In her debut poetry collection, Tracing the Horse, Diana Marie Delgado uses taut language and controlled recursion to render the life of her young narrator as she navigates the boundaries of her world in La Puente, a barrio in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley. The poems are ethereally beautiful—razor-sharp and dreamlike at once—as they explore the heavy realities and expectations of family, poverty, drugs, crime, and sexual exploitation. They are hard to look at straight-on sometimes, like an eclipse. Delgado handles this desire to look, and impulse to turn away, by creating what poet Lorna Dee Cervantes called “multiversed, multivalanced, multivoiced verses where the point of view is singular and the vision, fractured and fractal.” In Tracing the Horse, Delgado writes a family existing in the beats between violence: holy, dangerous, and true. Delgado writes for us a pinhole projector, by which we can stare straight into the sun—if we’re brave.
The photograph that is the book’s cover shows Delgado’s parents standing between phone booths. Her father holds an infant Diana in his arms, proud and high. His feet are in first position. Her mother stands behind him, her hand on his elbow. She peers at the camera, demure, with giant eyes. The photo on the cover is the first poem of the collection, and the table of contents, the second: “Prayers for What’s in Me to Finally Come Out,” “The Sea Is Farther Than Thought,” “Notes for White Girls,” “The Kind of Light I Give Off Isn’t Going to Last,” “Never Mind I’m Dead,” and on and on. The poems gallop off from there, each title blooming into a memory, a whisper, a haunting—a horse in the night, flashing by lightning-fast. And you’ll read them lightning-fast, too, hungry for the magic of Delgado’s words.
In The New York Times Magazine, poet Naomi Shihab Nye says the poems “map a powerful constellation of becoming,” and so they do. The points are charted and clear, but the space between remains a mystery, and that mystery is part of the story, too. The mystery and divisions within the poems, and the collection, could be attributed to Delgado’s experiences growing up Mexican American in Southern California. Her upbringing informs much of her work, including her chapbook Late-Night Talks with Men I Think I Trust, published by Center for Book Arts in 2015. She is the recipient of many grants and fellowships—including one from the National Endowment for the Arts—and lives in Tucson, where she is the literary director of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. Diana and I sat down, recently, to talk about the book, how it came to be, and what might happen next.
—Nicole Treska for Guernica
Guernica: Your poem “They Chopped Down the Tree I Used To Lie Under and Count Stars With” is built with lines that flow and follow one another like fleeting thoughts. For example, “doesn’t ‘embarrassed’ sound like ‘embarazada’ in Spanish?” and “Spanish feels like eating roses sprinkled with lime; / English, peeling potatoes barefoot.” Can you talk a little about your connection to language as the child of Mexican immigrants?
Diana Marie Delgado: There’s always been a division in my language. My maternal grandparents, whom I was very, very close with, didn’t speak English. So they spoke to me only in Spanish, and I spoke to them only in Spanish. Then, in my home, we never spoke Spanish. My mother had gone through a period of time where it was so stigmatized in school for her that she thought if you spoke with a Spanish accent, people would look down on you. So, she was very clear that we were going to speak English the right way, or what she conceived of as the right way. I find [the languages] very different and distinct in terms of their ability to relay emotions or feelings about a particular thing. I write specifically in English, but oftentimes I think in Spanish. If I’m angry, I definitely think in Spanish. But I do think that, because my mom didn’t speak Spanish in the home, I never learned how to read and write. I studied it, but for me, those things don’t sink in, the acquisition of language. All of my engagement with the Spanish language has been all through my family.
Guernica: And emotion, sounds like.
Delgado: Yeah, and emotion—knowing words because of how they feel when I say them, or when someone else is saying them.
Guernica: Those lines—the whole poem, actually—reminded me of Sandra Cisneros’s “My Name.” Who has influenced your work, in general, and in these particular poems?
Delgado: Definitely Sandra Cisneros. I was at a community college during the time House On Mango Street was being taught. It was very influential, in terms of being able to see myself in the work of another Latina writer. Lorna Dee Cervantes, the poet, is also somebody who has really been influential in my work. Especially in her ability to talk about class, shame, feminism; being a woman through her work. Her poem “The Poet Is Served Her Papers” was one of the first poems that I read by a Chicana writer. I was completely blown away and felt so seen. Even though I had no idea what it was, I thought to myself, “I want to learn how to do this. How did she do this?” I finally was able to see myself. It was very weird, and it sounds like one of those literary stories…but it really was like that. It was in a class, and I read her work, specifically that poem, and I was like, “Whoa, I want to know how to do this.”
Guernica: The collection feels like poems documenting a life in snapshots. It’s vivid and specific, but it’s not the whole story. There are blanks. The poem “Juice” ends with the line, “I was young, photographing the world.” Where does your desire to both document and leave blanks comes from?
Delgado: I think that the shape and the rendering of characters and family members in the book are representative of my idea that you never really get to know someone fully. And a person’s essence is made up of these moments that you have with them, right? Somebody will pass away, and someone will go up at their memorial and say, “I remember this one time we went to this one place.” And you really build a relationship with someone based on those sort of snapshots, or pictures, of what you think their essence is. It was something I was really interested in maneuvering and exploring on the page, because I grew up around so many interesting people that I felt I never really knew, and at the same time I had so many amazing stories about them.
Guernica: How do you handle that, craft-wise? Creating the sense of someone’s essence via these glimpses?
Delgado: For me, it’s writing pages and pages of free writes, and giving myself freedom to to write an extended version of who, or what, this person is, and then going back and erasing and redacting and taking everything away, until what’s left are these punctuated moments that I felt could bear the weight of the scene. It was really about scraping away all these other things, and getting into the germ of someone.
Guernica: The germ of someone, that’s great. While we’re talking about photographs, the photo on the cover is spellbinding. I found myself flipping to the cover between poems, to stare at the couple—their faces, their posture, the enormous white bundle in the man’s arms. It gives you everything but not everything, like one of your poems. Was this always going to be your cover?
Delgado: I think I knew subconsciously that it was going to be the cover. It’s an actual Polaroid that was taken when I was baptized in the Plaza, in downtown Los Angeles. I was hesitant because this is really the Trinity of the book. It’s my mom, my dad, and me. I think one of the things that you pointed out about the picture is that there’s so much expression in the shape of each person. It just was something that I felt really made sense, even though I knew that there would be a lot of hesitation on my part because it’s so revealing. It’s kind of like the ultimate reveal, to show someone’s face.
Guernica: Right, like: this is us.
Delgado: Yeah, and I did speak to my mom about it. I was actually proud of the cover, but she talked about how my dad was high in the picture. Which just says a little bit about my mom’s relationship with my dad, to point that out. I was like, “Isn’t this such a great picture?” My dad looks so handsome, my mom looks so beautiful. But my mom sort of pointed out, it’s not that great of a picture, because your dad is on drugs.
Guernica: The repetition of certain images in the poems—horses, birds, the moon, the devil—feels like a conjuring; they create the cadence and familiarity of a spell, or a prayer. Can you talk a little bit about magic in the book?
Delgado: I grew up around storytellers. My grandfather would get drunk, and he would sit at a table and tell his stories. The stories he told were always about transformation and consequence. And about the devil, oftentimes. I guess that mythology is in my bones. When I was writing these poems, it definitely came out, again, as the mythology of this world. There’s punishment, there are curses, and the goal is to transform. There’s a point where I say that my mother is waiting for my father to change. We’re all waiting for him to change and be the father. But he never does. He never does.
Guernica: So, then, let’s talk about the devil. He’s everywhere in these poems. He’s very charming. He gardens, he plays cards, he dances like a goddamn dream. What kind of magic is he, presented against a father that you are forever waiting on to be better?
Delgado: I think the interactions with the devil have to do with the duplicity of what you see, and the reality of who somebody really is. The one thing I remember being told about the devil was that he was beautiful. That he was handsome and charming, but at the same time [he] was a trickster who wanted something from you. Not to compare my father to that, but my father is very charismatic. He’s also somebody who is handsome and sort of charming. But at the same time, there was a lot of damage that he was capable of. I think it also reveals the spirituality of the speaker, which relies on this idea of God and the devil and the battle between the two.
Guernica: Women’s bodies are an ever-present source of desire and concern for the character in Tracing the Horse. Women are in constant danger, and the source of constant attention—wanted and unwanted, from within the narrator and from without. Let’s talk about “pussies like clamshells, that close like purses.” What kind of magic are they, and what kind of curse?
Delgado: As a young girl growing up in a traditional Mexican family, your first source of power is through your body. And then through beauty, and your ability to garner attention from men, or friends, through your beauty, and your submission to them. As I was growing up, I didn’t realize that was going on. The poems about the body, and how women’s bodies seem so up-for-grabs too often, those poems came toward the end. Those were the last ones I wrote, because I think I was afraid or…yeah, afraid is the right word…afraid to go there, and explore how damaging being involved with men, ever since I was fourteen years old, could actually be. No one ever really wants to talk about how damaging it can be on a woman’s psyche, a woman’s sense of self-worth, and the decision-making that goes on about the body. Or the importance of what the body means to women, and to the other women that they surround themselves with. I think [the poems] are suggesting the trauma that women’s bodies go through, just simply because we’re women.
Guernica: There’s violence stitched into every line of these poems, and the dread that the characters feel that comes from that violence is very felt by the reader. How did approach that sense of dread, craft-wise?
Delgado: Yes, there is the threat of violence. Even if the violence isn’t happening, there’s always this sense that it’s about to happen, has just happened. The conditions of the poems set this up, the sense of impending danger. I was very aware that I would not be able to create that simply by sharing or re-rendering an experience. I knew that I had to write the psychology of the people in the book, which is myself, my brother, my mother, and my dad. I attempted that through glimpses and decisions and the scenes and the situations that we were all put in, so [the violence] is almost adjacent to the actual scene, or person. I thought it would be more interesting to talk more about what happens when you’ve gone through, or are going through, that type of trauma and violence. Your decisions are different, and things are very fractured. Which is another thing that I realized was the key to representing this violence—the fracturing and the nonlinear sequencing of the book.
Guernica: The men in these poems are troubled: criminals and addicts, in and out of jail. What are the costs of these men’s lifestyles on the women who love them? The mothers, daughters, and lovers?
Delgado: From what I’ve seen, even in myself, the cost is that you are taught to expect less. Your value system is completely skewed, and your expectations are minimized, because the individual that you’re deeply in love with cannot offer very basic things to you—sometimes housing, sometimes food. It was a point I wanted to talk about, as best I could, because oftentimes mass incarceration, prison, men going away to jail…a lot of that stress falls on women. But we don’t hear those stories enough. We hear the stories of the directly-impacted, which we should, but we don’t hear about the impact on the women who love these men in prison. I wish the book was longer and I could talk about that part more, because it’s very important for us to recognize that it then shapes the value system of all of these women.
Guernica: And communities.
Delgado: Communities. That’s right.
Guernica: What are you working on now, or next?
Delgado: I’m working on something much longer. And what I mean by much longer is prose and fiction, something I began about two years ago that I’m still teaching myself how to write. But it’s something I’m really excited about, because it’s a different challenge for me. I’m really trying to write from a universal connection that might supersede the id and the ego, and what we think of as our own preoccupations. It seems like a good place to go to as a writer. It seems like a good next step for me, to challenge myself to think about something that is a little bit more outside of what I would normally think in my head and write about.
Guernica: It’s funny, because I was just thinking, “That sounds like such a poet’s definition of what a novel could do.” Go beyond the id and the super ego…
Delgado: [Laughs] It is truly what I’ve been thinking about! And I’ve been reading different books that I feel tap into that, that are exclusive to the self.
Guernica: What are those books?
Delgado: So, I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk. Her book Outline really interests me. Some of the other things that I’ve been reading are more research-based, for the book, and they have to do with the (false) diaries of Christopher Columbus. A book by Mathias Énard called Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, which is a historical novel about Michelangelo traveling to the Golden Horn to build a bridge. It’s amazing; it’s so sensual. You get to hear about all that Michelangelo used to write, and everything going on at the shipping port for trade, and it’s just a very sensual and sexy book. Because everyone is on opium.
Guernica: Opium and sexy men everywhere. That’s got to be a book about Michelangelo.
Delgado: It’s lovely. It’s great.
Guernica: “Dream Obituary” ends with the line, “Now in the middle of my life, my journey is to forgive everything that’s happened.” Was this book part of that forgiveness?
Delgado: Yeah, I’m grateful that the book did offer me that type of healing. It offered me an opportunity to explore a constellation of traumatic things that happened to me. Through that exploration and retracing, if you will, it allowed me to come to terms and develop my own identity outside of what had happened to me. That was such a big deal to me for so long, and still is. That poem is an actual dream that I had. I record my dreams, the majority of them. I wake up and I record them, and then sometimes I’ll say a little bit about what they could be about.