Written by Alexandria Villegas Photos by Solomon Carreiro
It was approximately 7:00pm on February 27th, 2020 when I sat down withpoet Luivette Resto in the small courtyard of Woodbury University’s campus library, empty and silent in the late-night hour. As a slight chill settled in the air, we chatted to the soothing patter of the courtyard fountain, occasionally pausing our conversation as we listened to the droning roar of an airplane flying overhead, courtesy of the nearby Burbank airport. Illuminated by the soft yellow glow of the lights strung above us, we talked about Luivette’s work, her inspiration, goals, and her commitment to living an “unapologetic” life.
When did you first find you had a love for writing? I was always a big reader as a kid. I’m an only child who lived in New York City, and so going to the library became a thing for me. It's a place where I would go, and I would check out the limit. It was like fifteen books, and I would check out the fifteen max and return them. Fifteen and then come back. And so I passed the time reading, and eventually I started writing my own little short stories because I was reading all these things, so I was like: alright, I’ll try and do my own thing. So I think in seventh grade I started writing. I have a memory of writing these little silly chapters and then putting the chapters in my eyeglass case. I don’t even know where those pages are, sadly enough. But I think if I had to rewind my mind, it would probably be starting in seventh grade. I distinctly remember having that memory of writing little chapters of books, YA books that never came to be, in seventh grade. So that was probably the earliest memory I have of writing and wanting to write. And then it just kind of took off from there, and then it really didn’t. I really didn’t take it seriously until I got to college. Where do you find the most inspiration for your work? You know, it’s just basically anything I’ve experienced. I feel like every day there’s a moment where I’m always thinking, this is a poem. This moment right now. This thing that she said. This thing that this person said is a poem. So, I think just living, has always inspired, or continues to inspire.
Do you have a set process when writing poetry? (laughs) No. I’m laughing because I have kids, and there is no set process when you have children. It's really difficult. I definitely had a process before I had kids, and I was pretty regimented. And then I started having kids and then that went to s***. So now I write when I can and I write when I have quiet space and time, but when I am in that space, what I've noticed is that I need music to write.I cannot write in silence. That bothers me. I can read in silence, actually I prefer to read in silence. But when I'm writing I prefer to have instrumental in the background. And so that's part of the process I guess, that there has to be music.
“What we live in these days is a constant source of inspiration and I think also to be an artist these days is a form of rebellion, and I think it's revolutionary. Our existence is political."
A lot of your poems deal with racial inequality, particularly the mistreatment of Latin Americans in our society. A prominent example is your poem “No More Tacos in Gwinnett County,” from your second poetry collection, Ascension. One particular stanza that stood out to me read: “A sub owner had followed Georgia with a sign of his own. ‘This is America. When ordering, speak English.’ In the kitchen, Manuel and Juan diced peppers and onions in silence.” What do you think is the importance of using art to call attention to such prejudices in our increasingly polarized society? I think that when it comes to politics, art is everywhere, especially nowadays with our administration that we've had for the past 4 years now. It's the opportunity for artists to thrive. We need artists the most when we're living in times like this to document, to inspire, to give voice, to give face to groups that do not have the opportunity or the resources. And so when I wrote that poem it was truly based upon a newspaper article that I read. It came up on my home screen and it was one of the items that came up that said “No More Tacos in Gwinnett County.” And I was like, what the hell is this about, and I clicked on it. And the article, everything in the poem was true. Gwinnett County, Georgia really believed that if they got rid of taco stands and taco trucks, that all the immigrants would leave Gwinnett County. They believed that the taco was the epicenter of this immigration issue that they were having with all these Mexicans, and if you got rid of the tacos then the Mexicans would leave. Which was absolutely the most absurd s*** that I've ever f***ing heard.So I think that to answer your question, I think the importance of using art is that I just feel like it’s vital. There are so many different ways to document, to tell a story, to give an opinion with art. I'm very blessed to be in the community that I'm in. That I'm in a room full of artists, and we're all challenging each other in the best way possible. And unfortunately, what we live in these days is a constant source of inspiration and I think also to be an artist these days is a form of rebellion, and I think it's revolutionary. Our existence is political. There's no way that you can walk around saying, no I'm not a political person. The fact that you're a woman, that's a political stance by itself. If you are a woman of color, that's twice as much, right? And to be an artist I think that it's our duty. I think there’s a calling, and if you have that calling to be an artist, then it is your duty to carve out some time to document, and to immortalize what's going on right now. It is our job. If not, then what are we doing with our talents.
"I think that poetry can show us that there’s just multiple definitions, that we're all these things. I don't have to be this one individual and that should be perfectly okay. I should be encouraging other women to be that way. That's my job.”
What role do you hope your poetry plays in addressing social disparity between men and women in our society? I think that to be female is truly a nuance, and it's layered. I think that there was for the longest time, and still is, this very stereotypical gender norm that our job is to be vessels of life and we have to be nurturing, and that is what we are. And really, that is one aspect of us. There are some women who are that, and there are women who are that and all these other things. I can be a mom; I can be nurturing. I'm a great mom. I can be raising these amazing, beautiful, brown children who are intelligent, but I can also be a woman who enjoys sex, right? And I should be able to discuss that openly. And I should be allowed, and I am. I have that right; I have that agency. I think that poetry can show us that there’s just multiple definitions, that we're all these things. I don't have to be this one individual and that should be perfectly okay. I should be encouraging other women to be that way. That's my job.
One topic that I found especially interesting was your examination of the fallacy inherent to notions of progress in the poem “Christmas Lies.” Within the poem, you express the disillusionment you felt when the change you were made to hope for after Obama’s election didn’t materialize. Do you think that people too often fool themselves into believing the myth of progress while allowing genuine problems to continuously pervade our society? I think with the Obama poem is that people expected this overnight change when he got elected. We finally have a black president, which again was moving, and beautiful, and the details that I put in that poem were true. My son was four at the time. I remember him watching the inauguration, or seeing at least the election results coming in, and he's like, why are you crying? And I said, well this just happened in my lifetime. And he goes, well who is he? And I said, well this man is our president now. And as a four-year-old he said, I can do that. I can do that one day. And for the first time ever it seemed like, yes, yes you can. And it was just a really good moment to have as a mom. Then he got elected and people were thinking he just had to click his fingers and there you go. I think what really bothered me too is that after he was elected, people kept talking about post-racial America. And I'm like no, we still live in a racist country. Please do not take this one amazing victory, and I'm not going to take away from that, and make us think that all of this is good. So don't f***ing tell me that we live in a post-racial America when there is so much data that can tell me otherwise. And so there was a little bit of disillusionment there. And here I am going s***, we can have this amazing moment but then what comes after that. People were just not willing to wait, myself included. I'm not pointing fingers.
Why do you think it is important to be aware of both yourself and society in order to influence lasting change? There has to be a self-awareness. If you're going to critique your society you have to have the self-awareness that you're also critiquing yourself. We're part of all of this as well. What was my role in this today? What has been my role in this for the past 5 years? Could I have done more? Could I have done less? There has to be some self-critique and awareness. And you have to be open to that and know that you're not perfect and that there's always room for improvement. So when we critique our society please understand that you're also critiquing yourself, that you also had a role in this. We're in the situation that we are in 2020 for a reason, and what was our role in it?
In “A Poem for Me” from Ascension, you say, “this poem is for me not the masses . . . I write this poem to remind me of the prolonging solitude of darkness. My long list of defense mechanisms, crafting moats and stonewalls, impenetrable like the nature of God.” Yet you also state that it “begins from a selfish place with secret wants of finding a home on someone’s bookshelf, reiterated from someone’s lips, ingrained in someone’s memory.” Would you say that writing is primarily a means of self-exploration or self-expression? I think that when we start writing a poem, it comes from a selfish place. It comes from needing to release this energy, this emotion, and then eventually you revise this thing, you massage this poem. And then there’s a part of you that’s like, yeah I hope it gets published, I hope someone reads this, and I hope someone gets something out of this. A poet will be f***ing lying to you if they told you they had no ego. I think all poets have egos, and some of us have bigger egos than others, but everybody has an ego, and artists in general. Like you don’t write a song just for you. You write a song, yes just for you, but then you hope that maybe you get to share it with somebody else, or record it or something. So I think that in the back of your mind you have those aspirations. You may not want to share that because you don’t want to come off that way, but it’s there. So that’s where that last line comes from, like with the hopes of it being on someone’s bookshelf. Of course, that’s part of it. But I wrote that poem because I tend to write poems for other people. I tend to write poems documenting political moments, things that have happened, but then I think it’s also important to do something for yourself. It’s self-care, self-love, right? It’s like, this poem is for me. This is not for everybody else. And this poem is about my defense mechanisms. All these things that exist in here that are not so pretty, and that are complicated. And at the same time, maybe someone’s going to want to reiterate this, or someone’s going to connect with it. I’m not going to lie. That’s kind of where it all comes from.
“I really hope that a young poet sees themselves in the work and will be like, wow, this is a very brazen, unapologetic work. And that’s one of the things that I really strive for. I try to live an unapologetic life, and I try to write unapologetically."
Throughout the poem, “Letters to a Young Latina Poet," you act as both mentor and comrade to the reader as you advise them to feel no shame in writing about things that seem mundane or too personal. What would you say is the primary message that you want readers to receive when they read your work? Well in relation to that particular poem, I remember reading Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” I think I read it somewhere in graduate school, and it was literally letters in response to a young poet.I walked away going, I wish someone had something like this for me when I started writing.So I decided to write that poem because I wanted to create something that, if I could go back in time and create something for the 22-year-old version of me, this is what I would give me. And I really hope that a young poet sees themselves in the work and will be like, wow, this is a very brazen, unapologetic work. And that’s one of the things that I really strive for. I try to live an unapologetic life, and I try to write unapologetically. And I think that Latina writers, or women, to this day are really pigeonholed into, these are the items that you can talk about. And if you don’t talk about these items, if you go outside of these boxes, be careful. If you’re a woman of color, then you get treated even more different. And that’s a f***ing fact. You’re seen as sassy, bitchy, intimidating, but they’re not saying that about the white women. They’re assertive, they’re powerful, they’re different. And even though we can be behaving the same way I’m intimidating, but she’s assertive. And we can be in the same business meeting. So I write these kind of poems with the hope that maybe a young poet who’s sixteen, eighteen, someone who’s like another version of me can pick up these poems and be like, you know what, if she can write about this s*** I can write about all this other stuff I got going on. Because again, there was nothing like that for me growing up. I didn’t have that.
What advice would you give to aspiring poets that might be afraid to put themselves out there? I get why people are nervous, especially these days. I’m not here to critique or shaming anybody for saying I’m not ready yet. But please understand that you have a support system here, and there is a support system. There are mujeres, there are bilinguals out here, there are people of color, women of color. You have a community. I think if someone’s interested in this world or just wants to document, I always tell them to have a journal, write stuff down, get a notebook, start writing the poems down. And when you’re ready to share, you’ll share. But there’s no rush to get there. Are there any new projects that you’re currently working on? (laughs) I am. I’m laughing because there’s this podcast I started in the last couple of months. It’s called “Sipping Wine and Talking S***” and it became a passion project. I have three episodes out and it’s been so much fun. I get to interview or talk with friends and we drink and then the more wine we have the more entertaining it becomes. And the topics range depending on who I’m engaged with. So if it’s my friend from college we talk about politics, we talk about being moms, and what it was like knowing each other when we were seventeen and now we’re in our forties.
As the interview concluded, Luivette Resto, myself, and Solomon, my photographer, walked around the library courtyard in search of the best angles and lighting for photos. We joked together as we used cellphone flashlights to help illuminate Luivette’s faceas moonlight dimly litthe sky above. Playing with the lights in the adjoining ramp between the courtyard and the library, Luivettejoviallystruck a monster pose as the top of her face was cast in shadow.After the last photo had been taken, I walked Luivette back to her car. Wishing me Happy Birthday, she assured me that if I needed, I could reach out to her if I had any more questions. I gave her my thanks,and with that, shegot in her car, gave me a final wave, and drove off into the night.
Born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, New York, Luivette Resto earned her Bachelor's of Art in English Literature from Cornell University and her Master of Fine Art at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her poetry is unflinchingly honest and incredibly compelling, regardless of the subject matter. Whether she is reflecting on her childhood and personal struggles or condemning the behavior of sexist colleagues, she passionately defies societal definitions in order to examine and alter our perception of ethnic and feminine identity. Her first two poetry books, Unfinished Portrait(2008) and Ascension (2013), were both published by the TíaChucha Press.A Canto Mundo Fellow, she currently teaches at Citrus College and Mt. San Antonio College.
“I think if someone’s interested in this world or just wants to document, I always tell them to have a journal, write stuff down, get a notebook, start writing the poems down. And when you’re ready to share, you’ll share. But there’s no rush to get there."