For Sandra Cisneros, writing a poem is like driving in the dark

The Chicago-born author, who won acclaim for her 1984 novel “The House On Mango Street,” recently had her first collection of poems in 28 years published — “Woman Without Shame.”

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Author and poet Sandra Cisneros.

Author and poet Sandra Cisneros.

Keith Dannemiller

Mexican American poet and author Sandra Cisneros isn’t married to any particular style. In a 40-year career, she’s written novels, short stories, children’s books and poetry.

The author, who was born in Chicago and won acclaim for her 1984 novel “The House On Mango Street,” recently had her first collection of poems in 28 years published — “Woman Without Shame” (Knopf, $27).

In an interview, Cisneros spoke about the book, the beauty of getting older and how she uses writing to voice her political views.

Why it took 28 years for another book of poetry

“I wasn’t really trying to wait three decades, I was just busy writing other genres: novels and short stories and memoirs and essays. I wasn’t really thinking, ‘OK, now I need a poetry book.’

“I always write poetry, but I’m never sure whether a poem is done. So I’m used to just storing them and filing them away and waiting a couple of years sometimes to re-look at them. That’s just normal for my process of poetry.”

Being a ‘woman without shame,’ not a ‘shameless woman’

“In Spanish, the word sinvergüenza is used as a stone to pummel a woman, to coerce her into shape and to obey the patriarchy. So I didn’t want to be a sinvergüenza, which is a shameless woman. I wanted to be a woman that didn’t have shame, that wasn’t ashamed of things I inherited, things that come with my gender.

“And especially since I was working-class, I had a lot of shame when I was a child just being poor and shame of color and shame of the neighborhoods I lived in in Chicago. There was a lot of shame to overcome, and I’m still overcoming them at 67 on the brink of turning 68.

“I think it’s something that everybody grapples with regardless of your gender, regardless where you come from. We all have to work at it our whole lifetime to overcome that shame.”

Taking a political stance through poetry

“Now that I’m older, I don’t care what other people think, and I especially dismiss my doubts about myself and say, ‘Well, I’m going to say this anyway.’

“And I remember I wrote that poem for a gathering of PEN, the association of writers that are gathered against censorship and freedom of expression. I was speaking with other writers in Mexico City, and I live in a country where to be a journalist can get you death. You know, it’s not about getting arrested for saying things. You get killed writing the truth here in Mexico with impunity.

“And I just felt I had to say something that was meaningful because everyone else was going to be speaking 200 words. Two-hundred words isn’t a lot. And I needed to say something as if it was the last day on Earth. Living in Mexico makes you aware of the precariousness of being a writer, especially a journalist.”

The difference between writing poetry and a novel

“For a novel, you kind of have a roadmap. You say, ‘OK, I’m gonna go to Cincinnati. I think I’m going to get there maybe by way of California, but I might go by Kathmandu.’

“You never know, but you’re going to aim to get to Cincinnati. But poetry, you don’t have a map. All you have is this impulse to get on the road. And you have to chase after something you can’t see, you can only feel it. It’s something that has no visualizations. It’s a feeling that has no clarity. It’s blurry. And you’re driving in the dark. You really are driving in the dark and thinking, ‘OK, do I make a left here is it this way? Oh, I gotta double back. Oh, I wound up in a dead end.’

“Poetry is very intuitive, and that’s why it’s so marvelous because it develops before your eyes. You need to give it a lot of time. And maybe that’s why I needed 28 years. I really wanted the poems to be true and not something that was coming from my ego, and that it was coming from a more profound place.”

Getting older

“I just felt so glorious in my 50s, like I was this big cabbage rose. Now, I’m going to turn 68, and I’m something else. I’ll have to write a poem for turning 68. I just feel for women that the patriarchal society has no idea telling us how we’re going to feel. And that we need to write from our own hearts to see how we feel and why we feel this way.

“And if you don’t think about what others think about you — which is the great part about getting older — it really is splendid because you gain so much. Yeah, you lose some of the physical parts of yourself, but you gain immense magnitudes of inner-knowledge of yourself, which is what I want in this lifetime. I feel like I’m on a spiritual journey. I’m on a mystical apprenticeship for this part of my life. It’s astonishing and funny and sometimes despairing, but it’s all of the above mixed up, which is life.”

Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Without Shame.”

Click to hear a sampling of Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Without Shame.”

Penguin Random House

This transcription was edited for clarity and brevity.

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