Culturelicious: Interview with Queer Latina Poet Janet Romero-Leiva

By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet

Janet Romero-Leiva is a queer feminist Latina visual artist and writer whose explores immigrant displacement, denied aboriginality, queer and of colour existence, living and loving in dos lenguas, and the continuous intersection of identities that shape who she is and how she moves in this world. Janet immigrated to canada at the age of 7 and has since been trying to find her footing between america of the north and america of the south. she loves smoothies, cartwheeling and can often be found reading children’s books at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.

BCP: Why did you start writing poetry?

JR: It was by accident, I didn’t really know that is what I was doing…but I started writing because I felt a need to express and somehow release things  I was trying to make sense out of – like my queerness, my feminism, my latinidad, my indigeneity, my experience of being an immigrant child.

BCP: What is your writing process?

JR: I write a lot when I am trying to sort something out – a thought, a feeling, an experience….mostly it’s from a feeling of discomfort or confusion. I will usually sit with the feeling for a while before I write about it and will usually write down a line or two so I can put it on paper and revisit when I feel capable of going back to that discomfort. When I go back to it I usually write about the experience itself and what feelings came up for me and when I have felt this before, then I go back an edit and edit again and again until I feel I’ve managed to capture the feeling more than the actual experience.

BCP: Who are your influences?

JR: Chrystos was the first poet I read that made me think I too could write – so I obviously love her, also Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Qwo-Li Driskill, Lee Maracle.

BCP: You used to manage the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.  Did being surrounded by books help your writing?  Did you find a lack in books written by people of colour?  What is lacking, and what do you see as problems, in the publishing world?

JR: Yes and yes! The publishing world is lacking in feminist, queer, people of colour , trans people, working class people, folks with (dis)abilities, immigrant, older peoples writing. A big problem is that the majority of people in publishing are not the people on this list – they are white, middle/upper class, mostly heterosexual men,  so they do not see a problem with this. They have a huge monopoly on the publishing industry, making it very hard for smaller/independent publishers to make it. It’s not that no one is publishing people of colour, queer people, etc. it’s that the big publishers and bookstores make it very hard for the independents (publishers and bookstores to survive) to thrive and be able to stay in business. I think another factor is that because we as queer, people of colour , trans people, working class people, folks with (dis)abilities, immigrant, older people have not seen ourselves represented in literature it  is hard to imagine that this can change, so part of it is believing that this too is possible for us.

BCP: Much of your writing is political.  Do you also write about the fun stuff of life?  Why or why not?

JR: Ha! Ha! The fun stuff can be so boring! I don’t write about fun very often because it’s not something I feel the need to process or figure out – it just is!

BCP: Non-accessible academic writing, long and boring speeches, and yelling slogans on a megaphone are given precedence over poetry in the activist world.

What role do you see poetry having in activism?  How can poetry get more than a quarter of a page in a magazine (if at all) and be used as more than an opener at events?

JR: I equate poetry with activism. We need to hear/know/understand the world from various perspectives and I think poetry allows us to express and hear things in a way that traditional methods (like speeches and academic writing ) do not because it evokes a feeling and when you leave a talk/conference/march you will forget the words you heard but the feeling will stay with you.

BCP: Some of your poems deal with Aboriginality.  Can you explain what you mean by Aboriginality?

JR: To me aboriginality is the existence of aboriginal/indigenous blood/culture in my family/ancestry.  I use it mostly in reference to the denial of aboriginal blood that many Latin American folks suffer from…as if to admit we are part indigenous is to admit we are less.

BCP: How much queer content do have in your collection of poems?

JR: Probably about 80% to 90%, I always  manage in some way to incorporate queerness because it’s how I move in the world, so it’s hard to dismiss.

BCP: Have any queer writers influenced your writing?

JR: Oh yeah! I try to read mostly queers of colour writers, so…Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Qwo-Li Driskill, and Chrystos

BCP: Is there a book that you have read and re-read several times over?

JR: Borderlands by Anzaldua and Loving in the War Years by Moraga.

BCP: Have any Latina poets helped your activism as an Latina fighting for Latin@ rights?

JR: Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Ana Castillo.

BCP: What books by Ana Castillo did you read, like, and found that influenced you?

JR: The Mixquiahuala LettersSo Far From God: A NovelLoverboys: StoriesI Ask the Impossible: Poems, and The Guaridans.

BCP: Writers/poets identify in so many different ways.  You are a woman of colour who is labeled as Latina and who is part Indigenous and who is queer.  How do you identify as a writer?

JR: As a writer I identify with all these identities because my writing focuses on how I live within these identities.

BCP: When can we expect to see your collection of poetry on bookstore shelves?

JR: I would definitely like to have my work published one day but it is not something I am actively persuading at the moment….but one day.

BCP: What advice do you have for young writers, women of colour writers, queer writers?

JR: Keep on writing, regardless of what people say – good or bad – continue to write what you need to write. Share your writing, if no one hears what you have to say then it is only you who will benefit from your work, which is great and important as a growing and learning tool, but it is also great for us to hear you and in this way normalize our reality and be an influence to others who may  not have the words to express the many wonderful and difficult things we live as writers of colour, queer people, etc.