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Carmen Calatayud: Poet Interview

(Quick disclosure: My first full-length poetry collection,Solving the World's Problems, will be published by Press 53 on September of this year. However, I don't want anyone to feel my interview with Carmen was caused by this relationship. We'd set the wheels in motion before my acceptance, and I've interviewed Press 53 poets in the past, including Terri Kirby Erickson and Joseph Mills.)

Carmen Calatayud's first poetry collection In the Company of Spirits was published in October 2012 as part of the Silver Concho Series by Press 53 andwas a runner-up for the 2010 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, Gargoyle, La Bloga, Más Tequila Review, PALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art, Red River Review and Slow Trains. Her poems are anthologized in various collections, including Mondo Barbie (St. Martin's Press), DC Poets Against the War: An Anthology (Argonne House Press) and the upcoming Poetry of Resistance: A Multicultural Response to Arizona SB 1070 and Other Xenophobic Laws, to be published by University of Arizona Press in 2014. Carmen is a Larry Neal Poetry Award winner and recipient of a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellowship. She is a poet moderator for Poets Responding to SB 1070, a Facebook group founded by poet Francisco X. Alarcón that features poetry and news about Arizona’s controversial immigration law that legalizes racial profiling, as well immigrant-related and human rights news. Born to a Spanish father and Irish mother in the U.S., Carmen works and writes in Washington, DC.


There are two things I especially enjoy about Carmen's poetry: one is the sort of spiritual/magical essence of her poems, and two is that her poems often feel very important--life and death important. Here is one of my favorites:

Losing the Ocean, by Carmen Calatayud

The sea is my religion that brings me
to the bottom and this is what I know:

The fear of suffocation and the fear of joy,
the selfishness that fills my throat
and tonsils too big to fossilize.

This face of scars from fishing with the mouth
and always dropping the catch.

I'm afraid of love that chews hips,
trespasses liver, runs after hurricanes.

Past oceans become present day beaches
and it's too late, mermaid,
lonely woman
without breast stroke maneuver,
without oxygen song.

You are the mineral washed away.
You are the salt that chokes a child
in August.


What are you currently up to?

On December 8, I returned from a two-week writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. My close friend and poet Niki Herd pushed me to apply, and I’m so grateful that I listened to her. It was my first writing residency experience and it was amazing to have that kind of time and space to write. I'm working on a memoir that focuses primarily on the years I spent living in Tucson in the 1990s…….and in between, I'm still writing poems. Poetry is a natural and necessary break from writing prose for me.

Your collection In the Company of Spirits includes enough Spanish that there are translations in the back of the book. Is it challenging to write in two tongues?

Well I can't say that it's challenging, in the sense that I'm just using words and phrases that come to me, and that I end up using them because I often like the sounds of Spanish words better than the sounds of English words. Sound is really important to me in my writing. I spoke Spanish with my father when I was very young, but when he began to travel for work for extended periods of time, we stopped speaking Spanish at home. My mother, who was born in Ireland and emigrated from London, didn't speak any Spanish. I'm by no means fluent in Spanish but I can get by in a simple conversation, and I understand more than I speak.

To address the translations in the back of the book, I spoke with several poets I deeply respect about using a glossary and received different answers. In the end, I was left with having to decide for myself what to do. I know some poets, including Latino poets, disagree with the use of a glossary. I thought about that a lot, and came to the conclusion that for poetry readers who dive deeply into the work, knowing the meaning of a word in Spanish might make reading the poem a more complete experience. With all the immigrant bashing, racism and English-only movements going on in this country, I wanted to honor the readers who care enough to understand some Spanish for the context of a poem.

Having said that, my preference in the future would be to let go of using a glossary and not italicize words just because they are in Spanish. I like to use italicization for emphasis in a poem, and prefer to be free to decide on italicization of Spanish or English words on case-by-case basis.

In this collection, there's a world offered up in which spirits do seem to walk with the living. This leads me to wonder, what is your spiritual life like?

My spiritual life is hard to put into words……I feel as though I spend a lot of time in the world of spirits and communicating with them in some way. It's almost as natural as breathing. I rarely feel alone because I feel spirits around me much of the time. This isn't something I talk about often, and when I do, it's with people who I believe will understand. Yoga classes and meditation are part of my spiritual practice, as is reading spiritual texts. I feel most connected to Buddhism and indigenous spirituality. My husband Ricardo and I were married by a Mayan shaman in Mexico 10 years ago this October.

You're a psychotherapist. Does that part of your life ever bleed into your poetry or vice versa? Or are they two separate worlds?

You know, I thought that my psychotherapy work would influence my writing much more than it has. Moving into psychology was a mid-life change for me, and when I went to grad school from 2004 to 2006, I was quite passionate about mental health and the mind-body connection. What I've found so far is that my work world doesn't bleed into my poetry or prose. What motivates me to write, and what seems to arise as I write, is my spiritual and psychological life, my views on the human condition, and my own experiences. So without trying, my therapy work with clients and my writing are two separate worlds.

Do you have any poetry pet peeves when reading poetry? Are there things you try to avoid in your own poems?

Hmmmm……I suppose I have a small pet peeve about what appears to be and sounds like forced rhyme. I try to avoid clichés in my poems, but they pop up easily. Thankfully, we can edit and get feedback from others on our work.

Your best poetry experience to date. What is it and why?

Going to California in November 2012 included my best poetry experiences so far. There is a tie between three events: My reading in Sacramento for Día de los Muertos, reading a poem at the end of the two-mile Día de los Muertos procession in the Mission District in San Francisco, and my reading at Casita del Pueblo in Whittier, outside of LA.

In Sacramento, there was a small but warm, receptive crowd, and it was lovely to meet poets in person who I had connected with on Facebook. I read with poet Francisco X. Alarcón, which was a great privilege, and I could feel an understanding for my poetry in that room. In the Mission, after having the honor of walking near the front of the procession with Francisco and Starhawk for two miles, Francisco surprised me by pulling out my book, introducing me, and handing me the mic to read a poem to close the ceremony. It was my first Día de los Muertos procession in the Mission, and the love and exurberance from the large crowd along the entire route was palpable.

At Casita del Pueblo in Whittier, I read with two LA poets who I love and admire: Abel Salas and John Martinez. The event was also an art show that featured work by the artist whose painting is on the cover of my book, Aydee López Martínez. It was a joy to be with Abel, John and Aydee, and to feel the energy of a standing crowd that was so attentive and enthusiastic. I have to admit I didn't want to leave because I felt so at home there, in both Northern and Southern California. I can feel my heart expand just by writing about and remembering these events.

Your bio mentions moderating "Poets Responding to SB 1070," a group on Facebook. Could you share a little about what that is and what that experience has been like?

Poets Responding to SB 1070 is a Facebook page and a gathering place for poets, artists of all kinds, activists and the public to come together to respond to Arizona's SB 1070, a law that targets immigrants and legalizes racial profiling. The result of Arizona SB 1070 is that undocumented immigrant workers and legalized immigrants are harassed, jailed, and in some cases deported, based on their skin color or accent. Our page features poetry submitted by people across the U.S. and from other countries, and we post news stories related to Arizona, immigration and human rights violations of U.S. immigrants. We also feature news on other human rights issues around the globe to bring attention to and raise support for human rights-related causes.

Maricopa County, Arizona, in particular, is known for its civil rights abuses against legal and undocumented immigrants. Since the law passed in April 2010, another side of Arizona that gets little attention has risen up and taken a stand against the law and the constant abuses--the Latino population and the Anglos who support them and support human rights. Together, we're calling for humane immigration reform to stop the unjust deportations that split families apart and ruin lives.

The founder of Poets Responding to SB 1070 is poet, writer and University of California/Davis professor Francisco X. Alarcón. The other poet moderators include Odilia Galván Rodríguez, Elena Díaz Bjorkquist, Andrea Hernandez Holm, and Hedy Treviño. Our page has become a known presence in the poetry world, which is heartening, and an important part of the activist fabric that advocates for civil rights in Arizona.

Being involved with this group of poets, whose poetry, activism and generosity inspire me on a daily basis, has been life-changing. The overwhelming positive response and the poetry contributions to our page, which gets several thousands hits a week, continues to restore my faith in the American spirit of fairness and compassion, despite the loud, virulent voices of racism that garner so much attention. Many people do want to educate themselves. They are learning that the American economy runs on the backs of hard-working undocumented immigrants who pick the food that gets to our grocery stores, clean the offices and homes of millions, and provide child care. That's the reality. Historically, undocumented immigrants have always done the back-breaking work to help build this nation. My parents were immigrants and I grew up around their immigrant friends, so this human rights issue is personal for me.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

I tend to read several books at a time, and use my subway commuting time to read, as well as squeezed-in time at home. Here's what I'm reading:

State Out of the Union, by Jeff Biggers: This book was chosen by Publishers Weekly at one of the Top 10 Social Science Books for Fall 2012, and chronicles the history—past and current—of the contentious debate around immigration in Arizona, and how it's affecting the rest of our country. Luis Alberto Urrea calls Biggers one of his American literary heroes, and I concur.

Please, by Jericho Brown: I'm a latecomer to Brown's work, as this first book came out in 2008 and won the American Book Award in 2009. Brown's poetry is fiery, gut-wrenching and beyond honest. He's a contemporary master poet.

Lorca: A Dream of Life, by Leslie Stainton: I still cry thinking about Lorca's execution by firing squad for being gay and for speaking out against Franco's Fascism. This beautiful yet candid biography chronicles the short, intense life of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, whose literary and activist influence continues to vibrate around the world today.

The Book of Hours, by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy): Rilke's deep connection to the divine is explored and expressed in each of these poems, most no more than a page. This book is a treasure trove of spiritual poetry.

Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living, by Donna Farhi: I'm only 32 pages into this book that brings the deeper meaning and philosophy of yoga alive, beyond the physical practice. Farhi's writing is gorgeous and potent.

If you could share only one piece of advice for other poets, what would it be?

Write for yourself—what you need to write and what you're scared to write—and stay true to your own voice. In the end, opinions are subjective.


Thank you, Carmen, for participating in this interview series!

If you'd like to learn more about Carmen, here are some links:


If you're a poet or publisher interested in a Poetic Asides interview, all you need to do to get the conversation started is to send me an e-mail at with the subject line: Poet Interview on Poetic Asides. Easy peasy, right?


Check out some other recent poet interviews here:


And while you're at it...

...find homes for your poems with the assistance of the 2013 Poet's Market, edited by yours truly. It's filled with listings for publishers, publications, and contests; articles on the craft of poetry; instruction on finding and building an audience for your poetry; and actual contemporary poems by great poets!

Click to continue.

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