The Truth of Beauty: An Interview with Erika Sánchez

Erika Sanchez smiles in her author photo against a blue background.

In this interview conducted by Emily Ellison, author Erika Sánchez discusses how poetry can reveal the beauties naturally abundant in our environment while also urgently testifying to violence. The form of the poem can house our lineages and defy patriarchal expectation. For Sánchez, poetry can impact us beyond the literal meaning of language, inciting us through sound into action; as we investigate our physical and metaphysical boundaries, our sight changes.

Erika Sánchez is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. She is the author of two books: a young adult novel, I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and a poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion. Sánchez is a 2017-2019 Princeton Arts Fellow.

Emily Ellison: Your poetry collection Lessons on Expulsion depicts the environment in unabashedly grotesque and violent imagery. For a reader who might not be accustomed to seeing the world in this lens—a world full of shit, rats, glass, squalor—what do you hope this will change for the them?

Erika Sánchez: I guess I didn’t have that reader in mind, because I don’t really think about a reader in that way. I write about violence because it’s something that concerns me as a person of Mexican descent. I think a lot about the way women are treated in the world. I don’t ever want to show calmly how dreadful how it is to be a woman of color, or just to be a woman in a world that is ultimately not made for you. So for me, it’s not my concern what people who aren’t familiar with these worlds feel about these worlds. I hope, I suppose, that they learn about the ways in which other people live, but I’m not really worried about their feelings.

Ellison: Similarly, I would like to hear you speak on the role of poetry to witness. What about the form of the poem makes way for these journalistic revelations?

Sánchez: I think poetry is a place to be incredibly honest, and whether that honesty or that truth is pretty or not, it’s what’s most important to me. I write about the things that I feel are urgent, that I care about, that I want people to know about. The form lends itself to making people really feel what is happening rather than just reporting what is happening. I think poetry is a form of writing that can mobilize people.

Ellison: Much of that urgency in your poetry hinges on physical limits and breaking past them. Your work looks at people on the borders, in the margins. Could you speak to the significance of borders—hearing from people in them, crossing them, creating them—in your work?

Sánchez: I grew up always hearing about the border because my parents crossed it in 1978. It was something that was very central to my life. A lot of family crossed without documentation.

So, it’s always been part of my imagination, though I have not personally crossed it. I feel like I’ve inherited these traumas in some ways. I also think about metaphysical borders and spiritual borders and emotional borders . . . It’s not just the physical Mexican-American border—it’s much more than that. In my writing, I try to break those borders down in whatever way I can, to show how arbitrary and inhumane they are.

Ellison: And I love how your work plays with the borders of speech, too, shifting between languages. Your poetry incorporates Spanish, often untranslated. For your work, why was this important to you as the author, and why is it integral for the poem?

Sánchez: I feel very strongly about not translating or italicizing. I think it comes from being very proud of my bilingualism, feeling that both of those languages are equally important to me, as well as not accommodating to “the white gaze.” My poetry represents who I am as a person, and who I am as a person is someone who speaks Spanglish, who speaks in both languages all the time.

If someone doesn’t understand a word, the internet is accessible; there’s no reason why they can’t look it up. And sometimes, you don’t have to understand something to enjoy it; you can enjoy the sounds and try to figure out what it means through context.

Ellison: This reminds me of something Gertrude Stein said in an interview—when she was interrogated about the seeming meaninglessness of her work, she replied, “Did you enjoy it? If you enjoyed it, you understood it.”

Sánchez: That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do—some things don’t make logical sense, but they make emotional sense.

Ellison: Sonic sense.

Sánchez: Yeah. I think people are obsessed with making sense of things, and that’s why they don’t enjoy poetry.

Ellison: Absolutely.

Often, the act of writing creates a persona that both conceals and reveals the poet. After writing the poems, did you sense a distance between the speaker and yourself, or did you feel that they were more unified than not?

Sánchez: I guess I never thought of it. People always assume that I’m the speaker, alwayswhich is absurd, because I do write a lot of persona poems. When I write persona, I inhabit another kind of point of view, and that awakens something inside me—and I enjoy that, whether that point of view is problematic or not.

Ellison: Poetry changes our sight through encounter, altering how we view the world afterward. How do you hope your reader’s sight changes from your poetry?

Sánchez: I think for me, poetry is primarily about beauty and truth. I want people to see beauty in the world, to feel mobilized by something. Poetry has that ability to awaken us to things we didn’t know or care about, so that’s what I hope. But also, I can’t control how people read the work, so it’s been something that I’ve had to learn: that sometimes people will not enjoy it, they won’t interpret it the way I intended, and that’s okay, it’s not up to me to do anything about. The poem doesn’t belong to me anymore.

And so, what I hope people gain from my work is a sense of beauty, a way of looking at the world that is different—a shift of perspective developing a sensibility in which beauty is the basis of your life. That’s how I approach writing, always: it’s all about the truth, and truth and beauty are one and the same for me.