Poet Spotlight: Ashley Miranda on surrealism, pop culture, and navigating trauma

Ashley Miranda is a latinx poet & teacher from Chicago. Most of their work is an exploration of mental health, gender, and trauma. Their poetry collection Thirteen Jars: How Xt’actani Learned to Speak was recently published by Another New Calligraphy. They have a chapbook, dolores in spanish is pain, dolores in lolita is a girl, which focuses on sexual abuse and reclaiming Dolores Haze, published by Glass Poetry. Their work has been previously featured by Yes, Poetry, Rising Phoenix Review, MAKE magazine, and other publications. They tweet impulsive poetry and other musings @dustwhispers and you can learn more about their work at agirlaloof.com.

Tell us a bit about your new chapbook, dolores in spanish is pain, dolores in lolita is a girl.  What is the collection about and how did it come into being?

The collection is primarily focused on navigating sexual childhood trauma and how pop culture compresses and complicates dealing with trauma. It’s partly a critique of pop-cultural reimagining of Lolita/Nymphets/Dolores Haze and an attempt to navigate the gravity of sexual trauma, how it reaches out and resonates, ripples into everything you see.

I first started working on poems without a clear idea of a chapbook about two and a half years ago. At first, I started with responses to Lana del Rey’s Lolita and the shop Dolls Kill, which featured a Lolita-inspired collection, both referencing Nabakov’s Lolita. Despite my love of Lana, I had an inherent issue with the idea of inhabiting Lolita in a positive light. And that’s grown. Commercialization of ‘Nymphets’ is growing – from clothes, to songs, to lipsticks. As someone who has dealt firsthand with that trauma, I felt immensely troubled by how normalized and sexualized young children were becoming through the media they were consuming.

From there, the chapbook realized itself. I wrote about trauma a lot, though I wouldn’t call myself a ‘trauma’ writer. It surfaces in my work because it needs to at times. Because I feel that the aftermath, the triggers, the PTSD, the mental health, the way others and I see the world are important. I wanted to voice that in my poems. I eventually began critiquing the novel Lolita, which is a novel that I have a hate-love relationship with and I have immense empathy for Dolores Haze, who is often an afterthought despite being the epicenter of the sensual representation of a ‘lolita’. Some of my poems are directly in response to lines describing Lolita, some poems are response to rape culture, some a response to strength. Whatever strength that those who have survived such events can capture.

You’ve noted on your website that you’re influenced by the Surrealists and Language Poets. Does this interest come into play in your chapbook? What draws you to these styles of poetry?

Sometimes! I am much more influenced by the Surrealists at this point. I tend to be drawn to word play, interesting and odd combinations of language, repetition, and the subconscious. Representations and conceptualization of bigger ideas and emotions. I love density though I understand why others may not love the lack of transparency. I have always had a difficult time articulating my emotions, whether positive or negative. Surrealist work, in particular, Tzara, Lorca (who isn’t directly a surrealist, but associated), Éluard, helped me realize that some absurd images and language could help me articulate what I never thought I could articulate before: myself. As for my chapbook, it’s not directly inspired by surrealism, however, I carry the ideas and style with me, no matter what style I write. I do love experimental work and try to write it often, but this chapbook had a meaning that was more transparent. I don’t really think of myself as any particular kind of poet, just a poet who writes what is right in the moment, for what it calls for and I’m okay with that.

You mention that these poems address sexual childhood trauma. Does poetry — both the reading and writing of — have a role in helping survivors address and come to terms with trauma? In what ways can poetry and other forms of art be beneficial and/or harmful in this regard?

I believe it can and does, in some instances, but as everyone’s trauma is different, it depends. Personally, it’s given me a voice, a way to interact. Maybe not deal with, but learn to understand myself, my emotions. I know many people feel that way. There are so many writers who have used their work as a way to put all the emotion, all that pain, on display so others many understand how deeply this affects us.

Of course, there will be some who find it overwhelming. Even I find it overwhelming at times. There was an anthology that I was a part of, titled A Shadow Map: An Anthology by Survivors of Sexual Assault, which was edited by the amazing Joanna C. Valente, and when I revisit it, I can be overwhelmed. Scared. It can be beneficial, to know you are not alone, to know this trauma has shaped you and others and you are just trying to live.

It would be foolish to say there is no downside. Reliving your trauma is traumatic. When the #MeToo movement became public discourse, many found it damaging and painful as victims. Some unready to speak and forced to bear witness again and again. Some have no safety net. No coping mechanism. No health, no friends. Even I withdrew for a while during that time, finding the material triggering and difficult. Art is beneficial and harmful. There is no way around it, especially depending on the power of those who wield art as a weapon. We can do our best to bring our truths out into the world. I also think we must be held accountable for those truths when they hurt others.

What was your writing process for creating your chapbook. How did you decide on the title and arrangement of the poems? What was the revision process like?

I feel that creation was almost the easiest part. I had things to say, comments to make, and I did so in the way that was most natural to me: poetry. Generally, I write when I have ideas and I tend to stick to themes. I love chapbooks and mini-chapbooks. I write poems that don’t belong with the rest of my work too, but generally, I like to have an idea of what I am doing. Unfortunately, that means I either write or don’t write. But I think consumption of others work, of art, helps my writing process. I’m a loner with writing. I write and write and write when I feel the need to write.

Revision, on the other hand, is difficult. One of the hardest things to do is look at your own work and say ‘Okay, I must have fucked up, because this is going nowhere’. But where is the error? It takes a lot of self-reflection and critique.

In true honesty, if it were not for rejections, I would have not rethought my chapbook. I reached out to a close friend and writer, Ryn Weil, and asked them to look at my layout. What was missing that I needed to change? What was I missing? They made suggestions and I saw my chapbook with clarity because I chose to ask others for help. I hope we continue to build communities where people feel less isolated and more inclined to ask for feedback. Especially outside of academia.

As for the title, I grew up in a Spanish speaking home. I found it funny, in a dark humor way, the connection between pain/dolor/dolores. Dolores Haze. Myself. It just happened. Sometimes, things like that just happen. I wish I could say it was brilliance, that I toiled over the name, but one day I sat down and wrote the title down. Never considered any other title.

It seems like community is important to you as a writer. How do you stay connected to community and how can others help build communities for themselves?

Community is so important! There seems to be a myth that MFA programs or any program builds community, but often, that is not the case. And it’s not the most accessible way to build community. I find that the online world, despite the downsides, has been incredibly loving and supportive. Individuals that I’ve met via the poetry twitter-sphere are amazing humans! Plus, the ability to share your work, your thoughts, be frank and self-promote (as awkward as that is) is vital to keeping the community growing. And it is thriving!

Honestly, the best way is to reach out. Read the work of others. Read literary journals, online, print. Go to readings, if you can, but if not, reach out online! We need to build a more accessible community. Readings that can be streamed. Interactions that go beyond “engagement”. Most of us don’t bite and are willing to help and guide others. I think that community has been encouraging. Be honest! Support each other! Find your kin. They’re out there, looking for you!

Who do you look up to as your literary heroes and heroines?

Oof, this is definitely a hard question! Old school, I have a big old soft spot for John Milton. Federico García Lorca. Sylvia Plath. ANNE CARSON, very big influence on me. Rae Armantrout. And, from the amazing current scene, José Olivarez, H.Melt, Jay Besemer, Joanna C. Valente, Olivia Cronk, Isobel O’Hare, Anthony Frame, Carleen Tibbetts, Caseyrenée Lopez, Roy Guzmán, Daniel Borzutzky, and a million other writers who are amazing and pushing boundaries in a beautiful way. I wish I could list every poet ever since I feel that poetry is a communal experience that has had nothing but positive impacts on me, as a poet, as a human.

Also, the writer who influenced me the most since I was young was Mark Z. Danielewski. Without House of Leaves, I definitely would not be here.

Do you have a particular place where you like to write? Any particular materials you prefer to use (paper and pen, computer, notecards, etc.)?

I’m of two worlds, I tend to type and handwrite. I carry a notebook around. Generally, I like to write on trains, because I commute a lot. Usually, I need to be alone or in a particular headspace. I don’t like people looking over my shoulders as I work!

What is something about you that people might find surprising?

Probably that I don’t understand music much! I love it and I love certain bands/songs, but music is very chaotic and difficult for me to understand. Is it a guitar? A bass? What? I don’t know. I’m very transparent otherwise about who I am. A dorky, silly human who has very serious thoughts and concerns.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

I have a mini-chapbook coming out at the end of summer with Ghost Poetry Press titled no faithfulness in my mouth and I’ll be in the Erase the Patriarchy anthology later this year (edited by Isobel O’Hare). Also, I am working here and there on a poetry collection about anxiety. I hope the world can expect me to continue to be true to myself: being experimental, emotional, and kind.