An Interview With Leonora Simonovis
By Associate Editor Alec Witthohn
Leonora Simonovis is a Venezuelan-American poet living in San Diego, where she’s an instructor at the University of San Diego (USD). She teaches creative writing in Spanish in addition to being a Professor of Latin American and Caribbean literature. Her poetry collection Study of the Raft was published in November 2021 by the Center for Literary Publishing (CLP) at Colorado State University, after winning the 2021 Colorado Prize for Poetry. I sat down with Leonora recently on a video call to chat with her about her recent collection and her life as a poet.
Alec Witthohn: I expect Study of the Raft was something that’s been a long time in the making. Now that you’ve published your first collection, how do you feel?
Leonora Simonovis: I was thinking about that yesterday because a couple of friends asked me that question as well. I’m feeling very grateful and somewhat humbled by the experience. I didn’t expect it to be published so quickly. You know—with submissions—you send things out and you never know what’s going to happen. The whole process has just been beautiful, working with people and realizing that the process is not just mine—I mean it is in a sense. I wrote the book, but so many people read those poems and commented and gave feedback and helped out to shape each one of those poems, so I guess the word is grateful—and joyful. There’s so much joy in seeing the book out in the world.
AW: I’m wondering how a new poem presents itself to you. Has that changed over the years?
LS: I think it has. I used to be a little bit more critical of myself. I would sit down and expect to write a poem, and I just gave myself too many parameters to write from. If I was following a prompt, I had to follow it to the tee, and if it didn’t work then it was my failure. Rather than—you know—maybe today is not the day for this, or maybe I should look at it a different way. Now I feel like the process is more organic. Maybe I pick up a word or a phrase or an idea from a podcast or a TV show or even a book that I’m reading. I will just write it down and that can stay there for weeks or months at a time, and then I come back to it when I feel like: Oh, I have it! I have something I want to write about.
So it is a little different; I am more patient, for sure. It has to do also with my process—not rushing things. That’s something I learned during the pandemic. It’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to take your time with the writing, to reflect on it, and to get it out into the world when it’s ready, not when you feel like you should because everybody’s publishing and you should be publishing too. So it’s not an easy process, because there’s always that pressure—which is coming from me, not from anybody else. But I find that I’m a much happier writer when I can take my time with things.
AW: Did you start writing poetry in Venezuela, or did it come later?
LS: I did. I used to write as a kid a lot. I loved reading and writing, and my mother used to recite poems by heart. She loved to do that. Sometimes they were very catchy. She used to recite Aquiles Nazoa; he’s a Venezuelan poet. He wrote poems for children. She loved those. They were like little songs. So I was always attracted to the musicality of poetry—to all the sounds. A lot of the music that I heard as a child was very poetic—from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. That was always playing at home in the background while my mother was cleaning or doing whatever. I did start writing little stories or poems, but I was never encouraged to do it seriously. That didn’t happen until I came to live in the U.S.
AW: What precipitated that shift?
LS: Well, I felt like something was lacking in my daily work. I did teach for a living, but the academic world is a little bit dry. I had to do a lot of academic writing for tenure purposes, so writing an academic article became this formulaic way of looking at the world and the work. I thought, This is not satisfying. So I started interviewing writers for my academic articles. Most of them were poets or artists. They had side gigs. They would volunteer in jails back in Venezuela or with children. They would teach poetry workshops, do slam poetry events. So it was kind of a process of finding that that type of writing is not what I wanted to do. I was trying to connect with writers because part of me wanted to do what they were doing. I started taking workshops. I took one workshop—the Idyllwild Writers Week—here in California, and that was kind of when I said: Okay, I’m doing this. I’m gonna take it seriously and we’ll see where it leads.
AW: I want to shift gears a little bit. The history of the Bolivarian Revolution is central to the collection. Can you talk a little bit about what life was like back then?
LS: It wasn’t that the transition was huge. What changed was the way people treated each other. There was a lot of polarization within the first five years of Chávez’s first term. He started calling people to arms, telling others that it was okay to steal if you’re hungry, saying, If there’s an empty home, feel free to take it because you’ve always been marginalized, and that’s your right. You have a right to have a place to live. What was at first a good idea—making conditions better for the people who were living in the barrios outside of the city—became . . . he became this kind of vigilante in a way. While the city was never safe, it got completely out of control. He had these motorcycle gangs that were armed. The government gave them weapons and they would terrorize people from the opposition.
There was a lot of violence in the streets, lots of protests. I think for me the turning point was in 2002—April 11, 2002—there were some big protests to overthrow the government. People were marching to the government palace to tell them, We don’t want this. When they got there, they were shot at and a lot of young people died. There was a video—I think they took it off YouTube—but you could see some of the people who were now in the government shooting at the protesters. I was in that protest; I just didn’t get there because it started to get a little—I don’t know—I had a feeling like This is not going to go well. I was with a friend and I was like, Let’s just go home. When I got home, I got to watch on TV what was happening and I was just like, Oh man, that could’ve been me, you know. I could’ve been there.
AW: One motif that you revisit a lot is the transformation of monarch butterflies and witch moths. Do you feel as though you’ve gone through some sort of transformation since moving to San Diego?
LS: Yes, I have in so many ways. One part of it was that I didn’t see the United States as home for a long time. Now I do, but part of writing this book, I think, was processing that idea. The West Coast landscapes are so foreign to me. I grew up in the tropics; there’s a lot of green, a lot of rain. The East Coast and some of the Midwest feel similar, but moving to the West Coast with its huge open spaces I was like, Oh man, what is this? The weather’s very dry. I think my saving grace has been being close to the ocean because I grew up close to the ocean as well. It took me a long time to process that. Part of being grateful for this book is that it helped me come to accept that this is my home now. But also that I am home. It’s not just about the place where I live. Right now, I feel like I could move anywhere and feel at home.
I guess the other part of it is that I had never seen myself as a person of color because in Venezuela—and I think in most of Latin America—we don’t use those terms. They’re actually offensive. There’s a lot of colorism. When I started working at USD, I began to get involved with student organizations, supporting mostly students of color. That has been my work for the past fifteen years. That has been a really beautiful process of being able to relate to others and being able to help them out—giving back somehow.
AW: How has working in both Spanish and English shaped who you are on and maybe off the page as well?
LS: It’s been interesting because people always ask me why I don’t write poems in Spanish. Part of it is because my education was in English—my poetry education—my MFA was in English. But part of it is because I came here as a child many years ago. I went to middle school here and I think it was such an important age. You’re shifting at that age, you’re changing. I didn’t want to go back to Venezuela. When I went back, I was maybe fourteen or right around there. I felt like I didn’t belong anymore, so English was kind of my raft for a while.
I feel comfortable in both languages, and actually, sometimes it’s hard to teach in Spanish because a lot of my readings are in English. I do read in Spanish too, but I find that it’s really hard. It’s hard for students to relate to a culture that they’ve never seen or that they’ve never even considered traveling to. When I have them read in English, even if we have discussions in Spanish, they participate more. I feel like I’m always negotiating between the two. It’s made me more understanding of my students and of people who speak a second language. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people that English and Spanish are not at war in my head. They’re always intertwined. I mean, they’re not the same but it’s like having twins. They talk to each other. They joke with each other. There’s no difficulty for me. The difficulty, I guess, is having to put that on the page and make sure that people understand I’m not doing this to be a gringa. I’m not doing this because I think of myself differently. This is who I am. This is what comes out of me in the moment.
AW: I was talking to a friend from Ecuador recently, discussing her frustration with the lack of coverage around rising tensions in her home country. Do you have similar frustrations with the coverage of Venezuela’s political situation?
LS: I do, I do. It’s interesting because my mother always used to say, We find out about things before you all do in the United States. We know what’s happening in the world. And it’s true. Most media in Latin America—and even Europe—cover everything. They cover what’s happening in other countries; they cover what’s happening in the United States. But they cover it from a variety of perspectives, not just the politics or the economy. They do culture and arts and all that stuff. I find that the media are very narrow here. They cover what affects the interests of the United States. I find that it’s very much in connection to the culture of individualism.
I was talking to my students about it yesterday. We were talking about political interventions in Latin America during the Cold War and how that has shaped the politics and economic situations in many Latin American countries. I find that it’s okay for the U.S. to meddle when it’s convenient, and that doesn’t get any coverage because, of course, it looks bad. But when people are dying in the streets, when the news is about kids eating from the trash because that is compelling, that’s media-worthy. But when people are trying to talk in congress about changing the laws or about human rights violations, a lot is happening that gets no attention. Nobody knows what’s happening. The day-to-day lives of doctors or what’s happening in hospitals, how people don’t get the care they need, how children are being brainwashed by the government because they want the new generation to be pro-revolution, I haven’t heard any of that here.
AW: Do you think that literature might be an avenue or remedy to fix that?
LS: Yeah! I just finished a novel by Krina Ber. She was born in Poland and lived in Israel for a while but then ended up in Venezuela. She’s considered one of our main writers. She wrote a dystopic novel. It’s so interesting because it’s told in fragments from the perspective of a seventy-year-old woman. So the narrator, we don’t know if we should believe what they’re saying or not. Everything that she puts in there—what the government has been doing—it’s a possible future.
I think literature is definitely a way to learn more about a situation. The only issue is that because not many writers have access to resources, the work is not translated. The presses that are active now are affiliated with the government, and the government is not interested in having those works translated. If they do, it’s the ones that praise what they’re doing. So it’s hard to get ahold of works that are accessible to non-Spanish speakers.
AW: You make a lot of references to modernist writers and artists like Leonora Carrington and Picasso. Do you feel a connection with modernism? How did these people find their way into your work?
LS: We read a lot of modernist writers in school. I think it’s the first exposure you have as an elementary schooler to poetry. We don’t read Carrington, but we do read Rubén Darío—he was Nicaraguan, and he was the main modernist writer—but also women like Alfonsina Storni, who wrote a lot about the situation of women and how they were caged—or they felt caged—and as a writer how she didn’t have the same options as a man. We do read a lot of that in school, and maybe that kind of seeps into the work.
With Carrington in particular, I read Down Below and some of her other stories. I mainly was attracted to her because I read an article about how she didn’t write in her first language, which I could totally relate to. That was an entry point into her work. She wrote in Spanish and French, I believe, not so much in English. When I read that I was like, Oh I have to read her work because I have to see: What is this? How does she do it? She talks a lot about her mental illness, and there’s mental illness in my family. I think in Latin America there’s a lot less prejudice against therapy. My mother was a psychiatrist, and she worked for a long, long time—twenty plus years—in the public sector. A lot of patients couldn’t pay to have a private therapist and they didn’t pay anything, or if they did it was a nominal fee of two dollars or so. I know she helped a lot of people. Seeing how [Carrington] was treated and how she was medicated and put into electroshock and all these things that still exist, I was thinking about all that when I brought her into the book.
AW: “Mozart in the XXI Century” was inspired by the activist Wuilly Arteaga. Could you tell us a little more about his story and what attracted you to it?
LS: He was a young musician—very talented, from what I hear—I’ve never met him before. He would go into protests and play his violin. He would play the national anthem but also more popular songs that people could relate to. People sang and clapped, and he made the protests a little different. He was detained just for doing that because he started attracting a crowd—or a bigger crowd than just people walking and protesting and chanting. So he, like many intellectuals, became a threat to the government. They detained him, tortured him, and took his violin. He ended up leaving the country. I’m not sure, but I think he’s in New York now. I think he found a way to study music here, to continue studying music here. People were enraged because first of all, he was very young, and second, he didn’t do anything wrong; he was just playing music. It was also a turning point for some people who still didn’t believe that something was happening, something was changing, and that you couldn’t have the same freedoms that you did before. After that I think things started dwindling a little bit—less protest—and I think now there are very few because the government is so repressive.
AW: The latter half of your collection is punctuated by California wildfires. How do you connect seemingly disparate events like these fires or putting your son to bed with memories of your abuela or the revolutionaries on the streets of Caracas? How does that all come together?
LS: I think that the middle part of the collection, the one about immigration, serves as a bridge. The first part mostly happens in Venezuela, and then there’s that migration towards now. The wildfires, like any natural disaster, are something you can’t control. So is a repressive government. Even though you might have a voice and you might protest, you can’t control what they’re going to do, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. I was trying to make that connection between nature and human-made structures, because human nature is also unpredictable sometimes.
I guess, also, I was reckoning with death. My son is eight now, but there has been so much loss in his life. My mother passed away in April, and she had been very ill for several years, so we’ve been sort of immersed in that, talking to her, trying to explain to him what’s going on. Then, with covid, listening to the news and hearing about all these people, all the lives that were lost unnecessarily, I was thinking about that too. I was thinking about the government neglect here, the refusal to allow people to get vaccinated or wear masks. There were so many similarities between the Trump government and the Chávez and Maduro regimes and what they were doing, how they were polarizing people. It was the same discourse, so, for me, the two things came together. Only the experience was different, because at the time I was immersed in that, and this time I am doing other things, taking care of family.
But also, in the second part of the book, there is an acceptance that this is how things are, that maybe there’s beauty to be found in that—and even joy. The last poem is hinting at what I want to do now with my work. I want to write about things that bring joy because, this book, I wanted it to be an entry point into joy, into beauty, into just being—being grateful, being content—as hard as it is with what we have and how we are.
AW: You’ve anticipated my final question, but maybe I can ask it more concretely. Do you feel your work moving in different directions? Are you starting to think about new projects? Is there anything you’re excited about?
LS: I am. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, I mean, I know that joy is a big part of it. I’m very interested in the environment, and I’ve been reading a lot about eco-grief and also solastalgia—what we’re losing, what we’re missing. I’m always interested in what is unseen, or the cracks—what’s in-between the cracks—what’s under the water: the things we don’t really think about but that are there. How many things have we lost that we haven’t even realized we’ve lost? I was sort of inspired by a podcast I heard some time last year about a writer from Iceland. He had to write an elegy for a glacier. The oldest glacier was lost; it disappeared because of climate change. I started thinking, Well, how do you do that? How do you mourn something so vast, but at the same time something that you don’t know that much about? It’s part of the earth; it’s part of your history, but really you’re only focusing on it now that it’s lost.
Leonora Simonovis’s collection, Study of the Raft, is available for purchase here.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Alec Witthohn is the Social Media Manager and an associate editor at the Center for Literary Publishing/Colorado Review. He is currently an MFA fiction candidate at Colorado State University. Before joining Colorado Review, Alec worked with Copper Nickel for several years as an assistant/associate editor.