Interview // How a Phrase Will Find You: A Conversation with Michelle Peñaloza

by Jake Uitti | Contributing Writer

Michelle Peñaloza, who was born in the suburbs of Detroit, grew up in Nashville, lived in Seattle, and now resides in rural California, offers rich, lush poetry packed to the margins with stories of her father and mother, tear-inducing fights with lovers and bouts grappling with self-doubt. Maneuvering through rivers of anger with an ability to turn a masterful phrase, Peñaloza has written a new collection of poetry, Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, which won the 2018 Hillary Gravendyk National Prize, and will be published by Inlandia Institute in August 2019. To celebrate the publication, I caught up with Peñaloza to ask about her family, her relationship to anger, and how she fell in love with the written word.

What about poetry called you in, and what about it kept you?

I think what pulled me in was story and, like, what’s the word—it’s sort of a pretentious idea, but verisimilitude. The idea of bringing you into the truth of a place or an experience. Reading all kinds of literature does this for me. I get to experience and learn something new—a new kind of empathy or a new kind of knowledge of a situation or person. The very practical expansion of one’s capacity for empathy and connection to the world outside the self—that’s what pulled me in. And what kept me was being able to feel like I could enter that conversation as well.

You did a lot to shed light on your family’s culture in the forthcoming book. Did it feel difficult translating it, so to speak, to a potentially unfamiliar audience?

When I was writing the poems I was less concerned about that. My feeling about “translation” for an unfamiliar audience is similar or analogous to the convention of italicizing words that aren’t in English. I don’t do it anymore. I did when I first started writing poetry. Any words in Spanish or Tagalog, I would italicize so as to mark them and convey, “I understand this is not English and you should look it up.” Now, I feel like language that is not English need not be othered in my writing. In that same way, I didn’t think about how to write to or for someone who wasn’t familiar with the Philippines or Filipino-American culture. I wrote these poems to process and learn things for myself, to pay homage to my family. Of course on some level you think about your audience, but I didn’t write these poems as a means to shed light or educate people about culture.

In your life, do you think often about the idea of tradition?

Oh yeah, I’m a recovering Catholic. Growing up, tradition was my whole life. I think that tradition is interesting because once you’ve figured out what it means to you, it’s like a buffet. I get to pick and choose what I continue to believe and what I want to carry forward, what I’ve processed or what I’ve decided to cleave away. I don’t think tradition is inherently bad. I think tradition can be valuable. It’s important to me to know where things come from, even if I don’t believe in them anymore.

How did you find your relationship to the idea of anger evolve as you wrote?

I think it was less the idea of anger and more actual anger. I think that anger, like trauma or grief, is something that comes in waves. You can’t feel grief all the time or sustain processing trauma all the time—you can’t be joyful all the time. It comes in waves. I feel like it was like that with these poems. Because there is joy in the book, too. But I think that anger is what drives a lot of things. There’s a lot to be angry about in general and especially now. It’s a very motivating emotion, but there’s a fine balance there because it can swallow you up. I feel like the poems in this book helped me process those things. Each poem is like a layer on top of another thing. It’s like a palimpsest—the things that were there are never really gone. It’s not like anger is ever really gone, but there are other lenses with which to view it or hold it.

Did these poems create any type of distance that you didn’t expect?

There’s a previous relationship, which is not the same as my current— and happy!—marriage, that I definitely processed through a number of these poems, and I think that allowed me some distance. I think you always carry the consequences and effects of what you’ve experienced—that’s what makes us who we are—but I think you can find a healthy distance from those effects. Many of the poems in the book created a lot of space from traumatic things.

I love the sonic quality of your last name. And you call on it in the book at least a few times. Did you always appreciate the sound of your name?

No, not always. But I do love it now. It’s my father’s surname and I don’t have my father in the world with me anymore. I think as I got older my name became more important to me. I didn’t take my husband’s name. I’m married, but I’m still Michelle Peñaloza.

Growing up, though, it wasn’t a typical last name in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid-90s. One of my teachers, Mr. Langdon, would try to be cute and call me Michelle Pepsi Cola. There were always other iterations—Pepsi Cola, Panty Hosa, Pennzoil. People really freak out when you have a Z in your last name. They’re like, “Oh no! The letter Z! It’s at the end of the alphabet, I don’t know what to do with this!”

I agree it is a very sonically pleasing last name. And I love my family, and my family name accordingly—it’s a part of who I am and I’ve grown to really like that person.

There is a lot about romantic relationships in the book and the particularly jarring moments come when you describe a situation with someone in power and someone without. Was it difficult to mine these spaces?

Yeah, it was painful, at times. But I think to your prior question about distance, I think it was also really healthy and good and artistically rich for me to do that. It was cathartic. But yeah, it could be hard. But all writing that’s hard is better than writing that’s easy, I’ve found. Whenever stuff comes easy, I go back to it and I’m like, “Ugh, this is terrible!” That’s just my process. When it comes easily, it’s usually not getting to what I need to figure out.

How many poems did you throw away while writing the book?

Oh, many. I have a whole sequence that I just can’t fucking write. It’s this really interesting story, a whole 20-page sequence that’s based on family lore on my dad’s side about how my Lolo, my grandfather, went into the jungle to look for gold and never came back and his body was never found. Maybe that will be in the next book. Maybe not. There were also a number of sweet love poems that didn’t make it in.

There are so many amazing lines in the book. For example, “He pressed like pressing was what his life was for”; “facts are marbles in my mouth”; “Landscape climaxes against the crash of water.” Do these come to you during the writing process or do they pop in your head while you’re, say, doing the dishes?

I think it’s a mix. I keep a notebook—well, I’ve been bad about it lately, but while writing the book I kept a notebook. It’s like how music will get in your head, how a phrase will find you.

The “marbles in my mouth” came in the writing of that poem, just meditating on language and thinking about how it physically feels when you know how to say something but you can’t say it. It feels heavy and you can’t swallow or you’ll choke. The “pressing” line, that one came in the writing, too. From meditating on trauma and abuse and what that experience is like. And the “climax” line, that came from writing the poem, too. So I guess I’m a liar with those three. But there are plenty of other lines in the book that happened to pop in my head at any given moment.

What’s one writing trick you’ve learned?

Garrett Hongo, when I was at the University of Oregon for my M.F.A., did this thing where, in the workshop, he’d read someone’s poem and it was like jazz. He wouldn’t put in any new words, he’d cut maybe one or two words. But he’d just move stuff around. He’d take lines from the middle and put them at the beginning. He’d make small moves like that, but what he was always doing was finding the heart of the poem, which isn’t a trick. He’d always talk about the latent meanings and narratives the poem had in it, that it hadn’t—haha, that you hadn’t—let the poem reveal, that you’d hidden from yourself. You’ve already written the poem, he’d say. When I revise or return to a poem, I often think of that.

You live in rural Northern California after spending time in Detroit, Nashville, and Seattle. How does your home affect your writing?

There’s always been lots of nature and plants in my writing and I feel like that is – it’s just changed the landscape. I feel like a lot of poems in the book that were written while I was living in the northwest reflect that. There’s a lot of nature named in it: ferns, specific places, moss, things like that. And now there’s specific things that pop up in my writing. I live in a very rural place where there aren’t very many people compared to basically everywhere else I’ve lived. It’s also the first place I’ve lived with a large Native population. The history of white settler colonialism and what was done to Native people in the town where I live is still very apparent and present in the landscape, and also in the way people socialize and interact. So, while that history and those narratives are not explicitly named in my writing, I think my witnessing of that has entered my writing.

Also, for the two years I’ve lived here, various parts of California have been on fire for half the time. And those two things are in line with how I feel about the rest of the world, right now, too. It feels heavy, which makes it slow, but also I have more space living in a rural place—physical, emotional, and mental. And being a farmer, I’m using my body. I’m dirty. And that is very different than my life in Seattle. I don’t know exactly how that’s going to manifest because in this transition, I haven’t been writing a ton of stuff either. It will be interesting to see how those things intersect.

Currently, I don’t have a specific question in mind or something I’m processing personally at the moment, but I feel like there’s a lot collectively. There is a lot happening outside of my own life that still feels personal. I’m not sure how it will manifest, but in the poems I’ve written things like this definitely bubble up.

In the book you write about grief. How did the writing process help exercise or exorcise your own grief? 

So many of the poems are about my dad and my mother in the wake of the loss of him and also about other beloved family members who have died. I feel like writing those poems and reading them, sharing them with people, is a way of both honoring my dead and keeping them close, which is good. It’s like we’re giving each other a gift.

Michelle Peñaloza is author of two chapbooks, landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias, 2015), and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts, 2015). Her full-length collection, Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, recently won the 2018 Hillary Gravendyk National Poetry Prize and will be published in August 2019 by Inlandia Institute. Her work can be found in places like Prairie Schooner, upstreet, Pleiades, The Normal School and Third Coast. She is the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and Hugo House as well as winner of the 2019 Scotti Merrill Emerging Writer Award for Poetry from The Key West Literary Seminar. Michelle has also received scholarships from Lemon Tree House, Caldera, VONA/Voices and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. Michelle lives in rural Northern California.

Jake Uitti is a Seattle-based writer who loves Tony Bennett, Amy Winehouse, and The Black Tones. His work has been featured in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, and The Monarch Review.