Q&A with Vickie Vértiz, author of Auto/Body

Vickie Vértiz is the author of Auto/Body (University of Notre Dame Press, 2023). The Offing previously published her essay, “Kissing.” Publisher Ashaki M. Jackson conducted the Q&A.

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Ashaki Jackson: The first thing I noticed when reading through the book was cues: the turquoise and the pink; you were wearing brushed denim; you reference candy cigarettes; you reference “bamboo earrings, at least two pair,” which is a line from LL Cool J’s Around the Way Girl. This this book is referencing a time. Can you tell us a little bit about the time of Auto/Body and why that’s important to the work?

Vickie Vértiz: I’ve been thinking about this question for a while since we’ve been discussing this interview, and I think there’s several answers to it in terms of what time this book is in. The first poem, “nature armed medicine,” is in multiple times. And so is the last poem, “Mexika Hi Fem,” which is a reference to Rafa [Esparza’s] special performance in Mexico as Coatlicue. So, we begin with a pyramid that is disintegrating into the earth. That was my intention with the shape of that first poem.

To me, I’m in all times at all times. I’m both in Mesoamerican times — as someone who practices Aztec dance, and has a belief system built with syncretism, and also as a professor of Chicanx Studies is like taking apart Mexican identity via Mexican nationalism, and a child of the 80s as a queer person, and someone who worked grew up working class who loves things that have existed for a long time, and who likes to reuse them. I’m the scholar, of my memory, but also a kind of collective memory of people in my generation, but also folks who continue to face these questions and are looking for these answers about being a queer person of color, being a femme being an immigrant daughter. What does it mean to have a desire — agency over your desire — as a Mexican American woman or femme queer person in this world, and a lot of those questions are timeless. Unfortunately, fortunately? And so I have a map that’s at different planes of time I’m trying to draw. And I’m a scholar of like, my family, myself, my community and I’ve seen these themes just come up over and over and over again. And, and that’s where I found my voice in the scholarship of folks like the entire This Bridge Called My Back (Persephone Press, 1981). I think anyone who contributed anything to that book contributed to my formation around feminism, womanism, class identification.

So, I get all these times all the time. And so it’s just kind of like a fluctuating water-time that we’re in that I’m working with. Because I’m concerned about repair across that time, all those times — repairing relationships, repairing connection to who we really are with respect to wherever our indigenous roots lay, or lie (those two words tricked me! Lay or lie?) wherever you’re connected to, right? Where are we? I’m always in there, welding legs like, Alright, let me reconnect this.

AJ: A key term to just bring the entire collection together is “repair.” My focus was on some other themes that you were talking about in terms of a blue collar community, or migration, relationships, coming of age, sense of self, self-determination, self-definition. And then you just said “repair.” And then we’re in the shop, which brings us back to the title, Auto/Body. It also gives me a sense of space like geographical space. You were talking, I really enjoy “at all times in all times.” That definitely needs to be a marketing sweatshirt. But you know, you’re always in a space of repair. You’re always surrounded by tools. You might not know what tools to use. But that gives me the sense of the auto body shop and fixing and that being like a galaxy that people pass through or use as a context. I would really like to hear more about how you came up with that particular space, but also an equally important space in which you grew up, which is southeast LA. A lot of people know that Los Angeles County is a world unto itself. They hear about the west side, they hear about beach cities, they hear about the east side, which is different from East LA. But what about southeast LA?

VV: Then there’s east of East, which is over the hill like La Puente, El Monte, Riverside, Fontana, Pomona,  San Gabriel.

AJ: Everybody has their region.

VV: Past Atlantic

AJ: East of Vermont

VV: So place and space. I come from a family that hold on to a lot of different ephemera and photographs in particular. So there’s like a family archive that we keep. And in that archive, were our photographs, but then also like our old toys, possibly old baby clothes, different kinds of significant papers, paperwork, or whatever. Among those papers, we found my dad’s correspondence course materials in a binder through which he got a certificate as an auto mechanic. But of course, he’d been learning this from other men in his family and community as a young person and just growing up but he did really well. And he’s someone who didn’t learn to read until he was in the Mexican army when he was 18 — or hadn’t engaged with texts in a significant way until then. And we have these photographs. I’m someone who engages with photography and image a lot in my life. There’s a lot of ekphrastic poetry in this work and in the previous work, and it feels like forever, probably in my work. But we have this photograph of all of us — my brothers, my dad, my mom — in front of different cars that my dad owned. And he would just change cars frequently because they would stop working or they weren’t attractive anymore, or they were broken or like he wanted something else. So it was really expendable. It’s like a wish fulfillment that he was like working through, I guess.

But there’s these pictures of us in front of all these cars. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to try and write from the perspective of that photograph? From the perspective of a car? What does the car think about getting treated? What does it mean to be wanted one second and then discarded the next? Or, does it matter? Do these things have feelings? That evolved into thinking about our bodies as vessels and cars as literal vehicles but then also how important they were to me growing up in a place like Los Angeles, where my world was really small until I had a car. And even then, it was still limited to like, the places I knew. I don’t think I went to K-Town or Wilshire ’til I was maybe in college. I mean, what did I have to do? What did I have to do over there? I think I went to Hollywood a couple times. But then I would skip that and go to Venice, right? There’s a mass, huge swath of land that I just didn’t see because LA is so huge. The imagination of it is just kind of, can be really small, even though LA is massive. That’s kind of where the birth happened.

I became a scholar of where I’m from when I got the chance to start writing about it for KCET in Los Angeles, which is our PBS station and their online publishing venues. And it’s always been a working-class place. That part of Los Angeles was developed as industrial and homes for people who are industrial workers from like, the onset of this place being called “Los Angeles.” It’s highly polluted. It’s highly populated. It’s really dense; some parts of it are as dense as Manhattan. That’s only gotten worse with the housing shortage and crisis that we continue to have in this county but also looks like the country and the world now. It’s also been Native American land but also folks who moved during resettlement. That’s the wrong word. Native American folks who moved in the 40s and 50s through the government programs that promised them housing, jobs, etcetera, and then kind of failed folks yet again. As the working-class place, the lots were designed to attract white folks from the Dust Bowl who could have a house in the back, grazing in the front and like chickens on the side. So, the lots are pretty long. And what’s happened over time is that they have been filled with smaller houses. And now everything’s really crowded. But it’s an agricultural place. And so in some ways, it kind of continues to be. But it’s also a very resilient place, so community has to be a place where people work on their cars outside.

I spent a lot of time in body shops and in junkyards growing up, because that’s where my dad would go. And though I don’t have a relationship with my father now, I appreciate being in those masculine spaces and feeling safe, even though my father is not someone who folks are safe around like I was. This book is also looking at masculinity, and really trying to figure out like, what it is like, what is the essence of it? What can we explode, that’s harmful for you for me, for them, for him? And then what’s left that is valuable, right? And so, to me, what’s valuable. My younger brother does auto body work and mechanic as well. My dad does not do auto body work. So in a sense, Auto/Body is like a song for my brother who says this about cars all the time. He’s like, “Vic’, if it breaks, we’ll fix it.” To me, like that’s, that’s my work as a writer: if it breaks, we’ll fix it. Like let’s make something else. My dad always used to say there’s always a way. And so I’ve taken that as a metaphor in my life to be like, okay, you know what? We’re going to find a way. And this is my way.

What can I do is I continue to watch the femecidios in Mexico and throughout Latin American in this country and missing and murdered Indigenous women. I want to keep burning down the patriarchy in my home and on the page. And for everyone who continues to ask themselves this question about what does it mean to be a person and a Mexican American person, an immigrant person in these working class spaces, where a lot of us find ourselves. Most people do not have money, are not wealthy in this country. So, to me continuing to be and work in those spaces where my family resides is really important to write. That’s the center for me. It’s not New York. Sorry, New York. (Not sorry.) The world is not New York. But I understand if you’re in New York, you think it is because it’s a beautiful place. I love it. So much of the world is working and having to move. And the global majority is Black, Indigenous, Brown, people of color. It’s not white. Centering myself is really important in that way.

AJ: It’s really exciting the way that you’re able to talk about place, mentioning the historical challenge of transitioning to accommodate more people and a variety of people and still being able to home in on one of the kind of activities even though it’s done in solitude, it’s done throughout the community, which is working on your cars. But it’s your hobby. That’s a symbol of persistence for a community that had to be persistent to continue to exist in the space to continue to have those homes.

You mentioned burning down the patriarchy at home and on the page, and that immediately makes me think of form because form is just such a tight structure that we try to follow. And some of us try to follow it because, as poets, it’s a challenge. How can we take our words and fit it into these spaces? Not to say that forms have not evolved — there are some great forms that are being introduced by contemporary, living writers that are exciting to play with. But, I also heard you talk about the ekphrastic poem because it’s something that’s in your collection. You have a sonnet and your collection. You’re talking about vehicles and vessels. Tell me your thought — or your process — on trying to get this narrative of Auto/Body into some of these forms. How did you create a vessel for Auto/Body?

VV: What I’ve taken from my poetry teachers, and my writing teachers that has stayed with me is to have fun, to do the opposite of what my first instinct is, which is to organize something into a little box. I’m a Virgo, and I’m an oldest immigrant child. So I’m just like I want it to work against that and so to have fun and to push against that instinct, which is a survival instinct, it’s not. It’s so that I will be accepted. I have to, like, push against that and be like, all right, what’s really under here? And then the second thing that I take with me is the physical, the visceral experience I have with something when I know it’s done. Like, is it done? Is it done for now?

With the first poem, “nature armed medicine,” I put it first because I was trying to represent with shape was just like how everything we see around us will be taken back by the Earth at some point. Octavia Butler already told us (laughs) where we’re headed. And you know, like nature kind of taking itself back against all of these different forces is a theme that I am working with and thinking about a lot because in some ways, I’m looking around because I want to see if I have an image of this deity. There’s this Mesoamerican deity, Coatlicue, who has two serpent heads, she has a necklace of hands and hearts. She’s got like Eagle talons. She’s like this really powerful figure who I pray to a lot or like, engaged with a lot because she’s massive, she’s made of stone. She’s mother destroyer. Who’s gonna go up against that and think that they could win? You shouldn’t think you can if you do (laughs). And so I just picture her when I read about or am talking to my students and they have encountered yet another sexual assault, right? And I’m just like, okay, Mother Earth, how do we take back our bodies? How do we take back our peace? Like, how do we take apart this harm? So I’m trying to put that on the page. And how do we dissolve those things? And so sometimes it’s dissolving the shape. It starts out as a pyramid.

And it makes me think of the iceberg, right? Like, here’s what you see, and then here’s all the shit you don’t. The Earth is like, Let me tell you what’s happening a) I am dissolving English into Nahuatl, and then it’s coming back. There’s also a remix of a Juan Gabriel song here who’s specialized in breakup songs and fuck you songs. To me, it’s like, all of these pressures coming together to crack sexual predators and harm and patriarchy. Just putting it into the Earth’s core. Just like picking it apart. I wanted to start with that. Let’s start here. We can look at all this other material evidence, but let’s start here. And then also it’s just more fun to have a look away that will help you read it; that will hold the little heart of the poem in a way where you can find it. There’s a lot of sharp edges in this book because I just have my knives all out. All my knives are out. All of them everything I could find. One poem towards the end, “In College I Learned to Swim,” is full of slashes. These are just my little knives. This is my just like daggers just daggers.

AJ: It looks very sparse. I mean, spread across the page.

VV: Yes. The second paragraph and then between the paragraphs or the stanzas are little slashes which are my knives, my daggers. They’re my daggers, there’s just knives everywhere. Everywhere just like, there’s another knife. Is he not dead yet? (laughs) Constantly shanking the patriarchy!

AJ: Constantly shanking the patriarchy!

VV: That’s different than masculinity, right? I have masculine aspects like masculinity as softness right as Jonathan Majors just said recently in an interview. He’s like, oh, like masculinity is softness. I was like, Yeah. So it’s different. But um, yeah, so here are all my knives.

A friend who wrote, who read this work told me, “I think you’re trying to dissolve the colonial heart.” Had to carry it around. And I’m like, Yeah, that too. Of course, like English is what I’m working in. It’s not Nahuatl.

AJ: That’s another form in which we fit our words, we fit our narratives we can have.

VV: And then the last poem is also another kind of pyramid, but that’s more of like a, what you call those? In that perspective, we have lots of different kinds of knives and blades. To me, that feels like another stabby-stabby poem. Coatlicue shows up and she just literally she’s like, I’m just gonna eat you.

Sexy, Mesoamerican deity who doesn’t take any prisoners.

AJ: I really like the resistance of these deities. They’ve met their threshold. And we we’re meeting them after they’ve met their thresholds. Like there’s no long softness and then a villain origin story. No, here is here’s the person that you want if you are upset.

VV: Yeah, I can take revenge.

AJ: Characters who fit our needs. I was also looking at a piece earlier in your work that is maybe not a form, but it was your attempt to dissolve a form or respond to the content of the work. “’69 Chevy Impala.”

VV: That’s one of my dad’s cars from growing up, and I got to drive it. Again, as a scholar of my family and my history, there’s a lot of material from childhood that finds itself here and in a lot of my work because I’m a scholar of my family. When I think about different social issues, usually the first thing that happens is that I think about how my family is connected to that thing.

This poem is about a car my dad had, and a kind of moment that happened in my childhood, a lot. And what I took from that — my dad kept calling women in front of his whole family, and in a car as we’re traveling, going somewhere — was it there was no accountability. There was no remorse. Even the feeling in the car was disgust, and disrespect. And like a build a building up of rejection of him as a reliable loving person. He’s like the force of the patriarchy, the way that he was indoctrinated was so great that there’s no brakes for him. That’s just how he acts in the world. He was taught that that was okay. And the men around him, showed him it was okay. And then the world continues to allow it to occur.

What’s interesting about this poem is that I’m sitting here mad at him, but then also realizing that there’s something to not being held accountable and to just doing what the fuck you want. And that’s interesting as a girl to me to be seeing that. So there’s parts of me that have grown up that are really masculine and entitled in this particular way. Not because I want to get away with hurting people but because I understand that there’s power in going after what you want, but this is not the way to do it. But the taste of power stays with me throughout the book. And it changes. It doesn’t always stay in a good way.

AJ: I was looking at the content. The first line is “What I learned about my father’s honking is that women on the street are just like everyone’s mom…” So the honking set the tone for the rest of the piece for me, and the way that you broke in between words mimicked either honking or a bump in the road. Or — it’s a Chevy Impala, it’s pretty big — some type of physical movement that stopped you from continuing some statement. I’m looking at the way “wit/h” is broken. “We’re all in the car wit/h him.” There’s a break there. “I want to run out/ of the car to Chris’s burgers with my friends or To/ys R Us on Eastern.” There’s a break there. There’s just a lot of movement with the car. Maybe the car creates that movement, or maybe dad’s casual sexual harassment causes the movement, or maybe the feeling of ick causes that. But I felt like that was a departure from form that really worked for this particular piece. I wanted to shout that out that I saw that. And I felt that. Like, come on, Dad, come on.

VV: Right. So like, what can I break? I can break the word. There’s like the ick, that dissolving of trust, the masculinity being enforced in this really harmful way that turns into the patriarchy and misogyny. How do we get text to do that? So this is what I tried here.

AJ: That’s a great experiment. I am also very interested in the relationships that you have dissected in this work. There’s some pieces that I’ve since learned since our discussion are another person’s viewpoint about what they see in terms of family relationships. And then there’s a narrative about, you know, coming of age and testing your sexy and creating personal connection with a boy even though we might like a girl instead. There are three poems that I just wanted to shout out, that really stuck with me, or they hung on me, and that was “‘70 Chevy El Camino,” which you mentioned, was about your brother watching the relationship between your grandparents while your grandfather was working on the car. And your grandmother might have been a little bit of a helicopter. “Caprice Classic.” And then there’s “Jotería,” which I really want people to see. We’re not going to read it today because of this really beautiful, complex shape in which it lives. But these are kind of like the the three types of relationships, I’m seeing: the observation of other close relationships, the relationship itself, the intimate relationships that we develop, while we’re also growing into our own or coming into our own. So those were three that I just I want to make sure that all of our readers hear that and are able to take a look at that once they get the book. I would love for you if you had the chance to read for us the prose poem, “Caprice Classic.”

VV: Can I tell you something about “Jotería” first?

I feel like the note section in my books is getting bigger and longer and longer and longer. And it’s like there’s as much text back there as in the poems or maybe more. I had just finished reading Letters to the Future: Black Woman Radical Writing, edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin, and I believe Tisa Bryant. And so “what is hidden from the wise and good” and even elision makes a sound” I think both from Tisa Bryant, like directly from her documentation of a performance. I could be wrong with my brain melts when I’m being interviewed. But I was so impacted by that book, and what was happening in it what is being said and what was being kind of obfuscated. And yeah, I just wanted to kind of be in conversation with this radical writing. And this old Mexican Bingo/ Loteria form of pop culture, Mexican drag race, The Golden Girls, my family like this kind of What are we playing here? And then this undercurrent around taking apart Mexican nationalism.

AJ: It’s fun to read. You had me at Dorothy Zbornak.

VV: I mean, I did have a dream where I dressed like her. She’s like, “Not bad.”

AJ: Did you have shoulder pads?

VV: Obviously. Palazzo pants. Okay. “Caprice Classic.” (laughs)

Caprice Classic

Is it talking dirty? If you’re just listening. What you see in the picture is me riding shotgun.
A cinderblock wall behind me. I mailed the photo to my Romanian pen pal. me making a
sexy face in my friends Falcon. To my right is the dustless dashboard. In the backseat is my
older friend Junior. Give me a sexy look, he says. He’s taking a picture for my pen pal but it’s
really for him. It’s also for me. For my other friend who’s driving. My sexy hair looks like this: a
ponytail on top of my head, wavy brown cascading over the side of my face. In my denim
jacket and white button up, the other thing that sizzles is my plaid flannel skirt, one my mother
made. Her hands lined my hem. The driver rolls carefully up my alley. Me, trying out my sexy
and he’s looking too. We enjoy it, watching me try. I enjoy trying. I shelve my looks for the
receiver — on the phone later, I will listen to Junior’s dream in which I was giving him head
under a restaurant table. The tablecloth covered me and no one could see. I will play along in
the dark under a blanket when everyone’s asleep because she doesn’t scare me. He’s got
skater hair, crooked teeth, and likes the Golden Girls as much as me. He drives a Caprice
Classic — a mid-80s machine the color of sour wine. Oh yeah? I tell him. And then what did I
do? Is it dirty if it was safe? We could turn it — on we could turn it off. He taught me how to
how to drive that thing. Down the Commerce streets — gray warehouses and no workers inside them
at night. Entire fields of pavement for us to play on. Another night, I took a fruit roll up
and wrapped it around his finger, my first blow job. Thank god his hands were clean. He
was older but not older-gross, just old enough to make it fun. There are infinite degrees of
desire when you’re 15. The mint-satin-dress quinceñera kind. The kind where all you had
to do was put your head in the lap of a boy who loved you so much he could cry (and did).
The kind that drives you to the drive-in and test the limits of your high waisted panties.
The kind where you’re just trying to get to school and you know you’re being followed. But
that’s not sexy, that’s surviving. That’s an open secret. Junior knew my secrets: that I really
loved ________ and that my friends were sometimes shitty, but also, a veces: my lovers.

AJ: What a great piece. There’s exploration. There’s curiosity. There’s some chuckles. We were talking about how this flies because this was before social media and there’s no tangible documentation of it. People can’t watch this. People can’t shame you for it. It was just you and other person and a memory made. But I got my kicks out of the references. I was like, Yes, I know exactly where we’re at. I know what time it is. And so do Junior and the speaker. (laughs)

This is an exemplar poem. I really hope that people pick up this book. Again, I just want to mention that Auto/Body is out now from Notre Dame Press. It was released this month. And Vickie is touring. You can find out where she will be reading this work at VickieVértiz.com. I don’t want to leave us like this. We’re just hanging in the wind or hanging in the Caprice with Junior. Maybe you can read us one more final piece. I think we talked about the last poem?

VV: The “’85 Chevy El Camino,” which is after the visual artist and writer and sculptor, performance artist, Rose B. Simpson, whose work is just extraordinary. Maria Martinez is a sculptor, a Native American sculptor, really famous from her pueblo in New Mexico, I’m forgetting what it is right now. She was really she was really well known for working with black pottery, black clay, so black on black so glaze, black leaves on black matte on black matte on black. And so this El Camino is a sculpture that Rosie Simpson put together completely like she assembled this car and painted it black on black matte and glass it’s absolutely incredible. You have to see it I wish we would have pulled it up. But yeah, go go find it. Go look at it’s extraordinary and super hot.

AJ: There is a hotness to the things you do with your hands! There’s a hotness to making things and cars and car work.

VV: Now, I gotta find Rose! I gotta talk to her. I will.

’85 Chevy El Camino
After Rose B. Simpson’s “Maria,” in honor of Maria Martinez

I’m a bad bitch of high gloss
and matte juxtaposition
My body is the decolonized, sustainable thing

:: :: :: ::

You drive me when the world ends.
And what will you wear? Other beings’
Skins: O-rings and leather. Stay strapped.

A tiny wooden spear through the nose and a hoodie
Those trenzas bien peinadas
Black paint across the eyes so you can

See like a fly through goggles, block out
The new plastic possibilities
My driver made a software of suede

Across the cheek. Strung beads
Against mal de ojo, for beauty, against forgetting

:: :: :: ::

Este camino goes low and slow
Las manos delicadas, dedicadas juntan
Las Tres Marias

Across the cornfield
Smaller hands collect squash
Pile them on my back

:: :: :: ::

I came out to stay out
My engine wakes the dead
Under every school

What songs do we have for them?
Masatl. Mayahuel. Jaguar. Xilonen.
Heartbeats and revenge in every step

Rocks in my tire grooves. They are ancestors too
My dials tune in nopales
Makes me wanna cry

My spirit: horsepower
What I’m doing is serious. I’ve refinished the directions.
Take what’s there and forge it into something else.

Publication note: A version of “Caprice Classic” first appeared in Boom California on August 17, 2020.


From Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices