“Oblivion: A Self-Portrait of My Own Funeral” by Carissa Chen
Carissa Chen is a free-lance artist whose work has been on display in the Times Square large screens, Carnegie Hall, and Rhode Island School of Design. Her portrait was recently chosen as one of fifty pieces internationally for the Scholastic Art Write Now Tour. Featured in the international Celebrating Contest as one of the Top Ten teen artists, Carissa has earned national recognition for her art and writing from associations such as the Columbia Scholastic Press, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and the National YoungArts Foundation. She is originally from southern California, and is currently a sophomore attending Phillips Exeter Academy.
A CONVERSATION WITH Analicia Sotelo
BY EMMA KEMP
Analicia Sotelo and I first met in 2015 at a residency in Ithaca, New York, and I’ve been following her poetry ever since. I was thrilled to have a conversation about some of the poignant topics in her debut collection, Virgin (Milkweed Editions, 2018)—mythology, desire, and ancho chili pork.
Sotelo lives in Houston, Texas, and her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Boston Review, FIELD, and elsewhere. She is the author of chapbook Nonstop Godhead (2016) and Tessex? (iTi, 2017), a collaborative photo-book co-edited by myself and several other talented artists and writers.
We began the following phone interview after weeks of sore throats and missed connections.
Emma Kemp, Interviewer: It’s tricky finding the right place to start. In your book, narrative themes range from Greek mythology to contemporary party talk, and, of course, the title calls to mind an “original” virgin (Mary) whose fertility spawned a new era of timekeeping. What is the beginning for you? When did this book emerge as such?
Analicia Sotelo, Poet: I love the idea of timekeeping because the poems were written in different versions over the course of about five to seven years, and in those rewrites, those new places, anachronisms grew. Through the process of writing and rewriting, I found that seemingly disparate themes actually belonged in the same poem together, and that a poem could recast a mythological figure in a Texas barbecue and be thinking about femininity and how it is perceived in our Westernized understandings of gender. Once I came to that realization I was able to push my poems further than I ever had before and I started to write the poems that comprised the bulk of manuscript.
EK: Thematically, the book feels very coherent, considering the poems span five or so years.
AS: Yes, at first I thought the poems touched on three different themes: virginity or girlhood; parental figures; Westernized antiquity and how that is in contrast with a Mexican American / South Texas landscape. I realized in the process of laying out the order of the book that they were linked, somehow, through the myth of Ariadne. In the mythological tale, Ariadne falls in love with Theseus, who has come from a neighboring town to kill her half-brother, the Minotaur. The Minotaur lives in a maze where he entraps intruders, but Ariadne gives Theseus a red thread to guide him through and out of the maze. Later, they run away to the island of Naxos, and in the morning, she wakes to find herself alone, watching his ships sail off. She’s given everything to help her new lover who then abandons her. There is something brave and risky about her choice, and something complicated about her vulnerability on those shores. In putting the manuscript in order I began to see how all the themes were rooted in this character, a woman who must find her own answers and solutions.
EK: Right. In the “Pastoral” section, there are a couple of poems that explore the father-daughter dynamic, the panic that accompanies the realization of absence, and the longing that comes after.
AS: Yes, there’s a poem called, “My Father & de Chirico Asleep on Chairs of Burnt Umber” in which the narrator wakes up and her dad is not there. And so I decided that one link between all of the different poems was a certain vulnerability. I wanted to look at how she might find strength, even though she’s failing in her relationships. Where does she get her strength from? That question led me to the title, a kind of pronouncement, and from there I constructed the shape of the manuscript around it.
EK: It’s interesting hearing you refer to the narrative voice, the first-person voice, as a “she.” Do you consider her a synthesis of various female experiences? How autobiographical is “she”?
AS: Sometimes I feel like all of the poems are spoken by the same person, but from multiple or fractured perspectives. I think of it like a Picasso wherein a single portrait contains many different angles. Other times it feels more singularly me, but at the same time I’m constructing so much that I can’t fully say that. They feel like a psychic vocalization of emotional truths, with some real life images, and in that sense they are both autobiographical and communal, affected by a multitude of experiences and conversations. In referring to the speaker in the third person I have the distance that I need to be able to let the poem define its own identity rather than control what I think the poem is doing.
EK: There is a quality of shapeshifting or dress-up, as if the speaker is toying with layers of visibility throughout the course of a poem (“I am a Mexican-American fascinator”); it’s a cunning playfulness, or perhaps flirtation, with presentation. You challenge and renegotiate the reader’s expectation of her constantly.
AS: Yes, with the “Virgin” poems, for example, I was interested in challenging the expectation that women who are perceived to be “virginal” or “meek” are either very religious or out of date. And so I wanted to approach virginity from a more surprising, interior angle. I was curious about the perspective of someone who is suspicious of relationships, or obsessed with mortality, or is deeply invested in an intellectual experience and therefore rejects the body. There’s a challenge in the line: “I’m not afraid of sex. I’m afraid of his skeleton / knocking against the headboard / in the middle of the night.” That was a very big breakthrough for the book because it’s taking the expectation that a virginal person is afraid of sex and inverting it, saying I’m not afraid of sex, I’m actually afraid of, you know, the fact that we are all going to die.
EK: You pull the rug out from under our feet. I feel a constant tug in the motion of the book that is almost a kind of tide, a pulling one way and then the other. In “Trauma with a Second Chance at Humiliation,” you write, “One side of me says, Destroy / The other, Be gentle.” That line specifically speaks to the reconciliation a lot of us have to do on a near-daily basis just to exist, but what I find potent in these poems are the moments when the speaker seems to relish, however briefly, in embracing her vicious side. In the section titled “Trauma,” this feels especially evident and it makes itself known through humor. I’m wondering about the relationship between trauma and humiliation and humor.
AS: I used to write without any humor at all about these same subjects. I have very early drafts that are lyrical and interesting, but they were very, very depressing, and also isolating. Humiliation is odd that way. If you tell someone a humiliating anecdote and there’s no humor at all, it’s cringeworthy, it makes you feel terrible for the person, almost embarrassed for them. Humor provided the leverage I needed to realistically describe a narrative while keeping the reader wanting to listen in just to see what will happen, what will be said. It freed me to be sarcastic, or petty, or bitter—all negative energies that “proper” women are probably not supposed to show—in order to knowledge that yes, this happened, and I understand it felt bad, but ultimately the world’s not going to end. To write with humor gives you that perspective of recovering from a brief moment of imbalance.
EK: Several of my favorite poems are in “Humiliation” because, often, this is where we see the speaker play her strongest card. The closing line in the last poem of that section, after we’ve been with her as she reflects on a high-school relationship with a male teacher, she says, “It does matter. / I don’t have to tell you why.” I’m intrigued by the immensity of the student-mentor relationship, its magnitude. The extent of the student-teacher relationship remains ambiguous, but regardless, we understand the power of the encounter—that as a young woman discovering such feelings the first time, you’re often not sure what to do with them. Where can they go, because in the context of student-teacher, they’re not supposed to exist, right?
AS: Right. I’m really intrigued by the space of “not supposed to exist,” and in some ways, the entire book is about a young woman (or projections of that young woman) that are impossibly in existence, out of the natural order of time. A relationship (whether physical or mental) between a young female student and an older male mentor is going to carry with it a fraught power struggle. And in these poems in particular the intellectual space is something the speaker seems to be fighting for, at least as far as I understand it. There’s something to “ideas” in these poems, which are intellectual abstractions that the speaker is fascinated by. Sometimes I wonder if “I love ideas more than men / myself even less than ideas” is the point of this sequence of poems.
EK: Exactly. What does intellectual intimacy look like when you’re sixteen or fifteen and, as in my case, in an all-girls high school? Female adolescence and burgeoning sexuality is an especially threatening dimension within an institution. If you don’t have many adult relationships, certain (and quite often benign) encounters can become disproportionately powerful. They can take up so much space and assert a lot of influence later on that you can’t necessarily foresee.
AS: I think that’s a common feeling for young women in spaces where they don’t get a lot of contact with potential romantic partners at an important time in their development, and so they are searching for some kind of similar closeness, which can make them susceptible to being taken advantage of. I think it’s important to not underestimate the power of male figures at that time in life and in those spaces, and to acknowledge that susceptibility. But I hope the poems will be healing to those young women who have navigated those kind of spaces.
EK: On the topic of healing, the book is broken up into seven sub-sections ranging from “Taste” to “Rest Cure.” At what point did you decide to structure it in this way?
AS: It took a while. A lot of the poems are about loss so the manuscript needed something to break those poems into smaller doses. Deciding on the title Virgin helped me shape the book as a bildungsroman, and take the reader somewhat chronologically through the evolution of an anachronistic speaker. It was an experiment and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first, but now I really like it.
EK: Such an organizing principle parallels a menu of sorts, the reader being able to navigate to a specified category depending on what appetite needs sating. It feels as though food as a sensorial stimulant runs throughout the book, forming connections between eating and consuming and devouring and womanhood, all with a culturally located inflection.
AS: Funny that you say that because I think someone else mentioned that there was so much food in the book and and I love that because it was a little bit surprising for me. Obviously there are the very classic fruit images, like that of the peach, which is often employed to describe sexuality.
EK: There are lines about barbecue, about fried tongue. About ancho chili-rubbed pork ribs, golden habanero margaritas, enchiladas with American mozzarella. You establish a very acute flavor profile—Tex-Mex at its best. And in “Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs,” the slap of the egg on the plate is very visceral.
AS: “Sexuality” is something that is very contained in these poems, for instance, there’s a line in the barbecue poem that goes, “I’m beautiful in my harmlessness,” as if the speaker doesn’t want to be offensive to other women, but she feels like she does have a sexuality that could be powerful. And, so you know, in the moment where the man that she used to want is grilling these beautiful peaches, that’s actually the closest she can probably get to him, through that attention to the creative, sensual act of preparing food. In “Purgatory Tastes Like Eggs,” eggs are a literal embodiment of fertility. Slapping is physical, even sexual, yet the relationship that’s described in that piece is one of distance and suspicion. Again, food becomes the only access point for this character to experience and take charge of her sexuality in a way that is very personal.
EK: It’s interesting to think about that in a religious sense, as well; at least in the Catholic tradition, where one consumes the body and blood of Christ through bread, through wine. This brings me back to the Virgin Mary, her lack of agency in most of the traumatic scenarios in her life. We know her for her compassion, her servile nature, her mourning. Your virgins, on the other hand, “are here to tell you to fuck off.” They’re not taking anymore bullshit. There’s a line in a gospel—Luke, I believe—where Jesus is chastising a friend for his lack of hospitality; he didn’t offer Jesus any water to wash his feet. Jesus indicates to the man’s wife and says something like, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair” (Luke 7:44). Throughout history, the notion has persisted that the woman—the lover—will do what needs to be done; she’ll wait for her absent beloved. Was Ariadne’s story compelling because she didn’t wait too long, mourning Theseus’ departure? In the end, she married Dionysus, right? The ultimate hype boy.
AS: You know, Mary is such an intriguing character. I do see moments of agency in her relative lack of fear when first talking to an angel (something that seems to terrify everyone else) and in the moment when she tells her son to turn the water in the wine (essentially, fix this party!) and I’m sure there are other moments like those that show a kind of beautiful, surprising turn in expectations. Some part of me thinks the virgins that “tell you to fuck off” are the same as the virgin who won’t even use the word “fuck” in any context, because the expletive-willing virgins are defending any virgin’s right to decide for herself how she will define herself and her agency. I love that image of washing the feet (it was almost included in the book!). There is something cleansing about water images that I like, and maybe this book is an awakening, or a certain kind of baptism that opens up the possibility that one can live with “innocence” and “strength” simultaneously, a fluid, but powerful possibility.
EK: I’m suddenly remembering the night that I stayed at your house during one of Houston’s vicious storms. It rained all night, a terrific lightning storm, and the whole city flooded. Austin flooded, too.
AS: That was scary. But such a beautiful moment we shared in the dark.
Emma Kemp is a writer and artist based in Los Angeles where she teaches at Otis College of Art & Design. Emma is one half of artist-duo Earl Gravy, as well as a co-founder of the publishing platform WhichWitchLA. She is currently at work on a book of biographical cultural criticism that traces the life and work of musician Conor Oberst. Follow her @e_e_kemp.
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