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Poetry That Speaks Truth to Power: A Word About “For Want of Water” for National Poetry Month

A Q&A with Sasha Pimentel

Sasha Pimentel / For Want of Water

Now, more than ever, we’ve discovered that we need poetry not just to delight and uplift us, but poetry that interrogates our past and present, grieves our injustices, celebrates our ideals, and clings to our hopes. That’s what the poetry we publish does. For National Poetry Month, our blog editor, Christian Coleman, caught up with poet Sasha Pimentel to chat about her collection, For Want of Water, from our National Poetry Series and why poetry matters in our politically fraught times.

Christian Coleman: When you were putting together the poems for For Want of Water, did you know right off the bat that you wanted this collection to address the social issues you bring up?

Sasha Pimentel: No, I learned early on that a poet doesn’t start a poem, nor a book, with an idea. Following ideas stunts a poet from following associations in repeating sounds (rhyme, anaphora, assonance, etc.), or repeating imagery, which is how language startles us into the territory of the unexpected. Which is often where a poem will most dare, or risk.

When we set out to write something specific governed by an issue, or an idea, we use language claustrophobically, no matter our intention. We end up knowing only what we started out already knowing, which doesn’t do anyone any good. It arrests us from experiencing language’s great reach; and anything that has a chance of moving towards social justice must be steeped in reaching out, in human solidarity, in trying to connect to what is larger than what we think we know.

I trusted that if I focused on teasing out an image or a phrase, what I cared about would come through too. Instead, I worked the manuscript under two post-it notes: 1) no sentiment, and 2) compassionate with others, ruthless with self, which is also how I try to daily live.

I didn’t yet have the language I later learned by listening to Kwame Dawes at a panel in 2017. Dawes says that in writing his own poems, he is searching for how “to give dignity to the everyday individual, looking for elegance in the people around me, and looking for the beauty. And beauty is not always pretty; beauty can be brutal, but it’s the looking for the language to give to what moves me.” I didn’t yet have Dawes’s articulation, only my own nebulous impulse and what moved me, but I wanted to write out what I saw around me as honestly as I could, even if I failed. And such honesty requires having reverence for the people moving with dignity around you, even when everyone is hurting.

CC: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo selected For Want of Water as a winner for the National Poetry Series. In his foreword, he notes that a number of your poems deal with borders and boundaries, one of which is the border between the United States and Mexico. Could you tell us a little about your relationship with/to this particular border?

SP: First, I am forever grateful to Greg, to Beacon Press, and the National Poetry Series for seeing something worthwhile enough to publish in this book. I know I owe you all the widened path in poetry that this book has since allowed.

We’re in a time when the México-US border is being heavily scrutinized by the nation and the rest of the world as either a space of limitation (often accompanied by racism, the fear of our brown bodies), or a space of possibility.

A border between nations is a construction: borders are drawn and continue to be redrawn because of such reasons as who wages genocide, where colonists’ ships land, the treatises made after wars, which armies march through where, and even how rivers (as our Río Bravo did) shift, as water does. Those constructions seem so utterly arbitrary, because they’re deeply context-driven: In 1945, two thirty-six-year-old US officers, fearing Russian advancement there, though they’d never been to Korea, divided the country into what is “North” and what is “South” at the 38th parallel, and five million Koreans, over half of whom were civilians, died in a proxy war between the US and China and Russia. A pope one day in 1555 drew on a map of Rome, a wall was built, and the Jewish community, which predated the Christian Romans, were forced into a ghetto where they wore a yellow cloth or veil—a rule that chillingly repeated into The Shoah almost 400 years later across Europe. We should never forget that what we now call the United States was stolen by European foreigners who immigrated to this area and claimed as their own territory even that which is unceded Native land. How those same colonial nation-states violated oceanic, tribal, and bodily borders for slavery. Or that in this country, President Roosevelt drew borders for concentration camps, then relocated and incarcerated the nation’s own Japanese American citizens. Borders are historically in flux, though people who see them through a limited present insist on the asymmetries of power which transform border to boundary.

But I don’t see this place in which I live, which lifts with the scent of creosote when it rains, as a space of limitation. We insist that our here, our border, is a space of possibility: a space that understands itself as Juárez-El Paso, El Paso as the step, our borderland a place that tethers together the Americas, that defines “American” as inter-American, and that understands itself as a human place that can hold—in its landscape—joy and heartbreak, all.      

CC: The title poem draws from the reported case of a thirteen-year-old boy, Julio Hernández, who, while trying to immigrate, dragged his mother’s body across the desert after she’d died of dehydration and heat exposure. What inspired you to explore this harrowing true story in verse?

SP: Only that I didn’t know how to write it any other way, but I needed to try.

CC: The poem “If I Die in Juárez” explores the femicides of an estimated 400 women in that city. How did you decide to approach this topic by centering on the main image of the violin?

SP: Poems start out really literally for me: a nail juts from a plank of wood, or crossing the street, I catch the way a person’s neck turns away from a partner’s palm. Sometimes a detail from the physical world in which my body lives buries into my consciousness, because that’s how sight works: what the retina sees gets signaled to multiple places in the brain which interpret, attend, and maybe even turn to memory, so depending on when we see something, and where it flickers in the brain, an image can bob in us.

It’s through trying to write out that lingering image that, if I’m patient enough, I’ll hear in the language a connection to an emotion or subject I hadn’t anticipated: something else, deeper, that’s taken root in me, too, which I was incapable of talking about directly. But which reveals itself as the under-subject through the simpler thing.

I was trying to write about the violin because my roommate at the time collected broken ones from thrift stores, beautiful old violins propped up around the house: on the dining room floor against a wall, or on the mantel. It seemed so sad to me every time I saw them, these objects made with care, meant to be touched and cradled into a neck and shoulder, made to—with touch—sing. The word violins, said aloud, is so close to violence. Then there are the components of the violin called the waist, the neck, the bridge. It’s the word bridge which stung, typing it, because it’s the bridge on a stringed instrument which raises the strings, supports air as the strings stretch from one part of the instrument to another: the air, that distance, necessary for sound. And our border bridges connect and raise their own distances, too, show the spaces between one life and another as attached to the where the body is placed.

I like to recite aloud Clare Cavanagh’s translation of Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Photograph from September 11,” especially the sentence that, though it’s about people falling, may also speak here too: “They’re still within the air’s reach, / within the compass of places / that have just now opened.” It’s a language trying desperately to keep people alive, “still complete,” if only in that imagined narrative, if only in that smallest space of the linebreak between “reach,” and “within.” Szymborska’s use of the sentence here is one of the highest moments of compassion a poet can try for, because it’s a usage of language that tries to keep alive the dead, or the dying, even in the face of such impotence in, and the absurdity of, the context of their deaths. It matters that people have lived, it matters so much that Szymborska tries to take a past event and turn it, through language, into the present, so at least in this poem, they haven’t lived; they live

That word bridge at the time uncovered in me, as I typed it out, the real sadness, the real grief that had been swirling around my community of the femicides, the news of women’s bodies as they were discovered, sometimes in mass graves. Many of the women who died were made more vulnerable because they had migrated from rural areas to work in terribly abusive factories—these powerful institutions of Capital that even today refuse to pay their many workers living wages. The maquiladoras’ enforced poverty and the physical isolation are part of what so badly hurt these women. And my community and I were aware of their lives, what they had lived, and what other women are still living, because of the activists and the journalists who perhaps do much more important work than the poets, certainly more present and dangerous work in places and times of great social asymmetry and war. I’m grateful to the activists and the journalists who refused to let those lives disappear, who surfaced such living in my own small poem, because when it is untethered from language, or narrative, too much of our lives, and our histories, disappear.

CC: Last year, the Atlantic published an article about the resurgence of poetry across various media and how poetry, despite numerous predictions of its death, is more than alive and well and is finding more readers who are younger (18-24), women, and people of color. What’s your take on this and on the state of poetry in our politically fraught times? 

SP: Poetry is language distilled to its inner song and gifted between strangers, whether or not people share mutual points-of-view or experience. That will always be vital, and especially when we most need it.

If anyone who has stumbled across this webpage is looking for poems to read, please Google these awesome necessary voices: Aldo Amparán, Chen Chen, Dominique Christina, Asa Drake, Elidio La Torre Lagares, Lupe Mendez, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, Alessandra Narvaez-Varela, Ladan Osman, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Mahtem Shiferraw, and Danez Smith.   

CC: And lastly, how do you see poetry raising awareness around social issues or being an agent of change?

SP: This is a time of heightened nationalism, when many nations’ administrators and citizens are using language through paper and through our screens to assault and reduce, to turn in on ourselves as societies and as individuals. Every day, this mass of language is deployed to simplify, guard and separate. They are the languages of enforcement, the languages of policy, the languages of blame which entrap us.

But because whitespace is embedded into the poem’s form, poetry is a special form of language that is generous, and which moves with a certain regard. It’s a form of language that bows to listen before it speaks.

Poetry demands a sensitivity: it asks us to hear nuance, and from such careful attention, then try speech. It asks us to reckon in silence what we cannot fully name as we grapple the irreconcilable. It asks us to heed attention to space; to where we must break, against the margin, and where, despite the poem’s breaks, we can continue.

Sensitivity— nuance— care—reckoning—attention—these aren’t things we normally want to do because all that, together, is hard work. It taxes us intellectually and emotionally. But a poem asks of us all this, and we do it, whether we are its readers or its writers, because a poem’s rhythms and images are so pleasurable too that we ride it, even if where it takes us to is soaked in silence, shame, or grief.

And a poem gives whatever it is, and all that is stirring inside it, freely. And to anyone.

In his essay “I’ve Known Rivers: Speaking to the Unspoken Places in Poetry,” Martín Espada writes:

There are “unspoken” places all around us, places we never see, or see but do not see. There are hidden histories, haunted landscapes, forgotten graves, secret worlds surrounded by high walls, places of pilgrimage where pilgrimage is impossible. Sometimes, these places are “unspoken” because the unspeakable happened or continues to happen there; sometimes, because the human beings dwelling in the land of the unspeakable find a way to resist, and their example is dangerous.

Speaking of the unspoken places means speaking of the people who live and die in those places. These are people and places condemned to silence, and so they become the provinces of poetry. The poet must speak, or enable other voices to speak through the poems. Indeed, poets continue to speak of such places in terms of history and mythology, memory and redemption. They pose difficult questions: Who benefits from silence and forgetting? Who benefits from speaking and remembering?

Poetry invites even Whitman’s venerealee into a discourse of who we are, and who we can be—which is our humanity—and broadens how we understand ourselves as interconnected peoples. Poetry, Adrienne Rich says (connected beautifully in this piece by Claudia Rankine) “can remind us of all we are in danger of losing—disturb us, embolden us out of resignation.” Poetry listens, questions, dares speech: in reaching into what it does not yet know, extends both its arms out.


About Sasha Pimentel 

Sasha Pimentel is the author of two collections of poetry: For Want of Water (2017, Beacon Press), winner of the National Poetry Series (selected by Gregory Pardlo), winner of the Helen C. Smith Award, and longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award; and Insides She Swallowed (2010, West End), winner of the American Book Award. She has published poems and essays in The New York Times, PBS News Hour, ESPN, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, and Literary Hub, and other literary publications. She was the 2018-2019 Picador Guest Professor for Literature at Universität Leipzig in Germany, and the recipient of a 2019 NEA fellowship in poetry. Born in the Philippines and raised in the United States and Saudi Arabia, Pimentel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, on the border of Ciudad Juárez, México. Follow her on Twitter at @SashaRPimentel and visit her website.