A drawing of Manuel and Sandra. They are in black and white, surrounded by green, pink, and blue blobs. Next to Sandra on the righ, there is an orange stem with leaves, and next to Manuel on the left, there is a blue stem with leaves
Illustration by Indi Maverick

Encounters with Spirit: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros

In which Sandra Cisneros and Manuel Muñoz discuss their mutual love of poetry, literature, Mexico, and the magic of divine providence

Manuel Muñoz: Your new piece in Orion, “The Beautiful Unforeseen,” is a very complex essay. It starts in Mexico on a trip that you took with your parents when you were “too old to travel with parents” but still went out of a sense of nostalgia.

Sandra Cisneros: I think Mexico for me has always been a place of nostalgia. And I’d already written the initial little button that started this essay in a previous essay called “Akumal,” but I didn’t include the incidents that would really shake me up, and realize that I was just riding this horse called my divina providencia. I was not in control of it. The divine providence was in control of me. And I started thinking, When did this spiritual journey of mine begin? I’d written about it, but I had not really explored it very deeply, so for me it was a difficult essay to write. To me, writing is like going down a labyrinth. You’re going down corridors and rattling the doorknob. Can I go through this door? Nope. I got to back up, go down that corridor, rattle that doorknob. Is it locked? No, it’s not. I can go through here and you hope it’s going to take you to the exit. There were a lot of false starts in this essay because I never know what I’m writing about. I have a glimmer. It’s just a door now that opens and I hope it’s going to allow me to get to the end and be surprised. And like always, the most difficult essays are the ones that please you the most.

Manuel: There was a line in there that struck me about you becoming aware, maybe for the first time, of the physical world.

Sandra: I think Mexico has always had a door to the spirit world and doesn’t separate it from everyday life. That’s the thing about Mexico that I think draws us back because things that happen here in Mexico don’t happen in the United States, or they don’t happen with the frequency, or perhaps we’re more sensitive to the world of the spirit that lives alongside our everyday mundane world. I really despise that term magical realism, because if you really want to say something disparaging about literature, call it magical realism. To me, that’s so colonial. We might as well call the Bible magical realism because the reality is that those of us who are from or live very closely with the earth and the spiritual world know that’s not magical. That’s our spirituality. It’s a conscious coexistence with the things of the spirit. It’s just a reality. So to me, the magical realism is people who only live in the mundane world and are never in contact with the spirits. I can’t imagine living like that. Maybe that’s why we are called back to Mexico. All my experiences that educated me to be aware of the spiritual began in Mexico. That’s not to say that we don’t have those encounters with spirit and the spirituality of nature and the earth and insentient beings, but the frequency that one is confronted with the beautiful unforeseen happens in great intensity in Mexico. I’m not a guru. I don’t meditate. I’m no one special, but these things, nirvana-like moments, happen a lot here. And I’m not talking about drugs, or altering substances. I’m not taking mushrooms. I don’t have to smoke. You don’t have to do that here in Mexico because the spirit is so strong. It’s almost as if when one comes to Mexico, you decide you’re going to live like a monk or a poet, which is the same thing actually. Like the little horns of a snail that are out there sniffing the air and saying, What is that? What did you say? What am I looking at? You really pay attention.

Manuel: For all of us who are thinking about awareness and how we move through our spaces, is this something that we grow into, or is this something that has always been there? Is this something that we just have to simply learn to start doing in our own lives?

Sandra: I think the poets are the canaries in the coal mine. I really do believe that. The poets can be the visionaries and were the visionaries in other societies; they were the shamans and the healers and the Oracle at Delphi. Those were the poets. And I still feel that having been a poet since I was a child, before I even knew how to hold the pencil, that sensitivity came to me at moments that I thought everybody could feel. And it’s only now that I’m 67 years old and I realize, Oh, you mean everybody doesn’t have those moments where you’re connected to the universe? You mean that doesn’t happen to everybody?

I felt embarrassed talking about these, what Maslow would call peak experiences. I didn’t have any knowledge of it till I was in college and I was taking a theology class, and one of the books talked about these peak experiences when you’re connected to nature and your ego dissolves, and you essentially connect with everything in the universe and become one with. I suppose that’s what the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi tree, that sense of infinity that you could never die or be born. That you’re part of the fibers that make up the universe. And I’ve had this happen seriously twice in my life, once in Sarajevo in the mountains and once in Akumal on the Yucatán coast, but these things, I think, are available to anyone. I just happen to think that the poets are so sensitive that even if they don’t bid this to happen to them, it happens to them.

I really despise that term magical realism . . . to me, that’s so colonial. We might as well call the Bible magical realism because the reality is that those of us who are from or live very closely with the earth and the spiritual world know that’s not magical.

Manuel: In Sarajevo, you asked a group of friends that you were with to go on so that you could have that moment. And then you write, “I couldn’t and didn’t mention it.” So I’m wondering about how you move from something that was intensely private and very personal and contemplative to then becoming something that you are willing to share or are willing to put on the page for us as readers and thinkers.

Sandra: I’m older now, so I’m not afraid, whereas when I was younger and these experiences of transcendence and intense connection with the universe happened to me, I didn’t know how to explain it without looking like I was out of my mind. I didn’t have the vocabulary. But now that I’m older, I understand, okay, this is not anything to do with your mental health and other people have had these experiences; and people who have not won’t get it, but there are many people out there who have had those heightened spiritual connections, so let’s write about it. At 67, you’re not afraid to talk about things that you would be ashamed to talk about when you were younger. Even though I’ve explored them, I have had to explore them again and kind of get closer, being more precise about what happened.

So, these things happen, I don’t know what they were; they were so cool, and they make me feel so connected to the universe that I don’t fear dying. And that’s a great thing. I always think of Woody Allen: he’s so terrified about dying—that’s all he does his films about. But if you’ve had these connections with the universe and moments of eternity, you don’t have a problem with dying. Actually, you kind of look forward to it. You think, Oh, I won’t have to file my income tax anymore. Won’t that be great?

Manuel: You can sit on a bench that says, NI MODO, as one of your poems tells us.

Sandra: Ni modo is the great philosophy of Mexico. It’s two words. And it means, “Oh, well.” I think we worry too much about things, and I hope my essay will help people to not stress out so much and live in the present moment. I think that’s why I like poetry because the small me is worried about these things that haven’t happened yet, and poetry always takes me to this wonderful eagle vision of the universe, and then that just puts it all in perspective, and I say, Oh yeah, don’t worry.

Manuel: Does fiction do that for you?

Sandra: Yes, but not right away. It’s a long marathon in fiction. And I’m talking about like novels or novelettes or longer projects. Poetry takes a long time to write, but I always know that I can start with the small eye, the little petty eye, and that when I finish the poem, which is like composting, that it’s going to take me to some beautiful transcendent illumination; that when I finish, I think, Wow, I didn’t know I was that smart. And you aren’t. You aren’t. It’s like those godlike moments, a little zap of godlike. Just for two seconds, you’re God, and then you go back to being yourself. But there it is, my higher self. It proves I have a higher self, and that’s why I like poems, but the bad thing is, I never know when they’re done.

Manuel: You never know when they’re done?

Sandra: No. Like with fiction, I can. But with poetry, if it wasn’t for the editor and my agent and my good friend, John Olivares Espinoza, I would still be writing these books and throwing them under the bed for another 28 years.

Manuel: Are there any guesses about why?

Sandra: I think because the older we get, the higher our standards for what we want to create. I think that’s true for most artists. Like Hokusai, when he was 77, said, “If I could only live a few years more, then I could call myself an artist.” And I feel like that. I haven’t written my best work. This is the best I can do at 67, but wait till I’m 77, then I’ll really be killing it.

It wasn’t that I was delaying, but it’s not that important to me to publish them because to me, poetry is about writing and coming to a truth. I don’t have to hold it up in the air. Once I get the truth, it’s like, Okay, file it away. I wasn’t even aware I had that many poems. I didn’t know it was 28 years. When you ride, you just put your head down for a second, and when you look up, 28 years have passed like Rip Van Winkle. That’s our profession, because we live in this interior world. I had no idea. I wasn’t trying to keep poetry from everyone, but it’s just poems are so private, I just don’t understand why I needed to publish them when I wrote them. After some time has gone by, then I’m ready to let them go. But for me, the reason I write is to uncover a truth about myself, and publishing’s the opposite.

Manuel: Well, but publishing gives the rest of us the opportunity to see that, to see that middle ground. For those of us who are writers or artists of any kind where we’re trying to translate the mystery of what we’re experiencing, what we’re seeing, to the art that best gets us there.

Sandra: You’re right. This is the real me. There’s nothing more personal and honest. Not even my journals are as personal and precise as my poems. That’s why I didn’t want to publish them; they’re so private.
Let me ask you a question. Do you write poetry, Manuel?

Manuel: I do not.

Sandra: But your stories are poetic.

Manuel: Well, I’ve heard people say that before, but with great respect, I’m speaking to a poet right now who has given me some lessons about the great power of that observation. I don’t think I have it. And I think that’s why I asked you, How is it that we can become so observant or deep?

Sandra: I know the answer. I think we need to read poetry. I saw a Washington Post poll about the popularity of the arts, and poetry was beneath jazz. I get it. But it was beneath knitting! That I don’t get. I always feel like I’m the last of the cadre writing poetry, in the wrong time, because you see these baseball fields and these sports fields filled with people cheering on their favorite singer. And what are singers, if not just poets with music attached to it? I feel as if the messages they’re giving are nurturing young people and poets are writing music with the syllables, making all of the percussion.

If you don’t know who you like, get anthologies or sign up for Poem-a-Day. It’s so important that we expose ourselves to reading poetry, especially if you don’t understand it. Find the poetry you like. That’s just like saying, “I don’t understand this music,” but there’s got to be some music out there that will break your heart open. And you’ll find that in poetry. Poetry, to me, the kind I want to read, is the kind that gives me permission to write poetry. That’s who I want to read.

Manuel: Yeah. I have to say that when I’m putting a book together, I’ll dip into the poetry that’s on my shelves to help me think through my stories. It won’t help me or urge me to write poetry, but it will help crystallize some things, and all four of my books begin with an epigraph by a poet. They always do.

Sandra: And who are the poets?

Manuel: Zigzagger began with an epigraph from Sharon Olds. From her poem “Satan Says,” because the first story has the devil in it. The second book had a quote, an epigraph, from Gwendolyn Brooks.

Sandra: Ah, our favorite.

Manuel: From “The Coora Flower”—“This, at least, is Real, and what I know.” And so, sometimes the lines within the poem can strike in the heart, and that was certainly one of them. The novel had the poet eye.

Sandra: Love eye.

Manuel: She had a persona poem of Alfred Hitchcock, which the novel dealt with. So, that was just really wonderful timing. And The Consequences, my collection that’s coming out in October, has one from Rita Dove.

Sandra: And I think that you’re hitting on it. The poetry that we love is the one that strikes a chord in our heart, and that’s what poetry teaches us to live with, the heart without the flesh. The heart out there without any covering, vulnerable. That’s what we look for when we’re trying to connect with the universe and with nature, with Earth, with the animals, and other beings on the planet to get to that moment of transcendence. It’s not something that your head can take you to. It’s like the same way you can’t say, Oh, I’m going to write a poem about tulips. No, you have to just follow and let your heart lead you to where it wants to go. And that’s the great power of poetry. It develops before your eyes and has nothing to do with your head until you start editing. It arrives like some Athena born from the head of Zeus. It’s very spirit filled, very sensitive, and very much one that one has to be very patient and sit with.

I saw a Washington Post poll about the popularity of the arts, and poetry was beneath jazz. I get it. But it was beneath knitting! That I don’t get. It’s so important that we expose ourselves to reading poetry, especially if you don’t understand it. If you don’t know who you like, get anthologies or sign up for Poem-a-Day. Find the poetry you like.

Manuel: Puro amor, puro amor. As you write, “No one doubts the existence of love, but especially those who’ve never met it before.” And in this essay, as you move through incidents in your life, you take stronger stances on love.

Sandra: Because when I was young, I thought love was one person. That’s the false thing about “looking for the right one” when you don’t realize the universe is giving you so much love. So much all around you. And you’re just ignoring it because you’re thinking, Okay, he has to be a male, he has to be like this. Instead of thinking, What if it’s not a human being?      What if one of the great loves of your life has four feet and a tail and a snout? What if it’s a little parrot with green feathers? Or what if it’s this incredible morning glory? All of these things send us love, and sometimes we’re just looking for love in all the wrong places. I feel so nurtured and so loved now that I stopped expecting a human being to be the one. And so, now there are so many ones in my life that I feel like crying sometimes from just being overjoyed and saying, Wow, so much love in the universe. And that’s not saying I’m Pollyanna, because I do know there’s a lot of evil out there too. There’s a little bit more of love, if we are perceptive enough and patient enough to open ourselves to it.

Manuel: Yeah. That’s what I found so perceptive and profound about the essay. I’ve known in my fiction, I’ve hinted at moments like that in my own life, because I think my grandmother was one of these people who had great love for her plantas. The lowly begonia, as I said in one story. Everything in the backyard was a prize. It was quite striking to me that this is how she found so much beauty in what little space that we had in Dinuba, California. But I wanted to thank you for that because it made me remember.

Sandra: Right. We forget that our mothers were having these love affairs with their plants, and the plants were in love with them and nurturing them and keeping their spirit alive during really difficult times. I was just talking with Erika Sánchez, whose book Crying in the Bathroom just came out, and I was asking her—because I was the interviewer—How does a writer come from such an unpoetic environment like Cicero, Illinois, and become a poet? And then I thought about myself too. I came from Humboldt Park. There was nothing that was beautiful outside of the park. And yet I was writing about the wind and sunsets and trees. And Erika also had this intense connection to trees. It’s like, no matter where you are, even if you’re living in a brutal environment, you can always look up and admire the sky.

Manuel: But you have to find a way to see it. And we can see it, I think, in the work of poets, in the work of writers. But on that note, Sandra, we’re waiting for this new book of poems, Woman Without Shame.

Sandra: And I’m waiting for your book, The Consequences. It’s such a beautiful book. The admiration I have for you is how you’re able to transcend your body as a male and as a Latino, and just be pure spirit, your pure spirit, and enter into all your characters. You’re so generous. That’s why I wished I had written those stories. So beautiful.

Manuel: Well, that’s a wonderful thing to say. Gracias. But maybe my debt is to reading poets in the past.

Sandra: Yeah, I think you are. We’ve talked about how much Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha meant to each of us at different times. It’s always a book that I tell young writers about: Learn how to write poetry. Look at Maud Martha, a poetic novel story written by a great Chicago poet. You and I were so touched by it because we came from homes of the working class, just like the protagonist of this story. And it was so confirming for us to finally see a story written with so much love and beauty about people who don’t have money.

Manuel: And a character who is told that all around her is nothing but ugliness, but she’s able to see many, many other things that’re transformative looking. She’s wonderful, wonderful.

Sandra: Maud Martha, one of those little gems that people don’t know about, and if you want to begin to explore something that is between poetry and fiction, read that little book.


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Sandra Cisneros is a poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, performer, artist, and author of the acclaimed The House on Mango Street. Her numerous awards include NEA Fellowships in both poetry and fiction, a MacArthur Fellowship, national and international book awards, including the PEN America Literary Award, and the National Medal of Arts. More recently, she received the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship, was recognized with the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, and won the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. In addition to her writing, Cisneros has fostered the careers of many aspiring and emerging writers through two nonprofits she founded: the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation. As a single woman, she made the choice to have books instead of children. A citizen of both the United States and Mexico, Cisneros currently lives in San Miguel de Allende and makes her living by her pen. Her newest poetry collection is Woman Without Shame.

Manuel Muñoz is the author of a novel, What You See in the Dark, and the short story collections Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, which was short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has been recognized with a Whiting Writers’ Award, three O. Henry Awards, and an appearance in Best American Short Stories. His next collection, The Consequences, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in October 2022. His frequently anthologized work has appeared in the New York Times, Epoch, and Glimmer Train. His most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming from Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature, ZYZZYVA, and Freeman’s. A native of Dinuba, California, and a first-generation college student, Manuel graduated from Harvard University and received his MFA in creative writing at Cornell University. He currently lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.