Today we are pleased to feature Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, she shares poetry from her collection, Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications, 2016), which explores her time volunteering with No More Deaths (No Más Muertes) in 2011 along the Mexico-United States border. Additionally, the book reflects on her own family’s immigration story as well as her life in Los Angeles.
She invites Catherine Gaffney, a long-term volunteer with No More Death who began working for the organization in 2009, to discuss humanitarian aid efforts along the border that influenced her poetry.
Bermejo and Gaffney also talk about No More Deaths’ recent news: Dr. Scott Warren, a No More Deaths volunteer, was put on trial last month for giving aid to two individuals he encountered in the desert. If convicted, Warren could have received up to 20 years in prison. The case resulted in a mistrial due to a hung jury. According to breaking news on the No More Deaths’ Instagram, a retrial was announced today, July 2nd, “in Scott Warren’s case on harboring counts. Conspiracy charges dismissed. Trial to begin Nov 12.”
Bermejo says, “What led me to volunteer with No More Deaths was this desire to have a more personal understanding of the border—and what we call ‘The Wall’—and so my plan was to go out there and see this space, and work in this space, and feel the sun, and walk in the sand, and then come back and write about this experience.”
Looking back at the October 2016 release of her book, Bermejo lightheartedly laughs at her “naïve thought that this (her poetry) was somehow going to help.” Seeing how border issues have become increasingly dire, she questions how a book of social justice poetry could influence real-world problems.
Gaffney and Bermejo end the conversation by talking about the importance of literature. For Gaffney, Mexican literature has been an important part of learning about the borderland. She believes that literature helps her “get that sense of reflection and quiet and peace, and know that, even in the midst of all that cruelty, people are worried about beauty and beautiful things…and that’s something that matters.”
Bermejo sees this importance as well, concluding, “We need literature and art to even imagine a better world,” making writing, even if it may cause doubt in the writer or seem inconsequential at times, an important part of our lives.
You can also read Xochitl-Julisa’s email interview, “¿Qué importa?” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.
I realize the rhetorical purpose of this teaching philosophy is to convey my expertise as an instructor of creative writing. Having spent a year applying to jobs like this one, I’m well practiced in such arguments: I study writing pedagogy and carefully develop my syllabi. I show up to class on time, prepared, and smartly dressed. I take attendance by asking students fun questions about themselves, because I want to make them feel welcome and I am genuinely interested in getting to know them. I grade attentively and give constructive feedback on every assignment. I have a way of explaining the difference between passive and active voice that elicits laughter. By and large, I know what I’m talking about (I am, after all, a practitioner of my subject). My students tend to give me good rankings on evaluations and say nice things like, “This was honestly one of the best and most fulfilling courses I’ve taken.”
But don’t be deceived. I’m no expert. This is only my fifth year teaching writing to college students, and frequently, I feel inadequate to the task. I’m a better teacher than I was when I started, to be sure. But even on days when my students seem to grasp the importance of sensory detail, or when they enjoy the dialogue in a George Saunders story as much as I do, or when a writing prompt produces a lovely turn of phrase—I feel like I am failing them in some enigmatic but crucial way. I can’t shake the sense that the time I passed babbling about narrative stance would have been better spent listening to the thunderstorm outside.
Recently, I was walking through the woods near my house, thinking about John Steinbeck. In particular, I was thinking about what it took to write East of Eden. Steinbeck was an incredibly learned man—and I’m not referring to his formal education. Imagine the number of books, conversations, excursions, and ambles required to produce such a resonant story. As important (if not more) than his mastery of the craft of writing was his intimacy with American history, farming practices, Christian theology, eastern religion, philosophy, military hierarchy, Asian-American culture, small town politics, and California geography. What use would his talent and skill have been without his devotion to the art of observation? Steinbeck’s fine-tuned depictions of the natural world and of human motivations, relationships, and behaviors exist because he chose to cultivate depth and breadth within himself.
When I was a junior in college, my favorite professor told me (along with the other student in his fiction workshop) not to apply to M.F.A. programs in creative writing until we’d been out of school for a few years. His message: Live a little while longer, and then (maybe) you’ll have something worth writing about. I appreciated his honesty then, and I admire it now. And he was right: the experiences I’ve had over the last decade have both shaped me as a writer and given me meaningful material to write about. They’ve also made me into a more discerning, open-minded, and empathetic person. But I reject the notion that only time can give students the experiences and maturity required to write well. Aren’t depth of insight and breadth of knowledge something students can (and should) actively seek?
Lately, I’ve taken to dreaming up activities that might help students develop richer inner lives and more practiced powers of observation. I wonder what would happen if I gave them the following “assignments” to complete alongside their writing projects, textbook readings, and peer reviews:
Spend ten hours over the course of the semester volunteering outside of the university setting at a food bank, nursing home, halfway house, homeless shelter, etc.
Write a letter to someone you’ve wronged, and ask for forgiveness, OR do something nice for someone who’s wronged you.
Attend a religious service for a tradition you are unfamiliar with.
Break a law (but make sure not to hurt yourself or anyone else—and don’t get caught).
Read a book on a subject outside of your major that interests you.
Give a prized possession to someone who will appreciate it.
Explore (on foot) a part of town you’ve never visited before.
Go an entire day without talking.
Stand up for somebody who’s suffering an injustice.
Spend a weekend doing nothing but things you love to do.
Skip class once this semester to have a nonacademic learning experience.
I believe that students who earnestly undertake these activities would write more engaging, nuanced, and descriptive pieces than what I’m used to seeing. I also know that assigning such endeavors is more likely to get me fired (or at least reprimanded) at my current institution than hired at yours. Liability issues aside, these assignments resist assessment, deemphasize performance and achievement, and don’t clearly connect to the “learning outcomes” desired by English departments. Moreover, they defy the business model embraced by many of today’s universities—a model that turns teachers into salespeople, students into customers, and education into a transaction.
But students want to be more than consumers of educational product. The first day of this semester, I asked mine to write down what they hoped to get out of my class. Here are some of their answers:
“To help me see things from different points of view, to let my creativity flow, and to expand my horizons.”
“I would like the opportunity to write freely and liberally as a release from the copious amounts of technical writing that my major has required of me.”
“I have started songwriting and I think this class will help me with that.”
“I believe that being proficient and expressive with the written language is important to personal growth.”
“Mainly I wanted to express my emotions in writing and this was the class, in my opinion, that could help me do that.”
These answers reflect a hunger for more than credit hours, an easy A, a marketable skill, or a line for their résumés. These students want what a liberal arts education is supposed to provide—channels for participating in and finding fulfillment within a free society. Call it hubris or foolishness, but I think I can point them toward what they’re looking for, or at least join them in looking for it. It would be lovely if I could try without the fear of losing my job.
Should you choose to hire me (ha!), I will teach my students how to write with eloquence and stylistic flair. More importantly, I will cast them into a complex world filled with complex individuals and challenge them to respond with intelligence, curiosity, and compassion.
Sarah Murray, Issue 9 Fiction Editor, shares where she found her inspiration after Superstition Review and her future plans.
My initial plan after I graduated from ASU was to take some time off. I was going to move back to Los Angeles (which I did), recover for a couple months, and then start looking into Grad school. Study for the GRE. Take the time to actually write and get published. Possibly learn guitar. Possibly start looking into getting my EMT certification. And, of course, probably get a job.
What I didn’t bank on was getting a job with some of the most determined, open-minded people in all of Los Angeles. One day I’m at home, minding my own business on Facebook, when I see a post from AIDS Walk Los Angeles advertising a job opening. I applied and was hired in about a week.
I consider myself an activist. In college, I was involved with a variety of organizations that were dedicated to eliminating social stigma in one way or another, mostly in terms of queer activism. My senior year I was predominantly involved with a nonprofit called HEAL International, which was dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness and education. When I graduated, I was hesitant to apply to just any position. I wanted to pick a job with a mission statement that I agreed with, something greater than myself that I could have a hand in progressing. AIDS Walk Los Angeles allowed me to do that. I was a Team Coordinator/Fundraising Specialist, which means that I worked on an individual basis with hundreds of people who formed their own teams for AIDS Walk. Teams range from corporate teams to teams made of friends and family members. I specifically was in charge of school and university teams.
AIDS Walk Los Angeles was held in West Hollywood on October 14, 2012. Now that it’s over, I am going to keep with my original plan of continuing my education and other assorted aspirations, and in the meantime I am going to look into volunteering at 826LA. I am also in the process of getting a thesis of mine published (final edited draft for Queer Landscapes: Mapping Queer Space(s) of Praxis and Pedagogy due March 1st; keep your fingers crossed!). But, let me tell you why, when I was working for AIDS Walk, I was the most inspired person you could hope to talk to. First off, I worked with students. Students are my absolute favorite people. I was a student leader myself for many years. At AIDS Walk, I talked to them on the phone all day long. I sent them emails. I visited their schools and answered their questions. I was a resource for them to take advantage of, a point of contact between themselves and the event. The kicker, though, is that I was in charge of empowering all these students (if they weren’t already empowered, which, to be honest, half of them were).
Now that AIDS Walk is over, I’ve mostly been reading and writing. But there’s that damnable itch that’s starting again. Sometime soon, I’m going to end up working for another nonprofit. Maybe even AIDS Walk again. Change is a comin’. I can feel it.
Before I tell you about the puppet parade, let me tell you about my past two weeks.
I was stressed, and as I told a friend, “feeling under.” I alternated between 1) accidentally waking an hour before my alarm and then—afraid to waste time—reaching for a stack of papers to grade and 2) sleeping until 8:30 and feeling guilty for it. Each day I needed to accomplish three tasks, but then one of them ate up all my hours until suddenly it was bedtime. I struggled for days to get to the grocery and in the meantime had cereal for dinner. When I finally bought a carton of eggs, I dropped them in the driveway and five cracked.
I know that a month from now, I won’t even remember the frazzle of these two weeks, and I know that other—truly sad—stories have taken place or been written down in the past 14 days.
But yesterday I was concerned with my story. I vented (whined?) to an artist friend over coffee. She, too, had been feeling under. One of the projects that had kept her busy was to paint a puppet. Apparently, while I had been rushing around, a group of artists had recruited dozens of townspeople and together they were recycling old materials into twenty enormous puppets. The next night they’d march them in their own parade.
I was too curious to grade papers, so I left the coffee shop and went to the artists’ studio space. So far they had constructed: a fluorescent orange owl in a dress; a giant red vulture head wearing flowing strips of garbage bags; several six-foot tall “talking” skulls with Christmas ornament eyes and mirror teeth; a gauzy whale; and imaginary animals with VHS tape clothing.
I spoke with one of the leaders as he measured some scraps of wood. He said about 70% of their supplies were leftovers, things other people had trashed. Of course, I thought about writing. A lucky trick writers have is that we can take a crummy, or disappointing, or even heartbreaking real-life experience (or pair of weeks) and use it to make something new. We can—at least in part—redeem it, give it purpose as material for creating. And then some good has come from it.
The project leader went on to say they dumpster-dove for many of their supplies. I asked, “So how do you know what material is valuable when you see it—what’s worth harvesting?”
He said, “Everything is.”
This answer was enough to get me signed up as a volunteer puppeteer for the parade. And so this evening I led a line of fanciful creatures down the main street of our town. I wore a huge praying mantis whose arms and legs moved with mine. Cloth people with balloon hair hopped behind me, the birds flew on poles, the whale swam circles around us, and the metallic lion heads bopped in time with the snare drum.
As we processed through downtown, kids climbed onto their parents’ shoulders to see and college students cheered from their apartment balconies. When people noticed us through coffee shop windows, I waved a mantis hand to them.
I picked up my insect legs, which were made from bamboo shoots and tied to my ankles with old bike inner tubes. In the heavy green body—made from styrofoam swimming pool noodles, PVC pipe, wire tomato cages, and packing cardboard—I shuffled lightly. And my shuffling grew into even sort of a samba step by the time we paraded back to the studio entrance, where the snare drummer played softer and softer as if not wanting to end it, and we all danced in place on the sidewalk, each of us trying to stall before we had to take off our puppet costumes.