January 18–24, 2021
Janel Pineda is a Los-Angeles born Salvadoran poet and educator. She has performed her poetry internationally in both English and Spanish and been published in LitHub, PANK, The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the U.S., among other publications. As a Marshall Scholar, Janel holds an MA in creative writing and education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her debut poetry chapbook, Lineage of Rain, is forthcoming from Haymarket Books. On Thursday, January 21, she will read online as part of the Brooklyn Poets Staff Picks reading series.
I begin here:
kneeling by Tana’s bedside
begging for a story.
¡cuénteme un cuento, Tana
cuénteme un cuento!
Tana waters my hair,
combs it back
into a tight braid.
Va pues, bicha.
Before words erupt,
a roar of her laughter
like miel; Tana bursts
with carcajadas newly-hatched
and tells of cafetales
of serpents and machetes
of the blistering feel
of sun, of the taste of dirt
on tongue, of men swallowed
by earth de pura vergüenza.
¿me entendiste, cipota?
sí, I nod. sí, Tana.
the first time I ask Tana
why she left El Salvador,
me dice: porque allá mucho llueve.
for weeks, Tana watched sky fall
to earth from bus windows. she held on tightly
to herself and the thought of mi mami,
borders away and alone somewhere en la capital.
no hay tiempo para esas babosadas, she thought
wiping her eye-made rain away.
Tana massaged her bloody feet into silence,
her throat aching for just one sip.
for years, I am afraid of rain.
I am six years old and praying for sun.
when rainfall begins, I run
indoors, get caught by a teacher
in a cafeteria corner, crying.
I am six years old and believe
every time it rains, it is time to flee.
I am six years old and afraid
of being left behind.
I am six years old and my blood remembers
what it feels to leave
a whole homeland behind.
a Salvadoran woman once wrote:
our poetry has never had the luxury
of being enamored with the moon.
perhaps this is why all my poems
are about the sun, about coming from
women who have survived
by chasing it, women who go
only where the light will feed
them, women who leave
the second they suspect
—Originally published in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext, Haymarket Books, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
As I was researching Salvadoran literature and history a few years ago, I came across a book called Ixok Amar-Go, a 1987 anthology of Central American women’s poetry. In months of research, it was the first anthology I’d come across that included work by more than one Central American woman.
Many of the poems by Salvadoran women included in the anthology had been submitted anonymously; one of them began with the line “nuestra poesía nunca ha tenido el lujo de enamorarse de la luna” (“our poetry has never had the luxury of being enamored with the moon.”) I thought about what this meant in terms of the themes that recur in Salvadoran women’s writing—and in our lives. Survival has always been so urgent for us. If even our poetry can’t afford to enamor itself with the moon, then even our poetry carries this urgency.
I am grateful for the ways the Salvadoran women before me have fought for our survival. In this poem, I wanted to explore that survival within an intergenerational context. In many ways, writing this poem also felt like an origin story for my poetry and for the storytelling tradition I inherited from my maternal grandmother.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on finding balance in this continually unstable time, on finding small pockets of joy even in the face of crisis. Amid the chaos of the last several months, I’ve put a pause on some of the broader poetry projects I had been working on. I’m slowly finding my way back to writing, and trying to be patient with that process.
My debut chapbook, Lineage of Rain, will be out with Haymarket Books in the next few weeks. It’s a wild time to be putting a book into the world, but maybe that makes it all the more worthwhile. I’m grateful to be able to share these poems in this time, especially as it is a collection of poems that celebrates love and that dreams toward a more liberated future.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day’s one that centers care, where I’m able to hold space with the people I love.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
I’m LA born and raised. I love my city and I love my people. I love the ways we resist, the ways we innovate, the ways we come together in solidarity and show up for one another. I love living in a place where so many of us are creating, organizing and building toward the world we envision. I feel really lucky to be in such close proximity to people doing this work, and to be able to learn with and from one another.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I have some great memories of meeting friends for bagels in Brooklyn, on the occasions I’ve visited New York, but I definitely owe it more time and look forward to returning there in the future.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
For me, a poetry community refers to the people who remind me why I write and why I believe in this work.
In college, I was part of a poetry collective called eXiled that was deeply important to my growth as a poet. I’m so grateful for the ethic we cultivated in that space, of being people first and poets second, of writing what we needed to write to “get free” and supporting each other through that process. In 2018, I also had the opportunity of participating in V Festival de Poesía Amada Libertad, a poetry festival in El Salvador where I built community with poets from across Latin America. That experience, of sharing poetry in Spanish in particular, was super transformative for me.
Before the pandemic hit, I was living in London, where I was so excited to find a poetry community within the Bridge, a collective of mainly Black and Latinx writers, run by Nathalie Teitler. It was incredible to connect with other diasporas in a whole new part of the world, to continuously learn from the different styles, themes and interests in everyone’s writing.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I learn so much from my peers, from poets near and dear to my heart, including: Antonio López, féi hernandez, Maia Elsner, Ariana Benson, Jo’Van O’Neal. I’m continuously inspired by these poets, by the ways they are innovating and pushing the bounds of what poems can do, and I feel really lucky to be in dialogue with them.
I’m also really grateful to poets like José Olivarez, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Javier Zamora and others, for their affirmation and support for my poetry.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I absolutely loved Jihyun Yun’s Some Are Always Hungry. When I first opened it, I couldn’t put the book down—I ended up reading the collection in its entirety in one sitting. I took in each poem slowly, savoring every sharp line, rich image and swift turn. Thematically, the book’s exploration of women and war through food also resonated deeply with me and the topics I explore in my own work. It’s a book I’ll return to time and time again, I’m sure.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
There are too many books to count, but I’ll say one of the books I’m most excited to get to next is Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I tend to carry three to four books with me at any given time. Typically, I alternate between fiction and nonfiction books but I only read one poetry collection at a time. I definitely prefer physical books. I underline, asterisk and write notes in pencil all over the margins. Taking notes helps me better understand a writer’s style, and helps me have a more active role in experiencing a book.
I try to read poetry collections cover-to-cover whenever possible. When I first started reading poetry, I used to read collections so haphazardly—skimming through, turning to a random poem and reading one poem at a time. But as I became a more dedicated student of poetry, I developed a much deeper respect for reading a collection in the order the poet intended. One of my professors mentioned that you only get to experience a volume of poetry for the first time once. The first time we encounter a poem, and the way and order in which we encounter it, can have such a big impact on our experience of that work. Now I always try to honor a poet’s choices over a particular ordering within a collection.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’m working up the courage to attempt writing a ghazal. I took a workshop on the ghazal with Mona Arshi and loved learning more about its history and contexts. I’m excited to try out this form but definitely want to honor and do justice to it.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading and writing outdoors, wherever possible. I especially love reading by the water. Being from LA, nothing beats taking a good book to the beach. When I lived in London, I really loved reading and writing along the South Bank.