Tugging & Pulling: An Interview With Melissa Lozada-Oliva

by    /  May 7, 2020  / Comments Off on Tugging & Pulling: An Interview With Melissa Lozada-Oliva

by Andie Spatig & Sarah McKee

Photo by Benjamin Stillerman


This series — Latinx & Proud! — is a look into the world of Latinx literature and the poets who use language to explore the boundaries of their communities and identities. By sharing these interviews and articles, we hope to elicit conversations that empower and amplify the Latinx community in Pittsburgh and beyond. 

Melissa Lozada-Oliva is the author of Peluda (Button Poetry 2017) and the forthcoming Dreaming of You (MCDxFSG Books 2021). She is the co-host of the podcast Say More with Olivia Gatwood. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her @ellomelissa. For this interview, she spoke with us over Zoom and we chatted about podcasting, life in the pandemic, and diaspora poetry.  

First, how are you doing in social isolation? Are you able to write?

At first, I was kind of in a depressive one-week state where I was like, “everything is over. I can’t do anything.” But then I started to think about how I first started writing. My mom never let me out of the house, so I had a lot of time alone. Because of that, I started keeping this obsessive journal — logging in it and keeping track of all the mundane details of my life. It’s been really helpful to go back to that place and keep a similar diary. Once a week, after I wash my hair, I write in this diary. That is the only sort of writing I’ve been able to do, journaling, but it’s still something, and that feels good.

Let’s talk about your book Peluda. Much of the book explores the yearning for belonging, especially through the motif of body hair. What is the relationship between your body hair and how it affects your sense of belonging?

I think body hair was a way of being “other.” It was another marker of me looking and feeling different, and also the shame that comes with being a nerd. In the book I feel like I’m trying to talk about wanting to belong without changing parts of myself, but I’m also grappling with the thought that maybe it’s okay to want to change parts of myself. I think the whole book is like a tug and pull. Forgiving yourself of feeling whichever way.

In some of your poems, body hair seems to be a source of desexualization, while in other poems, it posits body hair as a source of sexual shame. Could you speak more on this dichotomy?

Hair is just so present in the most private, intimate spaces. There is a scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire where they’re doing drugs, but the only way they can do it is if they put it in their armpit. I don’t know, it’s like a fake, French drug. There’s a moment where you think you’re seeing a hand go between legs, but it’s in between the armpit. That moment is really cool — the hair between the armpit is just as sexual, intimate, and private as the hair between your legs

I think growing up, I associated hair with privacy, with things I couldn’t show or share. I was afraid to shave my legs because I was afraid it would grow back faster, so I would only shave half of my thigh up and then not do anything else. When I would hook up with boys in high school, I’d be like, “Don’t touch me, like, oh my god.” Maybe I had this phobia of being touched and like … really seen? 

I’m so glad I’m not a teenager anymore. That was hard. I don’t have those feelings anymore, but they were so sharp and felt so real when I was 16 years old, so I wanted to examine that. Hair is always going to be something that covers you up and something that is showing who you are.

To me, one of the most striking images of body hair is in the poem, “We Play Would You Rather at the Galentine’s Day Party,” where the speaker reimagines all the hair on her body is contained in a gigantic, sentient tail. Can you speak on the process of personifying your body hair while writing this poem?

There’s been this “would-you-rather” question banging around in my head ever since I’ve had body hair. Is it better to be extremely hairy or is it better to have one hair that’s all of the hairs combined and it’s this gigantic tail? I’m not sure what made my mind go there, but I remember I once said that out loud at dinner, and my sister said, “I think about that, too… I would choose the tail.” 

For me, it was just this funny, world-building scenario and a way of me like thinking about my body hair. 

I once asked this question at a Valentine’s Day party in Boston. I didn’t know anybody there, and I said, “Okay, would you rather be covered in fur or have a tail?” They were like, “What?” Another time I asked someone, and they said, “Why would you even think about changing your body?” But then there was that one person who had thick eyebrows who understood what I meant. So the poem is like an amalgamation of every time I’ve asked that to people. 

That’s hilarious! Naturally, I have to ask about the humor in your poetry. Humor, it seems, can be used to offset grave situations, but do you think that there are any other important ways that humor functions in literature?

I did a workshop with City of Asylum through Zoom, where I talked about incorporating humor into poetry and how it creates an intimacy with whoever is consuming it. Humor can be used to build trust with your audience, and after you have built that trust with them, you can say something more serious, and their ears will be more open to it. I have particularly seen that happen in slam, when someone performs a funny poem the first round and everyone is laughing. Then, when the poet reads in the next round, and they do a much more serious poem, the poem’s score is exponentially higher than it would have been if they reversed that order. It’s kind of emotionally manipulative, but most writers are. 

To continue with craft, I wanted to talk about the platforms you use to create. You’re a Twitter personality, a poet, and a podcast host. How do you adapt your professional self within these different mediums?

I think I just want to have fun.  At my core, I’m always a writer, and behave as so in whatever medium I do. In order to be a better writer, I have to put things in different pots. I’ve been loving the podcast because I feel like I’ve become better at talking. It’s also just a fun way to interact with people who read our work. We do this thing called “story time,” which is just for patrons. People send us these wild stories, and when we read them, it’s not just about us. It’s about all these other people. I like finding new ways to interact with people. Sometimes people don’t read things on the page, so I have to find other ways, right?

As our Latinx & Proud! series works to explore the boundaries of Latinx identities and communities, I wanted to talk about some conversations surrounding diaspora poetry. Recently, I have been reading critiques on diaspora poetry, which claim that some poems tend to trap diasporic identities within a Western framing. Are you familiar with these discussions?

Yeah, I think I totally get those critiques. I’m kind of grappling with this in my new book. I am writing about Selena and the ways I understood myself through her. She became this representative figure for Latinadad, but what happens when representation isn’t enough? What happens when representation is capitalized on? Is that being seen or is that being sold, you know? It’s kind of tragic how much we only understand ourselves through a Western gaze, but I am really happy that we’re at a point where we can realize that. I think it’s always helpful to think about where you’re standing in the world and the privileges you have.

I feel like it’s a hard conversation to have — I used to write in that way. Trying to be seen within this Western gaze can be appealing for poets. It can make you feel good in your otherness, even if the roots of these feelings are problematic. This is especially true when representation is lacking. I never saw that growing up, and when I started to it was this signal of representation I needed. I have older poems that are just like, “What being Latino means to me: empanadas, tortillas, frijoles!” And people in the crowd would shout and snap for that. Now, if you do that it’s corny as hell and kind of just unhelpful. 

We are trying our best to bring forth every strand of Latinidad and also be able to put the idea of “Latinidad” under a microscope and criticize it and dig up its dirt and try to shut down anti-blackness. We’re starting to come to terms with the fact that Latinx isn’t a race, even if it is a marginalized group heavily targeted by the president. Everything is constantly redefining itself and it’s nice to be a part of the cycle. 

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