Since publishing The House on Mango Street, Chicana author, poet, and activist Sandra Cisneros has become an icon of Latinx literature and essential reading for people from all walks of life. Her most recent work, Woman Without Shame, is her first poetry collection in 28 years since Loose Woman. In these vibrant, new poems, she explores womanhood, sex, beauty, and aging with grace–all with her trademark fearlessness, vulnerability, and radical joy.
Sofía Aguilar and Sandra Cisneros hopped on Zoom to discuss Woman Without Shame, her writing process, and her hopes for the next generation of Latina writers.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What does your day-to-day life look like?
SANDRA CISNEROS: There’s different seasons. But on my usual days, I get up, I eat breakfast, I run out of the house to get to the pool that’s five blocks away by 10:45 for an hour of water aerobics. The days that I don’t leave the house are the days that I try to do some work. If it’s a year when I’m the writer, I don’t get dressed. Maybe I don’t put on shoes. I don’t comb my hair. I don’t look in the mirror. I may stay in my pajamas. I get to be the author, which is something I never imagined. I never imagined that I would be living with an assistant and a cook and a house cleaner. I always thought I was going to be a high school teacher my whole life. The biggest thing I aspired to was getting the admiration from fellow poets. That was the highest that I thought I could achieve. Well, I still want that and I’m getting it now beause the back of my book has all these writers I admire that are saying such wonderful things. I got my dream came true.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Woman Without Shame is your first poetry collection in 28 years. How does it feel to finally release it into the world?
SANDRA CISNEROS: There are a lot of poems where I’m naked at different ages. Sometimes I’m literally naked looking in the mirror saying, ‘Oh, I like how I look.’ I never wrote them thinking they’d get published. That’s not why I write poetry and that’s not how real poetry should be written. Poetry should come from someplace in the house of your spirit that’s very private. It is more important for you to write than it is to publish it. All of these poems are written with that impulse of coming from a very honest place. If they seem shameless, it’s because I was writing for me. Now when I see them and I have to reread them out loud, or when I find out my family are reading them, it’s like, ‘Oh, they found my diary, they found my stash of naked photos.’ I’m more naked than naked in these poems. I’m more naked than a photo. Because when you do a naked photo, it’s only your body. These are naked photos of my psyche and even that is scary for me. I like to tell people, ‘Please don’t be shocked by these poems, because imagine how shocking it is for me to write them and read them out loud.’ I’m not gonna say it’s not scary. It’s like jumping off of La Quebrada in Alcapulco and hoping you don’t land on the rocks.
Poetry should come from someplace in the house of your spirit that’s very private.Sandra Cisneros
SOFÍA AGUILAR: These poems came from the last few decades of your life. What was it like to revisit and revise them?
SANDRA CISNEROS: That’s part of the reason why it took so long. I don’t know when they’re done and I’m never satisfied with them. I like to put them to sleep as I say and look at them years later when I’m a little more objective because I really can’t tell. That’s why I have a personal friend, John Olivarez Espinosa, a California poet and my personal coach that looks at my poems and says, ‘You’re a little bit flabby here. You could do three more pushups.’ He works and pushes me once when he gets to see the bad drafts, the early drafts. But I don’t share those unfinished ones with just anybody. He’s been with me for 10 years, so he knows my work and he knows the history of each of these poems. He’s such an excellent writer and he doesn’t let me get away with anything. Sometimes I disagree with him. He’ll say, ‘Change this line’ and I’ll change it and not like it and go back to the original. But we’re both really happy with the poems and I owe him a lot.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How do you feel you’ve changed since writing some of the poems in the book?
SANDRA CISNEROS: I’m not in the same place. What might have been true for 2009 at 11:00 PM when I was writing is not how I feel today 10 years later. The poems are moments in time and they’re very true for the moment that I wrote them. You really need to see them as a trajectory. I like that my editor, John Freeman, put them in linear order. It’s great because it brings you all the way to where I am now. But I’m still writing poems. Even as I’m on the book tour, I’m taking notes for poems that I hope will be done sooner than 28 years.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
SANDRA CISNEROS: I never thought about the readers reading the book. I don’t think about that when I’m writing. But I hope that women will not be afraid of aging. Will not accept patriarchal visions of aging and understand that they’re coming into a loss of their physical body, but gaining mental acuity and wisdom and vision. We have to understand different ways of beauty. We don’t just associate beauty with someone who’s twenty. I love the beautiful women I see daily here in Mexico and they look like ancient trees. Ladies in their eighties and nineties, women who are all gnarly-faced and brown and beautiful. Deserts that have weathered many, many seasons.
It’s very important that we put our dreams into our third eye, that we visualize and walk towards it every day. You don’t have to talk about it. You can keep it a secret like I did, but really work towards a dream that is coming from your heart on behalf of others.Sandra Cisneros
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Over your decades-long career, what has been an important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
SANDRA CISNEROS: It’s very important that we put our dreams into our third eye, that we visualize and walk towards it every day. You don’t have to talk about it. You can keep it a secret like I did, but really work towards a dream that is coming from your heart on behalf of others. And if you do it con todo tu corazón, con corazón puro y puro corazón, with no personal agenda, siempre sale bonito. Whatever we do on behalf of those we love with no ego involved, no ‘I want to win an award’ or ‘I want a house in Mexico,’ it’ll exceed your expectations. That is what I have learned in my lifetime.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What are your hopes for the next generation of writers, particularly Latina writers?
SANDRA CISNEROS: I hope Latina writers have more permission to live the life they want to lead and to travel. I really want women to travel because you become more yourself and you know who you are when you travel. I want women to explore other options than getting married right away or having children. To explore having many, many loves to understand their sexuality and not be ashamed of it, whatever it is, even if they’re celibate. That they explore their sexuality fully and enjoy it. It’s like writing, it takes you to places you didn’t know you knew. And I want women to have power over their reproductive rights. I want them to control their destinos.