Interviews, Recent

Interview // “Emotional Realities that Expand in the White Space”: A Conversation with Natalee Cruz

by Shriram Sivaramakrishnan | Associate Editor

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan: I would like to begin our conversation by harking back to one of the articles you wrote for Electric Literature. In it, you say, 

“What are you?” is and always will be my least favorite question. On the West Coast I am always seen as Mexican. But here in New York, people always ask “what are you,” which in turn makes me wonder, “Who am I?” (“Mexican” doesn’t seem to satisfy people here, so I have to tell them I’m also Colombian, even though I would never identify as Colombian anywhere else.) This question—who am I?—has plagued young people not only in the millennial generation but in every generation, but as identities have become rallying points and bones of contention, we’ve been forced to ask ‘what am I’ more than ever before.

I Have Seen the Bluest Blue
Natalee Cruz
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2022

I couldn’t help but read I Have Seen the Bluest Blue through this lens because I imagine the addressee, the “whom” in “To whom it may concern,” to be a baby boomer. But it is not the identity of the stepmother that is being questioned; rather, it seems to be about the geopolitical ramifications of bearing an identity. And if we are being “forced to ask ‘what am I’ more than ever before,” how do you think we should approach (to answer) this question?

Natalee Cruz: It’s funny for me to consider this article against my attitudes today. Since writing “9 Books and Stories Baby Boomers Can Read to Understand Millennial Anxieties,” my mother, and therefore, also I, discovered an extended family in Israel and the greater Los Angeles area. I’ve learned so much about Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish customs since this discovery. This was only possible through 23andMe. Because of genetic testing, my mother reunited with her biological mother, who then connected us to the rest of our family, all of whom had eagerly awaited our homecoming. It’s a beautiful, rare, and complicated story—one that I’m sure not many baby boomers have experienced via the same recent technology.

This discovery answered the “and what else?” question I encountered when strangers asked about my identity. I think the question used to bother me more than it does today because others saw more in me than I initially understood. But now I think it’s neat that people saw something in me that I had never considered. Such is the reality of living as a mixed-race person. The question of “who am I” is ingrained in the cultural practices of “what I am,” even though I did not understand the extent to which I ever “was.”

All of this to say—I no longer believe in set identities for myself that can answer the question of “what are you” or “who are you?” I am a mixed person who did not fully understand the extent to which I was mixed. How people present themselves in public, in private, and in certain groups vary—such is the beauty and power in code-switching. I spent the first twenty-six years of my life identifying solely as a Latina. And now I’m opening my heart to the possibility of more.

I am writing this response in Israel. I came here for my cousin’s wedding, although I was unable to attend because I tested positive for COVID. Although I wasn’t able to meet new family and reunite with family members I have only met once before, I still relished being surrounded by people with whom I was inherently connected by way of Jewish tradition. Because of this trip and my somewhat earth-shattering discovery (the good kind, the kind that makes new mountain peaks) I have decided I want to learn more about the Torah and start the lifelong journey of learning Hebrew. I know I will never be proficient, but the constant act of evolving towards self-actualization within the context of pre-existing roots will be rich and fertile.

 “What are you” will never be an easy question to answer, and it is particularly difficult for some groups of people more than others in the sense that the answer can dictate future treatments. In my experience as a person of mixed-race, living mixed is wonderful in many ways, so long as you continue to view yourself and your makeup as wings versus chains. Answering the question of who you are is an entirely personal process, and the right people will respect any answer you give them. This is not to excuse Rachel Dolezal or others who appropriate culture through visual cues. I’ll use my mother as an example. My mother learned Spanish as a young adult because her birth certificate said she was Colombian. And when her 23andMe results came back, she wasn’t Latina at all. This doesn’t make her past deplorable because ultimately, she was exploring a side of herself that she believed was truth and she was doing so as a way of respecting herself.

When people probe further, they are simply applying their personal experience to you. Maybe that’s not always fair but I think it’s important to not be offended by this, as there are many ways to view a person. When we meet people, we are learning about them, and there are many ways to learn. Assuming good intent opens doors.

I Have Seen the Bluest Blue stripped away the possibility of an answer to “what are you” by stepping closer to bare-bones emotional realities that expand in the white space of the text until there is no room for misinterpretation. On the first page of the chapbook is a screenshot of my father asking me what I think of the letter. And I answered his question by doing what some may frown upon, but is a very cultural approach to knowledge, which is, answering with a story.

SS: And a remarkable story at that. There is much to unpack here. On the one hand, “the question of ‘who am I,’ is ingrained in the cultural practices of ‘what I am,’” and yet, as is apparent in this case, it is also ingrained in the genetic make-up, if that is even the right phrasing, going a long way back in history and in time. The question ‘who am I’ cannot be a ‘question’ at all, because it is a matter of understanding rather than articulation. The same cannot be said of ‘what I am,’ for in the world we live in, we are required to answer it (and our answers do ‘dictate future treatments’). That question lies in the realm of articulation, one that poetry can strive to absolve, if not resolve. Aren’t all immigrants, in some sense, floating orbs who want to be hummingbirds, even though the system wants to make us mail carrier pigeons, or worse, passenger pigeons? I mean, we are both the messenger and the message. I understand that carrier pigeons were essentially homing pigeons because they can naturally detect Earth’s magnetic field and align themselves with the magnetic north. I wonder if it is this homing instinct that a service like 23andMe enables us to tap into. After all, it has resulted in the homecoming for your mother, and for you.

And speaking of the message, I want to ask you about the epistolary form of I Have Seen the Bluest Blue. The first poem, “To Whom It May Concern” starts with the line, “I’m writing this letter.” This phrase changes to “I’m writing this poem” in the second poem, even though both (and the rest of the poems) partake in the same aesthetics of meaning (un)making. What do you think is the significance here, if there is one in the first place? What bearing do you think the perceived form (letter or poem) has, or can have, on the message?

I ask this because all the poems in the chapbook are, in a way, signed: not with names or signatures (and both would have allowed the reader to ascertain, if not force, some understanding of the identity of the speakers), but with quasi-questions such as “Is This OK?” and “Mija, Is This OK?” To use questions as signatures is, in my humble view, to question the very idea of what identity means. The speaker changes across poems. The intended recipient shifts. Even the form shifts. Is there anything that doesn’t shift, or is everything a subject of change?

NC: Thank you for unpacking my response in such a thoughtful and beautiful way. I think the key word is “magnetism” within the context of a personal north. Visiting family in Israel held the energy of a homecoming, but it was also a realignment, a shock to the system that changed the ways in which I viewed myself and my America. I think of “genetic make-up” as poetic form, really, in the sense that the slicing and splicing of complete persons create a new version of ourselves, or the message. Genetic make-up can be the bibliography which can enrich the experience of the reader and lead them to new knowledge.

This shift from letter to poem was my way of reading the letter in its most honest form (ha!). I couldn’t read it as simply a letter because it was too strange to classify as a simple letter. It was also a legal document, and I always believed legal documents to be stale pieces of the truth. This document was not stale. It was an accurate snapshot of my father and his grief. Poems function in this way; they are accurate snapshots of shared feelings and realities. But I wanted to make this highly personal letter into something I could also understand. The constant translations and riffs were my attempts to understand my father. 

The chapbook began as a text from my father with a picture of the letter followed by the earnest “is this OK?” The long and short of it was, no. It’s not ok that this letter has to exist to prove the character of a man who did nothing wrong, and by extension, prove to a court that his wife did nothing wrong in trusting her lawyer to provide honest translations of a confusing court system. His outreach was difficult to swallow. It was all so sad. I trusted but also distrusted the letter in its original form. I didn’t think it communicated my father’s beauty which is why I decided to break the sentences apart and create white space. I took the epistolary form a step away from the classic form and allowed translation in silence, which I hoped could capture the sound of bracing for impact.

I think it’s wonderful that you read “Is This OK?” and “Mija, Is This OK?” as signatures. My editors and I spent much time deciding where to place these reglas or rules. I was very inspired by Monica deLa Torre’s Repetition Nineteen where she applies treatments to her poems as a way of discussing the Mexico she once knew and the Mexico that exists today (both the place and within herself). Her reglas function similarly to mine; they are the frame which holds the language together. 

I also wanted to keep color consistent in the manuscript. Color is beauty available to the lonely. Color perception varies, but individual appreciation cannot be shaken. I saw color function as the ultimate soul of the text. In its absence, the manuscript would not hold. It was my way of creating a bridge from the highly personal and specific to the impersonal and vague. 

SS: I love the idea of our genetic make-up as a poetic form, one that can be sliced and spliced to create newer versions of ourselves. Does that mean that we, that is, our awareness of our own selves is the content? I can see why this form can function like a bibliography and lead us to newer experiences of knowledge. In this case, to experience the changing nature of the self. My apologies for latching onto this idea because what is a poetic form if not a set of reglas or rules. In that sense, a form allows the poet (and the reader) to first approach, and then perceive, the poem in a particular way. In your response, you have called (a form with) rules a frame. In “VIII: To Whom It May Concern,” the speaker says, “A distant photographer sees my head and calls it art, the viewer can decipher the depth.”

This is one of my favorite pieces because, in directly addressing the viewer, and asking them to decipher their closeness to the event in question, the speaker breaks the f(r)amed fourth wall. This, to me, is a political act. Every poetic form is political because it has a set of rules. And so, when you took the letter away from its classical form by breaking away from the set of rules, by allowing for “translation in silence,” I wonder if you inadvertently committed yourself to silence as a political discourse? This is not to undermine the effectiveness of silence as a political tool—I think of silence as a formidable political force—but that, by moving the epistolary form away from its utilitarian role (letter: to communicate) to an aesthetic praxis (poem: to express), are we not making poetry (and silence) a tool of provocation? I am referring to the poem “IX: To Whom It May Concern,” where the speaker asks, ‘Where does the translation intersect?’ 

In the light of this conversation, I am forced to ask myself, intersect what?

NC: Maybe I have committed myself to silence as political discourse—but only in this chapbook! My other writing doesn’t look like I Have Seen the Bluest Blue. I’ve written poems that are transcriptions of my father speaking—the exact opposite of silence. 

And form is as political as my own hand writing stories and poems. I’m a new phone number entering a centuries-old group chat. This interruption of norms reminds me of a lecture I once heard by Mia White, a professor of Environmental Studies at The New School. She once described the sound of the bent note as “a microcosmic revolution” because “bent notes can spark change in a small and unprecedented way which in turn changes the way we think.” I think of the poetic silence enacted by form to function like a bent note in jazz, where the listener can feel the shift, which can spark something new.

I Have Seen the Bluest Blue is a chapbook that wades through a highly political landscape. It was my way of regaining control on behalf of my parents, even if that just meant waiting alongside them. I wanted the silence and the white space to function like a bent note. But although we sat in silence, we were still surrounded by noise. These poems are a tool of provocation by their very nature, but I also wanted them to be a form of comfort for those who had experienced such a case or such an emotion.

In regards to the question of intersection—the translation only began to intersect in Gude’s absence, which doesn’t feel like much of an intersection of anything at all. The real intersection of a translation would only happen in her return, where the lies and the promise that all she would have to do is “sign here and everything will be ok” came true. So, where does the translation intersect the aesthetic praxis? I think the intersection lies in truth, specifically a timeless sort of truth. When I think of timeless truth, I think of silence. I think of sudden shifts. I also think of prisms which, when the light bends, create a new reality that had been hiding among us the entire time but required a tweak of absence or the loss of darkness to allow for something beautiful and true.

SS: It is interesting that you mention prisms. I think of white light bending and unwinding as it passes through a prism, resulting in a spectrum of colors, the VIBGYOR. The spectrum is a movement from the bluest blue (violet) to blue, orange, and fiery pink (red). I am reminded of your poem, “XV: My Voice Is Returned,” in which the monarchs migrate in a brilliant “burnt orange tide.’

I have never heard of bent notes, nor of their significance. Thanks for bringing it into my life. I think of the Baroque concept of the fold as explained by Gilles Deleuze. The fold, like the bent note, is a “microcosmic revolution,” in that it encloses but also discloses possibilities inherent in an order. I wonder if this is what the speaker intends in “X: Your honor,” a poem written from the POV of Gude (signed as “Gude’s opening remarks”), when she declares, “I have lost / the ear for / a trumpet’s delight.” I mean, isn’t jazz a way of subverting hierarchies, one that straddles with aplomb the interstice between an aesthetic praxis and an appropriation of truth (political or otherwise)?

If “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between” (a quote attributed to Mozart), then the erasing of language in “XIV: Until” is part of the poem’s music. It is also an erasure of Gude’s POV. All of this brings me to my next question: if uncovering the “new reality” requires a “tweak of absence” (in this case, the absence of a person from a country, a POV from a situation), what do you think is the role of a poet here? Is it only to make this tweak visible?

NC: In Gude’s portion of the chapbook (the second half), I wanted to investigate the other side of their separation, what it must have felt like to be living as the white space. Surrounded by family but also homesick, I imagined the frustration to feel hot, pink, the kind of powerlessness one feels by 2 p.m. in a heatwave, when there is no end in sight. And so, to lose the ear for a trumpet’s delight is somewhat of surrender to the general noise that pollutes her solitude. When it seems that either noise or absence is left to be true, it’s difficult to hear the possibility of revolution or hope.   

The “tweak of absence” is one way a poet can unearth the core of a poem. Erasure is a powerful tool I employed because I wanted to maintain authenticity to the situation at hand, which was ultimately an erasure of voice. The reader is left with a piece that resembles what they’ve interacted with previously but it is not, and it does not read the same, either. Much of the lyricism and music is lost, which brings me back to losing the ear for a trumpet’s delight.

My father often tells me he wants me to write a book about his life. I tell him he needs to write some sort of timeline of major events he would like to discuss. He says ok, doesn’t do it, and then tells me a few months later that he wants me to write a book about his life. (Now we are discussing a short film of sorts, and I think he likes the idea). When I wrote this chapbook, I saw the role of the poet intersect with the role of a child of immigrants, which is to remind readers that we are here. Maybe that’s through tweaking to make the invisible visible. I like to think of the role of the poet here as unearthing, where there’s the obvious upper crust, but the poet will dig and peel back the layers until they get to the core of what’s at hand. I see my father’s insistence on a book about his life simply as an example of a man who does not want his story to be forgotten, who believes he has lived an extraordinary life, and who believes that others could be inspired by his story. I’ve found my ways to be less literal when telling the story of his life, which is another role of the poet here. 

SS: I love the idea of a poet digging and peeling back layers to reveal what is hidden. The poet must be an earthworm that, in erasing the obvious from the surface, allows the hidden to surface. I can’t think of a better way to end our amazing little talk. Thank you so much for your time and patience. So where do you go from here as a poet?

NC: This year, I’m wrapping up my MFA in poetry and fiction at The New School. I’m currently chipping away at my novel in-progress which has opened a new portal of self-doubt, but I’ve decided to call it a new sensation. I’ve found so much pleasure and joy in the process of writing a novel, even the uncomfortable moments. I love both forms of writing, especially those moments of hybridity. 

Writing in both forms also complements my style of procrastination; when I am tired of working on one thing, I simply pick the other one back up. I’m also a teaching artist with Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and I’m patiently awaiting the beginning of the school year so I can get back to working with students in the classroom. Bartending and waiting tables have given me enough insight on the adult human condition. That being said, I am much more inspired and fascinated by the young human condition.

Beyond looking to human behavior for inspiration, I’ve also started looking outward because I’ve become increasingly interested in everyone’s connective tissue. This has brought me to the history of bicycles in NYC, nuclear semiotics, the voice of Chavela Vargas, and many other pockets of inspiration. I’m not sure where I’ll end up but I’m happy to hold a variety of launching points by which I may continue to move or simply decide to abandon.

Natalee Cruz is a poet and fiction writer from Southern California. She is completing her MFA degree at The New School. Her work has appeared in magazines and in print through Tyger Quarterly, The Ilanot Review, The Thing Itself, and Electric Literature. Her chapbook I Have Seen the Bluest Blue is available for purchase through Ugly Duckling Presse. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her chatty cat.

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan graduated from Boise State University’s MFA program in May 2022. Some of his recent poems have appeared in Rivulet and DIAGRAM, among others. Shriram tweets at @shriiram.