All of My Poems Hold Each Other Like Sisters: An Interview with Christiana Castillo – Michigan Quarterly Review

All of My Poems Hold Each Other Like Sisters: An Interview with Christiana Castillo

Christiana Castillo’s debut poetry collection, Crushed Marigold, is an invitation to create meaning within self, cultural memory and spiritual lineage. It is a poem that has been molded and remolded again to shape something new that still carries old, sacred truth and beauty. Christiana uses radical imagination to call on her abuela’s matriarchal wisdom to conjure poems that speak with otherworldly clarity. With open hands and endless gratitude for her own creative process, Castillo brings out a soft, chair, upholstered with abuela’s prayers, to share what it means to have this collection in the world and that to which she hopes the reader bears witness.

Katelyn Rivas (KR): What is your relationship to poetry? When did you start writing? What is it about writing poetry, writing poems that keeps you coming back for more? Dip into that well.

Christiana Castillo (CC): I started writing poems in elementary school. During the pandemic, my mom was going through her belongings and sent me a couple poems I wrote back in third grade, which was really amazing. I was like, whoa. I don’t remember these, but that’s so sweet. Out of all the art mediums I’ve interacted with, I think poetry is… it’s hard to find the words. I’m supposed to be a poet. I feel like when I write poems, I get to know myself more in a way that is unexpected. Poems help me have a better relationship with myself. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also been very interested in tapping into ancestral knowledge as well, and I think that poetry is a catalyst for that for me.

KR: You talked about identifying as a poet. Did that just come naturally from writing lots of poems all the time, or do you have a moment when you’re like, I’m a poet now?

CC: I think for a really long time I wrote for myself, which is not to say that I don’t do that now. I write poetry because I want to do it, but I think once I finally started sharing my poetry in a larger community is when I felt able to identify as a poet. I think being in community with other poets helped me do that too. For a really long time, when I was a kid, it’s like poets, they’re in these beautiful books I read, but as I grew older, actually being able to be part of a writing community. It’s like, this isn’t just something you read about. This is something that happens every moment, which is really beautiful and overwhelming sometimes to think about. I think teaching helped me too. Teaching poetry is something I’m passionate about, that I care about and know enough about, but I can share the knowledge confidently. I was like, yeah. I’m a poet and I enjoy sharing this knowledge, yeah.

KR: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the experience of writing the poems that are in the collection, as well as sewing them together for a bigger chapbook and finally having it released into the world through Flower Press. What was that experience like for you?

CC: I think Crushed Marigold, all in all, took almost five years. If I’m thinking about when poems were created, I spent a lot of time with it. It’s interesting because by the time that Crushed Marigold got published, in a way, it felt like some of those poems are still some of my favorite poems that I’ve ever written, but as I’ve continued with my craft, I’m like, these would be different poems if I wrote them now. Does that make sense? Even though my craft, how I write poetry, maybe has changed a bit more, the topics are always the same. I think I’m writing the same poem a million times sometimes. 

Grouping the poems was probably one of the most challenging things that I’ve done with my work, especially because I feel that a lot of my work is the same poem over and over again. It’s the same theme. Okay, these poems need to sit next to each other, and how do you group that, and play around with it? I went into this phase where I was really trying to make it resemble a Rosary, like doing a dialogue with The Rosary. That didn’t stick, but I probably spent hours doing that. 

I think something that helped me though was working with Karla Rosas, who was the illustrator of Crushed Marigold, because thinking back, I was a bit ridiculous. I would send her a poem and just ask her to make an illustration, and she did. I never gave her any direction really on what to do. She would just make it based on the poem. I should have given more direction, maybe. Did I make that way too difficult? Once I had the illustrations, which still just makes me so happy, I’m still in awe of them. My phone background is still one of the images.

KR: They’re amazing. She did a great job. 

CC: She really did. I think that made it easier for me to keep these illustrations in mind too, because I think all of my poems hold each other like sisters. I really do. They all feel connected, so it was so difficult to think, how are these pages going to turn? Once I had the illustrations, that made it a bit easier for me to decide. 

KR: Okay, let’s talk about the process of getting published with Flower Press.

CC: Flower Press was one of the happiest… I don’t know what term I’m looking for. I had Crushed Marigold finished. I was like, this is complete. I’m happy with it, I was just sitting with it. What happened was, Zoe Minikes found Crushed Marigold and read some of it, because I had a couple pages of it up on my website. She was like, does this exist out in the world? I was like, no. I’m still sending it off to places. She kind of casually said, I would love to give Crushed Marigold a home, which was very affirming, for one. To have somebody in the greater Detroit community read my work and like to publish this, I was just like, whoa. That’s really amazing. I knew of Flower Press because of your work and Grace Millard. I was like, this seems cool. Then I read more and I’m like, no. This is amazing and super cool. An equitable press. Working with Zoe has been an absolute dream. I’m very proud of being published with Flower Press.

KR:  You should be. 

CC: I love the way that Flower Press shows up for the greater collective. With Crushed Marigold, I give currently 15% of proceeds to Medical Aid for Palestinians, and then 15% to Freedom House in Detroit. It really was just me being like, Hey Zoe, I would like to do this. Can we do it? And her just being like, yes. Where I feel like with a lot of traditional presses it would be like, no. You can’t do that.

KR: Right. There’d be this whole bureaucracy.

CC: It would be this gross capitalism thing. 

KR: I know that Crushed Marigold sold out several times and I’m just wondering if you could talk about the success of the text and how that’s made you feel and what that’s been like to be celebrated by so many people.

CC: Honestly, I’m tearing up a little bit because it’s still a very overwhelming thing to me. As a poet, as I think a lot of poets and artists do, I definitely struggle with the whole imposter syndrome thing. When Crushed Marigold was finally getting out there, I had a moment where I was like, oh my God. Is this actually embarrassing? Are my poems actually embarrassing and no one told me? I actually have found out that a lot of people find it to be a really affirming experience to read my work, which is such a gift. To have somebody read a poem or my poetry collection and then reach out to me because of a positive experience, or feeling like they can connect to it, that’s everything. Connection. That’s everything I wanted from the chapbook and that I feel, especially having it published at the peak of the pandemic [Crushed Marigold published in October 2020].

KR: Definitely. For sure. Your collection itself is a fertile ground that you landed in a place where it could really be appreciated and celebrated, as opposed to other capitalist, elitist presses who are not really giving as much.

CC: A lot of Crushed Marigold was inspired by my grandmother, my abuela, who was one of the most badass, no bullshit, but also most giving women. To me, she’s everything. I’m like, I couldn’t imagine having a body of work that really has a lot to do with my abuela in the hands of some capitalist, white, old men, as a lot of presses go. I feel like Flower Press holds my work and so many other poets’ and authors’ work so gently and affirmingly. 

Christiana and abuela Elva Castillo share a moment of love and joy at the beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

KR: I would love to hear what the relationship is between the illustrations and the text. Why was it important for you to include them? A lot of poems stand alone, so I’m curious, why was that something that you really wanted to see happen here?

CC: Yeah. I’m a big nerd and I’m really into learning about how other folks learn. For a really long time, I was into researching bilingual education. Many studies show illustrations help with digesting text. I know some of the illustrations for Crushed Marigold are a little more abstract, but that’s one place that it was coming from. I want this text to be accessible to Latinx artists who might be interested in collaborating with me. One of my close friends, one of my dearest friends, J, is very active on Instagram, especially in the disabled community. She was like hey, one of my good Instagram friends, Jocy (@jocyofthedragons), her sister is an amazing illustrator and I think she would be perfect for Crushed Marigold. They sent me one of Karla’s illustrations and I went to her page (@karlinche_) and I was like, oh my god. This is it. This is what I want. I reached out to her and instantly she was like, oh my god, yes. I would love to work on this with you. I think Karla creating the illustrations for Crushed Marigold was just another level of feeling seen as an artist, especially with another Mexican woman. We could just relate to a lot of the things I was writing about, which I thought was really beautiful and definitely made me feel more confident about my work going out into the world. 

KR: I’m so glad that you included that, and now the illustrations are prayer cards, too, that you’ve published with Flower Press and are living on their own outside of the collection.

CC: I think Karla and I can both relate to being raised Mexican Catholic and being around so many prayer cards. In a lot of ways, I feel like my poems are prayers themselves. 

KR: Something that I feel like comes up a lot in this collection, as well as other poems of yours that I’ve read, is your connection, your relationship to place and memory and cultural heritage. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that?

CC: Yeah. Writing poems, especially the poems in Crushed Marigold, felt really healing in a lot of ways. But healing can also be a very difficult thing, and so can memories and different spaces. I don’t know how I make sense of that, but people at least say, write what you know. I know the spaces I’ve been and the memories I have in those spaces. I’m really, really intrigued by space. I think the way that different spaces hold different emotions and memories for different people is something I’m always in awe of and always feels so layered and intense to me. 

For that reason, it’s important for me to reflect on the spaces I’ve been in, but also I very much believe my ancestors are with me. I’m carrying them in my DNA, so by extension, what is the space that my ancestry takes up is something that’s always on my mind, which I think presents itself in my poems often. In the same way that my abuela comes up in my poems often because she will forever be my favorite person; one of my greatest life teachers, and she’s no longer physically here. But for me to know I can use poetry, my poems, to help share who she was is something I’m so incredibly happy I’m able to do. That’s something that’s really special to me about poetry. As I say it out loud, it kind of reminds me of Día de los Muertos and ofrendas in general. I very much feel that my poems are offerings for my ancestors, for past versions of me and hopefully future versions of me as well.

KR: Have you ever had a moment, whether it was writing a poem itself or reading the poem later where it felt like an ancestor was speaking to you in that poem or speaking through you in order to write this poem? Have you had that moment?

CC: Yeah. I’m really lucky to have had that moment. I feel like I’m a lucky poet and writer, honestly. A lot of my poems are  about me randomly living my life and a line of a poem coming into my head and then me knowing I need to sit down because a poem needs to be created. I have some rituals where I’ll burn my marigold flower petals and other things, and just really think about how I want to invite my ancestors to be with me while I’m writing my work, but especially reflecting on my grandma, definitely have had those moments where I feel like it’s just like her right next to me reminding me of these amazing things she’s taught me before.

KR:  I feel like that’s happened to me as well. Not through my grandma, but through my biological mother, who, I don’t know if she’s an ancestor or not, but she’s an ancestor to me since we don’t have a physical relationship currently. There’s been a lot of moments where I’ve been writing poems about her and about motherhood way before I ever became a mother myself. Especially poems that came out of moments where I was in a super dark, depressive space and a different voice came out of me than that voice. I knew it wasn’t just me speaking, so I really align and resonate with what you’re saying about having your grandma, your abuela, come through your poems to you. 

CC: Talking about this is so great, but you can relate. It’s like, why would I stop writing poems then? If I’m able to have this almost otherworldly experience that helps me heal, helps me feel, even though it’s otherworldly, more grounded, a greater sense of self, why would I stop writing? 

KR: I know that you do have other creative practices and pathways to create meaning, and I know as a teaching artist you incorporate a lot of those things, too. I’m curious if you could talk about that influence on your work and also the influence that it brings to your own body and mind as you care for yourself and renew yourself to continue creating these poems and creating good work in our society. 

CC: Thank you for this question. Something I’ve really been enjoying doing lately is work with clay. I know that my great grandfather, his sisters and his tías, worked with clay all the time. Terracotta and red clays have always just been something I’ve gravitated towards in my own way. What I pick for inside my home and also what I grew up seeing in my abuela’s house. Red clay is something that comes up in a lot of my newer poems too, so I felt like okay, let me work with clay. Clay is also really cool because if you work with it for more than 45 minutes, it helps to repair pathways in your brain. I think it helps me write poetry too. Just being able to work with the medium and be with Earth and water, so many of the elements and molding things with my hands, and just thinking about the clay in my hands.

I very much believe clay has a memory of where it’s been, different shapes it’s been in, which helps me reflect on who I am while I’m working with it. That’s been something that’s been really nice to add into my artistic practice, and also something that I’m still new at; it’s like productive discomfort. I love painting, doodling, doing those things for fun, because there are times when I want to have an artistic outlet but quite honestly maybe I’m not in the emotional space to write a poem at that time. I think for me, writing poetry is one of the most vulnerable things I do. Sometimes that vulnerability can be a bit overwhelming, so it’s just nice to be able to have other outlets and also remember that those other outlets can be just as vulnerable for other folks as poetry is for me. I think that’s a really beautiful thing; just being able to interact with other mediums and also consider how this, too, brings immense healing for others and for me moments of levity for sure. 

KR: What about gardening? I know you have such a spiritual practice with that too.

CC: Gardening is definitely an art form, too. Poetry and gardening. I am a poet and I am a gardener. I can very much own those things. I learned how to garden from my grandma. I think that’s part of the reason why our relationship is… why we’re so connected. She grew up in southwest Detroit, lived there, raised her daughters there, lived next door to a meat packing plant right off of the freeway, and still grew corn and peppers and tomatoes and so many other things and so many flowers. So many beautiful flowers in her backyard anyway. Some of my earliest memories are gardening with her and picking peppers to make salsa. When the world feels really overwhelming, more often than not, I’ll go out into my garden. I think I find a lot of love and care from the plants, and also knowing that these plants had ancestors, too,and they’re literally surviving from ancestral knowledge, and that’s what I’m doing as well. I think plants and how they’re rooted, how they grow, it helps me stay grounded seeing bees and butterflies and biodiversity from something that I helped cultivate, I think it’s a very gentle but vibrant reminder that I’m part of a collective. Even when I’m feeling so overwhelmed and alone and so individualistic, it’s like, no. You’re part of a greater collective, which is something I’ve been finding a lot of comfort in.

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M