Interview with Maria Garcia Teutsch

I first met Maria Garcia Teutsch when some of my poems were accepted for the journal, PingPong, published by the Henry Miller Library. I have since learned that she is quite an active presence in the area as a poet, writer of short stories, educator, editor of PingPong, and Hartnell College’s Homestead Review. And — she has great style.

Maria, how long have you lived in the central coast area, and what effect, if any, has this area had on your writing?

Wow, well, I moved out here from Banner Elk, North Carolina, (pop. 800) with a toddler and a now-X husband, so it’s hard to extricate how exactly this place in particular has shaped my writing, but I have been changed. My poetry is very earthy and sensual, so place is important to me. When I lived in Banner Elk and wrote in my office overlooking a frozen stream, well, I couldn’t help but write about it. Moving to Salinas, with its valley of wind, lettuce and sometimes silenced voices, I could not help but be inspired to write. Now I live in Santa Cruz and often feel dwarfed by the beauty of this place, the big redwood in my front yard is a constant source of inspiration. Today there are seed tufts floating on the wind in vast abandon, it looks like snow–amazing.

You’ve been editing the Henry Miller Library’s anthology, Pingpong, as well as Hartnell College’s Homestead Review for some years. Can you say something about what it’s been like to edit these two journals, and how the process differs?

I started the Homestead Review when I first moved out here and started working at Hartnell College in Salinas. What I found out about the literary scene here was that somehow Salinas was viewed by the rest of Monterey county as the bastard cousin from across the tracks. What I discovered in my students was that they were hip and savvy and ready for a scene of their own. The Homestead Review is a student produced literary journal now in its 10th year of publication. The students choose what is included in the journal save the artists I solicit. It is always an amazing experience for me to watch them talk about the criteria for what makes a piece of literature good on their own time. I feel very privileged to be a part of this process.

Ping-Pong is published by the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, Ca. As editor in chief, I have no constraints on what is published. We are very particular about maintaining our aesthetic bent, however; and publish only those artists who fit within these parameters. It is a multi-genre publication in the spirit of the writings of Anais Nin and Henry Miller; really that whole milieu of writers who were pushing the margins ever wider to include us folks on the periphery. We also have an ecological focus, perched as we are on the edge of the continent, with almost-extinguished condors flying overhead. I also work with some amazing people: James Maughn is our west coast poetry editor, and he tends to like the more experimental stuff; Christine Hamm is our east coast editor, and she tends towards the more narrative stuff, but make no mistake, she is living in Brooklyn where some of the best poets writing all seem to be living. Jessica Breheny is our fiction editor and she is looking for work that is really aware of language usage. She wants to be surprised. Finally, my 13 year old son has assumed the position of art editor and he is fearless in his pursuit of good art. He’d walk up to the curator of the Louvre and ask if they’d let us put something in Ping-Pong. I fill in the blanks and often bring various artists into the magazine whose work strikes me as brilliant.

A friend of mine says she’s driven to write poetry by a group of cigar-smoking angels that float above her in the corner of her studio. What drives you to write poetry?

If I didn’t write, I’d spontaneously combust. I have been writing since the sixth grade when my teacher posted my Genie poem up on the wall. I write because I am overwhelmed by beauty, I write because I am thoroughly disgusted, I write because I see a social injustice, I write to enter into a dialogue with another writer whose work has inspired me. I like the idea of the muse, or that there is something out there that makes us write–like Blake channeling God. But when the muse visits me I am often in the grocery store, teaching a class, doing yoga. I can no longer stop for the muse, the muse has to stop for me, and she’s a fickle bitch, so I sometimes have the time to write, and face an empty computer screen with an empty head–and yet I write. It just comes flowing out, then I look at it and go, huh, this is about this. Then I begin to craft it. Sometimes I face the screen with a poem I’ve been trying to write for a while but haven’t had the time. So then I sit down and an almost complete poem comes out. Funny beast this poetry stuff.

You say that you “face an empty computer screen…” Do you always write on the computer? Do you ever write poetry or fiction on paper with a pen, or in a journal? I’m interested in this question because I write about 95% of all my poetry online on a blog, and have been doing this for about a decade.

I’ve only recently begun writing on paper again, and it’s quite a different experience.
I don’t privilege one way of writing over another, though I believe some “purists” do. I don’t think that when I sit down to write I have some Blake-type experience wherein I believe I’m channeling God. I guess it’d be nice if I did, but I don’t. I mostly write at the computer. Sometimes just transposing something from paper to my computer will cause it not to get published. Time is a huge issue in my life. I fully understand the older retired writer whose kids are no longer in the house, but this is not my life. Even my friends who do not have children have a luxury of time I only dream about. Don’t get me wrong, I do not begrudge them that, I say, Enjoy!

So composing on the computer just fits my life. It ultimately ends up there anyway. Having said that, I wrote a poem in my journal yesterday. And journaling—idea gathering and the like—I definitely do on paper. Writing things on paper forces you to slow down and contemplate, and I like that. I guess it’s like the tortoise and the hare. Ultimately, whatever I write for publication is edited about 20 times, so that slowing down process naturally occurs.

Your poetry seems so grounded in the everyday, and yet there are moments when it ” leaps” forward on a color or taste, an image or a tactile sensation. I think, for example of the last line of the last stanza in “The Box Trick”:

You think, the horror show is over.
No more getting in the box to see how many knives
can be plunged into you before you’re dead.

Float on the small petunias of your freedom.
The perfume of the yellow red roses with the black tips
proves you were right to pack your feathered skirt and leave.

So much seems to depend on that “feathered skirt”!…which is a roundabout way of asking you to tell me about your interest in clothing and fashion.

I am obsessed with baubles, bangles, beads, and beautiful clothes. Does that make me shallow? If so, then I’m shallow. My mother is my real inspiration. She would take me to kindergarten in a leopard skin jumpsuit–not a trashy one–though these also have their place–but looking totally hot. I have a poem entitled, “I like High Heels because they Make my Ass Look Good,” and it’s true to a certain extent. I do love all of the accoutrement of femininity. I think it’s about choice. Does it make me any less of a “natural woman” if I wear designer footwear? I think not. I can also rock the hiking boots and did my time with Birkenstocks, but mostly, I think fine feathers make a fine bird.

The feather skirt in the poem is meant to signify independence, and individuality. It is a sign of her freedom.

What’s your favorite local food?

I love food and am actually quite the foodie. My favorite local food is my husband’s veggie soups. I must confess to being quite picky. I eat an almost entirely organic diet. I am a pescatarian–which means I eat fish, but nothing else with a face (oh why don’t I care about the fishes?). I grew up along the coast in Virginia Beach, Virginia and also the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and seafood is like a religion there. Though I eat it sparingly, I haven’t yet been able to give it up.

I am also half Mexican, and I love good Mexican food. Let’s see, in Salinas, I like Rico y Gutierrez. For sushi, Shogun in Oldtown is by far the best sushi place for miles (say hi to Hiday!). I love Phil’s in Moss Landing for fresh seafood. That place is legendary in my family.

Mostly I like to cook at home. My husband is from Germany and he is an amazing cook. He always says I am missing out on the best dishes because they are all pork. We are so fortunate to live in an area with abundant organic fruits and veggies. I go to my local farmer’s market here in Santa Cruz on Wednesdays and pile up on the collard greens and rutabaga’s. When I go to the grocery store they always have to look up the codes for my stuff. My husband and son say I eat sticks and twigs. It’s amazing how people think you’re half-starved if you don’t eat meat—there are so many other foods out there.

What do you love about central coast California? What do you find the most troubling about this area?

This area is so beautiful. When I moved out here I was determined to not be seduced by California, but the Central Coast is a beautiful beast, hard to resist, and eventually I had to succumb. I moved out here because I’d been to the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur when I was younger and fell madly in love with the coastline. I accepted my position at Hartnell College because of its proximity to Big Sur. I had never been to Salinas in my life before my job interview. I grew to love this valley of lettuce and wind. I lived in Salinas for 7 years before moving to Santa Cruz. During my time I walked to work each day, my son went to public school and we enjoyed life there.

I think Salinas gets a bad rap. Like it’s the bastard cousin of Monterey County, but it’s really a great place to raise children, tend your garden, sit outside at night. I do realize there is a plague of gang activity in the city, but that’s due more to ignorance on the part of those who have a stake in keeping this town segregated.

You cannot ask people to work for substandard wages and then charge them the kind of rent we have here. You cannot say, “We will not accept any undocumented workers,” and then hire undocumented workers. There are people living in Salinas in conditions that rival third world communities.

Most of the monies for gang prevention programs have been stripped away. There is this idea that Mexicans coming to this country should only speak English, well, they’re not, they haven’t, and that is not going to change, so I think, why doesn’t every child learn Spanish and English? How can this be wrong? Research shows that if a child becomes fluent in their own language, knows all the rules governing their native tongue, then they can transfer this knowledge to their second language. We cannot cut out the mother tongue. Communication needs to come first if we want to change things in Salinas.

Most of my students have been touched by gang violence in some way—a cousin, a friend, another family member—and they are good people, have honest hard working parents, contribute to our community—and they all live on the east side. The east side is an imaginary border anyways. It’s like, down the street, but we always want to say in the papers, “gang violence on the east side” like this is an island and the rest of Salinas is untouched.

So what I love most about Salinas are the people. They are beautiful. I have never in my life heard stories that have touched my heart like the ones I have heard from my students’ mouths.

Finally, I love to be outside and walk on the beach or ride my bike and just sit and stare at a pelican’s gawky splash into the water, the cormorants gathering on a rock or listen to a sea lions bark. Whenever I feel bad I just take my dog for a walk on the beach and think, “I am so fortunate to live in such a wonderful place.” The beauty of it all humbles me.

Do you have a specific current writing project (of your own) in the works? If yes, please tell…

I am working on a second manuscript of poems based on some strange children. I call them my “mad children poems.” The collection chronicles a group of crazy kids. I like to examine the situational ethics of children/young adults. When I’ve taken some of these poems into workshops, it seems people always want to make the kids play nice. But these children do not play nice and they grow up into mildly fucked-up adults—like most of us, they navigate the waters as they’re in. I think we like to fetishize childhood into some state of Edenic bliss, when for most of the people I know, it’s a gauntlet. I once read somewhere that if you can get through childhood you can write a novel, and I believe this is true.

I also have a finished collection entitled, “What She Saw in the Cards.” Its organizational structure is a deck of Loteria cards. I would place a card in front of me and write a poem about it. These poems dip heavily into the magical realism so prevalent in Chicano/a literature. This collection deals with familial relationships, gender stereotypes and attempts to answer the question, “Where does love go when love relationships end?” Do we have a harbor inside ourselves where we tether the love we once held for someone? Do storms drive it to the surface in such a way that we don’t recognize it anymore? I have yet to send this collection out to be considered for publishing, but will probably try to do so this summer. In the past few years I have not sent my work out to be published but have relied solely on solicitation. This will not work forever, so I am attempting to be more disciplined and work on my own career as a poet.

I am entering a low-residency MFA program in poetry at New England College. My life is so full, and it seems I have forgotten how to just concentrate on my own writing. I decided to pursue my MFA so that I would, by necessity, have to concentrate on all the interesting facets of crafting a poem for publication. I look forward to all the poems I will write.

Best of luck Maria, and thanks for participating in this interview!

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