Q&A with Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, author of Incantation: Love Poems for Battle Sites

The Offing published Xochitl-Julisa’s essay, “In Search of Touch,” on January 27, 2022. Publisher Ashaki M. Jackson conducted the Q&A.

Our Patreon supporters receive early access to this Q&A with The Offing contributor Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo and receive other perks. The Offing pays our contributors, and we appreciate the help of all our supporters in sustaining our work.

Ashaki Jackson: You began this manuscript at a national park residency on the opposite side of the country. Your stay was scheduled during a particularly volatile time in national and local politics, and a longtime friend dropped you off after conversation went awry. How did that period and that ride to Gettysburg shape the content of Incantation?

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo: I was awarded a writing residency at Gettysburg National Military Park. It was the first “Poet in the Parks” residency in partnership with National Parks Arts Foundation and The Poetry Foundation. I applied because I loved the idea of writing from a national park, but being from California, my understanding of “national park” was Yosemite. I didn’t have context for a historical Civil War site such as Gettysburg. On top of that, my residency was three weeks in September 2017, a month after the white supremacy rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer on August 12, 2017. Civil War monuments were all over the news, and I just happened to be traveling to a site that boasts over 1,100.

A friend offered to drive me to the park from her home in Norfolk, Virginia. Gettysburg is known to be one of the most haunted places in the country, and I was staying alone in an 1860s farmhouse where two soldiers died in the basement, so I was grateful to have her help. She even stayed with me the first night to make sure I was properly settled in.

When we arrived, we found that the Eisenhower Estate (also in Gettysburg) was overrun by the “WWII Weekend,” which is the largest World War II reenactment in the country. On day one, I arrived at a giant, living war memorial set inside a giant, stone war memorial. Being a Chicana (meaning brown activist/radical thinker/artist/teacher) from California, I was experiencing a culture shock. But my friend was from Norfolk, a city with a long military history, and her family also had a long military history. We were opposites.

I couldn’t figure out why these reenactments existed. I kept asking her, What’s the point? Her grandfathers were WWII veterans, so, I believe, and understandably so, my question was insulting. The next morning she left, and I spent three weeks exploring what right I had taking up space on a Civil War site as a Chicana. When I came back home, I kept asking that question. What’s my place in Trump’s America? What’s my place in my hometown of San Gabriel? What’s my place in Covid? That’s the question at the center of Incantation: What’s my place, and how can I use my position to help imagine a better world with more humanity and love?

AJ: In our discussion of the residency space — the wide open battlefields, the cannons, the historical markers — you mentioned the possible presence of ghosts. Incantation includes poems that speak to unspecific ghosts and to people who have died recently in public ways. I’m thinking of your poem, titled “Why I’ll Never Again Advise Poets Against Publishing on Social Media,” where you name those who died at the hands of police or during conflicts with the government. How do you use haunting in your work?

XJB: I like the way you phrased that. I think many of us are haunted by the images we see on social media. Just the other night I had a nightmare that our American society was collapsing, and I had to pack up my home and go to some kind of safehouse. While I was there, I had my computer and I kept trying to find Wi-Fi so I could keep doing work. It wasn’t until I recounted this dream to a friend that I realized, I had dreamt of what the Gazans have been experiencing since October 7th. What’s funny is that at first I was horrified by how concerned I was to find Wi-Fi so I could send the next email. It bothered me how tied to work I was, but upon reflection, I think it’s more about how important social media is to the current fight for humanity. If it wasn’t for Instagram — if it wasn’t for the work of Bisan Owda, Motaz Azaiza, and others — we wouldn’t even know of the genocide happening to the Palestinians by the Israeli government. And Palestinian journalists keep asking us to share. Keep sharing. Keep sharing. It’s actually vital, isn’t it?

So with that poem, “Why I’ll Never Again Advise Poets Against Publishing on Social Media,” I’m speaking to the images that haunt me, but also recognizing how vital social media is to the revolution. I don’t know if it will change anything. I keep thinking that if social media existed during Wounded Knee, there would still be plenty of people saying “it’s complicated.” But it’s a tool we have, and it’s a tool we are still learning about. And in the book, it’s a tool I play with for the dark and the light. Ghosts are scary to face, so I also think about how social media and a poem can be of comfort.

AJ: You bring themes from your first collection, Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications, 2016), into Incantation. Readers will experience poems on migration, environment, and love, in part. And there are other things happening in Incantation, including poems dedicated to and written after specific people. How did you build this collection?

XJB: This question kind of makes me laugh. I’ve noticed with creating a second book that there are many similarities. Even the titles have parallel structure. I think it comes down to me owning that any book by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo will have Mexicans, revolution, social justice, borders, lots of pain, lots of love, and lots of flowers. It’s just who I am.

As for this particular book, it started with the Gettysburg poems. I wrote everyday while I was there, and the 20 poems in that section were all first drafted while on site. When I came home, I had the idea to create a chapbook and send it to contests. I figured publishing a chapbook had to be easier than a full-length, but it ended up being just as hard. After many rejections, someone in Women Who Submit, Andy Anderegg, said she was looking for chapbooks for a collaborative art show she was curating with the A-B Projects gallery in Downtown LA. Selected chapbooks would be handed over to sculptors to read and build shelves inspired by the work. It included a small print run. This seemed like a cool opportunity, so I submitted my chapbook, and it was accepted. The exhibit was about eight shelves each displaying one chapbook. When I went to opening night, I had the opportunity to meet the sculptor, the publisher, and the gallery owner. Everyone had read the chapbook with great interest, and this showed me that alternative paths to publication can be very fulfilling.

But I still only had 20 poems (I had also wrongly thought that by starting with a chapbook, it would be easy to expand into a full-length). By then it was 2020, so there was plenty to write about, and I started drafting more poems. When I put everything together, the new issue became how to make the other sections rise to the quality of the Gettysburg poems. I went through at least three drafts just focused on culling and order. I didn’t want it to feel uneven.

AJ: Speaking of building, how about a commercial break? Women Who Submit is an international community that you direct from Southern California. Tell us a little more about that organization for readers who are unfamiliar.

XJB: Oh, thanks for that! Sure! Women Who Submit is an action-based literary organization focused on closing the gender gap and widening representation of marginalized voices in literary publishing. Some people call us a writing group, but we don’t actually write together. We’re focused on demystifying the submission process through sharing resources, professional development, and creating supportive in person and online spaces specifically for women and nonbinary writers.

Our goal is to minimize barriers to a successful writing career, so we share information on submitting to journals, querying agents, applying for grants and fellowships, and we offer funding for application fees and even offer small travel grants for individuals attending a conference, workshop, or residency.

This summer we’ll have our third WWS Summer Workshop. Summer workshops are highly competitive and expensive, but at Women Who Submit we offer a free, online alternative. Making something like a coveted summer workshop accessible is what I hope Women Who Submit is about because everyone should have the opportunity to be in those types of spaces regardless of money, status, education, health, or family obligation.

And all our programming is free. That’s thanks to you, Ashaki. As a co-founder, you always said no one should ever have to pay for our resources, and we’ve continued that standard into our tenure.

AJ: Free is a hard practice for a nonprofit to maintain, so thanks for that labor!

The publication of Posada was very public (in the writing community). You withdrew your manuscript from one publisher due to a difference in values and searched for a more fitting home. For readers who might be on their publication journey, what was your experience finding a home for Incantation?

XJB: After the A-B Projects experience, I realized I didn’t need to focus on a contest or big publisher. I mean, I still submitted my work to those things because I believe that you can never get a yes if you say no to yourself first, but after all the rejections came back (as they do), I decided to start thinking about what communities I wanted to be involved with.

My first book was picked up by Sundress Publications. Sundress actually asked for the manuscript after I said no to that other publisher. A few places did, but most all still said, Thank you, but no thank you. Sundress said yes, and I will be forever grateful to them. It was a wonderful experience, and they do so many good things in the literary community. I was happy to be with like-minded folks. But they’re also in Tennessee, which I feel no affinity with.

My second book felt like an opportunity to seek out communities I felt a kinship with. So in seeking out a new press, I looked for presses that were feminist, BIPOC, and west coast or southwest. Mouthfeel is a Texas press, and Maria Maloney is a Chicana. Actually, the whole team is Chicana. I have huge respect for folks holding it down in Texas. They are doing important work, so Mouthfeel felt like the place for me! I submitted my manuscript to their open reading period, and it was rejected. That hurt because the partnership felt perfect, but then Maria emailed saying how much she loved Posada. She gave me notes from her readers and asked if I wanted to resubmit. By then, I had already revised the manuscript, and funny enough, all the readers’ points had been fixed, so I asked if I could send her the newest draft. I actually didn’t expect much. I kind of thought she was just being nice, but then she came back and offered to publish it.

AJ: Kismet! For those who want a preview of the book, what poem from the collection embodies Incantation?

XJB: I’d say it’s the first poem of the collection, “One Fine Day: A To Do List for the First Day of Spring.” I placed it as the prologue because I think it captures the tone of what I was trying to do with this collection. It happens to be the first poem I wrote. At that time, Trump had just been inaugurated, and my first collection, Posada, was a few months old. I was experiencing the worst anxiety I’d ever felt in my life. Besides the state of the country, I was scared of the public perception of my book. I always thought publishing a book would feel good, but it felt awful. I tried so hard to be smart and important in that first book, and when it got some minor viral attention for turning down that publishing contract, I felt even more pressure to be worth that attention. When the book came out, I was afraid everyone would now know I was a fraud. The fear was so great that I had stopped eating. The only thing that helped was taking long walks. That’s what “One Fine Day” is about. But it’s also about just being myself. Writing that poem showed me I didn’t need to be smart or important, that I could write a poem of a moment. And that’s what this book represents, the allowance to be present and myself.

One Fine Day: To Do List for the First Day of Spring
San Gabriel, March 2017

Rise and feed the cat staring you down from her corner of the bed. One scoop of food, one drag of
water, and then back to blankets.

Place head on pillow and try to recall if you dreamed last night. Try to recall if dream was nightmare,
if nightmare was memory masquerading as dream.

Listen to the helicopters circling above. Let the sound continue to confuse wake and dream, reality
and nightmare.

See the cat happily return to bed, now well-fed. Welcome the warmth of her body snuggled up
against an arm.

Consider rising. Consider reading. Consider walking. Consider the helicopters, still circling.

Answer the phone call from your mother: “There was a shooting at the Temple City sheriff station.”
Oblige her command: “Stay inside.”

Rise a second time to make coffee, answer emails, grade. Google “Temple City shooting.” Attempt
to visualize invisible city lines separating there from here.

Read the text from your 11-year-old nephew: “Stay home there was a shooting near our home and
my school.” And the next: “Take chewy inside pleas.”

Call the dog in from the yard and listen to him scratch at the door to be let back out. Watch the dog
and cat stare each other down through a plastic gate.

Try to ignore the incessant circling both outside and in.

Take a breath to push away creeping anxiety. Remember an article that said to make the bed, clean
the house, take a walk. Remember that you cannot take a walk.

In the kitchen, wash dishes, wipe down the counter. In the bathroom, scoop out the litter, replace the
roll of toilet paper. Do this while listening to Mariah Carey songs.

Notice the absence of helicopters and decide it’s your turn to leave. Grab a bag, tie sneakers, and
head for the street.

Smell perfumed air heavy with loquat. Pick a yellow berry and bite its tart meat. Feel the sticky juice
between your fingers.

Begin again.

Publication note: An earlier version of Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s “One Fine Day” appeared in a 2018 issue of The Texas Review.

Haunted at Home

Haunted, some might call it. I say, At home. The past is here, ripe and palpable, reaching out to us. Hoping we reach back.

In Search of Touch

First dates are meant to be flirtatious and giggly. In another time, we would be meeting inside a dark downtown bar. Music playing. The stench of sour liquor pinching my nose. He’d ask what I like and order me something smooth. After half a drink, the conversation would begin to flow. I’d ask him a crucial question, “What’s your favorite kind of fry?” He’d say tater tots. “What? That’s not even a fry!” I’d say shoestring dipped in blue cheese because ranch is so over. Later, because he’d be too shy to make a move, I’d ask him to kiss me. This seems to be my move in any time. And we’d make out sitting side by side on barstools all limbs and tongues.