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Last Modified: June 15, 2023
Feature Image: Jenna Butler Interviews Luciana Erregue-Sacchi
Jenna Butler interviews Luciana Erregue-Sacchi

JB: Your new chapbook, Of Mothers & Madonnas, opens with an invitation to the reader to come with you into your past, in which a beloved book gifted by your parents, Mi museo maravilloso, disappeared. The book introduced you to a lifelong love of art; it also, in its vanishing, became representative of the concept of being “disappeared,” something that was happening to many youth in Argentina at the time. Can you speak about this crucial blending of art and language to reveal and to hide in your book?

LES: When you grow up in a dictatorship, you grow up paranoid and very afraid of your own thoughts. And so the visual not only gave me information that the government was not producing, but it also was a bit of a talisman against the terror that was surrounding me. It was an escape and it was a shield. Some people have read my words and said, “I read your words, and they’re so mysterious!” It’s not just because of the language; people who speak Spanish have also told me that. It’s not deliberate, but I think there’s this survival instinct (that’s exacerbated by immigrating and trying to blend in) of concealing and revealing. It’s like the way painting works: what you show and what you don’t, or as I say in one of the poems, the “private cinema.” The flotsam and the jetsam—it’s all these images and all these memories that appear at different times as I walk to do my errands, or as a newcomer when I was first in my apartment in Vancouver, or even when first arriving, going downstairs and physically sensing I was in the street I lived in in Argentina. But instead, it was in Canada. It’s this dislocation that I had no words for at the time, and luckily I was able to process it through imagery, and later on, it became the poetry volume that you’ve read.

JB: Ahh, thank you. I have a question later on that has to do with the collages in the chapbook as well because of that sense of what you’re revealing through the collages and the interplay between the visual and the written. Yes, I absolutely understand that sense of obfuscation and revelation here. I’ve read through your chapbook five or six times now, and every time I do so, I see more things surfacing and so many ways in which images or memories are pushed down because, as you say, of immigration, or because of fear, or perhaps because of people who are no longer there who are tied to these images. It’s a fascinating collection: for such a small book, it has many rich layers to it.

LES: I think that’s the beauty of poetry! Susan Sontag said, “Speak like caressing, write like slapping,” or something along those lines, and that’s exactly what poetry allows us to do. Also, it helps me to become strong in my identity and to defy these traditional ideas of South American and Latin American femininity: the compliant, the docile. No, I’m not. I feel female in my body, one hundred percent, but my brain is one hundred percent male. So there’s that dichotomy I sense coming out in my poetry. There’s this kind of gut punch, this kind of economy of language that is purposeful and direct.

JB: I saw that throughout the collection. I went straight to the poem “The World’s Oldest Colour,” the pussy poem, while you were talking just now! I really like that idea of the economy of language subverting what we’re allowed to say, the cultural expectations of how we should behave, or how we should think.

There are so many boundaries placed on how you’re allowed to think in this book, both culturally and politically, and I can see you working your way around them as a writer and as a person. What am I allowed to say? What do I have to say? What am I impelled to say?

This leads into my next question: In the poem “The Golden Mean,” you speak of “a golden apricot / like the ones back home, inside [your] throat” (23–24). Tell us more about this golden apricot, what it is and how it rises, becoming more self-evident through the chapbook and through your work with your own press as well.

LES: This is the beauty of having a sensitive reader go through your book five times! Sometimes, writers have no idea of the impact one simple word or expression can have in terms of how readers evaluate the whole volume. Your question is an epiphany; I will really have to think a lot about it. It’s almost like doing therapy: what did I mean about the golden apricot? If we refer to how I went from writing to publishing, I would have to say that golden apricot is rejection. We could say that that golden apricot trapped inside my throat is this sort of not understanding rejection, but that’s something all writers can relate to. It’s how we deal with rejection, and when you’re in a position of using English as a second language, there are people who are thrilled that your work is another way of using English, but the reality is that it’s English as a second language. It’s not the Queen’s English, it’s a different use of English, and how are we dealing with that? People like me exist and have the right to write and publish, and so that all became larger than myself when I saw around me people like me who were being rejected for positions of writers in residence, for positions of poets laureate, for acceptance into anthologies. Why do we have to pay so many dues for so long—even writers who are fully established in their home countries? Why do we have to come from a place or under a label of being “underrepresented”? Why can’t we just write? As immigrants, we’re perceived as these cardboard figures as soon as we set foot in a different country, and there’s the fear of people around us of asking the wrong questions, of not knowing which place to put us in. That golden apricot, when it opens, it says, “We’re people, and we’re just like you! We’re not better because we’re immigrants. We’re the same people you are.” That golden apricot, it wants to be a mirror as well.

Following on the figure of the golden apricot as a mirror, I’m very grateful for someone like Adriana Oniță, who saw this need to showcase writers like her, who write and think in many languages, again, mirroring the changing literary and linguistic landscape of Canada. My editorial output operates the same way as the apricot poem, I cannot divide the two activities. The big golden apricot inside my throat is the reason why I launched my press [Laberinto], showcasing the deeply diverse range of experiences from hyphenated writers who call Canada home, while finding common ground with the large Canadian community of readers who have been born here. The metaphor of the apricot also refers to the question of “Who’s your audience,” because it gets asked over and over and over again. As much as it’s well-intentioned and it makes me reflect on my writing, I have to perform double labour, to focus on my actual creative process and to endlessly ponder on its relevance to some imaginary standard “Canadian reader.” I don’t know if a person who speaks English as a first language gets asked “Who’s your audience?” but I do get asked that, and that makes me really sad.

JB: Yes, it’s almost like this sense of a box coming at you, as though you’re being asked to figure out where people can slot you. I think you’ve made a fantastic point: Do first-language English speakers get asked that, or are there assumptions made about how and with whom their work will land. Thank you. I really appreciate the way you’ve opened the whole book, and this rich discussion, through the image of the golden apricot.

This leads into the next question I have for you, about the poem “Forgetting Euskadi.” You bookend the poem with your experience as an immigrant. You open and end with what you have been required to forget. Even the language of customs in the poem, “Anything to declare?”, is so layered. Where does one even start? You leave things out to make life more survivable on entering this new country. But I’m intrigued: Do you find yourself speaking more now at this point in your life toward the “baggage,” as you put it, in the poem?

LES: Definitely. Definitely. I’m trying to unload it. And finding at fifty-five that I have Asperger’s, and how the strangeness that accompanies that sense of alienation you experience when you immigrate is compounded; but can also be traced back home, so it helps you make sense of who you are, even if you move places. So this diagnosis is like, “Oh my gosh, maybe this is why I see things in the way that I see them.” It colours my world, and that’s why the poems are about images as much as they are about words, and words as place. That’s one thing I always like to say, and I think it was Lucia Berlin who first said it, and I love her writing: It’s that idea of words as geography. When you’ve been tossed around so much, you find in words your sense of home. So that helps you unpack all this baggage. If you want a further metaphor for this book, it’s like “I’m opening all this luggage, and here are all the things that I brought with me.”

JB: I’m very curious about this stitching together of language and history, and of course, the poem I went to in the chapbook that exemplifies that is “La bordadora de Harrods, Argentina (Mi abuela, Juana Laboureau) / The Embroiderer from Harrods, Argentina (my grandmother, Juana Laboureau).”

LES: That’s the second poem I wrote. I wrote my first poem at eight and my second poem at forty-eight, which was bizarre. So in “The Embroiderer from Harrods, Argentina,” I had to make sense of my grandmother because she was this larger-than-life character. At the time I wrote it, I had just finished my Master’s and didn’t know what to do with my life quite yet, and I needed a way into myself, my mature self, and I had to look back to my lineage and who I carry with me. Her voice and her way of being in the world really spoke to me. I needed her strength. My grandma was a person who would watch boxing matches at two in the morning, smoking while she sewed. She always said that she hated being a woman (I don’t), but I imagine her being a young woman in 1930 and having to conform to society. She was this person that with only Grade Four; she could talk politics, and she was feisty. My mom says that she would argue with the train station porters because the train was delayed and she needed to get to Buenos Aires with those pieces of fabric that she had sewn, or she needed to pick up fabric. It was her livelihood, and she was not going to let the train stop her from getting to Buenos Aires on time! My mom was always so embarrassed. My grandma died when I was eight, and I saw her suffer a lot throughout her cancer battle (she died of metastatic breast cancer). As she was dying, she didn’t stop making things for others. She would make berets, crochet berets, for everyone in our family, and that’s the way she coped with the pain. She is such an example for me that every chance I have to read that poem, I read it. I have two left hands; I can’t sew to save my life, I can’t embroider, and I wish I had her hands of gold and her optimistic spirit. I wanted to capture some of that in the poem. So the poem is a set of words to conjure up my strength, to summon up my strength when I don’t have it.

JB: It’s almost a talisman in a way. I was thinking, too, that you might not have her sewing ability, but as you’ve talked so far about spending your life trying to step outside some of these expectations placed on women, it definitely sounds like you have that thread pulled through from your grandmother.

LES: I’m sure she would be happy to see me in that way. Or surprised, I don’t know! There’s that trite saying, “You are your grandparents’ wildest dreams.” She was a maid, actually. She started as a maid, and I don’t think in her wildest dreams she would have imagined that she would end up having a grandchild who was a poet and lives in Canada and writes in English. Just too bizarre!

JB: You definitely share the strength, for sure. I’ve been thinking so much about the flow of languages in your book, and the flow between places, and navigating both. There are instances when the flow pulls you under. There’s definitely a feeling in your chapbook of moving in a current—or several powerful currents—and seeing things emerge around you from beneath the surface. In poems such as “Nomen Nescius,” you flow back and forth between Spanish and English, between Río de la Plata and the North Saskatchewan. In your multilingual work, do you find that the movement within and between multiple languages helps these hidden elements or memories to emerge and be written about, or to be called to?

LES: Yes, actually. It helps me to find similarities (again, words as geography) in the landscape I’m seeing, but also what’s happening in that landscape. I wrote another piece that was published in an American magazine, called “Work Always Comes to You,” where I discuss a chat I had with an anthropologist from Peru who was talking about the Argentinian “disappeared,” and we were glancing over the Edmonton river valley, and it occurred to me how many bodies there are in the North Saskatchewan. And that’s the thing—were mothers able to mourn those bodies? And I was thinking of the grief of those mothers of the disappeared whose children’s bodies were thrown into the River Plate from planes. It was a fact; it happened: los vuelos de la muerte. That’s what’s bringing me to those rivers. And the colour of the North Saskatchewan is the colour of the River Plate: it’s this lion-coloured river; it’s a muddy river. The River Plate is immense. It looks like a sea. But there are stories beneath both rivers that somehow, through the poem “Nomen Nescius,” came to the surface. I felt at one point that I was not in control of the narrative of that poem. Things were happening there that I had never experienced while writing a poem. Images were just emerging, as if from a river. I say “my rivers of memory” at one point, and it was just that; it was an entirely process-based poem, I would say. There are poems in the collection that are narrative-based, and there’s a little story (and the pussy poem in the book is just a cheeky poem), but this one is like the Piranesi poem. It’s one of those poems that are process poems, that as you experience a place, something happens to you. In this case, it was a very physical, visceral response to the idea of a river and how I found similarities between the two rivers; not just the colour, but perhaps between the two histories—at this point, I don’t know as much about the river here. One book that I really want to read, and I haven’t had the chance to yet, is Whitemud Walking by Matthew James Weigel. I think that I need to understand the river valley partly through his words, and to discover why I feel the way I feel when I walk through the river valley.

JB: I think it’s fascinating the way you say it’s a process poem, and I keep going back to that idea. When I was reading your chapbook, different pieces were hitting me in different places in my body. There are some poems where I was fully immersed in the delight of the intellect in the poem; there were some pieces where I was up here, in my head. The river poem was hitting me somewhere in my sternum; it was like my body was feeling the poem. I found it intriguing both intellectually and in terms of an embodied reading experience. In some of the poems, particularly those in which there was a feeling of something rising up from beneath and you didn’t know what it was, it was very much somewhere in the centre of the body where those poems were hitting. If that’s not too esoteric; it was a very interesting reading experience.

LES: Thank you. In reflection, I think that’s why I invited the reader, at the start of the chapbook, to partake, and that’s what I feel that my poems have to give to the reader: to have them become in touch with their memories. It’s a conversation; it’s like, “Me too!” That’s what I want. I want the reader to say, “I felt that, though it might be in regard to another experience.” I want this book to be like the idea of the rhizome. I think there’s this possibility for poetry to be a rhizomatic force, or like mushrooms or trees, you know, they roam around beneath. Even though I don’t address the environment directly at all, I think there is this grounding through words in the world, and in the sensory, phenomenological aspect of being on earth.

JB: Absolutely so. I feel as though we could go on talking about this connective element of poetry—and your work in general—all day, but I do want to be sensitive to your time. I have two final questions as we draw the interview to a close, sent to me by your publisher at The Polyglot, Adriana Oniță. First, could you tell me a bit about the process of working with Gian Marco Visconti on creating the collages in the book? What was that experience like?

LES: It was glorious. First of all, I knew Gian Marco from before, from university. We shared some seminars together, so I knew of his sensibility and sensitivity to images, and he’s a fantastic graphic artist. We went back and forth: he would show me an image and I would say, “Can we add this or that?” For the front cover, I wanted the ceibo flower to be present because that’s the national flower of Argentina, and he worked around that. There was the hammer and sickle in Frida Kahlo’s corset (that part had nothing to do with my poems), and Gian Marco arranged the flower in front there. I had some photos from when I was young, one where I’ve got my brother in his stroller, and the other where I’m swimming with a little float, and I think Gian Marco was very creative in building up those collages with a background of flowers. It was very cheerful, and at the same time, there was this idea of Argentina with the ceibo flower, the national flower, that really worked for me. There was also the way Gian Marco works in multiples. With the poem “Forgetting Euskadi,” he worked on series of images that are a type of painting called casta paintings. The painters would send them to the King of Spain to reassure him that racial mixing was going according to plan in the Americas. It was shocking to see: There was the name of every single colour of skin, and painters depicting those colours of skin through families. So this particular image in the chapbook is a fragment of a casta painting. That’s why I added it to “Forgetting Euskadi,” because people need to put me in this box. In Latin America, I’m considered more of a white Hispanic, and here in Canada, people feel I’m more an ethnic sort of presence, rather than Caucasian. It was very easy to work with Gian Marco: very collaborative, and a lot of fun.

JB: I really appreciate your breaking down the chapbook’s cover image into its component layers, too, because I got the sense there was quite a number of stories sedimented in there, but I wasn’t always sure how to read them. It’s fascinating to see the layers present in the visuals as well as in the words.

LES: Yes, the visuals and the words are very linked. That’s what I liked about this chapbook: how connected the visuals and words are, and how Gian Marco and Adriana both captured that. I’m so happy with the collaboration.

JB: I’m not at all surprised that Adriana was sensitive to that layering within the words and the visuals, especially given her work as an artist and as a poet. This leads beautifully into my final question, too. What does it mean to you to have The Polyglot publish your chapbook when they also published your first poem?

LES: It’s full circle. It’s the biggest instance of impostor syndrome that I’ve had in my life. It was such a different, humbling, lovely thing to be shown this degree of respect for my words and for my creative decisions. It was wonderful. I mean, working with Adriana is always a wonderful experience—I’m sure everyone agrees, but in my case, we’ve known each other for  more than ten years. She’s an old soul; she’s so young, but I’ve learned so much from her in every single way, and I’m just in awe of what she does, how she publishes, and who she publishes. It was a big honour for me to be the first chapbook of her series, and I have no words except that I feel humbled by the kindness I received from her when making this chapbook. It made such a big difference in the process, and it still feels like a positive experience. I know it will always feel positive when I think about this chapbook, years from now.


Headshot: Luciana Erregue-Sacchi Luciana Erregue-Sacchi is an Argentinian-Canadian art historian, poet, translator, editor, and award-winning publisher (Laberinto Press) from Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Treaty Six). Her creative-non-fiction has been longlisted for the Susan Crean Award. Her work has been published in Polyglot Magazine, Humber Literary Review (Canada), The Selkie (UK), Agni Magazine (US), and others. Luciana is a Banff Centre Literary Arts Alumni, the Edmonton Arts Council 2019 Artist in Residence, and the WGA’s Horizons Writers Circle co-ordinator. Her debut chapbook, Of Mothers and Madonnas, was published April 2023 through The Polyglot. Luciana loves walking everywhere, especially the Edmonton River Valley with her family and friends.

Headshot: Jenna ButlerDr. Jenna Butler (she/her) is an award-winning poet, essayist, and editor. She is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen RoadWells, and Aphelion; a collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail; and the Arctic travelogue Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard. Her newest book, Revery: A Year of Bees, essays about beekeeping, climate grief, and trauma recovery, was a finalist for the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award in Non-Fiction and a longlisted title for CBC Canada Reads 2023. Butler’s work in the environmental humanities has taken her around the world, including to Svalbard aboard an ice-class tall ship and, next year, to Oregon as a resident fellow for Oregon State University, Oregon Wild, and the Spring Creek Project. As a queer BIPOC writer and grower, she speaks internationally on equitable land access, diverse community-building, and reciprocal ecological relationships in farming. Butler is a retired professor of creative and environmental writing and an off-grid organic farmer in northern Treaty 6.