Interview by Anna-Claire McGrath
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a Mexican American poet living in Houston. She is of Mayan descent, but grew up in Houston among the bayous. She graduated Warren Wilson’s Program for Writers in 2011 and currently raises three children while teaching writing. Her recently book of poetry, Fuego, deals with the body, gender and illness.
THE FEM: You’ve written a few poems “After Lynne Cox”, the long distance swimmer and writer, and it strikes me odd that a book of poetry called “Fuego”, or fire, would have so much water imagery. Was that a conscious dichotomy you were aiming for, or more incidental? What was it about Lynne Cox that inspired you particularly?
LESLIE CONTRERAS SCHWARTZ: I was intrigued by Lynne Cox as an athlete who deliberately swam in the harshest, most challenging conditions, who challenged her body to its limits. I did not set out to have fire and water imagery oppose each other in the collection. Rather, in Lynne Cox and the speakers of other poems, I was drawn to the idea of something ignited in the body and spirit, something that waxes and wanes but can carry a person forward through incredible difficulty. We usually see images and figures of men in this manner, their sheer willpower in the use of the body, but I wanted to imagine narratives of a female athlete and her own experience in willing the body to do the unimaginable.
THE FEM: In “The Swim to Antarctica”, you describe a woman wanting to say to her body: “You are owned, not owner”. Can you describe what you were thinking about when you wrote that line, about the conflicting relationship women can have with their bodies, where one might feel like their body owns them, rather than the other way around?
LESLIE CONTRERAS SCHWARTZ: I was thinking of the strange relationship women are encouraged or expected to have with their bodies, and how this becomes problematic, especially when we are called to take control or use our bodies to our advantage. Our bodies are both a part of us, but can be seen as a separate thing altogether of which we, to varying frustrating degrees, can lure, master, propel or move through the world. We are not encouraged to see that we have this power, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and we can’t cultivate it. In this line, I wanted to show a woman’s conversation with herself and her body as she negotiated this relationship, discovered it, made it grow.
THE FEM: Your poems often include scenes of hospitals and the trauma of childbirth in a way that reminds me of some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, in Ariel particularly. Was she someone you were thinking about as you wrote Fuego? Why those images and themes?
LESLIE CONTRERAS SCHWARTZ: Sylvia Plath has always been an inspiration to me, from a young age. I wasn’t thinking consciously of her influence, however. Most of these poems were inspired by my own personal experience with difficult pregnancies, debilitating illness, and having exposure as a student and teacher to trauma-filled environments. I think where my poems differ from hers is my awareness of varying degrees of privilege, and a different kind of suffocation that one can experience from both the body, their relationships with others, and motherhood. Despite this, I also wanted to also highlight the body and spirit’s resilience, however dire the circumstances, to find light within that struggle.
THE FEM: You also write a few poems after photographs by Amy Blakemore. How did you discover her photography and what was it about her work that you found interesting?
LESLIE CONTRERAS SCHWARTZ: I saw photographs by the Houston photographer Amy Blakemore at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. She had these haunting photos of children, their bodies cast in shadow and light in ways that captured something about childhood and our view of children that I had not seen before. I wanted to discover what it meant to me, what I thought. What I discovered is that children, and childhood in general, is something romanticized or seen as precious. I think to some degree children are holy, in that they are vulnerable and need protection, but they are also just as complex as adults, and their thoughts and childhood are full of darkness and conflict just as much as adults.
THE FEM: One of the poems I enjoyed most was “Dopplegänger”, in which you describe seeing yourself as if that person is another woman in your bed. Can you talk a little bit about how childbirth can create that kind of alienation from the self? Was that something you had experienced, or heard from other women? Why realize it in that particular way?
LESLIE CONTRERAS SCHWARTZ: When my first child was born, I had extreme postpartum depression, with psychosis and anxiety. I felt estranged from myself, separated and distant to myself and this being whose life was entrusted to my care. I read about other women’s experiences and found it was something experienced by women repeatedly. The trauma of childbirth, both in its positive and negative ways, can both make a woman feel empowered during labor itself and then bereft afterward of power and control, especially as her body recovers and heals. The hardest part, for me, was seeing myself as a mother, and learning what that meant for me. I had to reconsider the value of growing up in a world that doesn’t seem worthy of our best efforts sometimes, of raising a child that believed that too. I was looking for an answer. I still am, but I am helped by the questioning now, instead of stymied.