A ‘bird’ in the hand

Two weeks ago, the National Poetry Series announced that a manuscript by San Antonio-based poet and Macondo Workshop alum Kristin Naca would be one of five books the organization publishes annually through its Open Competition series. Selected by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, Bird Eating Bird will appear in fall ’09 under the HarperCollins imprint. Naca also was awarded the inaugural mtvU prize, granting her the opportunity to interview Komunyakaa on MTV. Naca heads to Macalester College in Minneapolis this fall to teach poetry. She spoke with the Current about her writing process and how her bird-watching father inspired her in an unlikely way.

Can you tell me about your manuscript Bird Eating Bird?

It’s a collection of works of different things that people want, and the metaphor symbolizes certain kinds of desires or different kinds of personality traits. The other thing the metaphor means is that in British, or English, bird is a term for girl. And so I wanted to evoke, or at least introduce, sensuality to the work.

As a person of Filipina, Puerto Rican, and American decent, when you were younger did you find yourself interested in feminist studies, Chicano/a, or Asian-American literature?

What I found is, or at the very least, the way that I started writing poems is when I started out it was during the feminist, culturist era. I would go to the library and read lots of anthologies of colored women poets, Native American poets, and others. I was introduced to poets like Eugene Gloria, Joy Harjo, Marilyn Chin, and I also read a lot of poetry in Spanish, including the works of Lucha Corpi.

Tell me the story behind one of your more personal poems, “Catching Cardinals.”

It’s a story about me as a young person watching my father. He was sort of a bird enthusiast. `Laughs.` What I noticed was that he had a cage, a booby trap, and … there he would catch wild cardinals. And as a child you’re judging this experience with the thought of, “Of course, we’re going to make a wild animal out of a pet.” And it was intensely violent when it actually happened. In fact, I think I remember him actually having bloody arms when he was attempting to catch the birds. But it was really worth it to him, and when it happened I couldn’t believe how violent the whole process was and how uneasily domesticated the bird was. My father had to let them out pretty quickly.

It’s kind of like, different kinds of cultures trying to assimilate other cultures, sort of the violent overtones of those acts. This was one poem about one person’s desire being very large. He had a hobby, which meant trying to domesticate these birds. The poem encompasses violence and it steers towards desire and culture.

You’re a fan of Sandra Cisneros `founder of the Macondo Workshop`, who tends to be very personal with her works; do you find yourself writing from personal experience or do you blend personal stories with hints of exaggeration?

I had a professor at the University of Nebraska, Hilda Raz, and she was somebody that was committed to publishing feminist writers and women of color. She would say, “All good art is fiction,” which means that there is a level at which all kinds of representation is a series of choices. I think that creates a texture in terms of doing some things that are considered to be true. And the better that you can tell it, even if you lie a little, is a better experience of reading it because it is truer. To me, I want the experience of reading it to be very true, so I try to stay a little bit faithful to what really happens. •

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