Sandra Cisneros feels the love of the universe

When Sandra Cisneros talked about romance, writing, and faith over Zoom from her bright home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, she discussed her own poetry but also referred to Peanuts. In the strip Lucy complains about not finding love while ignoring Snoopy’s embrace. Almost on cue, Cisneros then got a face lick from Nahui Olin, her half chihuahua/half Mexican hairless (her other three dogs were too rambunctious to participate in an interview). 

“If we have the kind of antenna like a poet, you see you’re getting all this love all the time but you’re just looking in the wrong places,” Cisneros enthused. “That’s the thing—you don’t have to go on a dating app or bar, it’s all around you, and it’s so beautiful, and it’s what I try to write about, that celebration of the love of the universe.”

That belief shapes Cisneros’s Woman Without Shame (Knopf), her first book of poems in 28 years. Since her 1994 poetry collection, Loose Woman, she has been busy writing numerous short stories, essays, and the novel Caramelo. These books reflect her family’s migration from Mexico to Chicago and her own transnational journeys culminating in relocating to her grandparents’ homeland in 2013. She is also working on an opera version of her landmark young adult novel about growing up in Humboldt Park, The House On Mango Street.

Through it all, Cisneros remained committed to poetry, just as when she worked on her earliest chapbooks in the 1970s. She just wanted to keep these recent poems to herself. Then a few confidants saw them and advised that they were complete. 

“My poetry would be the most honest journal I keep,” Cisneros said. “Because, even my journal, you can’t make sense of it, it’s just notes. But this is very explicit, it’s very private, and it’s part of the reason why I have not felt the necessity to publish them, because they’re so private. I feel the need to write them, and I really don’t know if they’re finished. So I put them away and I don’t really look at them.”

Throughout, Cisneros looked inward. In Woman Without Shame she exults being in her body at an age that the media tends to ignore. Cisneros, now 67, revels in that comfort, particularly in the celebratory, “At Fifty I Am Startled to Find I Am in My Splendor.”

“That poem was unfinished, I thought,” Cisneros said. “I just stashed it away and thought, ‘Wow, I just look so much better without my clothes because my skin fits me.’ And I also just thought, ‘I look great.’ So I posed for that poem in a way. Like a nude photo of myself at 50 and liking myself, regardless of what anybody said. That there was a kind of fullness and a different kind of beauty than when I was young.”

Back when Cisneros wrote the Loose Woman poems, romance and sexuality were major themes. Woman Without Shame also highlights those motifs but now reflect different life experiences. Her “You Better Not Put Me in a Poem” suddenly shifts from hilarious to disturbing and back again within a few lines as she piles on depictions of past lovers that culminates in a strong expression of self-awareness.

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“At first I thought it was funny but then some scary things came up, some haunting things,” Cisneros said. “The thing I like about poetry is you don’t always come off looking great, and that’s when you know you’re on the right track. That’s when you know that you’re getting past your ego. It starts out, ‘I’m going to just write my photo album’ and then it just goes into some wacky, dark, humiliating, and sad places, all the emotions. I like that poem, but I can’t read it [aloud] very often because of House On Mango Street. I have a lot of children who follow me. So I can only read it if there aren’t children present or if the people who are under 18 go out into the lobby and buy candy bars. That’s what my mother used to do to get me out of the movie house when a risqué scene came on.”

Credit: Courtesy Knopf

Woman Without Shame by Sandra CisnerosKnopf, hardcover, $27, 176 pp., out 9/13/22, penguinrandomhouse.com, sandracisneros.com

As Cisneros reads, and writes, she emphasizes her lines’ musical features—such as using repetitions and pauses for the right effects. She aims to “feel like a percussionist with the syllables and language.” Over the years her writings have also been filled with references to musicians ranging from tango composer Astor Piazzolla to Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. While Joni Mitchell and John Prine highlight her personal playlist nowadays, she laughs when asked about other performers she may be following.

“I don’t go to cafes and hear live music because that means going out at night,” Cisneros said. “I just want to stay home, watch RuPaul, and read a novel. Is that wrong?”

Cisneros is also putting her writing in another musical context as she collaborates with composer Derek Bermel on The House On Mango Street opera.

“When you work by yourself, I never know if what I’m writing is any good. But I like that I can create this little Christmas tree and if it’s not enough, Derek will add some ornaments, and if it’s too much, he’ll lop off some branches, and if he doesn’t like the Christmas tree, he’ll just make a wreath. I’m not the librettist without him, and he’s not the composer without me saying, ‘No, no, no, it needs some more south Texas conjunto in the background.’ And it’s nice to work with someone who makes you laugh. Writing is so hard. If you can collaborate with someone who makes you laugh, do it!”

Friendships, particularly the changing nature of female friendships, have been recurring themes throughout Cisneros’s work, recently in her 2021 novella, Martita, I Remember You.

“Sometimes when you’re young, especially if you’re an only daughter, you think that this sisterhood is going to be with you on your last breath. And that’s not true. They’ve evolved, I have new friends, I’ve had friends I’ve had to let go of because they were too hurtful and destructive. I think there was a big illumination since my last book that not all your friendships, male or female, are going to travel with you but that they are parallel and they’re on their camino sagrado [sacred path], and you’re on your camino sagrado. Sometimes they’re parallel, sometimes they intersect, sometimes they branch off, and sometimes you don’t know to let them go until you get an exploding cigar.”

One of Cisneros’s lasting friendships is with a Bosnian woman, Jasna Karaula, who she met in Sarajevo in 1984. As mass bloodshed broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Cisneros advocated for women who were victims in that conflict. Karaula is the subject of “Who Wants Stories Now,” an early 1990s essay included in her 2015 book, A House of My Own. War and its lingering scars are central to her Woman Without Shame poem “Never Mention to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas” and foreshadowed the current brutality in Ukraine. As a Buddhist and adherent of the late monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, Cisneros also believes that forging global peace begins with personal contact.  

“Sometimes we undercut our own power as individuals,” Cisneros said. “Maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s organizing, maybe it’s talking to other people in your neighborhood. Thich Nhat Hanh taught me (when the Bosnian war was happening and I didn’t know what to do) that it was important to act for peace; we had to be peace. It wasn’t enough to hold up a sign, get people to sign petitions. You can do that, but you have to be peace, and that means making peace with the cousin you can’t stand.”

Or making peace with one’s hometown. In The House On Mango Street, the youthful protagonist is urged to follow her dreams through getting out—as the author did in the early 1980s. Cisneros’s nonfiction and talks have derided the inequities that still linger. But she also champions Chicago’s enduring creative communities. Just as poet Gwendolyn Brooks and artist/poet/activist Carlos Cortez inspired her, she has promoted multiple generations of writers, including poet Raúl Niño and author Erika Sánchez.

Cisneros has also kept ties with crucial Chicago establishments. In A House Of My Own, Cisneros mentions how the public library was foundational. She also supports the National Museum Of Mexican Art, which houses the floral Oaxacan dress she wore when receiving the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2016. Last year’s “Día de Muertos” exhibition at the museum included the vibrant ofrenda [display altar] she designed to honor her mother’s memory. This November, the Pilsen institution will present Cisneros at the Field Museum, and she expects it to be a rejuvenation.

“The Museum of Mexican Art has been part of healing me and making me feel valued,” Cisneros said. “It’s a blessing. I feel like I’m getting a limpia, a cleansing, to say, ‘The past is the past, let it go, and now we’re going to bless you and send you two spoonfuls of love with every person you meet.’”

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