Original post can be found here: https://letraslatinasblog.blogspot.com/2018/02/blood-sugar-canto-interview-with-irene.html
Blood Sugar Canto is a collection of poems that examines the healing relationship between self-expression and disease. A collection with five parts, silva chronicles a journey through despair that culminates in acceptance and peace. Though primarily struggling with diabetes, the work also addresses cancer and food toxicity. The feelings and emotions conveyed by the work acquire an impactful universality that any patient with chronic illness can identify with. One of the most important themes of the work is self-love, supported by healthy self-expression.
Because this collection unites physical and spiritual recovery, some poems integrate reflections on health and modern life: condemning GMO’s and toxins that have invaded our kitchens. As a diabetic, silva had to develop an entirely new outlook on her diet, limiting her sugar and alcohol intake among other drastic lifestyle changes. I myself developed a gluten and lactose intolerance along with an autoimmune disease my first year of college, which profoundly changed my relationship to food and exercise. silva reflects on the effects of chronic disease in her family, addressing an important cross-generational issue that is relevant to a growing number of autoimmune sufferers each decade. This interview attempts to highlight the background of silva’s familial influences and investigate the inspirations for silva’s healing vision.
-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)
[Therese Konopelski]: Your third poetry book, Blood Sugar Canto, explores the pain of living with diabetes. I noticed that one of the poems is also named blood•sugar•canto in part iv. Is the poem the namesake of the work or vice versa? What determined the overall theme of the work?
[ire’ne lara silva]: With this book, everything was different for me–the title and the concept for the whole book came before any individual poems. I’d been an insulin-dependent diabetic for almost 3 years when I decided to write the collection. At the time, it felt like diabetes was the most overwhelming thing in my life and I needed to make sense of it and the way it was impacting all areas of my life. I tried my damnedest to include as many experiences, emotions, fears, resolutions, discoveries, and reflections as I possibly could in the short span of a poetry collection. The title poem was one of the last poems I wrote because I felt that something was missing—a poem that would serve as the turning point in the movement from powerlessness to healing, from overwhelmedness to reconciliation. I wanted a poem that would contain all of the most urgent things I wanted to tell my readers—most importantly, that fear was not the road to healing or wholeness.
[TK]: The collection includes a co-written piece entitled “soledad,” which explores silence, solitude, darkness, aloneness, whispers, fear, and pain. How did this collaboration with Moisés S. L. Lara come about and how did you envision the piece fitting into the overall “story” of the work? Can you speak to the overall structure of the work and choice of “part” titles?
- speak with your voice touch with my hands
- read the ache of telling so much truth
iii. silence left and left the gate door open
- i even speak light till the light subsides
- let my last breath be song
[silva]: Moisés S. L. Lara, my brother, collaborated with me not only on that poem but also on many facets of the book. His artwork is on the cover, as it is on previous covers—furia, flesh to bone, and Enduring Azucares. For the last fifteen years, he has been an invaluable editor and my best reader. Even the order of the poems in Blood Sugar Canto was due to his input.
He was diagnosed as diabetic years before I was. We have shared and discussed so many of our experiences with diabetes. I don’t know that I could have made as much sense or come to as much peace as I’ve come to with this chronic illness without him. We talked about the concept of this book over and over again during the year I wrote these poems and the years I spent revising it. He suggested at least a dozen different prompts for poems.
In the case of “soledad,” the collaboration started with a memory. In 2006, we spent several months taking care of our father after he had a quadruple bypass and complications due to diabetes and a blood clot in his lungs.
During that time, the door closest to the kitchen kept opening on its own. Every time it did that, our father would call out, “Entre, Soledad.” He’d never done this in our childhoods (although also, the doors had never swung open like that when my mother was living).
Moisés wrote the first part of this poem in 2011 and then suggested I continue it. For me, it became a meditation on silence, mortality and fear, pain and solitude. I remember my father telling me in 2006 that if he’d known how much pain would be involved after the surgery, he would have chosen to die instead.
My father was a singer who never sang, a man whose frustrated creativity turned toxic. It stayed with me, how tragic it was that he turned away from something that could have had such an impact on his quality of life. Although I didn’t choose to follow my love of music as a career, music has been indispensable to me all my life and is an essential part of how I find strength and how I understand healing. Song is emotion and beauty and alignment and creation and individuality. As I wrote in the title poem, part of healing is the work of making the discordant notes (illness) become part of the harmonious song (living).
When it came to the structure of the book, I wanted to demonstrate that work, that movement from discordant (despair, fear, resentment, anger, pain) to harmonious (healing, reconciled, in-my-body, at peace). For the first draft of the collection, I laid out the poems on the floor and then arranged and rearranged all the poems. With minor changes, it stayed in that order for a few years. When Moisés rearranged it, I felt the new order was stronger and more surprising. It felt like a brand-new book to me, a more effective take on the story I wanted to tell. There was so much going on I felt like the book needed to be broken into five parts with their own titles, all lines from a poem in that section that I felt particularly haunted by.
[TK]: In my own family, we have a high incidence of an autoimmune disease that I fought to be diagnosed with at the age of 18. I particularly identified with “lullaby (for my nieces and nephews)” in part iii: “they will say you are too young to understand these things and you will believe in the invincibility of your young bodies you do not really believe you will age and grow old.”
What is it like looking at them, your community, and the nation, knowing that their innocence will come to an end, that something as innocuous as giving up their favorite foods can cause suffering? How does traditional medicine, natural medicine, and emotional healing like reading/writing poetry connect in treatment for you?
[silva]: I was wondering if “innocence” was the right word, but the more I think about it, the more I think you are right. The state of not being ill is a kind of freedom from burden, from knowledge, from effort, struggle, and pain. In that innocence, you can eat/sleep/drink/live without having to be conscious every day about the decisions you make and what impact they’re having on your health. (Not to say that your decisions don’t have an impact on your health—it’s just that the consequences are not immediate.)
Knowing all of the misinformation and shame and need for dialogue that is out there, I’m often overwhelmed by a huge sense of protectiveness. So many people who suffer, who have suffered, and who will suffer. If my work can be any part of helping anyone feel less shame or feel less alone or feel empowered to begin an important discussion—well, that’s why I wrote BSC. It was what I couldn’t find anywhere and what I needed.
Whether it has to do with healing or language, I believe that you must make the most of all the tools you have at hand. Each body is different and needs different things. The work of healing takes place on many levels. The mind/spirit/heart need to see beyond the illness to envision strength and healing. So while some people might think that art and poetry is the last priority, I think it’s the first. It’s only in art that the individual is whole. It’s the only place where a person isn’t split falsely into a body that’s separate from the heart separate from the mind separate from the spirit.
At the same time, we have to deal with the illnesses, symptoms, medications, side effects, etc. that are happening to the body in real time. Unfortunately, people are shamed for taking or not taking prescription medications, for taking or not taking supplements, for changing or not changing their diets, for succeeding or not succeeding at ‘managing’ or ‘beating’ their chronic illness— by other people’s standards. Shame and fear are the two emotions that our society most utilize to push people to work on their health. Not self-love, not love of family or community or life. And when you stop to think about that—how can shame and fear be what lead to healing? To sustained healing? To a healing that is concerned with the whole person and their whole life?
And so, poetry—about the body, about chronic illness, about our relationships with ourselves and others—is not a luxury, is not an after-thought, is not” indulgent.” Poetry is how we come into our power. Poetry is how we learn what vision is and how to manifest it.
[TK]: You write about your relationships with your brother, mother, and family in the book. en trozos/in pieces examines mourning family members you have never met, amputations, and loving your own life as a gift. What importance do you ascribe to family relationships in the process of healing? How has coming to terms with your health issues changed your creative process and any future poetry?
[silva]: The importance of family relationships depends on the quality of relationships you have with your family. If your relationships are toxic, then they cannot be of any help. If you are shamed for who you are or your weight or your health or because you cannot drink like everyone else or if your health is an ‘inconvenience’ for your family, that deeply affects what you feel you can do for your own healing. If you feel like you can’t count on them for understanding or support—and yet they are the center of your life—there are bound to be problems.
In the time that I’ve been reading the poems from Blood Sugar Canto to audiences, I’ve been surprised over and over again by how many readers/listeners have told me that they haven’t been able to tell their families, siblings, or children that they are diabetic, much less what they need in the form of understanding or help.
My parents are gone. I am not married and do not have children. I’m estranged from all but one of my seven siblings. But I’ve been blessed to have my brother in my life as well as many dear friends and an extended network of supportive writer friends. My brother and I have seen each other through diagnoses, many, many changes in medications, symptoms, diet adjustments, and more than a decade of discussing Western medicine, our experiences with doctors, how diabetes is seen in pop culture, and how others react to our being diabetic. This past spring he was in the hospital for three months and had his right leg amputated. I don’t know what we would have done without the help of friends who saw us through—who came to our assistance with emotional support, rides, meals, and donations.
Love is medicine. Support is medicine. But for many people, this involves many discussions and perhaps some painful redefinitions of what family is or should be.
Personally, BSC helped me come to terms with my emotions, and most importantly, my fear and my anger. Better said, it helps me, because I will always be coming to terms with my ongoing health issues. Every time I read the poems to others, it serves to remind me and buoy me and ground me in the neverending work of healing myself. I take better care of myself now. No more all-nighters or ‘pushing through’ to get the writing done. I listen to my body. I try to support my body’s need for rest. I have a different understanding now about time in relationship to my writing. I’ve always been a slow writer—but I’m more forgiving of myself. Every day, I’m figuring out ways to make my life work so that I can write. My systems for gathering ideas, building stories, and developing manuscripts have all changed. In a way too, writing BSC has freed me up to write about all the ideas and stories that want out of me next. I feel the same urgency I have always felt—powered by the realization that I don’t know how much time I have to write the books I want to create in this life. It’s just that now that sense of mortality is much more detailed and nuanced. I don’t want to ever take my time for granted. I don’t ever want to take writing for granted.
[TK]: What does being a poet-curandera mean to you? Through songs, poetry, and love do you aim to heal the soul? Disease touches the most intimate elements of family life and the soul; even taking over creative inspiration. What advice do you have for those struggling with the sweetness and bitterness of diabetes, depression, grief, their identity, disease(s), and health epidemics that seem to be so prevalent in this world? What do you see the effect of your work being on your audience?
[silva]: “Poet-curandera” isn’t something that I came up with. It’s what Demetria Martinez, in her blurb for BSC, called me. That was an absolute honor. I grew up in a culture that was very clear and very respectful of the role of curanderas. Though they are what the dominant society would call “folk healers,” we respected them for their knowledge born of learning and experience, their compassion and understanding, and their bravery and ferocity for taking on illnesses of the body, mind, and spirit.
That I might, in any way, do some of this work through my poetry is all I ever aspire to. As I’ve had time to live with this term, it feels like “poet-curandera” works powerfully as a way to focus my vision and my work. It helps keep me from getting distracted by things like marketability, self-promotion, and the business of writing. If I concentrate on healing in writing, then no matter what kind of project or theme I’m working on, then I have fewer doubts about I should do next, what my writing needs, and where my work needs to be.
Through my work, I want to help heal everything. Not just the soul, but also heart, body, mind, memories, personal and historic and future trauma, relationships, communities, everything. I say this not because I am ambitious, I say it because all healing is connected. We never heal one thing in isolation. Healing, like art, runs rampant, runs where it wills, reshapes and creates according to its own demands.
If I had to give advice, I would say, let the art and healing free. Express everything within you. Get yourself free—dealing with depression and illness and identity and oppression and poverty is hard enough—free yourself of everything you can get free of: shame, fear, isolation, insecurity, silence…
That’s what I’m trying to do—to wrestle myself into greater freedom, greater awareness, greater strength. And I hope that through my work and through sharing my work, that I’m able to help others along their own paths to strength and freedom.
[TK]: You often mention the toxicity of nutriment in modern society, including GMO’s, high fructose corn syrup, hormones and preservatives. The naming of these elements in detail made me consider one of the many purposes of poetry, to inform. Your feelings about these subjects are not reduced to abstractions; you make the causes of them graphically and realistically named. Though romanticizing or idealizing suffering is certainly a legitimate literary convention, why do you feel it is necessary to be so candid and literal in your work?
[silva]: That’s an interesting question. It might be interesting to romanticize or idealize suffering—to figure out how to write about pain in a beautiful way. It’s not something I can do though, because I’ve never known pain or suffering in abstraction. Hunger, hurt, shame, condescension, anger, depression, poverty, isolation—I’ve never known them in abstraction either. Not naming them, not writing them graphically, gives them all the power and makes me the abnormal one for knowing what I do about suffering. I have seen loved ones die. I have seen loved ones suffer and weep and scream with pain. I have seen confusion and desperation in eyes I loved more than my own. And though my pain has been a small thing in comparison to theirs, I have known pain without remedy in my own body.
We live in a society that names pain as an aberration, that thinks the healthy body is the norm and everything else is cause for hiding. We live in a society that says illness is the fault of the one who bears it—not of the environment we live in, the food we eat, or the burdens of racism, misogyny, violence, and poverty. We can’t talk enough about basic needs not being met for a significant part of our population, about the lack of adequate awareness and care for mental health needs, about the lack of accessibility and funding for our disabled.
Let us name everything. Let us place accountability where it belongs. Let us say there is nothing we can’t share with each other—no information, no experience, no story, no moment of understanding, no desire to change things.
[TK]: A very compassionate diabetic foot examination from a young physician’s assistant inspired the poem, “grace.” You said the experience was “as humble and great a gift as if she had washed [your] feet with her hair.” This line seems to allude to a Mary Magdalene figure, and perhaps struggles with it and contrasts it with day-to-day experience. In retrospect, the title of the poem might reflect on a religious or catechetical sense of grace. Do you think kindness redeems us, the human condition, and our daily lives? Though no one is at fault for illness in a sinful way, both patients and care providers are flawed. What role does guilt play in adult onset diseases? Is your poetry a form of this grace?
[silva]: It isn’t that kindness or compassion redeems us—kindness and compassion are what we are on this earth to learn, to live. What does it say about medical instituttions in this culture that a single instance of human connection and respect would be so extraordinary that it would merit a poem like this? That when I lived this poem, I was moved to tears?
It isn’t that patients and care providers are flawed, it’s that too many doctors and clinics, too much about the way that medicine (not healing) is practised in our culture makes patients into automatons. It assumes that people are like cars—mechanical and interchangeable—that just need a part changed out, cut out. It doesn’t look at people as whole beings. Unfortunately, too many people lack the education or the ability to be advocates for themselves. They are not empowered to question decisions and medications or to challenge the system’s bureacracies. The issues with the medical establishment increase exponentially for people without adequate healthcare or who do not have the freedom to seek care where they wish.
I don’t think it’s guilt that we need to look at, but shame. The last poem I wrote for the collection was “shame: a ghazal in pieces,” because I think it’s shame that is overlooked and that can be catastrophic when it comes to chronic illnesses. Shame will make you think the illness is your fault. Shame will keep you from asking for help. Shame will keep you from telling your story. Shame will keep you from advocating for yourself. Shame will undermine any sense of empowerment that would point you in the direction of healing. Shame will make you think you don’t deserve to heal.
In the midst of this, what do I think my poetry is? I hope that in the span of this collection, the reader finds a space where shame doesn’t exist, where shame is named and conquered and banished. And yes, it is a kind of grace to become, to any degree, free of shame.
[TK]: The indigenous reflections in this work give an almost revolutionary mood to the work, encouraging society to take back their bodies and return to happiness, control over emotions, and health. To never forget where they came from and “touch the world eat the world let it in.” In fact, the rage, angriness and sadness felt towards the western world seems to subside gradually to peace and acceptance over the course of the novel book. What importance do you attribute to cultural activism in your work?
[silva]: In my heart, the rage and sadness never subside. Not for the lives lost, not for everyone living with illness, not for the disregard our government has for human life and dignity, not for the prejudices that exist in our culture.
But a person can’t live in unending rage and sadness and remain sane, remain human. And that was why I found my way to poetry, to writing. Language has been consolation and refuge. Poetry was and is how I learn to focus my emotions, to envision healing, to forge connection, to speak to power. Art and cultural/political/social activism are inextricably linked for me. Writing is how I come to terms with my rage and grief, how I channel them, how, hopefully, I can make my experiences and explorations something others can make use of.
Art, culture, and activism sustain and inspire each other. That connection, that flow, is what enables us to move from rage and sadness to not just peace and acceptance but also to love and action.
For myself, I felt I needed to choose an area to concentrate my energy and my dreams for this world—and I chose art, I chose the writing. And everything I will ever write will be born of a revolutionary desire, because in this world, any desire for fairness and justice, for self-expression and freedom, for the end of violence, for the upending of the systems of power that disempower us–will always be revolutionary.
ire’ne lara silva is the author of two poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), which were both finalists for the International Latino Book Award in Poetry, an e-chapbook, Enduring Azucares, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015), as well as a short story collection, flesh to bone (Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the Premio Aztlán. She and poet Dan Vera are also the co-editors of Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands, (Aunt Lute Books, 2017), a collection of poetry and essays. ire’ne is the recipient of the final Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldúa Milagro Award. ire’ne is a 2016-2018 Texas Touring Roster Artist. Website:irenelarasilva.wordpress.com