In 2022, Chicana, Puerto Rican, and New Mexican writer and professor Marisa Tirado was selected by poet Benjamin Garcia as the winner of the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize for her debut poetry chapbook Selena Didn’t Know Spanish Either. This year, the book, which explores Tirado’s life and her family history through Selena songs, has sold more than 1,000 copies worldwide. It’s a stunning portrait of music, culture, assimilation, and the Southwest.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you love about teaching poetry?
MARISA TIRADO: That moment when you finally convince a student that they are capable of writing poetry. That takes a lot because they all come in with their different “poetry baggage” of “I was just taught Shakespeare and some people seem to understand it more than me” or “I don’t know how to rhyme” or “I’m a STEM student. I don’t write those sorts of things.” Once you finally expose them to enough poetry that represents who they are and that they can identify with, they really do understand that they are a writer. They bring forward exciting stuff based on their authentic stories or interests. You see them surprising themselves when they realize poetry can be visual, poetry doesn’t have to rhyme… poetry is more about acting on your own agency onto the genre.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How did you first find your way to poetry?
MARISA TIRADO: I was a very mischievous child when I was younger. I really stressed out teachers. I got suspended in fifth grade. I would go to the principal all the time. I wasn’t a bully or anything, I just didn’t listen and spaced out too much. Then throw on the extra layer that I was the only brown girl in the class too, and you get in trouble twice as much. So one day, one of my teachers pulled me in and per usual, I thought I was getting in trouble. She said, “I really like the poems that you did for our assignment and we’re going to submit them to some contests.” In this moment, I saw poetry as less about winning and performing and more about feeling accepted and celebrated for my exploration into a genre. From there, I was given poetry books in the library to read and it all flourished forward.
Many Latinas and 90s babies see our past and nostalgia so tightly woven into Selena, whether it’s her music or the JLo movie. And at the same time, we don’t always parse out what that means for the two to be connected.Marisa Tirado
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What does your creative process look like when writing a poem?
MARISA TIRADO: I’m someone who needs to get the entire poem out first. I don’t go line by line with breaks, I either start and finish a poem or I don’t write it. So, plainly, what I get is a very, very rough first copy. I usually play around with it for a while, meaning I read lines out loud, look at the rhythm, and see if there’s any redundancy or contradictions of emotion or point. Once I’m at a point where I’m at a loss of skill or perspective on how to make it better, I send it to a friend or two. I also read up on what poets, artists, or filmmakers have created work on similar themes to my piece. If I have a cultural or gender-centric poem, I do try to pursue someone who’s Latina or a woman to read through it and see how they negotiate some of those ideas.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What was your goal in writing your debut poetry chapbook, Selena Didn’t Know Spanish Either?
MARISA TIRADO: Many Latinas and 90s babies see our past and nostalgia so tightly woven into Selena, whether it’s her music or the JLo movie. And at the same time, we don’t always parse out what that means for the two to be connected. For example, what does the song about heartbreak mean about looking back at our past? I decided to look at my personal family’s archives, resulting with poems such as “Como La Flor,” etc. centered on stories of women in my family and their journeys. For many Latinas, the soundtrack of our life is Selena, we find ourselves going through beautiful and terrible things while these songs are playing. When you have a song that’s tied to nostalgia, it surpasses what it was intended to be. These are not just cumbias, this is my youth, this is a loss from the past, this is a coming-of-age story. In the end, it was exciting to see my poems altogether, and I love that one of my first publications was about the history of women and my family.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Why do you think Selena is such an important figure for Latinas?
MARISA TIRADO: I’m someone who grew up in a predominantly white, non-Hispanic community. For the majority of my life, my only contact with my culture was mostly through food, my cousins, Selena, Santana, and JLo. Now, being given the opportunity and resources to pursue my culture, reintegrate myself into my culture, learn my language, process through the trauma and loss of those years when I couldn’t engage because of racism, it’s making up for lost time.
What does it mean to see Selena as a symbol for what I’m constantly reaching for?
Then there’s been this recent obsession of non-Latinx people with Latinx beauty, music, fashion, and language specifically. I’ve had to work through seeing white folks benefit from knowing Spanish or making Latinx culture into a hobby, often exuding voyeurism, dehumanization, and commodification at its worst. So the book also stemmed from shock and jealousy, wishing I’d been allowed to engage in my culture without consequences when I was little. It’s good to see a culture now being accepted but it’s another thing to prefer a non-Hispanic person to have these qualities, attributes, and interests more than a Latinx person. That’s what I grapple with at times in this book.
I’m someone who grew up in a predominantly white, non-Hispanic community. For the majority of my life, my only contact with my culture was mostly through food, my cousins, Selena, Santana, and JLo. Now, [I’m] making up for lost time.Marisa Tirado
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What was it like to have the book published through a chapbook contest?
MARISA TIRADO: Before I applied to the contest, I started submitting my poetry to literary journals and magazines as individual poems. About eight of the poems in the chapbook had originally been published somewhere else, and that helped me gain practice in knowing where a poem needs to be, the finality of drafting before submitting, what it feels like to emotionally let a poem go to be read by someone else, and what it feels like to be rejected. And I experienced plenty of it.
Once I had a cohesive chapbook I started submitting it to several different contests, and something interesting happened in the final process. The book got accepted in another contest but in the initial communications before signing with that particular publisher, I experienced microaggressions from an editor and an environment that communicated how I was an exception for being successful. After talking to friends, I ended up withdrawing my submission despite it being selected as the winner. That’s a really hard thing to do because as artists and writers, we’re constantly told about scarcity or that we don’t have a lot of opportunities, especially BIPOC writers, but it shouldn’t reach a point where we lose our dignity. So it was terrifying.
But then two weeks later, I got an email from Texas Review Press that I won the Robert Phillips Chapbook Prize. I had the best experience with the amazing, caring staff, editors, and designers who are real lovers of poetry, who understand the Southwest, who are passionate about BIPOC voices, who even love Selena. It just made sense for my book to find a home there and I’m so grateful, especially to my friends and community who told me to follow my gut.