September 21–27, 2020
Beatriz Yanes Martinez is a queer undocumented person from El Salvador who was raised in Long Island, New York. In El Salvador, she grew up listening to her grandparents’ stories of the land, embrujos and their ancestors, and now draws on the tradition of storytelling to write about memories around displacement, mourning, loss, pleasure, queerness, silence/loudness and reimagining the self/childhood. Martinez currently works with an immigrant legal rights organization in NYC while contending with the perpetual cycle of her documented/undocumented liminal status in this country. This past spring, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Joanna Valente’s The Narrative Poem workshop.
Is an insect, a vermin
Is a bug
Is a creepy crawly thing
Like the fiery yellow red and pink
worm that burned my fingers even after mami told me not to touch it
But they say la curiosidad mato a la gata
Y the pain of burning was smaller than the pleasure of being
Bicha Ruda / Rude Bitch
Is woman bathed in rue, agua
florida, and saliva
Is woman with a stare que mata el diablo
Is a malcriada in silence
Is a bitter feeling of rue and longing
Is a woman who loves woman
Bicha is her silent exploding love worshipping her lover’s breasts
Is a hard-sounding NO
Is girl with a pink hat, pink dress, pink shoes,
pink bag, pink gloves, pink love, pink …
Is what mami calls me “hay, bicha fijate que … ”
Is an affirmation of a girl’s love who extends beyond
Bicha is her (off-key) canto in defiance
Bicha is a one word love poem from my sisters and mami
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote “Bicha” in a workshop with Marwa Helal in the spring—it was a specific lesson about homonyms. Bicha/o/x has different connotations throughout Latin America, some of them often more negative, but as a Salvadoran immigrant, it has always meant “kid” or “young child.” For me, writing this poem was an opportunity to explore my relationship to the word, and the ways I’ve connected with it. There’s an important familial element to the poem mixed in with short supercuts of memories with my mother and my sisters. It’s an affirmation, as well as defiance to the word, to explore it beyond the confines of its definition and to localize it with flashes of personal experiences instead: from the moments of sanacion (healing) with rue, agua, florida and saliva to cure mal de ojo with the women in my family, to my own exploration of my queerness. Initially, I was not really happy with this poem—I felt weirdly self-conscious about it, but it’s a poem I’ve grown to really love as I’ve read it more and more.
What are you working on right now?
For the past year, I have been working on remembering my journey by land from El Salvador to the United States that I took when I was nine years old. It’s as much a project for me to come to terms with the rapture that was physically leaving and getting farther and farther away from my homeland as it is to connect with my inner child. As difficult as the subject is for me, it’s also been a way for me to reconnect with the storytelling practices of my grandparents, and to submerge my personal lived migrant experience with those stories I heard as a child. Most of the poetry I’m currently writing revolves directly or indirectly around this subject and it has become a process of healing for me.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me nowadays is waking up really really early in the morning to drive around and see the sunrise with one of my best friends.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
As a recent college grad, I moved to Brooklyn to work with an immigrant legal rights organization. I was a bit hesitant at first because I felt I was too shy for Brooklyn, but forever grateful I got to experience living there.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I only got to live in Brooklyn for a little bit less than a year—with the pandemic happening, I decided to move back in with my family in Long Island. I lived in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and I loved it. I always loved walking to Prospect Park on Sunday mornings to spend some time reading or writing and witnessing the vibrancy that is Brooklyn. Having lived in Minnesota for four years before moving to Brooklyn, it was a shocking but welcome change. For me, the food and unapologetic boldness of it all (people, random little places, etc) was exciting—I felt Brooklyn gift me the confidence I couldn’t find in other places to explore myself. Brooklyn emboldened me to write again and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I think it was about three or four months after I had moved to Brooklyn, I was feeling extremely lonely—it was a new job, new city, new everything for me. Despite my love for Brooklyn, it was not an easy place to move to. My grandfather had just passed away a week before and I was on the 2 train one night and all of a sudden, a sweet old lady sat next to me and just started speaking to me in Spanish. She said, “Mija, todo va a estar bien” while patting my hand. She just sat there with me repeating it like a chant until her stop came. There’s power and healing in words, especially from our elders and for me that encounter was a beautiful reminder of that.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
I definitely found a poetry community in Brooklyn—it was with coworkers introducing me to poetry organizations and events that led me to start branching out and getting to know other poets and feeling a huge sense of excitement and nurturing in those spaces. With the pandemic, I have found a poetry community through virtual spaces. I haven’t necessarily found a poetry community out here in Long Island, in part because it’s hard to do so with the current state of the world, but I do look forward to meeting other BIPOC Queer poets in the future in Long Island once the opportunity becomes available.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Marwa Helal. Tina Chang. Aracelis Girmay. Joanna Valente. And my old coworker Daad Sharfi.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
In many ways, my poetry mentors have been my family. Storytelling has always been important to my family. I grew up listening to the stories of the Civil War in El Salvador, stories of our ancestors, of people who journeyed north, stories of dreams, among other things. My grandfather on my mother’s side always told stories at night and I believe that’s when my love for storytelling and poetry began. He was in many ways my first mentor. I also owe it to my teachers both in the United States and in El Salvador who introduced me to poetry and poets, whether it was Roque Dalton or Gwendolyn Brooks.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’ve been reading Malcriada & Other Stories by Lorraine Avila. It’s a compilation of stories that take you through so many raw emotions and so many familiar moments, whether it’s with families or lovers or friends. It feels like listening to stories from friends or family while drinking a cup of coffee in the afternoon.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I’ve wanted to read Akilah Oliver’s the she said dialogues: flesh memory for a very long time now, but it has been out of print for many years so it’s been impossible to find. But it’s getting reprinted this year so I’m planning to finally buy it and read it. I’ve also wanted to read Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied for some time. I’ve started it, but as an immigrant myself, reading a journey of migration—though different from my own—hits on so many familiar elements. It’s difficult to read something that feels very close to my own experience.
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’m reading five books at the moment—I think that’s the Gemini in me. Sometimes I start a book and read it cover to cover, but for the most part I read a few chapters of a book, start a new one and read a few chapters, then maybe go back to the book I was reading, and it’s a whole cycle that never ends. I’m always buying books which drives my mom crazy because we don’t have much space at home. I always prefer physical books, but if I can’t get my hands on a book physically, I will read it or listen to it digitally.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve wanted to write a series of poems in only Spanish—still haven’t done so. I tend to gravitate more towards Spanglish or English despite Spanish being my native language. With so many of my family being only Spanish speakers, I want to write poetry that is accessible to them, but in a way, I feel the stakes are higher because I have the self-imposed pressure of really wanting to impress them.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to read at the beach, in coffeeshops and in parks. I can’t really read while on the train or in a car; I get motion sickness, but I’m always trying to beat it. In the past few months, I’ve tended to just read in my backyard because of quarantine and have come to really enjoy it, despite the mosquitoes.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Café Con Libros, Prospect Park and random thrift stores.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the memories I’ve unforgotten
And what I learn from the land and my dreams
I carry as precious wisdom lunares on my body
For every moon stone that appears on our body,
Learn to heal with me as good as I learn to heal with you.
Because it’s everything. Because it’s a challenge and a dance to the soul. Because it’s the brief interactions with strangers, and the bold colors and sounds. Because it’s the fleeting moments of silence.