A Q&A with Alexandra Lytton Regalado
When COVID-19 broke and the United States closed the border to travel, poet Alexandra Lytton Regalado was separated from family back in El Salvador. She wrote Relinquenda entirely during lockdown as a meditation on cancer, the passing of her father, and the renewed significance of community. Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts as Beacon Press’s winner in the National Poetry Series, her four-part poetry collection also explores the impermanence and the body, communication and inarticulation, and the need to let go in order to heal regrets. Our assistant publicist, Priyanka Ray, caught up with Regalado to chat about it.
Priyanka Ray: You are a photo-essayist as well as a poet. What influence do photography and visual art have on your poetry?
Alexandra Lytton Regalado: For a long time, it was either the camera or the pen. If I managed to express myself visually, there was no need to describe it in writing. But now, I use both processes to dig deeper, although I haven’t been able to combine the two just yet; each medium still stands on its own. I carry around my obsessions, my questions, and when something nips at my attention, I spend a lot of time trying to unravel what it is about that image that has me hooked.
When I was writing my first book, Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), I knew I wanted to write about women’s experiences in El Salvador. I spent a lot of time traveling in the back of a car observing people’s day-to-day activities. I started photographing them and I realized that there were certain iconic images that one could expect to see on a regular basis. I started collecting these images and mentally playing a road bingo when I realized that I wanted to re-consider the game of lotería, but rather than including traditional Mexican images like “la chalupa” or “el nopal,” I wanted to reimagine a Salvadoran feminine lotería. The poem titles became that new lotería, and my photography project, which I worked on parallelly as I wrote the book, continues on Instagram at @through_the_bulletproof_glass.
As I worked on Relinquenda, I continued to photograph, but most images are too personal and painful to release into the world just yet. When it came to writing, I did return to the images to tap into the live wire of the moment, and I used that rawness to draw out the poems. In that case, the photographs act as bookmarks, reminders, research. A lot of those became the long poems rendered narratively. Other poems, especially towards the end of the collection, are more mineral; they’re short and imagistic, and describe a dream-world. These develop through observation of the external world and focus on objects as symbols to describe my interior landscape. Sometimes other people’s artwork also functions as a launching point. A lot of my poems in this collection are ekphrastic; I respond to the work of Leonora Carrington, Ana Mendieta, René Magritte, Graciela Iturbide, and others.
I am currently working on a video project related to grief and memory that also incorporates my writing. Through these experiments, I hope to understand how word and image work together.
PR: Relinquenda explores Salvadoran masculinity in a post-war immigrant family, as reflected primarily through your relationship with your father during his six-year struggle with cancer. What has writing Relinquenda taught you about the interplay between gender, national identity, and grief?
ALR: That’s the best description of my book I’ve read so far, and yes, that interplay is exactly what I wanted to explore. I was born in El Salvador, and when the war broke out, my family and I moved to Miami, Florida, and eventually we all became citizens. I returned to El Salvador after having lived more than twenty years in the United States. Now, I call myself a double agent because I have lived about half my life in each place. I was not present for most of the 1980’s armed conflict and yet I find it curious that the Salvadoran civil war is included in most summaries of my book—and I wonder what that says about my Latinx identity in publishing, about the reductive tendency to assume topics of interest, and if my work is considered less relevant if it doesn’t directly address politically charged topics.
But the personal is political, right? And, yes, the war is there in the background, in the anxiety and fear, in the perpetual questioning; the immigrant is there in the constant limbo of existence, of never feeling fully realized. But these poems focus on the human experience that unites us all: loss and grief. In parenting, marriage, illness, preparing for death—what does it mean to care for someone, what does it mean to be cared by someone? How do we care for ourselves?
In my exploration of masculinity, my father becomes the central figure in Relinquenda. At first, we present as opposites: he faces death as an atheist, science-minded, half American-macho Salvadoran. But then I consider: What parts of me are also American? How do I tap into my masculine side? I tried to learn from his resilience, but his impassivity communicated estrangement and disapproval. After some time, I realized that I also share some of his qualities; I, too, am a hermit and an escapist, and I also obsess for definite answers.
I consider gender roles in what it means to be a mother, wife, and daughter and the inherent shuffle of responsibility, power, and vulnerability. I consider physical pain and the way we, as women, handle pain. Salvadoran women are said to be “arrechas y aguantadoras” (capable, resilient) and it is said with a level of pride, but there is also a layer of tragedy. We are survivors, and we are resourceful because we have had to confront hard realities, and if we are quick on our feet, and have a high pain threshold, it is because grief is expected, and we have had to prepare ourselves for hardship. We’ve passed on this knowledge and this way of life as a kind of inheritance.
PR: In the poem “Escape Room,” you write, “My mother says he has to be in the ground / for these poems to be born,” which speaks to the collection’s theme of communication/inarticulation. How does Relinquenda wrestle with the idea of carrying forward a legacy for the deceased when there is so much unsaid and unknown?
ALR: Yes, there is a lot of self-negotiation in the poems. I feel uneasy about the amount I reveal in this book. I think much has to do with the intensity of the writing period. The bulk of the book was written over three months, although many of the poems already existed as drafts in my journal. And perhaps, if I had been given more time to edit and reconsider the way I present myself and my loved ones, I might have polished out that raw honesty.
Relinquenda is not about mourning—it centers on pre-grieving, and it’s framed by anxiety and fear. For a long time, I felt my father couldn’t die without first healing our bond. Many of the poems struggle with that exact moment: confronting the unsaid while knowing there was a ticking clock. But the words were amber in my throat, and all I could do was stand by his side. I tried to learn from my father’s stoicism and endurance but learning to live with loss is not coming to a one-time resolution; it’s a cumulative, daily action. Or as Emily Dickinson says in the epigraph, letting go is “a presence.”
I came to understand that I had to accept exactly what he had given of himself, expect no more, and at the end, I had to leave room for mystery and for forgiveness. And that is the relinquenda—I had to relinquish control. Months after I received notice that Relinquenda won the prize and was going to be published, my mother died of a heart attack. We were very close, and I hope in the end she carried my love for her because with that sudden loss, all opportunities to say what I needed to say were ripped right out of my hands, and now there is only memory, silence, time.
PR: I was struck by the appearance of animals throughout the collection, including the snake in the titular poem. You write, “The snake is not an animal I identify with. / I mean, it’s a garden-variety queen snake but I’d still lop off its head with a machete. / Isn’t it expected that one thing will chase another?” What is the relationship between the snake and the idea of “relinquishing”/ letting go? Is letting go a violent process?
ALR: I wish it were that easy. Rather than chopping off its head, for me, living with loss has been more a shedding of skin. I feel the presence of my dead; I speak with them in dreams, glimpse shadows as I pass a doorway, and yes, sometimes I feel they visit me through animals. We had a trumpet vine growing in the side yard, and hummingbirds visited daily; my mother believed they were spirits of the dead. Now, whenever I hear the clicking of the emerald-breasted hummingbirds that dip and roll across the firecracker bush outside my office, I always think it’s my mother.
Animals are present throughout the collection; you can find a reference in almost every poem, and together they take on a kind of psychological mythology; I like to think of them as oracles. I am especially interested in animals because so much of the collection deals with inarticulation, and since their form of communication doesn’t use words, they also come to represent the things that are unsaid, and instead felt. Also, in line with the animal side of us, the collection addresses our instincts, fight-or-flight reactions, and the poems reference a lot of things that people consider repugnant because they point to our human decay: fingernails, teeth, bones, bodily fluids. I have a cabinet of curiosity in the corner of my office filled with seashells, feathers, coral, seeds, and other interesting bits of nature. We haven’t been able to bury my parents yet, so I also have their ashes at the center of the cabinet, and it’s become my altar to them. Looking at it, I always think of what’s left after we’re gone: the tangible and intangible, how brief and wondrous.
About Alexandra Lytton Regalado
Alexandra Lytton Regalado received an MFA in poetry from Florida International University and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She is the author of Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), which received the St. Lawrence Book Award. Regalado is co-director of Editorial Kalina and editor of Puntos de fuga/Vanishing Points (Editorial Kalina, 2017), a bilingual anthology of contemporary Salvadoran prose. She lives in San Salvador, El Salvador.