"The Flame Grows Wild in the Sunlight": An interview with Diana Marie Delgado
by Robb Todd
Please take a moment to consider and appreciate how the Department of Motor Vehicles has influenced contemporary poetry.
The most recent gift is Tracing the Horse by Diana Marie Delgado. The connection here is not as direct but larger in scope. We owe the DMV in Placentia, California many thank-yous for all of the poems she has written since she worked there part-time while she was in school.
“It's probably some of the funnest times I've ever had at a job,” said Delgado, who now works as the literary director of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. “It was grueling at times but there were so many people there who were fun; it was an awesome job.”
Delgado said she spent seven years at the DMV while she attended community college, “just getting myself together.” She had decided to study landscape architecture but a required course was on Saturdays. That conflicted with her schedule at the DMV, so she took a course in Mexican-American literature instead.
“That's when I made the turn,” she said.
That turn led her to the University of California at Riverside, where she majored in poetry, and she turned again toward New York City for an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University.
So, thank you, DMV, for this collection of poems.
Here is one of them:
I wrote hard
at the bottom
of a pool
near a canyon
where the stars
slid onto their bellies
I went through
through the leaves
of La Puente
to see the moon
but it was too late
too long ago
to walk on glass.
Near those years
when the house fell on me
my father told me
in bed with
From a plum tree
the sound of branches
fall like fruit
no longer afraid
my voice like water
pulled from the well
where the wind had been buried
where someone was always
running into my room
asking, what’s wrong?
It took Delgado more than a decade to finish the poems for Tracing the Horse, which she has described as "an autobiography written in the tradition of surrealism." Publishers Weekly called it a "stirring debut" that "offers a ledger of the violence inflicted on female bodies within La Puente, located in the San Gabriel Valley of greater Los Angeles."
Delgado's poems are inhabited by addicts, laughing owls, the cosmos, the Devil, the effects of a broken criminal justice system, absence, men to run from, and beautiful lines that knock so hard against the heart that it could crack.
Also in these poems, she defines her job, "to bring beautiful things back to life," and her journey, "to forgive everything that's happened." Tracing the Horse achieves both.
Q: Many people agree now that God is not necessarily a man. But everyone still agrees that the Devil can only be a man, right?
A: Sometimes, yeah; most times, yes. One of the first stories I was told about the Devil was by an uncle in Mexico who conjured the Devil. He described the Devil as so beautiful you could barely look at him. I carry that story with me. Another uncle, Wolf, who might have done something hallucinogenic, told me he met the Devil, too, in a park and the Devil called out, first as a man, then as he came closer, the voice changed — to a woman. So, in my mind, the Devil embodies both male and female energy.
Q: The Devil makes many appearances in this collection, and you often draw him as a bit of a charming fellow. If you hadn't called him the Devil, the reader might have a different feeling about someone who, variously, is handsome, dances well, sings, fixes umbrellas, has a wife and kids, is disguised as smoke, plays cards with you at night, covers your feet in pollen, and turns you into a crow. Okay, maybe those last two aren't that charming, but do you secretly like the Devil?
A: Yes, I'm attracted to his power — that he can do magic. I'm intrigued by that. Also, aside from being turned into a crow, there's a sensuality to him, and who isn't attracted to that? He wields magic in a way that other people in the book can't do.
Q: You wanted to do this interview over the phone because, you rightly said, "the email interviews devolve into, well, emails." Do you think poets care more about that than other types of writers?
A: That is so interesting to consider. I can’t really say if this matters to other poets. But it does matter to me. I want to hear how you say things and that doesn’t necessarily need to be in person, but it has to do with voice. I ask people to talk on the phone and in person a lot. I'm really interested in hearing the way someone talks.
On the phone, I'm more genuine and authentic. If not, I will go back and revise the questions. I revise because I'm a poet.
You're dating yourself if you want to have a face-to-face. But I find a lot of texting and email performative. I honestly can't believe how many exclamation marks I have to read; by the end of the day, over a hundred. If you're someone who respects punctuation and language, you don't abuse the exclamation mark.
[ Note: The recording of this phone call suffered an irretrievable technical failure so we reconstruct it from notes, which, in its own way, feels a bit poetic. ]
Q: You have described your connection to language as "knowing words because of how they feel when I say them, or when someone else is saying them." And in one of your poems you wrote:
I never read the whole book, just parts,
words in a row, I read for feelings.
Does devotion to feelings ever lead you astray on the page?
A: Yeah, and what saves you is the editorial process and revision. When I write, 90 percent of it is trash. I have to comb through pages upon pages of material for lines that can bear the sentimentality that you’ve mentioned. Speaking of that line, a lot of people recommended that I take that line out, and I thought about it but felt that it reflected an underlying focus around intense feelings; of people behaving badly; of situations that are purely emotion-driven.
Q: And in life, does devotion to feelings ever lead you astray?
A: Always. Always. I oscillate between "everything is feeling" to "I’ve turned all feeling off." They can be damaging, emotions, if you let them dictate decisions. But admittedly some of my worst decisions have led me to some of the best experiences in my life, experiences that I have learned the most from. But most feelings are irrational so there’s a benefit to that. Growing up the way that I did, I can often second-guess or ask for support (to a fault) when I make a decision. I’m aware that going only on my feelings can lead to a bad place.
Q: One of the many reasons I hold a special place in my heart for poets is that, unlike novelists and non-fiction writers, so few of them have financial ambitions behind their work. What are the major ambitions of a poet — and the secret ambitions?
A: I think the major ambitions are respect, and their secret ambitions are money and respect. That's a good question. Oftentimes I wonder, “Why am I doing this?” I could have done many things but I chose this. Or it chose me, maybe. I accidentally stumbled into this and, once I did, I knew I wanted to do it.
I think the landscape of contemporary poetry is changing, there are opportunities to achieve the financial security that you've heard rumored in literary communities, opportunities that traditionally go to novelists. I see it changing but I think this adds value to the quality of the poetry that’s being produced.
Overall, though, I do think there's less of an expectation to sign a million-dollar contract. And when there's no expectation for monetary compensation, it creates a space where you can do whatever you want — you're setting yourself up to create something that is original.
Q: Would you advise being a poet to the younger you?
A: Yeah, I was always meant to be a poet. It was something I was training for. All I did as a little girl was read and read. It was a coping mechanism for me. I would be at the kitchen table reading and I was watching what was going on around me. When I was 7, my uncle Philip, gave me a baby-blue typewriter and I’d sit in the front yard and type and pretend I was a librarian. I was really into putting words on the page. It gave me an escape from my home.
Q: In another interview, you said the book took nearly 15 years to finish and that you created "what I would like to think of as art." What else could it be considered?
A: I said it that way because I often feel that the creative process is dreaming that you can do something and then failing; more than often your vision for what you want to do is not matched by your skills; so most of the time you fail at creating something lasting, original, timeless.
For instance, there were times when I just didn’t know how to turn the manuscript into a better book. There were certain things that didn't happen and in that way you're always failing.
That's being an artist, trying to achieve something that might never happen and possessing a vision for an outcome that is high alongside the reality that you might never get there.
Even now, I read from the book and think, how can I change that? There's a feeling of dissatisfaction but it's a way of propelling yourself to be better.
Q: I get into this debate a lot so maybe you can help: What is art?
A: I think it's a transcription of life. The art that I love — films, books, visual art — are in conversation with something felt that I want to return to again and again.
A book I reread often is Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. I love that book. It examines the good and bad in all of us; the contradictions of being alive. Baldwin is unafraid to show how our best intentions can turn terribly wrong and how even in tragedy there is bad behavior. You get to see what we are all made of and, oftentimes, it's not a happy ending.
It’s difficult to answer but I think about it a lot. What am I reading this for? What is here that I keep coming back to?
Q: There's a lot of recurring violence in this book. Even the mom delivers a slap. What does writing about this do for you emotionally?
A: Yeah, what made me sad is that this happened to a child. The adult me is able to say I understand why these things happen, but it does make me sad to think that this happened to a child.
There was a period of time where I did stop writing. I felt not only sad but ashamed by my disclosing the secrets that were going on in my home.
My father was a heroin addict but I couldn't say that to anyone. I remember being in elementary school and he sent me to school with this beautiful jewelry box with the instruction that I ask my teacher if she wanted to buy it. I did it not realizing this was not normal. It was overwhelming. But somehow I was able to overcome this.
Q: Is he alive and has he read the book?
A: He is alive. My dad has an undiagnosed mental illness. He's homeless and lives in a park and I see him when I return to California. But it's tricky, he makes up stories about how great things are going — but he spends his time in a park. I hope I can give him a copy soon for him to read.
Q: Is that difficult to talk about?
A: It is and it isn't. There was a moment where I was like, "Am I going to cry?" There's also a sense of where I'm at peace. I've created distance from him geographically and emotionally and have created a life that's healthier than what was suggested by his life.
But someone’s father is always an important figure in a woman’s and... sometimes out of nowhere, I’ll cry and after I cry, I try to recover and do better in my own life. I'm an adult and there’s a sense that I now have control over my life. And I did have a lot of family members who were loving and supportive and who ultimately helped me. They were amazing.
That was a magical, terrible time. I would leave my house and feel loved. I was the first grandchild and I felt loved and supported outside of the home.
Q: I think Hemingway said that the best training for a writer is an unhappy childhood.
A: Hemingway — he knows everything!
Q: "Songs of Escape" has a very interesting form. How did that shape come to you? What do you hope it does to the reader visually?
A: A poem’s shape always comes last for me. “Songs of Escape,” its shape, creates a sensation of compression and space both; like that of a constellation. No moment comes before another and together they create an atmosphere or truth.
In "Songs" I had a lot of pieces that I switched in and out. I can trace the lineage of the poem in free-writes from 2013; there are lines in those free-writes that made it into this poem. Understanding the poem better now, now that it’s finished, the shape is suggesting a larger cosmology to the reader.
Q: You mentioned before we did this interview that you would like it to be unconventional, maybe talk about what you had for dinner last night. So can you improvise a poem for me right now about what you ate?
A: The flame grows wild in the sunlight just like the birds do when they eat bread and the moist suction of the earth creates a spell
[ Note: This is the poem, verbatim, that Delgado created on the spot with no hesitation during the phone call. It was not revised. ]
Q: That's fantastic. You're like a freestyle-rapper-poet. What did you eat?
Bread and Swiss cheese and ham. Basically, a sandwich. I just can't ever picture myself writing a poem that has Swiss cheese and ham in it, so I decided to lean into the bread.
Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.