NEA Literature Fellowships

Emmy Pérez

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(2017 - Poetry)

Downriver Río Grande Ghazalion

Drive into the Valley, past a field of old farm equipment.
Near the tip of Tejas: sal del rey, blatant farm equipment.

I never bent into onion fields or declined sweet strawberries.
The kid in everyone’s kitchen, escaping farm equipment.

When I think about seeing you, I want to jump on your back.
I confess—you’re sexy, luxury—let’s paint equipment

The color of parakeets congregating, squawking on 10th
Street McAllen power lines, strip mall trees, fading equipment.

99 cent meals. Surreal pickles like vine fetuses in jars.
Wrinkled wienies on a Stripes treadmill, saintly farm equipment.

Julia (te necesito) ¿dónde estás? ¿En el barrio
De nuestra nostalgia? ¿En el Río Grande de Loíza?

                                                  excavate equipment
                                                                  shell and bone
                                                                        shards and kernels
                                                                             study hopi
                                                                                 dry farming
                                                                            dare roman
                                                                  incan farm terraces
                                                             aztec chinampas
                                                         mississippi plantations
                                                            california strawberries
                                                                 seedless watermelons, grapes
                                                                      cherries still need their pits
                                                                         suck and spit them like chew

Sometimes I defer to the blues, tejanas, two chachalacas
Rustling in ebanos, and ebanos in chachalacas

                               bravo       ~grande
                      caracoles             snails
                                both       spiral

Agha Shahid Ali prayed for each couplet’s own identity
Sin fronteras. Linked by rhyme, refrain, y su nombre de diosas
                                    (& colonizers.)

Snake, bobcat, great horned owl, pauraque, bats, tlacuache
Burrowing vato owls protect their land, urban EPT.

Return? To rivers, loves, monte, el chalán? Erase citrus?
So-called fences? Faith in Boca Chica~Gulf of México, fresh salt-
                                      (water confluences)?
              Salt is old, older than cranium.
              What’s older? Salt or water?

It’s time to move beyond binaries, old loves. Remember eyes.
Not love but eyes—eyes are love. Yes. Remember the smell of skin

                                (go swimming)

            El día en que tú naciste, nacieron todas las flores.

The scent of water. A tolerance for ambiguity
In nepantla: between Hurricanes Dolly and Alex (flooding)

                                Terremote, huracán
                                     You lithium
                                          The grass
                                               Mineral, metal
                                                   Leaf cuts the ants clip and carry
                                                        Ant path
                                                              Sheep crossing
                                                                 Rio Grande

It takes hours to defang cactus. You nursed an orange all of
Christmas Day; at night, just before going to bed, you ate it.

A ~ marks your open text unions. Sign your ~name in email,
Feel your flirty ambiguity, friendly besito.

1. The day you were born, all the flowers were born – from traditional song Las Mañanitas
2. “A tolerance for ambiguity,” “sin fronteras,” & “It takes hours to defang cactus” by Gloria Anzaldúa
3. Richard Wright

Emmy Pérez, originally from Santa Ana, California, has lived on the Texas-Mexico border for 16 years. A graduate of Columbia University and the University of Southern California, she is the author of With the River on Our Face and Solstice.

She is a previous recipient of fellowships/awards from CantoMundo, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation (James D. Phelan Award). She is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop founded by Sandra Cisneros for socially engaged writers.

Currently, she’s an associate professor in the MFA program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and serves as interim director for the Center for Mexican American Studies. Over the years, she and her students have taught creative writing in detention centers and the community. In 2012, she received a UT Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. 

Photo by Britt Haraway

Author's Statement

Receiving this award reminds me that gratitude is a deep feeling that can at first (yes) trigger tears because of what was at stake, is at stake, in the lives that have been (indirectly) acknowledged in the work itself, including my parents’ many obstacles as children, and later, their sacrifices in support of my education. At the same time, I’m reminded it is necessary to keep taking chances in what I write, aesthetically and in the subject matter, regardless of potential acceptance beyond our own fleeting fulfillment. I remember taking these chances writing my most recent collection With the River on Our Face, and later in assembling my application with a few poems from it, along with a longish, unpublished work from my latest manuscript-in-progress that was lighting quite a fire under me at the time and still does, as it’s about, in part, which children survive and which do not, in thinking about refugee children fleeing violence and more in Central America and Syria andthe oppression of children throughout history.

Teaching creative writing and Mexican American Studies in a border community is very gratifying, though this fellowship encourages me to apply for professional development leave for the first time and helps my chances. Either way, the fellowship will allow me to afford additional, quality childcare for my two small children and make significant progress on my latest manuscript. This award further helps me realize what I’m coming to know: that writing books doesn’t have to take as long for me anymore, that it doesn’t have to be such a precious process, that I can try to prioritize it as much as everything else that is of meaningful and magical consequence in my life, which is much. And not stop there, in living with continued purpose and gratitude.