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In Study of the Raft, Venezuelan-American writer Leonora Simonovis crafts lyric poems that feel personal and always echo politically. The 2021 Colorado Prize for Poetry–winning collection, published by The Center for Literary Publishing on November 15, favors short lines that are tightly wound with figurative language. Pain and beauty regularly coexist within the same short stanza, and the poems’ plots often tell of women on the move.
Acclaimed Diné poet Sherwin Bitsui judged the 26th annual edition of the prize, which is open to anyone in the United States. He wrote that Simonovis’s “must read” book “carries us from ‘one collapsed world to another,’ where ‘el Norte means nowhere,’ and ‘to leave is to tune in to your own unraveling.’ ” Here, the poet, currently teaching at the University of San Diego, shares some of the inspiration behind her award-winning work and reads “Maps” and “Bedtime Stories.”
5280: Violence is always bound up in revolution, and there’s a lot of violence bound into these poems: colonial violence, dictatorial violence, sexual violence. What’s it like to write about such intense subject matter with such beautiful, intentional language?
Leonora Simonovis: It was rough. Your question reminds me of what one of my mentors, [poet] Willy Perdomo, says: “Write the hard poem.” Which sounds great, but while writing I was like, “Oh this is horrible.” Especially when it was related to family, I kept thinking, “Should I be writing this?”
I always used to talk to my mom about this. She passed away recently. I would ask her, “Hey, how do you feel about me writing about this,” and she was usually like, “Just put it in. It happened, right?” Some of the things I wrote that she read, she told me, “Thank you for writing about this, because it’s helpful for me to look into it and see it from a different perspective.” I know not everyone in my family thinks the same way. So it was difficult.
In your experience, how do Americans engage with Venezuelan politics? Are there any common misconceptions you’ve come up against?
I’ve actually had to take some distance from colleagues, including fellow left-leaning colleagues, at different points because I would talk about how bad it was in Venezuela—hospitals collapsing, people being denied treatment, for instance—and they’d respond, “Well, it can’t be that bad. We haven’t heard anything.” It’s this idea of, if it’s not in the news I’m consuming, it’s not happening.
I stopped going back to Venezuela because my cousin became a political prisoner. He’s a distant cousin, but at the airport I was interrogated about him: “Do you know him? Do you know what he was doing?” I would tell people that and they would insist I was exaggerating. Even close friends of mine—they’d say, “Why are you afraid?”
I have kids! I don’t want to be detained, I don’t want to be stuck somewhere, I don’t want to deal with any of that. So I stopped telling people anything. I’ll just talk to Venezuelans who understand.
But writing, I had this idea that if I wanted this to work, I had to focus on the specifics of these experiences. This brought to mind Patricia Smith, a poet who wrote about Hurricane Katrina and made it about the people, the Black folks who were killed, who barely made it out. So, I just thought: Who do I know who has been hurt? And it’s so many people. Some of what I talk about is my experience, some comes from other people’s experiences, things I’ve read and heard. But I wanted it to be narrow and specific so it could be relatable and meaningful.
In academia for example, many people who align with a leftist perspective tend to romanticize Venezuela a little bit. In Europe, it’s the same way, especially in France and Spain. And I always feel like, well, you didn’t grow up in Latin America, you really have no idea. They sometimes romanticize the whole idea of “revolution”—that it will be something great that benefits people in the lower social classes. But it usually hasn’t worked that way.
When and how did you realize you were writing political poems?
I was reading a lot of news about people who couldn’t find food, who were detained, tortured. That’s what was catching my attention. And I just started writing lines and putting them together. With a poem like “Mozart in the XXI Century,” it was a little easier, because it’s the story of one person, along with musical aspects. With “Venezuelan Mosaic,” it took me a little longer, because it was so fragmented, and I was trying to find and make clear the connection between all the fragments: the political violence in the country.
Do you remember your first aesthetic awakening—a moment when you first noticed or participated in something beautiful or otherwise arresting?
I was probably between five and seven years old when my mom gifted me my first book of poetry. It was a cancionero, a little book of songs, by Federico García Lorca, for children. The sounds. Everything rhymed. It was also very colorful, with all sorts of greens and the reds, because he was writing about the rural landscape where he lived. There was also a sadness to it. They seemed such simple poems, but they were so complex. The more I read, I remember feeling a tightness in my chest. The drawings were haunting—they were outlines of people, Dalí-like, very surrealistic.
There was another poet I read alongside Lorca, a Venezuelan poet named Aquiles Nazoa. He also wrote poems for kids. These were my first contact with, my first awakening to poetry. I kept feeling like I was being drawn to it.
How does your teaching practice relate to your poetry practice? How do they inform each other?
One of the classes I teach is called the “Cultural History of Latin America.” It goes from pre-colonization all the way through to the 21st century. That class directly inspired the poem “Maps.” It compelled me to begin conversations about the political systems we have today and the historical role the U.S. played in Latin America. It really triggered my creativity.
The second section of Study of the Raft is dedicated to a longer poem entitled “Diaspora Suite.” What do you think about the genre of diaspora literature? Do you think that describes your own work?
I teach about the diaspora, in particular the Caribbean diaspora. I realized that a lot of my students in Southern California know nothing about the Caribbean—it’s just a faraway place, a vacation destination. Maybe they’ve heard about Haiti and Puerto Rico, but it doesn’t go much beyond that.
With that in mind, I do want to represent the different voices of the diaspora. The idea was to appeal to different people, either migrants or those who are interested in immigration in some way or count themselves as members of the diasporic communities. The poems are specific, but they are also general—many don’t reference one specific culture and deal with general migration issues, like detention and language loss and losing someone who tried to cross a border.
This relates back to Study of the Raft, the title. Borders are, of course, not always over land, but we can forget that.
A lot of migration stories are told by and about men, so I also wanted to provide a different voice. Women also go through this, and sometimes it’s much worse for them.
One of the phrases in the collection that most stuck with me, that I found satisfying and mystifying, is this: “we / dream the pestle / as mortar.” It seems so rich with metaphoric possibility, but I don’t have an immediate interpretation of it. What were you thinking about as you wrote it?
I’m always thinking about changing the narrative: The ways we are defined by others. The ways the colonizers recreated our stories and our traditions and imposed their narratives onto us. It’s quite challenging to change the concrete world, but playing with language is a powerful way for me to change the narrative in a different way: using inversion, fragmentation, surrealistic imagery to push against established narratives a little bit.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.