Beauty, Spirituality, and Careful Observation: An Interview with Sheryl Luna
The original Letras Latinas Blog featured interviews conducted by students at University of Notre Dame. The interviews were a mix of genuine scholastic curiosity and an earnest searching for answers to life's big questions. Often, these interviews were students' first public engagement with the literary world and, at times, their first publication credit. In returning to that tradition, undergraduate student Sofía M. Villamil Durán interviewed Sheryl Luna about her latest collection Magnificent Errors.
Magnificent Errors by Sheryl Luna | $20.00 | University of Notre Dame | February 2022 |
88 pages | ISBN: 9780268201821
Sofía M. Villamil Durán (SVD): You often describe your pain as a desert and your healing process as some form of water or greenery, and you often liken yourself to some sort of natural phenomenon. What was the creative process behind selecting these comparisons? Do you feel some sort of unique connection with nature, or do you consider this closeness universally human? Did nature aid in your healing beyond writing about it?
Sheryl Luna (SL): I love the natural world and suppose I use the external landscapes to reflect on my inner landscapes. My mind and heart are stimulated while observing and participating in the natural world. I am not sure if love of nature is an inherent part of being human, but I suspect it is. Yes, nature helps with my healing process. I believe in mindfulness and carefully observing; what is happening within and without in the moment.
SVD: “Casualties” stood out to me as one of the most compelling poems in the book. Is it meant to be a commentary on sociohistorical events (such as the Israel/Palestine conflict), a deeper study of the human condition, or both? Seeing as most of your poems fit into your journey of healing, how does this poem situate itself in your story? Do you feel like, in your poetry, your history intermingles with that of the world’s?
SL: “Casualties” was a poem about the suffering of the poor. It is a reflection on the human condition, as well as a small commentary on the Middle East. It is about how the impoverished of the world are disproportionately abused by power structures. I suppose my own history of poverty leads me to be sensitive to such power dynamics. It has led to my desire to celebrate marginalized people.
SVD: The body is a focal point throughout the book, exploring the dichotomy between trauma and rebirth. Why was it important for you to make the body so central? How do you feel bodies can tell stories? How do you view your own body vis-à-vis art and poetry?
SL: The body is central because it holds trauma. It remembers trauma. The brain itself is physically changed in response to trauma. Anxiety and depression are often a response to violence. We must retrain our biological responses to fear. Bodies tell the stories of survival and recovery. We can retrain our brains and thought patterns to stay calm rather than to fight or flee. I view my own body with difficulty still, as a woman, and it is in part recently due to arthritis and mobility issues. One must learn to feel safe in their body, as well as the world. One must learn to love and accept themselves, which includes the body. I am a big believer in self-care. I didn’t realize the importance of rest until I was in my mid-forties. So much of our culture ignores health and the body with workaholism. For me, poetry is tied to the body. It is found in breath, movement, stillness, musicality, and beauty.
SVD: You reflect a lot on the meaning of beauty — its fluidity and dynamism, the way it impacts how we see the world, the people in it, and our own lives. What is beauty to you personally, and how do you feel that’s reflected in this book? Do you feel like poetry helps make things beautiful or simply hones in on an already-existing beauty?
SL: I feel poetry is an act of beauty in and of itself. It is a creative act, something we make from nothing. There is something God-like in creating. It can be a healing process as well. Poetry creates beauty in the world and in the universe. It hones on an existing beauty, yet is beautiful as an end in itself. I suppose the natural world, when it is benign, represents beauty to me. Human compassion, laughter and joy are all beautiful. Children, youth, the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill are beautiful. There is beauty in the will to live, love and heal. I feel beauty is reflected in the book due to its celebration of marginalized peoples and its observance of the natural world.
SVD: “The Artist Addressing Violence” was an incredibly interesting poem in content just as much as it was in terms of format. How do you decide what personal experiences to write about (and which to publish), and what creative process do you undergo in order to decide how to format said experiences? More specifically, why is “The Artist Addressing Violence” written in a more unconventional style, almost a stream of consciousness?
SL: I write about people I find intriguing. “The Artist Addressing Violence” is based on a friend who is a painter. She did grow up on the streets of Tijuana eating from garbage cans. I suppose the poem is more like a prose poem because there was so much to describe. Sometimes, I draw from several individuals I have observed and combine these various individuals into one imagery person. This person may have various psychological conditions or personality traits. Sometimes shorter lines can show such disparate characteristics. However, this poem dealt with so much backstory the longer lines worked. The poem seems stream of consciousness because I let my unconscious mind come out and play for a while.
SVD: Religion is often mentioned in various forms, and the emotion attached to it shifts throughout. How is your relationship to faith reflected in your poetry? Are the later poems in the book — such as “Mud” and “Prayer for this Clay Earth” — meant to be a reconciliation of sorts with the idea of faith? Do you feel like writing poetry has helped you grapple with and understand more deeply your personal experiences, such as your relationship to religion (and beyond)?
SL: My relationship to faith or spirituality comes through in all my collections. I grew up Catholic and that imagery seems to stay with me. The later poems in this book such as “Mud” and “Prayer for this Clay Earth” are more sincere than religious or spiritual poems I have written in the past. They are more concerned with an active passion for compassion for others, as well as our own mortality. There is no interest in an eternal heaven, but rather a desire to celebrate and appreciate the moment which we are living. We are animals, yet divinity dwells within us.
SVD: “The Transgression,” the incredible last poem in the book, uses ‘we’ instead of ‘I’, something that becomes a lot more common in the last section. Why was this shift to the broader ‘we’ important to you? Was the last section meant to be a narrative stemming from our collective consciousness? Moreover, you end the poem with two periods. What does this represent? Do you feel like breaking rules and norms like that is important for poetry’s impact and artistry? Do you consider yourself a rule-breaker in poetry?
SL: I think breaking norms is very important, but I must say writing about personal trauma and the trauma others experience requires a certain amount of clarity and difficulty, which may sometimes leave less room for play. But still, the stories must be told. Despite this, I always try to play with language. Rule breaker? I hope so, as I have been a rule breaker most of my life. I write about marginalized groups of people who do not live in an ivory tower. I try to show what is often ignored. I want to show that such people are beautiful and relevant.
Sheryl Luna’s Magnificent Errors (University of Notre Dame Press) received the Ernest Sandeen Prize. Pity the Drowned Horses (University of Notre Dame Press) received the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. Seven (3: A Taos Press) was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award.
Sofía M. Villamil Durán is a Notre Dame senior from Puerto Rico double-majoring in Theology and Latino Studies with a minor in Portuguese & Brazilian Studies. She has been an undergraduate associate for Letras Latinas since February 2022. Besides her work with the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), Sofía is Professor Marisel Moreno’s research assistant through the Kellogg Institute International Scholars Program, as well as Moreno’s teaching assistant for the ILS’ Introduction to Latino Studies gateway course. Sofía is also a poet and has published work in the student journal The Juggler.