Making The Most of The Time We Have

Join author, educator, and learner, Annmarie Kelly as she laughs, cries, and kvetches with the writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and wanderers who inspire all of us to reach beyond our divisions and discover what it means to be wild, precious, and brave.

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Reclaim Your Story with Vanessa Angélica Villareal

Reclaim Your Story with Vanessa Angélica Villareal

Does poetry scare you? Does it leave you feeling more lost than found? If so, you aren’t alone. In this episode, Annmarie talks to poet Vanessa Angélica Villareal about owning your truth, storytelling as survival, and the intergenerational power of Dirty Dancing.

StoryStudio Chicago -- A writing center located in Chicago and online, which helps writers hone their craft, express their creativity, and tell their stories. Learn more and register for classes at storystudiochicago.org

Ashland University Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing -- Where accomplished faculty help you find your voice and complete your degree at your own pace. Learn more and enroll today at ashland.edu.

By Vanessa Angélica Villareal: Beast Meridian

Here are links to a few of Vanessa’s poems. If you are intrigued by her work, please purchase Vanessa’s books.

Poor Claudia, Malinche, Assimilation Room, after Frida Kahlo's The Wounded Deer, Estrellada

f = [(root) (future)]

“Tropical Depression”

Whether you are a beginning reader of poetry OR someone venturing further into the study, here are a handful of poets Vanessa recommends:

Ruth Ellen Kocher

Dawn Lundy Martin

Eduardo C. Corral

Hanif Abdurraqib

Tommy Pico

For further reading:

Some books by Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved

“Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” by Audre Lorde, can be found in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Vanessa recommends the fantasy storytelling of The Witcher video games. Watch a trailer here.

Take a rockin’ trip down memory lane with Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat”

Finally, a moment with Patrick Swayze and the whole Dirty Dancing crew: Dirty Dancing - Time of my Life (Final Dance) - High Quality

Follow Vanessa:

Twitter: @vanessid

Instagram: @vv_angelica

Annmarie:
Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Story Studio, Chicago, a writing center located in Chicago and online, which helps writers hone their craft, express their creativity and tell their stories.

Annmarie:
Learn more and register at storystudio.org and by the Ashland University Low Res MFA in creative writing, where accomplished faculty help you find your voice and complete your degree at your own pace. Learn more and enroll today at ashland.edu.

Annmarie:
I'm Annmarie Kelly. Welcome to Wild Precious Life, a podcast about dreaming big and making real connections. In each episode, I talk to prize-winning writers, musicians and entrepreneurs who teach all of us how to make the most of the time we have.

Annmarie:
Have you ever been afraid of poetry? Maybe you were a kid who scrawled in a notebook or made sense of a breakup by putting it into verse. If so, I am glad for that. I am envious of people for whom poetry came easily or as a comfort. I am not one of those people.

Annmarie:
As a high school student, poetry always stressed me out. There just wasn't enough there. So much blank space and the feeling that there was some right answer I wasn't getting. I hated the way poems made me feel lost. I even tried again in college, but my interpretation of a poem differed from my teachers and that was the only time a professor ever made me cry. I just figured maybe poetry wasn't for me.

Annmarie:
It's only since becoming an adult and a teacher myself that I have begun to let go of some of that fear. I have sought refuge in Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver. My aunt, Kathy, is in a poetry group and she sends me some of her favorite verses from time to time.

Annmarie:
I don't love everything about getting older. That creek in my right knee, or the way I sometimes can't think of a word I know I know, but I do love this. The way aging helps us confront old fears. We can shake hands with something that once haunted us, a person, an idea, a poem, and learn that it was never as scary as it once made us feel. And that we are stronger and more capable now.

Annmarie:
For today's guest, writing poetry has been a journey into and out of her family history, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal was born in the Rio Grande Valley to Mexican immigrants. And though she often felt left out of the poetry world in her younger days, as an adult, she is blazing a trail, making her own rules and frankly, kicking ass.

Annmarie:
We talk about breaking silences and rewriting the stories others have told about ourselves. Late in the interview, we also talk about art and why it's so important to share what we create with others.

Annmarie:
I thought of lines of a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty that I've seen recently floating around social media. It's called Why Bother? From The Second O of Sorrow. Why Bother? Because right now there is someone out there with a wound in the exact shape of your words.

Annmarie:
Whether you realize it or not, I suspect there is a wound inside of each one of us that a poem, maybe even one of Vanessa's poems, can help heal. We share our stories to tend one another's wounds. Vanessa's work does that.

Annmarie:
So, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal is the author of the award-winning collection, Beast Meridian and a recipient of the 2019 Whiting Award, among many other honors. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Oxford American.

Annmarie:
She is a recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she is working on a poetry and non-fiction collection while raising her son. Her next book, CHUECA, will be published by Tiny Reparations in 2023. Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, welcome to Wild Precious Life.

Vanessa:
Thank you so much. I'm so thrilled to be here.

Annmarie:
It's lovely to have you. Vanessa, despite the fact that our podcast borrows its name from a poem, I think you're our first poet guest, which is, I guess, a little embarrassing, but mostly just exciting. I'm grateful that you're here. For listeners who aren't yet fortunate enough to be acquainted with your life and work, I wonder if you could just tell us your story.

Vanessa:
The way I tell my story is, this is actually something that I've been interrogating with my mom. The way she tells her story, it's very much like the good immigrant narrative. She came here and she learned how to learn the language, and worked really hard and bought her own house, and made sure that we didn't grow up on the wrong side of town or that she moved to a place with good school districts.

Vanessa:
And I think she really is insistent that I not represent her as this long-struggling figure. Because the women in our family, and this is something that I'm investigating in writing my poetry collection, my dissertation, the women in our family, especially along the maternal line, but really both lines, really struggled.

Vanessa:
My mom's side were indigenous cotton farmers. And my grandmother, the one on the cover of the book, was basically sold into marriage against her will to a 36 year old man at 14. Her brother had to come save her.

Vanessa:
And they ran away to Tampico and she married another man who basically prompted her escape to the United States. I think we frame immigrants as like coming here for a better life, as this aspirational choice. But so often it's to escape state violence, it's to escape domestic violence. No one makes the choice to leave their country if circumstances aren't dire.

Vanessa:
She came here alone and then my mother followed her two years after and they were undocumented and that's not something that I understood until basically I was in graduate school.

Vanessa:
The process of writing this book and interrogating why I felt so different in the realms of academia, why it was so difficult to even get my bachelor's degree, what the cultural divide has always been was such a mystery until I realized that I grew up in a mixed status family. And a lot of my family was undocumented and that shaped our reality in ways that I'm still struggling to understand.

Vanessa:
And there is this active effort on the part of family members to erase that part of themselves. It's a point of shame. It's something that they don't want to be associated with because it's so stigmatized and criminalized. So, I have to be careful about how I tell my story.

Vanessa:
So, my story is I was born in McAllen, Texas. I paint it in this way, but McAllen and all of the Rio Grande Valley is just this place of just incredible creativity and incredible wittiness. And the culture is just so vibrant and that gets erased because of the poverty and because of the way it's portrayed in the news.

Vanessa:
I was raised in Houston. We moved to Houston because my grandmother could get free medical care at MD Anderson, which is this research Institute for cancer. And I lost her at 10 years old. She was 50. I was basically raised by her, so it was like losing a mother, but she's very central to my work now. She's very central to my research now, especially when it comes to reproductive healthcare for women of color in Texas.

Vanessa:
I grew up very working class. My mom worked for a grocery chain. My dad was a working, touring musician with a Cumbia band. And then later he had odd jobs when I was in high school. And we just really struggled.

Vanessa:
This continued on into my adulthood. So, it took me 11 years to get my bachelor's degree. And then there was just this threshold that I crossed where writing became a lifeboat, and somehow I'm here, somehow I'm in L.A. and I'm pursuing a PhD and I never thought that would happen.

Annmarie:
That was beautiful. I love that you wandered in and out of the lives of your family members. I think having read your work and listened to some of your talks, their lives are incredibly, incredibly alive throughout your poems. And so, it makes sense that the story of you is not just the story of you, but the story of the collective you.

Annmarie:
And I like this idea of the threshold that you have crossed with your poetry, because I think that your poetry quite literally crosses some threshold. I think I mentioned to you when I first reached out that I had the opportunity to hear you read at an event this summer sponsored by the Ashland MFA program.

Annmarie:
I was struck again and again by your profound ability to reach across the physical boundaries of the Zoom room and grab listeners in their heart and chest and throat. And so then as I learned more about your story, about the literal borders your family crossed, about the more figurative borders your poetry transcends, I couldn't help but think that it wasn't an accident.

Annmarie:
I assume this is intentional, but when you write your poems, how do borders manifest themselves in your work and these divisions, how do they come about?

Vanessa:
Yeah. That's actually a great question because when I started, I mean, I was just looking through this old sketchbook from high school. I've been writing poems since I was 12, 13 years old. And they're just bad love poems.

Annmarie:
I would love to hear one of those poems. I would pay good money to hear one of those poems.

Vanessa:
I might list a few on the Instagram. I gave up that dream because when you grow up with a musician father and you see the kind of cost a creative life enacts on a family, on a body, on security, you feel like a creative life isn't for you.

Vanessa:
And then I ended up in creative writing classes to meet my English requirement. And then I ended up in poetry classes, and then I was like, "Okay. Maybe I'll apply to an MFA." And I got into almost every program. That sounds like a brag. I'm not bragging.

Annmarie:
It's facts. It's facts.

Vanessa:
It was more like a path. It's more like a path was opened for me. A path that I needed to go down. And when I got to graduate school, the imposter syndrome was so intense that my focus was fiction, but the critique was always like, "What is the plot? The sentences are great. What is the plot?"

Vanessa:
And I'm like, "I don't know." And so, I ended up working with someone I still consider my mentor and friend, Ruth Ellen Kocher. Just an incredible poet in her own right.

Vanessa:
I would write these little poems that were just prose because I didn't feel confident enough to lineate even. And she was like, "Yeah, you're hiding. I don't know why you just don't think you can lineate. You can't turn in any prose poems anymore."

Vanessa:
I was like, "Oh, no." She totally called me out. With her, I ended up reading all of these poetry books and finding poets like Eduardo Corral and Don Wendy Martin. These poets of color that were writing about things that I could recognize. And when I started writing, I agreed that the prose poem was not brave.

Vanessa:
And so, I was like, "How can I be brave like these poets are brave?" And so, I started creating these little, visual pockets. I was really inspired by The Black Arts Movement. These experimental poets who were challenging these established forms.

Vanessa:
And so, I would write a sonnet and then I would condense it into a little square, or I would write a sestina and condense it into a little square and then edit out so that the structure and the repetition, the rhythm of a sestina was there. But there were all of these pieces missing because that's my education, right?

Vanessa:
I don't have this Harvard education. I don't have this lineage. I have to take these piecemeal. And so, these little squares emerged, and I was just like, this makes sense to me because the voice, what I was trying to do visually on the page was compress the voice, or make it feel small, or confined in some way.

Vanessa:
And that was how I ended up writing assimilation rooms. I was like, "These are all connected. These are all little fragments or shards of memory that hurt," that were these moments of cultural estrangement that were represented in this little box, this little room, this little, I don't know, kilobyte or something, of memory that can't be erased, but everything else is erased around it.

Vanessa:
That's what my poems are about. This inability to remember. And so, creating paths back into memory using a language that's embodied. Because my body remembers when I can't. And so, I access it through this kind of poetic, somatic exercise as poetic dreaming.

Vanessa:
So yeah, I guess the border that's being crossed all the time is a neurological one too. Why can't I remember this word? Why can't I remember this song? What is it about this scene that sticks with me? So, yeah, I hope that answers the question somewhat.

Annmarie:
Whether it answers the question or not matters to me not at all. I thought it's beautiful and so much to unpack within there, because anyone in a family is brought up in the family mythology, whatever that is.

Annmarie:
Part of being in a family means you know the history that you're taught about your family. But in your case, your family exists on two sides of this border. You have family in a place that they cannot go back to, that they're leaving behind.

Annmarie:
So, home was in both two places and in no places, right? I found again and again there's a longing in this book and I'm not sure if you're longing for anything, or your narrator is longing for anything she's ever known before. And I actually understand that too. Though my family is not your family, I understand a longing to be part of that history that the family tells you you're from but you don't feel a part of.

Annmarie:
My mother is a full-blooded Italian woman from many Italian women who came before. I grew up wanting to feel part of that, wanting to know what that was like, but also knowing that something about me wasn't right with that. Right? It didn't look like they looked, they didn't talk...

Annmarie:
And to get to become educated, right? To follow the paths school tells us to follow is to leave behind that family that you want desperately to connect with. They want you to become educated but they're pushing you away from what you wanted to be.

Annmarie:
I thought there were some incredibly gorgeous lines. And rather than just talk about the poetry, I think we should, if you don't mind, can we hear... So, I thought we could look at on my book. I think we're looking at the same thing. On my book, it's page 36, the Assimilation Progress Report.

Annmarie:
And maybe for folks who haven't read the first part of this, maybe give us some background and then I'd love to just hear it in your voice.

Vanessa:
Yeah. I think I will actually do Assimilation Progress Report in the one that follows because actually, they're companion pieces and I'll talk about how in a second. But this sequence is called assimilation rooms. And each poem is what I imagine to be like a room in the abandoned institutional building that is my memory of childhood and adolescence and what these little rooms mean.

Vanessa:
So like this first one is like this daycare room where these kids locked me in a closet, and I didn't know much English at the time. The second is this choir performance at a bank. Next one is a locker room and it just goes on and on until we get to this blank.

Vanessa:
There's a blank where you expect a poem to be. And then in the footnote, you get all of this medical language that forms this palimpsest. This language that's on top of each other and it's the same footnote over and over again, about, essentially acculturation trauma and behaviors that emerge from that trauma.

Vanessa:
And then the companion piece to this blank where a memory should be is this point where I get arrested in front of my mom in a principal's office for something I didn't do.

Annmarie:
If you don't mind, let's hear some of it.

Vanessa:
Assimilation progress reports.

Vanessa:
GYM‎ Learn white girl nipples are your erotic shame‎ The only body you long for is hers. Shotgun past the smoke in the locker room. Shower. Run for hours even when they throw rocks at your head because they found out you're a dyke.

Vanessa:
PHYSICS. LEARN 1. Parallax, (noun.) the effect whereby an object appears to differ according to viewer position‏ 2. Matter (noun.) physical substance which occupies space; an affair or a situation under consideration; the reason for distress or a problem. 3. The tricks of English. Tricks of the trade.

Vanessa:
TEXAS History‎ Learn a swindle. Mexico lost its Pacific gold-veined mountains to someone else's destiny. MANIFEST Multiple Choice:

Vanessa:
A). Be quiet.

Vanessa:
B). As paperwork so that the cotillion may accept their blond praise, their every award.

Vanessa:
C). Hold hands with their white boys‎

Vanessa:
D). Raise your question‎

Vanessa:
E). They'll escort you out, put you in basics with the other.

Vanessa:
F). Not honors material.

Vanessa:
ENGLISH‏ On the road, white boys aching oats are high literature. High and well-funded. Wandering while papi is pulled over in that same desert asked to show his papers before [Spanish 00:20:01].

Vanessa:
Learn Sal Paradise loved a Mexican girl but not enough to name her. And shh, Brandon from Wimbledon is talking and he is three-story brilliant ha ha ha‏ The voices that matter (noun.) are the people who matter (noun.) Ivy Bright and Ivory.

Vanessa:
GOVERNMENT. Learn confederate flag is state's rights. On the test the double speak that makes right a boundless estate, makes right-less the bound, black body confederate flag stickers on mud-spun Jeep [inaudible 00:20:36] the boys go riding. Protected as a plantation, the founders' holy signatures guarantee it, you see:

Vanessa:
A) their liberty‏

Vanessa:
B) our terror.

Vanessa:
WORK. Learn to wipe that (with a) smile off your face from 3PM to 1AM side work than homework. Use the front computer to clock in and out, otherwise in the back room, his hand will hard between my legs again the booths empty after midnight.

Vanessa:
Expulsion. Lighter, confiscated alternative school. At morning, pat down, turn out pockets. White tongues snitch, bag check, arms up. Someone's head slammed on cement bricks. 1. parallax. (noun.) The effect of position upon viewing an object. Signature. Gulf Pines for final assimilation.

Vanessa:
Patient states, honeysuckle wraps its heated brews of bad news. A daughter bound by trouble is a wilder grief manifested badaling oil fixed stars pour down their vines to overwhelm the molds from house. Stormwater sags the walls as the ghost spine blossoms berries of rot in her daughter's daughter's brains.

Vanessa:
The girl doubled shares a heart with the Pines, pulls the vein from the blade. Antlered illness made creature punished into deformities, suspended, mid run. An animal body's instinct is to survive pain and flee its hunter. The girl attached to the thrashing creature is calm, nearly smiling. Another, another, another of us in a hospital.

Vanessa:
And the footnote here is, so before I went to alternative school, which is reflected in this assimilation progress report, I had a pretty long stint in essentially a psychiatric hospital designed for these bad kids.

Vanessa:
In the nineties, tough love was a big issue. And if your child just showed signs of puberty, there must be something wrong with them. And so, this place was called Gulf Pines.

Vanessa:
And there's a commercial, because it's a moneymaking enterprise, that was on every local channel. And it's this judge about to put on his robe and he's in his office lined with books. And you get the sense that he's between cases, truancy cases or whatever.

Vanessa:
And he says, "When you talk to the parents of these juvenile offenders, you get the same old story. Johnny stayed out late. He was moody. He skipped school, but we figured he'd grow out of it. They don't."

Vanessa:
Recently, I found out about a family-oriented adolescent treatment program that's getting through to these kids and it's often covered by health insurance. If you have a troubled teenager, don't wait until he gets here. Get help now.

Vanessa:
I wanted to contrast this voice of dissent, this voice of grief, this almost hyper-feminine rendering of confusion and grief. And just feeling powerless with this just really glib, masculine, authoritative voice.

Annmarie:
It's that word parallax in your second stanza here, the effect whereby an object appears to differ according to viewer position. That word parallax haunted me throughout this. The idea that what you see is not necessarily what I see, what both of us see is not actually necessarily what something is. And so, you were viewed as an at-risk juvenile. What did they think that you were at risk of?

Vanessa:
I was definitely rebellious. I was dealing with my own grief, but no one knew really or thought that kids could grieve in the way that we understand trauma now and have trauma-informed responses at schools. I couldn't be in school.

Vanessa:
Obviously, it was the most violent place for me to be. So, of course, this gets full. Of course, I found other kids who were grieving in their own ways, who were queer or had lost a parent, or just had other shit going on. And we smoked cigarettes.

Vanessa:
I never really got into any of the drug use or anything like that. My vice was cigarette smoking and coffee and staying out late. And just those actions alone combined with my gender and this constructed race of... The way Mexican is viewed in Texas is its own construct. Because it's so close to the border.

Vanessa:
I think, Arizona has a similar way of constructing Mexican, Latin American people. It's like this whole other identity that if being a person of color makes you feel like a guest everywhere else, you are highly suspicious if you are a Mexican person in white spaces.

Vanessa:
At risk became this label of control. It's not a label of concern, it's a label of control. This allows us to put you in a temporary building and put you in detention. This allows us to expel you.

Vanessa:
This allows us to put you in an alternative school where there are these creep teachers and absolutely no curriculum, because it's all mixed grades, all mixed, and it's all students of color or poor white students. So yeah, at risk for what? I don't know, institutional violence, really.

Annmarie:
I should have confessed this earlier in the talk. I actually spent most of my life suffering from what I would diagnose to be mild to moderate poetry phobia. I had lovely English teachers throughout my formative years, but our studies of poetry were like either the epic sonnets of dead white guys or even worse, they were like the secret handshake poems, like about red wheel barrels and white chickens and something depended on them, but it wasn't on the page. And you just, I don't know.

Annmarie:
It was like a riddle to unlock and I felt like I did not have the key. So I would sit on the curb outside of the poem and know that I was not its reader and I was not it's intended. This is me as a white girl growing up in the Midwest. I felt outside of the poems that were given to me in a classroom. Did you feel this way?

Vanessa:
I had this just awful, awful English teacher, Mrs. [Doescher 00:27:44] who everybody loved because I guess she was funny or something, but I desperately wanted to be a poet. I desperately wanted to join the literary magazine. I applied my freshman year and I did get in. I don't know how.

Vanessa:
I was just like, "I have all the qualifications, please." It was called A Key Life Stylist. The Eagles pen. Because that was our mascot. And I remember just, again, being totally extra and reading ahead and sometimes reading more by a particular poet or assigned things where like Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner. Just this aggressively Americana, just a lot of Steinbeck and Carol Wack.

Vanessa:
And I remember asking if I could read Toni Morrison. The one book that I remember I was excited to read was The Bluest Eye and it was on the reading list. It was on the reading list. And I asked if I could read Beloved or any other book that's Tony Morrison had had written because I loved The Bluest Eyes so much.

Vanessa:
She was like, "No. No, you need to stick to this." So, I had to read The Grapes of Wrath or something else. All of my papers were Cs and C pluses, which I was just so confused by because, I mean, English was one of the only subjects that I cared about and thus did well in.

Vanessa:
And every other teacher seemed to grade me as such, but she just had this, I don't know, like this grudge or something. And the way I felt left out is that I had this interest, I had this desire to write. I was enrolled in journalism classes to qualify to be on the newspaper staff and applied and didn't get in.

Vanessa:
It was just this very forcible barrier and this invisible social barrier that said, no, literature is, I don't know. It just felt like it was closed to me.

Vanessa:
When I finally got to college, I could only go to the University of Houston, which is where I grew up. I don't know if it's by destiny or by accident, but the University of Houston has one of the top creative writing programs.

Vanessa:
So, I got a lot of the runoff and I just remember finally feeling like I could participate in a conversation. It was still like Raymond Carver and all of this Americana, but when I had to drop out because I had to work and my car was repossessed and I had no way to get to school, I was just heartbroken because I felt like I'd finally had this inroad and then I couldn't go to school there anymore.

Vanessa:
My poetry phobia was more just like who would enforce the gate and not being able to figure out why. Not being able to figure out why I would go up to someone that are reading or something. They just would be so chilly. It just never felt accessible to me, no matter how much I read. I got a job at a bookstore just so that I could read and be good enough to hang out with these people.

Annmarie:
So, I work in high school English. And so, in the decades that I've been in the classroom, I have actually been glad to see that it's not fast enough, but standard curriculum is changing. So, in their early years of my teaching career, I would have taught, what's the short Steinbeck that everybody reads? Of Mice and Men. Right? It would have been on the reading list and I would have thoughtlessly taught it.

Annmarie:
Not thoughtlessly, but I would have done the, understand the friendship and the bunnies and the mice. And we would have gotten a little bit out of it. But never in a million years, would I teach Of Mice and Men today because of the loaded way in which students of color would experience that book.

Annmarie:
And in fact, the triggered way that women, that women in my classroom would experience that book. We could teach that later to a group of students who want to experience a kind of American "classic" that was and the problematic text, but not to a group of 15 or 16 year old kids. I would never teach that book, but that's-

Vanessa:
It's indoctrination. Yeah. Yeah, go ahead.

Annmarie:
But for many years, that was the sophomore book. And then we had enough copies for everyone. And I handed that out. And I'm glad to see people's eyes opening. I'm glad to see The Bluest Eye and Sula and Beloved.

Annmarie:
I'm glad to see texts creeping their way into the cannon, but certainly not fast enough. And what you're talking about, the gateways and the gatekeepers, we've had conversations in high schools lately about tracking and the damage that does when we separate kids early on and who can get into those honors classes, who can get into the journalism, the idea being that anybody who wants to.

Annmarie:
Any child who says, please, I would like to learn about that. The answer should be yes, again and again and again, because any studies that you can look at with tracking breakdown abysmally by race, by class. It's grotesque. And now we look at that and no more.

Annmarie:
Any child who self-selects, who wants to write for the newspaper, who wants to write for the Eagle's pen, what was it called? The Eagle-

Vanessa:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:33:27]. The Eagle's pen.

Annmarie:
Any child who steps forward and says, "I have these things to say, can I share my voice?" I do see that again and again, kids are welcomed now in ways that, again, there were those gatekeepers back in the day.

Annmarie:
I heard you say once that as a society, we don't place enough value on the work that artists do. Right? I mean, I think sometimes it might be because we don't often see what that work is. Like I can see a building an architect puts up or I can drive across a bridge, but the work of poetry often is invisible to folks. But I know that it's there. Can you make a case for the importance of the arts and the work of the artist?

Vanessa:
Yeah, I would love to. So, I did a craft talk recently and I was just like, "Oh my gosh, they're going to say, 'You know what? Nevermind.'" Because at the time I was really into video games, it was something I've never really explored before.

Vanessa:
And during the pandemic, there's just shit to do. And I ran out of books and your attention span after a while during the pandemic, you just can't take in any more books after a while.

Vanessa:
And my brother had brought his PS4. He came to live with me temporarily to help out while I did my exams, help out with my son and all this stuff. And he brought his PS4 with him and he was like, "Dog. You need to try Skyrim." Because I was grieving the end of Game of Thrones and I needed my fantasy fix.

Vanessa:
And I became really obsessed. And I remember thinking, there are poets writing for Skyrim because one of the first quests that you do, you were the dragon born and you have to go to the throat of the world to meet with these monks. And the place where this cataclysm happened, spoiler, is called the time wound.

Vanessa:
And you have to go to the Skyborn Altar to... And it's just all these really beautiful, poetic images. And just these narrative surprises. Even just the names of the potions and the weapons. And that happened over and over again.

Vanessa:
I played Assassin's Creed, I played The Witcher. The Witcher, I'm still obsessed with The Witcher. I'm actually writing about The Witcher right now.

Vanessa:
And the poet, Keith Wilson, was like, "You have to play Dragon Age: Inquisition. And you have to tell me who you romance." And I was like, "Okay. So, I romanced everyone because I didn't want to get it wrong."

Vanessa:
And the last one was this Elvin character named Solis, who was so annoying that I was not interested. And then it was the most intense romance. And at the end, you see him and your characters interrogating him from this place of heartbreak.

Vanessa:
And the way he speaks back to you is in [inaudible 00:36:34]. And if you have read a sonnet, if you know anything about scansion, if you have that ear, you can hear duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. You can hear it.

Vanessa:
And so, I feel like if you are interested in writing stories, are interested in writing poems, but your parents want you to pursue something practical, this is something that my brother who is this really brilliant musician, just out of this world, he can play every instrument and it's like nothing to him. It's like just melting butter in his hands.

Vanessa:
He's going for a computer science degree and forcing himself to learn calculus. He's 25 and he's only gotten his associates degree because he can't go to college. Right? So, he's just doing this through community college. And I'm like, why don't you try music?

Vanessa:
And it's the same thing. He's like, "Well, when you watched dad, if we had more faith in art being able to sustain us, what could kids who have never known financial security, who have seen their parents struggle, who have experienced financial insecurity in any way, housing insecurity, whatever, if the arts were a viable career path that were able to sustain you, what could be possible?"

Vanessa:
So, I guess maybe that's the way that I want to defend the arts is, if art was able to open up a path for me, late in life, but still open up that path, most people will not ever be able to, like my brother, will probably never be able to play music professionally.

Vanessa:
I don't know. Just giving the arts more credence in our culture, would just solve so many more problems. I always assign poetry is not a luxury by Audre Lorde to my students. And it's just this incredible essay about how poetry, we see it as this, I don't know, this parlor thing that Victorian shared and it's out of style and it doesn't have a utility and it really does.

Vanessa:
It's sometimes the only way our language, suppressed language, can be heard, right? And it emerges in hip hop. It emerges in all kinds of ways that maybe aren't poetry per se.

Vanessa:
And I mean, just looking at poets now, poets who are working now, like Dennis Smith and [inaudible 00:39:13], and Tommy Pico, these poets are changing the world. So, if that's not a case for the arts, then I don't know what is. Because...

Annmarie:
No, that's a fantastic case for the arts. Holding space and holding truth and being, I mean, you're right about [inaudible 00:39:34] being warriors for social justice and shining a light on the kinds of things that we have hidden in the dark.

Annmarie:
And we've got poets doing that. And I love that Audre Lorde essay. That's great. Did you ever want to be anything else when you grew up besides a poet?

Vanessa:
So, I come from a family of musicians, not just my dad, but all my uncles, they have all these bands. They used to be called the Nevada Band, and now it's [inaudible 00:40:02]. Anyway, I really wanted to be a pop star. I wanted to be a singer.

Vanessa:
When I would go to my dad's band practice, he said that I would dance to all the music they were playing. And I would do the caterpillar on the dance floor. It's very [inaudible 00:40:18].

Annmarie:
I too went through an embarrassing caterpillar phase. I think it was important for all of us to be able to just do that. I once did that in a nun costume. I don't entirely remember the context, but-

Vanessa:
Oh, man.

Annmarie:
... I don't do this in the video.

Vanessa:
Yeah. We would have been friends. We would have been friends for sure.

Annmarie:
Yes. Oh my gosh. I could talk to you all day, but I'm not allowed to. So, I have to do a closing introduction. We always like to close with things we probably should have talked about at the beginning to get these final snapshots. So, these are just multiple choice. All right. Multiple choice, dogs or cats?

Vanessa:
Dog. Wolves.

Annmarie:
Wolves.

Vanessa:
Yeah. Dire wolves. I mean, of wolf ancestors all the way.

Annmarie:
Coffee or tea?

Vanessa:
Coffee only.

Annmarie:
Mountains or beach?

Vanessa:
I mean, I live in California. Can we do both? They both exist.

Annmarie:
They do. I always found it so strange when I lived in California that I would be in beach weather and have to go to the mountains. And I don't know where my gloves are. Where's my hat. You really had to, I don't know. I wasn't good at keeping track of my mittens in those 80 degree days, but yeah, you could have both there, don't you?

Vanessa:
I had to choose, beach, but I moved here to have both.

Annmarie:
That is one of the excellent things about that. Early bird or night owl?

Vanessa:
Night owl.

Annmarie:
Haiku or Limericks?

Vanessa:
The poet in me wants to say Haiku, but Limerick is also, it's just good fun. And it's how people arrive to poetry. It's like a working class like, let's make poetry fun and body. So, I'm just going to say Limerick to change it up a little bit.

Annmarie:
Love it. But you're right. They are fun. Are you a risk taker or are you the person who always knows where the band-aids are?

Vanessa:
Oh, I'm a risk taker. Yeah. And in fact, I never have an umbrella, never have the right size bandaid.

Annmarie:
Have you ever had a Wonder Woman bandaid for your son or a... I feel like we always have, my son would probably like Spider Man, but we've always got Wonder Woman if I can find it at the bottom of my purse.

Vanessa:
Yeah. For us it's Black Widow, but yes.

Annmarie:
Perfect. What's one of your go-to songs?

Vanessa:
When my friends came recently, the poet Muriel Leung for her birthday. As I was getting ready, I played Black Cat by Janet Jackson. It's so underrated, but it's like her rock and roll Rhythm Nation era. I can't remember if it's on Control or Rhythm Nation, but that is a song, that is a guitar lick. It's very good.

Annmarie:
I'll have to listen to that again. I got very caught up in the escapade. We did the whole dance, so I probably missed out on the Black Cat. I'll have to listen to that again. All right. What's a book or a movie that you love?

Vanessa:
Dirty dancing.

Annmarie:
Right? I carried a watermelon. Nobody puts baby in a corner. I just re-watched that. I watched it for the first time. I have a 16 year old daughter and we were having a day and I was like, you know what you need right now? And we watched Dirty Dancing, her for the first time, me for the 400th time. And it holds up and I got to just see her fall in love-

Vanessa:
With Johnny.

Annmarie:
She was heartbroken to learn that Johnny is no more.

Vanessa:
It's such an incredible movie about class and like choice, abortion rights. The libratory practice of dance and learning your body, black and Latinx music as the music of the working class. And then Patrick Swayze is in his prime. He has never looked better and has never been so sexy. It's so much.

Annmarie:
What's your favorite ice cream?

Vanessa:
Oh, you know what, actually recently coconut ice cream, but the Mexican paleta kind. I'm really addicted to those.

Annmarie:
Oh, that sounds nice. All right. And then last one, if we were to take a picture of you happy, joyful, doing something you love, what would we see you doing?

Vanessa:
Oh, I'd probably be with my son on a rollercoaster. My favorite thing is just taking pictures of his face while we're on a rollercoaster, because he's so worried about it before we get on. And then when we're on he's just having the best times.

Annmarie:
Sweet angel.

Vanessa:
Yeah. So, any ride with my son.

Annmarie:
That's a great image. I love that. So great. I also, I have a just turned nine-year-old. So we are also in that rollercoaster zone where everything he tries he's, "I don't know. I don't know." And then just reckless wonderful abandon. That's a great feeling to share.

Vanessa:
The life in their face, it's great.

Annmarie:
Absolutely. Well, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, thank you so much for being here, for helping us cross boundaries between truth and mythology between love and loss, between the stories we're told about ourselves and then what we know to be true.

Annmarie:
I'm, again, haunted by many of your poems. And for folks, if I haven't said again, it's the book that I'm looking at is Beast Meridian. We will link to that on the show notes and other poems of Vanessa so you can really see them.

Annmarie:
To anybody who's out there, we're wishing you love and light wherever the state takes you. And until next time, be good to yourselves. Be good to one another. And we'll see you again soon on this wild and precious journey.

Annmarie:
Wild Precious Life is a production of Evergreen podcasts. Special thanks to executive producers, Gerardo Orlando and Michael DeAloia. Producer, Sarah Willgrube, and audio engineer, Eric Koltnow. Be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Chase Your Dreams with Nayomi Munaweera

Evergreen Podcasts
Annmarie speaks with Nayomi about her immigrant childhood, teenage shenanigans, and what it really means to do the sacred work of storytelling.
Listen to Chase Your Dreams with Nayomi Munaweera

Be A Survivor with Jonathan Penner

Evergreen Podcasts
Annmarie and Jonathan talk about love stories, the creative life, and what happens after happily ever after.
Listen to Be A Survivor with Jonathan Penner

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone with Lori Gottlieb

Evergreen Podcasts
In this episode, Annmarie speaks with writer and therapist Lori Gottlieb about the power of talk therapy to transform our story.
Listen to Maybe You Should Talk to Someone with Lori Gottlieb

Discover Your Superpowers with Sanyin Siang

Evergreen Podcasts
In this episode, we catch up with Sanyin, as she teaches us that when we look for the awesomeness in others, we can also find greatness in ourselves.
Listen to Discover Your Superpowers with Sanyin Siang