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Interview with Brenda Vaca

Brenda Vaca's book, Riot of Roses, will debut this Friday, December 3rd at 7 pm. Click here to RSVP.


Sandra: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. If you could tell me a little bit about yourself, where did you grow up, what do you currently do, and how do you spend your time?

Brenda: Let’s see. My name is Brenda Vaca. I grew up in South Whittier, Southeast LA County Unincorporated. I always like to say that ‘unincorporated’ part of Whittier. Down the street, down Florence. Far from the library when there’s traffic, but if there’s not I get home pretty quick. I was born in Huntington Park at Mission hospital, which no longer exists, but I like to say that because my family basically moved down Imperial Highway and Florence and there we are in Whittier.

Right now I’m working with the Community Literature Initiative. I’m in the admissions department, so I’m assisting Kauhmel and Ebony to recruit students, to interview students for our publishing class and our Children’s book class. I’m also gonna be doing work with Charisse Sims with the Children’s book class. I’m gonna serve as her TA. I also just recently founded a publishing house (both whoo) called Riot of Roses Publishing House. Excited to release my first book on December 3rd. I am a gig worker, so for the cold hard cash over the pandemic because my job was also affected, I was doing DoorDash. I still do that every now and then, so I am slanging and delivering food for people.

A lot of my time is taking care of my family. I live with my two elder parents who are both in their 80s and that requires a lot of time, so working with CLI from home has helped a lot, because I can keep an eye on things, make sure the house doesn’t burn down, and make sure everyone takes care of business.

S: That actually takes me to a tangent question. What brought you to the Sims Library of Poetry?

B: The way I got to Sims was by way of CLI. I had been working on my poetry manuscript for a while, but I was pretty undisciplined and I was trying to gather my poems and trying to create some kind of book but I didn’t have a sense of direction. I didn’t have a sense of focus. Just had a bunch of really messy poems. I came across a post on Instagram for CLI, and I applied. My first call was from Kuahmel, who is now my colleague, and he hooked me up with an interview which was a positive experience. I got admitted to the program with CLI, and that’s how I got connected to the Sims Library.

With the Sims in particular my first real interaction was serving as a volunteer to do some fundraising for the 44 campaign. I put in some volunteer hours. That was the first time I came here, and it looked so different from what it looks like now. Every time I come here it looks different and it feels different and there are new faces. It’s good to see how it’s grown! That’s how I got to Sims. Since then I’ve been to book releases, and the opening in July that happened, and now staff meetings.

S: Now we’re gonna go into your book because I do want that to be highlighted in this. So it’ll be in the newsletter, but then we’re also gonna post it online on our blog, and I can send you the link so you can share it & others can learn about what you’re doing. What is the title of your book? Can you tell me a bit about it, and the process of getting to your books, and then -- well I’ll save the other question because I gave you two right now.

B: So the title of my book is Riot of Roses: A Collection of Poetry. It’s 180 thick pages (S: beautiful pages). Yay, thank you! Sandra was one of my primary readers so that was wonderful, but let’s see… What is it? I’m still trying to come up with my little elevator speech. What is this thing about? The short kind of poetic way I describe it is that this book is at once a confrontation, a confession, and an embrace. I do talk a lot about different themes and subjects in my book. I talk a lot about love, different kinds of love—divine love, romantic love, filial love among friends and family—so I talk a lot about love and a theme that runs through the book that people have mentioned is heartache and heartbreak. So I do talk quite a bit about that. I say that that’s the thorns in my book. My writing can be sharp at times and might be difficult for some audiences to digest but I also talk a lot about healing and for me, the healing in the book is the way, you know if we’re looking at a metaphorical rose, is the blooms of the book. So those are some themes that run through my book.

I do cover a lot of spirituality, like a lot of spiritual themes and threads and metaphors run through my book. My teacher in CLI, Tommy Domino, actually says that my book is about liberation. He sees a lot of liberative themes that run through my book, which I love to hear that because for me writing has been very healing, but it’s also been a way to set myself free from different ways I have been bound by my culture, my gender, or, you know, what has been imposed on me, not like my own personal perception. Now it’s like I am constructing my own personal understanding of who I am as a person, as a poet, mujer, as a Chicanx, Chicana with an x. I like to spell it with an x.

S: We love x’s!

B: We love x’s and yeah, a lot of that. There are blooming themes, but there are also roots. I talk about roots quite a bit and as I said probably the middle of my book is pretty heavy for me where I cover some heavy issues. Some people might see it as a book of confessions, which it kind of is, but as a writer you know we get creative and we have active imaginations. There are stories that we encounter that we thread through our stories and our own poems.

S: Thank you.

B: I need to work on that elevator speech.

S: No, you’re good. This is all beautiful. Help me, help me. Could you speak about the process of getting to your book, because I know you started your publishing house? If you can walk me through, say, from the drafting process to what you have now?

B: Before class, it was a hot mess. Actually, it started as seven mini volumes. I toyed with the idea of doing zines or mini chapbooks because I had a lot of material and I had a sense of urgency to put it all out. But when I did the class—the manuscripts—started to take shape. We’re told to add all of our poems, so I had like 250 pages at one point and I was like “This is insane. Who is going to read this? Who’s going to read 181? I don’t even know.” (S: Me! [both laugh]) It was a lot, but it morphed. I got feedback from teachers, other readers, and I was studying more specifically how other poetry volumes are organized. I started to think “Well how do I want this to be a piece of art, like a work of art, that I construct?” I’m not very linear in my thinking, so my book isn’t chronological and I don’t think it’s very linear. I see it as very much like a riot, which is why I’m good with my title, Riot of Roses. (S: I love your title by the way.)

Yeah, I’ve gotten great feedback about the title. Actually, the title poem, “Riot of Roses” I wrote before the uprisings happened when everyone saw what had happened to George Floyd. I think I wrote that poem like the week before. I think it had technically already happened, but we weren’t seeing it en masse. That has an impact on my work, even though I don’t think people would necessarily call my work political, but because I use so much imagery and symbolism, for me, it still is political. Anything to do with the personal is political.

The construction of the book started taking shape in class. I got feedback from Tommy Domino, and Ravina Whadwani, and Diosa X. She was my classmate and I always tell her “You are the poet I was waiting for my whole life.” She writes really beautifully about recovering our Indigenous identity and I’ve needed that in my development, as a person and also as a writer, as a poet. I love following her work. Adana Moriarty—who was a classmate of mine—she’s the writer of Threadbare. Diosa is the writer of A Church of My Own. I’m giving shoutouts, I’m always gonna do that. They helped shape, and I say midwife, this book. Helped bring it to life.

I started sculpting it, started shedding some pages that I loved. I loved some of my pieces but I said “This will be for my next volume, or maybe this will be a piece that I send to an anthology.” There are 3 pieces that are part of the LA Poets Society Anthology, LA Poets for Justice, that I left to exist in that anthology. It’s been a process, and it was a lot of editing. A lot of going back and forth. I did participate in the author draft that happened with season 8 CLI last spring, and I did get a contract from a publishing house. I was thrilled to get that contract, but at the same time their calendar didn’t line up with my calendar. I don’t know if it’s because of my age and we’re living in a pandemic, or my parents’ ages as well, but I had this sense of urgency like I need to get this out and it needs to happen this year, 2021. I started seeing other people doing self-publishing, or really small houses, like micro businesses. I was inspired by that. Seeing their leadership, and saying “You know what, I’m gonna try my hand at this.” I come from a family that is very entrepreneurial, so I said “I can do this.” I’ve been building for other people, all of my jobs have been to build—projects, systems for organizations—so I said I’m gonna try my hand at doing what I want to do. My own personal project. I’m gonna try to build for me. I’m gonna try to raise money for a project that I’ve created, and a vision that I have. That’s where Riot of Roses Publishing House came from, and I landed on that name because I didn’t want to procrastinate.

S: Like a reminder?

B: Yeah, as a reminder, and then also if I thought too much about the perfect name for a house— at one point it was going to be Guayaba House, and that may be an in print of the publishing house one day—(S: I love guayabas. B: I love guayabas too) I write about guayabas in my book so it’ll exist somewhere, but I didn’t want to get stuck in what should I call it and then not do it. That sense of urgency was propelling me forward.

S: This is the perfect enriching moment.

B: You’re good at this.

S: Thank you! The third question I have for you—which I know is a difficult question for poets—what is your favorite poem from your collection? Maybe if that’s a difficult question I can change it to what poem speaks to your current moment?

B: So the one that came to mind almost immediately and the ones I’ve been performing the most lately is called “I Am A Rooted Tree.” It’s one of my shorter poems because I write really long poems often because my process is to audio when I write first drafts, so it’s very spoken word mixed with oral storytelling. “I Am A Rooted Tree” feels like where I am in this moment, and it’s one of the last poems in my book. I’ve included some poems that are twenty years old that I re-edited with my 45-year-old eyes on, and 2021 and 2020 distance. I actually heard a little talk today that talked about the Queen of Pentacles is a rooted tree and I was like “Duh, because it’s just a sense of groundedness and rootedness and no matter what kind of difficulties or the storms that come, my roots are strong enough to sustain me. I might bend and lose some leaves, but I am a rooted tree and I’m here.” That feels very much like me claiming and standing in my power. So I like that poem.

S: That was like a perfect response.

B: Yay! [both laugh]

S: This one’s gonna take you back, so pre-CLI. More about your journey as a writer. Like your earliest memory of writing.

B: My earliest memory of writing was really early on. You know some writers say that, and people roll their eyes, but it’s true for a lot of writers. I became literate and I come from a family of oral storytellers. My mom and my dad are great storytellers. On both sides of my family, people love to talk and would just chatter stories and memories and just be constantly sharing. I think a lot of our Latinx cultures are very oral story-based, so it was definitely in my DNA. I became literate when my dad was learning English. He would take us to the library all the time: Whittier Public Library. We would go like every weekend, we were at the public library. Just reading, reading, reading. Once I learned how to write for myself, I started creating little stories. I don’t know... 6, 7, 8-years-old? I remember I had a little story I would write and my dad would pay me a dollar for a completed story. Incentive. Monetized compensation. That was really my first experience.

I would watch Little House on the Prairie. Little Women is one of my favorite stories. Seeing these women writers, and then later being exposed in high school to Sandra Cisneros, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Lorna Dee Cervantes… Seeing people like me or that sound like me—like our families sound the same, the English and the Spanish—for me, that made it very possible. That made it seem really feasible for me to be a writer.

I was an English major and Creative Writing minor in college. I went to UC Berkeley. My plan was to go get an MFA like everybody else, in either fiction or poetry. I got shot down. All the schools I applied to. I was always someone where I would do something and I would be a quick study and doors would open, doors would open, doors would open... This was one of the first times in my life where doors didn’t open.

Obviously, it wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t gonna be a part of my journey, but it left a wound. I stopped sharing writing publicly for almost two decades. Long time. I kept writing—I can show you the plastic bins of notebooks—a ridiculous amount of writing. Kept writing. I did do some open mics in my early 30s with my church actually. I had a different mindset at the time. I was a pastor at the time. I just had a different mindset, I had a mask on. I wasn’t showing my true self, my true voice, that was just it. Then I left. I did keep writing. I was writing sermons for a decade in English and Spanish. Sometimes I would do it on the fly, impromptu because of time. You know time is a factor if you’re working a lot. I would prepare and then I would just go up to the pulpit and jump. I had a lot of practice doing that, and then I started audio recording my writing when I was short on time as a prep and that helped. That actually moved me into being really productive with poetry because it just kept coming out as poetry. I was like “Oh yeah, I’m a writer.” But I was a writer that wasn’t writing. At least, not the writing I wanted to write, which was poetry or stories.

Maybe the last six years is when it really kicked up a notch, but the pandemic put a fire under my tail. This needs to get out into the world now. I’ve been neglecting this side of myself, and I was seeing other writers like Yesika Salgado (S: love her) blowing up. Thinking like “What have I been doing?” It really gave me a sense of urgency to put my work out there.

S: With that sense of urgency, can you speak about what motivates you to write? From what you told me previously, it feels like a lot of community-based, people-based, people-focused relationships. How we engage with one another. Could you speak more about that?

B: It just feels like I write because I have to. If I don’t write I feel off-balance, I don’t feel my best. I don’t feel healthy when I don’t write. I think because I have a lot of… I don’t know if it’s the thoughts in my head that need to come out or the feelings in my heart that need to come out. If we think of the muse or the spirit that we’re channeling or a message that needs to be said, and that’s where the sense of urgency comes from. If my heart’s beating about something, then I need to say something or my heart’s not going to stop beating.

I also think that’s where my sense of urgency comes from. I heard it from a poet that I love to follow named Octavio Quintanillia. He’s in San Antonio, Texas and he’s a visual artist. Other poets that I’ve been following the last couple of years talk about the importance of documenting our stories because we haven’t been. Our stories were not documented for a very long time, or very sporadically when they pass us the mic, and now it’s so easy to have the mic. It’s at our fingertips. I think the digital world we live in has created that possibility. For me, it’s now about taking up space and seeing the importance of not just my own story, but the story of others. Everybody has a story. I love to tell people to tell me a story. I remember saying that as a young person, and now I know why. It’s so important because we were silenced for so long. 500 years? Long time. Now it’s document, document, document. Our stories are important, they need to be heard. It brings healing, collective healing, and personal healing too.

S: I like how that’s also sort of the trajectory of your book. The thorns and then you have healing.

B: The healing comes from, I believe they call it, transmutation. From something difficult, something beautiful can come. I’ve been obsessed lately—I didn’t think of it at the time—with mushrooms that can grow in the dark. I love mushrooms. (S: I love mushrooms too) I know not everyone loves them, but they’re a thing of beauty and they’re interesting and they’re medicine in some cases.

A lot of people will talk about the darkness or ‘black vs white’ vs ‘dark vs light’. I try not to use that language, which is why I dug into the roots, into the thorns. We need all those things. I have a poem called “Light and Darkness.” We need all of that. It’s part of growing. I don’t think we should necessarily put value like “this is good” and “this is bad” or “this is better” and “this is worse.” It just is. What are we going to do with it? It exists. Transmute the difficult for the beautiful, because that’s how it grows. I love OutKast. They say “roses smell like poo-poo.” [both laugh] It’s true. We need the manure to make them grow. It’s a little silliness, but it’s true.

S: What do you see yourself doing in the future? The future can be in the next hour. The future can be in the next week. It can be in the next year, it can be in the next five years, it can be in December when your book comes, it can be whatever you want it to be.

B: Immediately I’m planning to recruit and enroll three students for the Children’s Book Class. Every time I talk to these prospective writers I get body chills. My skin just ripples. I love hearing people's concepts for their books. I'm an emotional creature. I'm a Pisces. I’m a poet. I get emo big time. I love it. I love scouting out writers and talent.

I also see myself having a book release, hopefully here at the Sims Library of Poetry. I plan to perform some poems in front of my community and my loved ones and then also invite other writers to read. I love to lift up other voices. That’ll be in December.

Next year I hope to put out a book of mine, another book under Riot of Roses Publishing House, but I also hope to publish 2 or 3 other titles that are not mine from other writers. I do have a couple of manuscripts sitting in my inbox. It's so trippy and wild that people are already sending it in my direction. That's the universe moving.

In ten years’ time, I would love to be [published by] Graywolf Press. I know those are big dreams, but hey, let’s dream big. Why not?

Having an imprint for children’s books, an imprint for books in Español, and I would love an imprint of books in Indigenous languages, specifically so-called Latin-American, like Nahuatl. I’ve been interacting with more communities that write poetry in Nahuatl and other [Indigenous] languages. For me, it’s like music. Acquiring that language for myself, being able to reclaim that language that belongs to my ancestors, and then also creating a space for it. Because again, the documentation and having it available in the United States, I haven’t seen much of that.

It’s so important for us to reclaim our language, our culture, our spirituality—the beauty and the power of our ancestors. For me I’m trying to manifest that for myself because the veil is thin, they say.

S: Earlier you mentioned that the pandemic put a fire under you. There were two writers in the pandemic: the writer who couldn't stop writing and then there was the writer who could not write. It seems like you were the first one. Could you talk about how the pandemic affected you as a writer, but also as a person?

B: The pandemic was good to me, [laughs] in terms of my writing. Because you’re right, I couldn’t stop writing.

I walk a lot as a spiritual practice and also as exercise but I really kicked it up a notch. I went daily. Early in the pandemic, it was twice daily so I was getting a lot of steps in. I started taking better care of my vessel and my interior self because I’ve neglected her for a long long time. I am a recovering codependent. I am a Mexican woman, a Chicanx, putting everyone first, everyone first, and all my stuff was by the wayside. So for me, the pandemic was really claiming me again.

With that came my writing, my writer’s voice. I tell people it’s funny because I’m a loud person, but when it comes to my poetry, I have old recordings of myself and it’s almost like I’m whispering. I don’t even recognize myself.

The more I walked, the more I recorded. I'm sure my neighbors thought I was crazy because I was crying, had my mask on, speaking poems, or other things, but for me that was cathartic. It was a reclamation of myself. I had been a ghost, silent for two decades, so it was time. I was overdue. My throat chakra needed to be unblocked.

Being in the CLI community helped because it was read every day, write every day. I started transcribing old stuff. It was helpful to see how my page count was exploding.

I feel sad to hear about how others went silent, but I think with the pandemic we all had to learn how to take care of ourselves first and then take care of our extended beloveds in our little micro-communities that we had. Our little familias. I have a sense of grief for the writer who wasn’t able to write, but I was that person for 20 years. 20 years... A year and a half, people, you’re gonna get through it.

It makes me a little sad because I know how heavy that time can be. But again, mushrooms grow in the dark. I told myself in those years “I’m in a gestation process,” but boy, that gestation process was long in my case. I come from a family of late bloomers. It’s ok. It takes as long as it needs to take.

S: What’s something you want people to know about you that maybe they won’t learn from your Instagram, or from your Twitter or other social media?

B: For a long time, I wanted people to know that I used to be a pastor because it was like a fun fact. I was a pastor for a decade. Maybe another fun fact is that I didn't get kicked out of the church. I left the church. I surrendered my ordination. There are a lot of rumors out there and people think I was technically charged or backed in the corner to surrender (that's the language that the church uses) my ordination. I was backed into a corner, but it wasn’t by the church, it was by the spirit. The word I heard was exodus. ‘Get out.’

I didn’t understand it so much at the time, but now that I see what’s been happening specifically at the boarding schools. I'm like “oh, yes, this is why.” I went to Central America. Some of it is in my book. There’s definitely a whole book I need to write about that journey—a Chicanx in Central America. It changed my life. It was only 10 days but I was on a pilgrimage, an interfaith pilgrimage. I met a lot of different faith groups, most of them Christians, just different traditions. I would hear horror stories about what happened in the 80s, how some CIA agents were hiding out as missionaries, about the atrocities, the desecration that happened. That happens still. Ultimately, that’s why I left the church. I want people to know that. I haven’t been able to articulate it. So that’s one fun fact. No, not a fun fact. That’s a fact that I'm finally understanding 6 years later.

I was so invested in the Christian community for so long and the Christian community obviously carries so much empire in it. I still struggle with that. I want people to know I struggle with that, and it should be struggled with. I'm angry at the rest of the people in the church that aren’t talking about what’s happening at the boarding schools. That pisses me off. I want people to know about that too. We’re accountable for that.

I don't know if I made a weird left turn there...

S: No, no, it’s a good reflection time. I can use it to pivot to the next question. I guess this is a little cute question. If you could share one piece of advice with young Brenda, what would it be?

B: Young Brenda, don’t wait for your midlife crisis to write your first book. [both laugh] And Brenda, don’t be so self-conscious, you’re strong and beautiful. I would say that to other young women, who need to hear that message. We don’t hear it often enough, at least my generation. I think your generation is doing a much better job.

S: We tell each other.

B: You tell each other. We didn’t tell each other. We did a little bit but not really.

We carried a lot of trauma. But again, transmuting. Every generation is transmuting. We’ve arrived at a beautiful place. Back then, no one was telling us. We were being told “you’re too brown,” “don’t stay in the sun too long,” “you’re too fat,” “you’re too loud,” “your hair is too long,” “your hair is too greasy,” “you sound different.” Any number of things. Negative, negative, negative.

Young person, you are beautiful. Young person, you sound wonderful. You are talented. You are good. You are powerful, diosa. I love that word, diosa. You’re a diosa.

That’s what I would tell her. Come out from under the table, young Brenda. [laughs] I’m a heavy poet, so I turn the cute questions into something.

S: It’s still cute. This is a really pretty thing to share.

B: Yes, agree with what Brenda says. [both laugh]

S: What does a day in the life of Brenda feel like? Can you walk me through it?

B: I’ve never had so much routine in my life as lately because I've had to. Because

I’ve been balancing multiple jobs and family life.

I’ll do a weekday.

Weekday. I wake up, I take my dogs out, make sure their needs are taken care of, make sure the cats’ needs are taken care of. I’m surrounded by animals. I feel like I live on a farm. I go outside, get some fresh air. Make some coffee. If I wake up early enough, which has been happening lately, I go for a walk. So, I’m putting my animals and my needs at the top of my day. Then I come home, get ready, plug into CLI and start making calls. I’m doing that from 9 - 1, Monday thru Friday.

Then from there, I take a break and I usually make lunch for my family. Every now and then, my parents have appointments, it just depends on the day. I take them to a doctor’s appointment, run an errand for them, pick up medication, that kinda stuff. Very caregiver-type stuff.

If it’s my off-day from my second job, I start digging into my own poetry stuff. Lately, it’s been the business of poetry instead of the writing of poetry. If I'm doing the writing of poetry, I'm doing it during my walk. Walking meditation. Writing time.

If I do have to plug in for work, usually at the end of the week is when it’s busiest. Start delivering food, working, slinging, then I come home and, lately with my Riot of Roses project, it has been come back to work on Kickstarter. Job, job, job. That’s what it’s felt like lately.

I do my best on the weekends. On Sunday mornings, at the top of my morning, is doing yoga.

Yesterday I didn't work, so that was glorious. It was my nephew's birthday so I got to do family stuff. I’ve been trying to weave in fun and hanging out with friends as well during the week. I can't do it every day, obviously. Nobody can. I try to make sure I see my friends Chach and Jen on Thursdays. Maybe go to a wine tasting. We did that a couple of weeks ago. It was good. Go for a hike.

That’s what my day looks like. A lot of work lately because I've been in the book production phase and the publishing house establishing phase, [laughs] and I think with entrepreneurs, not just creators, but people that are building a business, you’re working, hustling, 24/7 until it gets rooted. Then you’re like “Ok I can take a break, I can rest.”

I do tend to be on the workaholic side. This is why I try to put myself at the top of each day. I’m at least getting my exercise in and hanging out with my animals. They’re my self-care too. A lot of family in the middle of the day.

S: Our final question, which is more because we’re a library, are there any writers you look up to? You mentioned a few previously. Anyone else you’d like to list?

B: Nikki Giovanni is one of my faves. Love love love her.

Maya Angelou, definitely. The beauty and simplicity of her language, I always aspire to and can never ever attain, [laughs] but she’s glorious to me. Love her writing. Who else do I love?

Gris Muñoz. Do you know Gris? She wrote Coatlicue Girl. I’ve been stalking the Texas writers lately.

Irene Silva. She wrote Hibiscus Tacos. That just came in the mail and it’s beautiful.

I mentioned Lorna Dee Cervantes. I actually had the privilege of reading her book prior to it being printed. For her most recent collection, I did a little blurb. She is one of my all-time faves and I just love her voice. Love how it has changed over time.

There should be men in this story...

S: Should there?

B: I loved Shakespeare as a young person growing up, so eventually I would love to do a collection of sonnets, but that’s a work in progress.

I would love to say Pablo Neruda, but I've heard he’s a desgraciado lately.

S: Oh yeah, I’ve heard that too.

B: It’s hard to put him on that list. I do love his stuff. How do we love him? It is what it is.

S: I think loving him in context. That’s how I’ve been trying to go about it.

B: He’s been such an important writer. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love so many writers.


Brenda Vaca's book, Riot of Roses, will debut this Friday, December 3rd at 7 pm. Click here to RSVP.

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