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Author Spotlight: Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal














Deep Vellum Publishing | ISBN: 9781646053070

 Pub Date: May 28, 2024

 


 

Can you talk about your use of form and theory?


First, I conceptualized the title Watcha. I recalled my early-childhood pride of having learned an expression in English and told my elementary-school classmates, “See you later, alligator!” I received the reply, “Ay te watcho, cucaracho!” Besides the queering of cockroaches, I was struck—my grandparents forbade Spanglish—by that verb, watchar, a word I secretly implanted into my memory. It did not resurface until I viewed Luis Valdez’s film Zoot Suit, except Valdez’s film and play use watchar as a command: “Watcha.” The webpage “Zoot Suit Dramaturgy,” published by University of California Santa Cruz, translates watcha as look, but I always see it as its cognate to watch.

 

Watcha begins with an epigraph and an artist statement explaining my theories, largely based on Pauline Oliveros, who was a Chicana composer who shaped the improvised music scene using her Deep Listening practice, in which listeners react to one another with sound. Oliveros centered aural communication, but I applied the concepts to visual art because, as anthropologist Arlene Dávila points out, Latinx art does not receive as much visibility as it should. I reinterpret Deep Listening as Deep Watching, a way to communicate between the artist and the viewer, and in the case of Watcha, the reader and the artist. The description in my ekphrasis is hyperbole, and I exaggerate this further by reinterpreting more concepts by Oliveros. She believed that focal listening is detail oriented and global listening is contextual, so I apply these concepts to focal and global watching. She also developed a theory called Quantum Listening, which is the listening to listening, so for me, Quantum Watching is the watching of my watching, and this is best illustrated with my photographs in the book. Most of the book is ekphrastic poems written in free verse, but I also have a few memoirist prose pieces about my relationship to art as contextualized by my upbringing and thoughts.



How did your relationship with your family influence your writing?

 

My mother was a big supporter of my writing, as my twin brother Carlos and my cousin Luz are. More generally, now that my book Watcha is forthcoming, more of my relatives have expressed the desire to encourage me; some even have said they want to buy the book. The tricky part about that is that ever since I took out a section on Mexican art, I also took out the prosaic part in which I explained that my grandfather would drive us to Mexico. I worry that my relatives will dislike that the only parts about my grandfather in the book are about when he kicked me out of his home. I also have a photograph of him in a car, and I mention, in my notes in the back of the book, that I still want to hug him. In a sense, I engage with a Xicanx literary tradition of writing about a grandparent, except I show that my rejection occurred during my development as an artist. Since he is deceased, he cannot sue me for writing my truth.

 

I wrote much of Watcha around the time of my mom’s three-year battle with cancer, so I had to change the parts about her from present tense to past tense, after her passing. My mother María Jiménez was a renowned activist who was nominated by Rosa Parks to be part of an electronic mural, and although my mother and I disagreed on the power of art, I see my writing as artivism.

 

I included a paragraph about my brother because I wanted to explain that I come from a political family, and that is why my poems in Watcha are more argumentative than narrative. Still, more broadly, I come from a family of storytellers, which helped my sense of narration.

 

My father is not mentioned in Watcha, but when I was little, he had dad jokes, like “no eres yucateca; eres yuca terca.” I feel his wordplay influenced me as a writer.

 

One of my older cousins in Mexico was babysitting my brother and me when we were in elementary school. She told us that Snow White had eaten honey that made her lips sticky, so when the prince went to kiss her, they got stuck together forever. That was the first time I realized the power of language to change.



Is there a connection to your past in your book?

 

Watcha is about exhibits I saw from 2019 to 2020, and the prosaic sections are about my formation as an artist in my early 20s, though there is a paragraph about the day that Whitney Houston died, and I also bring up nicknames my bullies called me as a child. I jump around.



How did writing this book transform you?

 

This book allowed me to mature as a writer. My MFA thesis was a hybrid of poetry and drama—the play keeps changing, so I did not have a book-length manuscript that I could submit to a publisher. When I first got into my PhD program, I would write a few poems and then change the subject, write a few more poems, and then change subjects again. Until I wrote ekphrasis. Then, I became focused, and that focus has allowed me to start a second ekphrastic collection. I now see myself as an ekphrastic poet.



Did another artform influence this work? Painting, music, dancing, etc.


Since this book is ekphrastic, artwork is the impetus for this book.

 

It all started with a trip to Mexico City as part of an art-history class in 2018. The first draft of Watcha actually had some ekphrasis on Mesoamerican and Mexican visual art in the first section. Nevertheless, most of Watcha focuses on Latinx art, and since some of the artists do not have origins from Mexico, I decided to remove that portion of the book.

 

I was inspired by the visual-art exhibits in Houston during Latino Art Now! 2019. I also traveled to New York City for an exhibit, as well as Los Angeles for an Afro-Latinx exhibit, and Santa Fe for an exhibit in which Native and Latinx artists collaborated.


Although sound art is not part of the book, besides the Pauline Oliveros influence, I performed parts of Watcha with sonic improvisers when it was still a work in progress. That helped develop my ear for the poetry.

 


How did you get into writing? Can you pinpoint a memory where it all began for you?

 

Growing up with parents as readers, my writing was celebrated in school. In high school, one of my plays got published in the student literary magazine, but it wasn’t until I was in art school in college that I started to submit my poems to the English Department contests. One of my poems won an honorable mention worth $25. That confirmed that maybe I should study poetry for my master’s degree, and that took me on a trajectory that led to where I am now.

 


Do you have a new project that you’re working on? Could you tell us a bit about it?

 

While I was finishing Watcha, I went on the job market and needed a second project. I had taken a poetry workshop online with Edwin Torres, and he had asked us to make six postcards with a one-word poem. I had made some gestural portraits using a pen, some cardstock, and a marker. I quickly wrote some haikus about the portraits for my job interview. After I graduated and started submitting my dissertation Watcha for publication, I started to draw more portraits and write longer poems about them. They are elegiac and epistolary. The drawings are inspired by people who have passed away or who are mourning, so it is a project about grief.



 

Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal (she/they) is a poet, essayist, translator, sonic improviser, and assistant professor of English. Her debut collection of poetry and nonfiction—Watcha—is forthcoming from Deep Vellum Publishing, and they have published translations of poetry, including Enigmas by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Photograms of My Conceptual Heart Absolutely Blind by Minerva Reynosa, Kilimanjaro by Maricela Guerrero, and Postcards in Braille by Sergio Pérez Torres. Her poetry can be found in the Rio Grande Review, Texas Review, The Acentos Review, Defunkt Magazine, and elsewhere. They are the recipient of the Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Poetry.

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