The Poet “Ai” and I: Dramatic Monologues Unite—Celeste Guzmán Mendoza

Celeste Guzmán Mendoza
Celeste Guzmán Mendoza (photo credit: Mari Correa)

This piece is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation). Celeste Guzmán Mendoza shared an earlier version of this talk at the Intersecting Lineages panel at the 2013 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Boston.

I am not a drama queen but a drama connoisseur. I’ve always enjoyed a good monologue, a booming rant. Since I was child, I would act out monologues, or what I called back then my shows, personas I would create loosely based on a family member (or more) and characters I saw on TV. My favorite was Mae West with a dash of my grandmother, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime, no que no?”

So when I first came to poetry, many of my first poems were monologues that I hoped to perform one day, a-la-one-woman show, I was inspired by Carmen Tafolla’s work; she was recently named Poet Laureate of San Antonio and primarily writes narrative poems. Many of her poems are written in TexMex, my native tongue, and her characters reside in the West Side of San Antonio, where I grew up, and are about people that resemble my family. Yes, my family was my first inspiration—so many characters.

However, unlike her characters, the personas in my poems mainly spoke about violence. It made sense; at a young age, I was a survivor of sexual and physical abuse. It was a constant companion in my writing and in high school began to express itself in various voices. These poems were of course connected to my experience but the voices, the characters, the narratives were not mine but those sometimes of the perpetrator of the violent acts or the mother of the victim or the father of the victimizer.

For years, I fought against this natural tendency to write these long monologues that explored violence because I wanted so much to be the lyric poet (in English only), who wrote about wheelbarrows and raindrops. I wanted to fit my imagery and unwieldy bilingual characters into trim and slim poems that barely filled a page. I had read Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton by then so knew that it was not abnormal to write about violence but the idea of outing my family or making my poems fit the stereotypes of Latinos—that we are hot blooded, etc.—did not settle well with me at all. Why couldn’t I just write about the alley-way less traveled by instead?

Fast forward to my late twenties—I was in the throws of my first year at the Bennington Writing Seminars and my teacher at the time, Ethelbert Miller, introduced me to the poet Ai. Her work emboldened me to stand gracefully alongside the characters that came to me, to let them speak their truth no matter their relationship to the inherent violence they would relay; to put aside my fears about what my writing might or might not represent about my family or any other Latino family; and not to be afraid of the poet critics who would strike down the narrative form of the dramatic monologue. She gave me the power to not give in to fear—about anything.

As a result, I embrace my monologues for what they are—an opportunity to step into someone else’s shoes and tell her or his story, straight-up, no holds barred, sin pelos en la lengua. This particular form has taken over my second book as it is a book-length poem written in three distinct voices.

The poet Ai won the National Book Award for Vice: New and Selected Poems in 1999. Her other titles include: Cruelty, Killing Floor, Sin, Fate, Greed, and No Surrender. She passed in 2010; posthumously, Norton published the Collected Poems of Ai, which recently came out with an introduction by Yusef Kumunyakaa. She identified as a multi-racial and multi-ethnic poet as she was a mix of Irish, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Southern Cheyenne, Comanche, Black and Japanese.

Ai admited that she wrote in the first-person because she felt that in comparison to other poems she had written, the monologues were her strongest. She also liked taking on different personas.

In an interview with Pedestal Magazine in 2003, she said:

This approach allows me to become someone else, like an actor … stepping into other characters, creating someone from the ground up, so to speak. I try to create an entire psychology. In a sense, I’m the playwright, the director, and the actor in these poems.

I could relate. However, unlike me, many of the “scoundrels,” as she called them, that she took on had very little in common with her personal story. It was not until her second-to-last book that she began to integrate more of her personal narrative into her poems, but even then she admitted that she would fictionalize parts as well.

Yet the focus remained on the scoundrels, the flawed characters, people you would not want to like or love. Take an excerpt of her poem, “Child Beater” from Cruelty:

Outside, the rain, pinafore of gray water, dresses the town
and I stroke the leather belt,
as she sits in the rocking chair,
holding a crushed paper cup to her lips.
I yell at her, but she keeps rocking;
… It’s been seven years, but I still can’t forget how I felt.
How heavy it feels to look at her.
… I grab the belt and beat her across the back
until her tears, beads of salt-filled glass, falling,
shatter on the floor.

Stark and honest, the persona in this poem feels no guilt for her actions. She is in the right; she feels that she not only has the right to beat this child but believes she is in the right.

Though I first read this poem more than seven years ago, I discovered while I was working on this talk that it greatly inspired one of my recent poems in my second book, which I’m currently writing. The book, titled Milagros, explores the relationship among a father, mother and daughter. The father, Eduardo, who is a Vietnam veteran, exercised his violent nature upon his daughter without much intervention from her mother.

I never hit hit her. Beat her, as she said. She said, You beat me. I never beat her. Spanked her. Yes. Slapped her. Yes. Beat her. No. She does not know what a beating is. A beating is blood. She never bled. Not once. Not a single drop. Not in my house. She’s wrong. She lies. Talks back. Besides if I did not do it, she’d get it worse when she got older. Imagine? Imagine? Her going everywhere so high and mighty. She needed discipline. She needed control. She needed to be taught. Going to school like that, going out to the barrio like that, going out, out, out, in the world like that. Her mother wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t. So I did. I pushed her down so she would not try to come up in the barrio without knowing it would be hard. She’d be dead. I trained her. Thank God. She had to know. Be taught.  And maybe she hated me. I don’t have to be loved. I’m not a woose. I am a man. Father. She’s my blood. She’s my blood. My blood. Mine. Responsibility.

This poem appears alongside others wherein the father describes the violence he witnessed and perpetrated in Vietnam as a soldier and the love he tried to express and instill in his daughter. He’s clear that his actions were right actions for what he believes his daughter needs in order to survive, which is closely related of course to what he felt he needed to survive.

His daughter, Milagros, “Miracles” in English, talks about her relationship with her father and mother later in the book:

I thought everyone was at war with their parents. That all children had bruises, welts, they hid. Long sleeves and pants even in the hundred degree heat. I thought all kids ran when they heard the chink of the belt unbuckling, the slithering of the leather as it freed itself from the pant loops. I thought everyone crouched in the corner under their bed, the looped belt visible, hanging low, so like a noose. I thought all kids, my friends, flinched when the belt fell on their back, their waist, their knees or feet. Stand still when it comes because if you move, try to run, it could hit your neck or face. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, it could come down. Your nose, your cheek, or mouth and then they would all see it at school. I thought all kids feared, hated their parents. I did. I would sometimes daydream that they were dead and I was alone at the dinner table my second-hand-store Barbie and ceramic Jesus in their spots. But there were good times too. Yes. He would put me on his shoulders. She would give me cookie batter. We would all play cards. Black Jack and poker. They would let me win. And birthday cakes always. And a single present. Not more than one. Never new of course but one is better than none.

This poem relates very well with “Discipline” by Ai, which appeared in No Surrender.

It was Vegas. It was 1954, one hundred fifteen degrees in the shade
and my half-sister,
Roslynn, was on her knees, begging Mom not to whip her. She said
she didn’t mean it
As tears streamed down her cheeks. She was getting what she
deserved, because she had
Taken a hairpin and scratched the toes of all my mother’s shoes,
… now I was going to
pay for it, because according
To Mom, I hadn’t done what she’d told me—“Watch your sister
and don’t let her do anything.
Wrong.” Ha! As if I could control the little monster. Still, I was
going to pay in a big way, but I
Wouldn’t beg or anything else to let Mom think I was a baby
like my sister. No, I said to myself
As Mom grabbed the heavy tooled leather cowboy belt with the
copper buckle that had a
Longhorn engraved on it…I had nowhere
To go, but back to face the rock ‘n’ roll …
I was only seven and I had already learned enough.

In both of these poems, the speaker—a woman remembering her younger self—relays a single memory or layers of memories of the physical violence a parent bestowed upon her and how that violence, the repeated violence, formed her sensibilities about her relationships with her family members, and ultimately a part of her identity that influences how she relates to others now. The tone of the poems is neither self-deprecating nor hysterical but matter-of-fact, which adds to the discomforting feeling we experience in hearing them relay their situation.

The aspect of Ai’s work that I find most magnetic and charged, is how she uses the dramatic monologue as a way to pull the reader in. To have us all walk in the shoes of the scoundrel and follow that character’s emotional arc as he or she relays her experience. By doing this the work itself becomes transformative.

As she mentions in a volume of Standards:

… I’m talking about a transformation. My characters are trying—in their narration of their past lives or what they’ve done, or trying to make a case for what they did—they are, in some respects, trying to transform themselves. And, if not themselves, they’re trying to transform people’s ideas about them.

I feel that my current book project is exploring just that, as all three characters are begging to be understood, and mostly by themselves, because there is so much guilt around what they did or didn’t do with the violence they lived—absorbed or perpetrated.

I honor Ai and her work. They have empowered me to not be ashamed to speak my truth no matter how ugly or distasteful, and released my inner critic about the power of the dramatic monologue, a form which is both revealing and transformative.

Celeste Guzmán Mendoza, born and raised in San Antonio, is a published poet and playwright. Her manuscript, Beneath the Halo, was published in 2013 by Wings Press, and was named Best Poetry Book of 2013 by Marcela Landres. She recently received an Honorable Mention award from Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation. Mendoza is a Macondista and a Hedgebrook fellow. She is co-director and co-founder of CantoMundo, a national poetryworkshop for Latina/o poets.