. They know the language by instinct, the way a child conceptualizes through sound: eat, sleep, mine, love.

Poetry is like this—we read what we don’t understand. We intuit the rhythms of language, and use it before we really know how to, but that’s just it—that’s how it’s meant to be used—in a fragmented and growing state that feels like discovery.

The first poem I ever wrote about virginity was too abstract. It involved a baptism by a lake. It had lovely images and probably an aphorism. But the poem was hiding behind itself and I wanted it do something else.

Someone asked what this “virginity thing was all about for me.”

And I didn’t know that question would lead, months later, to this poem.

I wrote about Virginity as language, instead of category.

I wrote about Virginity as a collective and psychic experience, instead of one person’s choice to give up on a possession:

“Have you lost it?”
“Why not?”
“When?”
“Why?”

When did intimacy become a transaction? When did it become a grief, a loss? An interview?

And what of the intimacy of the mind? Is there a hymen for it?

Do You Speak Virgin?” was written with a chaotic energy, a refusal to let others assume.

It has some of the cynicism of “The Nymph’s Reply to the Passionate Shepherd”:

“If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.”

It has plenty of apprehension towards heartbreak, which occurs through incantation.

Like the moment in Practical Magic, where the young witch, later played by Sandra Bullock, casts a love spell for the perfect man as her sister watches in dismay, saying “I thought you never wanted to fall in love.” “That’s the point,” she says with gravity. “The guy I dreamed up doesn’t exist. And if he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart.”

This poem is also thinking about how the American teenage experience looks wildly different depending on how you’ve grown up.

It’s like the difference between the trailers for Can’t Hardly Wait and Real Women Have Curves. In Can’t Hardly Wait, there are no parents, only a graduation party where sex is a social badge that everyone craves. In Real Women Have Curves, America Ferrera, playing Ana, has sex with her first boyfriend. At home, in front of the mirror, she opens her towel and looks herself over with a fully realized self-confidence. It’s supposed to be a private moment, but in her home nothing is private. Her mother sees the expression on her face, knows right away, and shames her for it. In one high school experience, sex is a public triumph. In the other, it’s a complicated, private one. And yet, that’s reductive. The nice thing about a poem is that it exists somewhere in between.

None of these influences were specific to the writing of the poem, but if the poem is a language, and if language is cultivated through experience, then it is also true that these were specific to it, and also that the influences do not end here.

I wrote this poem by intuition, and from that intuition came phrases like “I am a Mexican-American fascinator” and:

I’m not afraid of sex.

I’m afraid of his skeleton
knocking against the headboard

in the middle of the night.

The poem became a monologue in which every virgin could speak back and answer the question,what is “this virginity thing for you?” And through that monologue came potential answers:

Virginity is the apprehension of love.

Virginity is morbidity and the awareness that we have one life to make love right, or to keep it a while.

Virginity is purgatorial, is never-ending, if one does not want to let it go.

Virginity is its own territory that should be respected.

It is private and public.

It is not mine and it is not yours.

It is whatever you define for yourself and however you choose to love and why and when and for how long and may it be ecstatic, may it be.

***

Analicia Sotelo
Analicia Sotelo

Analicia Sotelo is the author of 'Virgin,' the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, selected by Ross Gay, published by Milkweed Editions in February 2018. She is also the author of the chapbook 'Nonstop Godhead,' selected by Rigoberto González for the 2016 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship 30 and Under, and her poem “I’m Trying to Write a Poem About a Virgin and It’s Awful” was selected for Best New Poets 2015 by Tracy K. Smith. Her poems have also appeared in the New Yorker, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Iowa Review, and The Antioch Review. She is the 2016 DISQUIET International Literary Prize winner in poetry and is the recipient of scholarships from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and the Image Text Ithaca Symposium. She holds a BA in English literature from Trinity University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston.

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