The PEN Ten: An Interview with Moncho Alvarado
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
The first piece of writing that had a profound impact on me was reading a novel in my 10th grade, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. I saw so much of me, my family, and the community in the pages of Anaya. The use of Spanish; spiritual transformation; gathering of medicinal herbs; and the influence of Indigenous cultural ways had a huge impact when it came to seeing brown and Indigneous people, like my family, in texts I read in high school. I wanted to be Ultima: I knew I was a woman who wanted to carry the wisdom of my ancestors and use it to heal, confront evil, and use the power to do good in this world. After reading that book, I was awakened to keep looking for more writers like me. I then found Sandra Cisneros, Luis Rodriguez, Mary Helen Ponce and so many more.
2. What’s a piece of art (literary or not) that moves you and mobilizes your work?
The art that moves and mobilizes me is jazz/cumbias, anime/manga, and so many more artists, but the most profound art that moves me is the work of Laura Aguilar. Her work confronts/ subverts queer embodiment, body politics, fat politics, border politics, and racial identity. Her work makes me more confident to be queer, fat, brown, and down. There was a quote in one of her pieces that says, “There was a time when I felt ashamed of the color of my skin. There was a time when I discovered art, my culture and the history of others who struggled. The knowing let me to find myself.” Thank you Laura for moving and mobilizing this queer mujer.
“Allow yourself to imagine, to dream—to rest when you need to rest. Be kind with yourself and your writing.”
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
How I maintain momentum and remain inspired, which coincides with my creative process, is Lorde asking me, “Am I doing my work?” This moves me to research, to receive inspiration from my trans-cestors, my communities, and to know them better, to know how they dreamed, resisted, loved—how they kept living while confronting oppression, systemic racism, and discrimination. How it keeps to continue, like here in the USA, 34 states that have introduced 100 bills that aim to curb the rights of transgender people across the country. Terrible and heartbreaking bills aimed at me and my community. What those folx have to understand is that they’ll never get rid of us, no matter how much they try to, people like Sandra Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Mary Jones, and so many more queer women of color that fought and lived. I owe my life to these Black and brown women. Because of them, I’m able to be here to keep writing with momentum and inspiration to write about my life and about my communities.
4. Your collection Greyhound Americans confronts a family history of borderland politics by discovering a legacy of violence, grief, trauma, and survival. Can you describe the moment in which you decided that you needed to write these poems and assemble them into a cohesive collection?
The moment in which I decided to write these poems was when I was in high school. I was around 16, I knew I was queer, dressed in metal band shirts, fishnet stockings, and sometimes platforms. I was inspired by all the authors I was reading, and wanted to write something about what I kept living through: injustice, pain, greed, and suffering. I didn’t want to be silent about all that happened to me, my family, my community, my ancestors; so I wrote in my journal, trying to figure out what was happening all around me. What happened to me as a child. What happened to my family, community, and ancestors. When I wanted to write a cohesive collection was when I discovered the poetry of witness. I felt it was a moral/ethical imperative to bear witness to the events that happened to them, so that they won’t be erased by history. I was inspired by the works of Francisco X. Alarcón to Nazim Hikmet—by movies like Mi Familia to Ma vie en rose. There was something inside me driving me to write about these experiences, to make sure my communities, who have been through similar experiences that I write about in Greyhound Americans, know they are not alone, there is hope after what has happened.
5. Have there been instances where you had to practice self-censorship in order to perform the “otherness” your collection engages?
The instances I had to practice self-censorship in order to perform the “otherness” in my collection were where I wrote portrait poems about the family and communities I grew up within the second section of the collection. This was inspired by portrait photography. I asked everyone if it would be ok for me to write about what they told me. They said yes, but to change their name and some things they said they did not want me to write. Other people in my family or people from my community said no, and I respected their wishes, ultimately not including them in my collection. The poems I did write about, I did practice self-censorship like I stated above and edited some of what they said out of the poem, while keeping the marrow of their words in the poems.
6. What is the most daring thing you’ve put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
The most daring thing I put into words were the poems in the first section of the book. They deal with sexual and physical trauma—suicide, and mental health. Those poems took around 10 years for me to write. There was a writing prompt which was repeated in my writing classes, from undergrad to grad school, which was, “Write about what you are afraid to write about.” These are the poems that I have been trying to write over and over and over. In order to get to the point of writing them, I had to mend and heal all the pieces of me that were broken from all the years of living and neglecting my mental and spiritual health. It wasn’t until I did the work of healing my mind, body, and soul over those 10 years, that I was able to write those poems, that I was able to come out as a trans-woman of Indigenous ancestry. I learned to not be silent about those issues that happened—to finally live my truth. The poems that inspired me and helped me constantly were the lines from Audrey Lordes’, “A Litany for Survival” (“So it is better to speak / Remembering / we were never meant to survive”), Joy Harjo’s poem “Skeleton of Winter” (“I am memory alive”), and the lines from the song “Los Caminos de la Vida” (“Los caminos de la vida/ no son como yo pensaba/ como los imaginaba/ no son como yo creía”).
7. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Ahhhhhhh. This is such a hard question. Well, for now, I’ll focus on living. I would love to meet and listen to Joy Harjo. Even if it was for 30 minutes, I would ask her for a hug, then about her relationship with words, poems, forms, family, has progressed over her career. Also, I would ask her if she’d like to jam out—play some blues.
8. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
The most surprising thing I learned is that I had to stop being silent. There’s this quote, “Your silence will not protect you” by the Lorde that deeply affected me when reading her work. I had to stop living in silence and erasure, to speak out on the issues that happened to me, my family, my community—to be out loud and proud. With every poem I wrote, I started to believe in my voice, my words, my sounds as important, vital, and that they were filled with love.
“I had to stop living in silence and erasure, to speak out on the issues that happened to me, my family, my community, to be out loud and proud.”
9. Some writers write with a specific reader in mind. This may be an individual, a group of people, a memory. Who or what do you envision as the reader, as you are writing?
The readers I write for are people who are like me: queer, trans, a child of immigrant parents, of Indigenous ancestry, that dog-ear pages, circle their favorite passages on pages, that put down a book after you read a page, a stanza, a line that makes one go, Woooooooooooooow. And for the little me that needed this all those years ago.
10. What advice do you have for young poets?
Read everything! To understand how writers write, you have to read how they construct their sentences. Ask yourself questions about what parts of writing do you like the most? Syntax? Sounds? Forms? Rhythm? Plot? Write as much as you can and work out your writing muscles with exercises. Find other writers and readers who get your work, and help with keeping each other energized with love, care, and support. Allow yourself to imagine, to dream—to rest when you need to rest. Be kind with yourself and your writing.
Moncho Alvarado is a sister-in-residence-in-air, a Cihuayollotl trans woman Xicanx poet, translator, visual artist, and educator. She is the author of Greyhound Americans (Saturnalia Books 2022), which was the winner of the 2020 Saturnalia Book Prize, selected by Diane Seuss. She has been published in Meridian, Foglifter, Lunch Ticket, 2018 Emerge Lambda Fellows Anthology, Poets.org, and other publications. She is a recipient of fellowships and residencies from The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Lambda Literary, Poets House, Troika House, the Summer Seminar at Sarah Lawrence College, and won the Academy of American Poet’s John B. Santoianni Award for excellence in poetry. She is pushcart nominated and has been awarded the Thomas Lux Scholarship for her dedication to teaching, demonstrated through writing workshops with youths in Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, New York. Find her at monchoalvarado.com.