Author Sandra Cisneros has a way of giving voice to adolescent angst or fervor. I remember, as a teacher, my earnest freshmen at Maybeck High School in Berkeley using chapters from Cisneros’ signature work “House on Mango Street” for journal topic ideas. Her protagonist, 11-year-old Esperanza Cordero, is wonderfully vibrant, spunky and encouraging to young writers, especially women.
On Thursday, Nov. 1 her book, “The MacArthur Genius” (1985) will be featured in the Lunch Poem Series at UC Berkeley from 12:10 to 1 p.m. At the free reading at Zellerbach Playhouse, Cisneros will share her poetry – a voice she is perhaps not as well-known for, even though she has a master’s degree from the University of Iowa in poetry.
Cisneros was a visiting fellow at Berkeley in 1988 and she hasn’t read on campus in quite some time.
Her reading is cause for celebration too. The author has just completed a nine-year journey into a new novel, “Carmelo.”
Cisneros credits her father for inspiring her to write because he did not understand why she didn’t want to marry someone who’d take care of her and have babies.
She says: “When I wanted to study it was all right, he thought I would just study and get married. But when he saw that I was taking my career seriously, to the point of not marrying and quitting jobs to continue the writing and taking time off to write (he was convinced). He saw me packing up and making sacrifices that women make for husbands. I always called the writing my husband. I also call ‘him’ the wife-beater. The writing has been that, abusive and supportive and loving and also a very difficult marriage, and my father just couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t settle down with someone who’d take care of me, and have kids.”
Cisneros was partly shaped as a writer by being the only girl out of seven kids, and because her Chicana mother spoke only English and her dad Spanish.
“I started writing out some real place of impotence and I still do,” she said. “I go to my desk out of desperation. You know you read the paper and you think, ‘What are we doing bombing Afghanistan?’ and you feel so impotent. There are these foolish people making decisions for you, so there’s that feeling of impotence that follows you to the page if you’re honest.
“I didn’t write because I wanted to become famous,” she continued. “I did the writing because it was the only way I was going to go to sleep.”
Although best known for “You Bring out the Mexican in Me,” Cisneros says she feels closer to her second collection of poetry, “Loose Woman” because she never planned to publish it.
“When you are not thinking about publication you allow the poem to take you where you need to go, so I still feel that poems need to come from that place,” she said. “That they are so dangerous you can’t publish them in your lifetime. I think that’s when you truly have left all of the censors. Poetry forces you to sort of sit down and think about what are your most important issues?”
Cisneros is a diligent writer, and poetry is difficult and time consuming because she confronts private issues. She takes few breaks, and sometimes with a lot of guilt.
“I’ve always said that writing a poem is like when you wash laundry and all the clothes get stacked up on one side and the buzzer goes off – to me that’s what a poem demands,” she said. “A spin cycle that has been put to a halt and the buzzer is going off and it’s an annoying buzzer and you have to attend to it immediately. Poems take you and you don’t even know what you are writing until you’re through.
“(They are like) a smudge of emotion that clarifies itself with language,” Cisneros continued. “I haven’t a clue what it is that’s tugging at the end of it the fishing line. It’s just something that’s tugging. Prose has been my soapbox where I say what I have to say. Poems are much more personal to me.”
Writing is so consuming for Cisneros, it takes her a while to change gears. She only just began preparing for the Nov. 1 reading in Berkeley.
Thursday, Nov. 1 falls on the eve of the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Cisneros, who recently lost her father, said she plans to read essays on the topic as well as a poem.
“My father’s death transported me (with) some of the most important spiritual lessons of my life. His voyage was made with this book, so Day of the Dead is especially significant to me right now.”
The Lunch Poem series features two poets this month: Sandra Cisneros on
Thursday, Nov. 1 and Korean poet Ko Un on Friday, Nov. 2, at Morrison Library of Doe Library near the Campanile. Thursday, Dec. 6, join Beat poet Gary Synder in Zellerbach Playhouse. Call (510) 642-0137 for information about the series.