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Jessica Helen Lopez is a three-time member of the City of Albuquerque Poetry Slam Team and the 2008 National Champion Winning UNM Lobo Slam Team. She was the co-editor for ‘Earthships: A New Mecca Poetry Collection 2007,’ which was a finalist in the NM Book Awards. Lopez is a member of the Macondo Foundation, a socially engaged writers foundation founded by Sandra Cisneros. She has been the Poet-In-Residence in several New Mexico High Schools and is mother to a vivacious nine-year-old daughter. Jessica recently won the title of Albuquerque Women of the World (WOW) City Championship and will go to Denver to perform in the national WOW competition March 7-10. Her poetry has been in numerous publications including: A Bigger Boat: The Unlikely Success of the Albuquerque Slam Scene, Chicago Open Mic America Vol I, Feminism Now, Poetic Diversity, The Pedastal and Albumar Familia.

West End Press recently published her first collection of poetry, Always Messing With Them Boys, which was recognized on the 2012 Southwest Book of the Year Reading List.

I have known Jessica Helen Lopez since 2007 and have seen her grow as a poet and performer, and even had the honor of competing against her in poetry slam back in the day. These days her poetry and voice are reaching new audiences not only over the mic but off the page. Her words are sincere, her passion births activism, and through her willingness to share her life experiences in her poetry, the world opens up its shell just a little bit more to consider that there might be room for all of us to thrive.

Interviewing Jessica felt like sitting with an old friend, which is essentially what it was, but it would have felt like that even if I didn’t know her. She is personable and fun, but also speaks from her perspective and knowledge and it was an honor for me to interview her as well as motivating and got my own creative brain cells doing back-flips.

There are tips and inspiring notes for writers, daring radical poet activist stuff and feminist thought that is so alive it sets fire under anyone who has ever wondered what a feminist looks like. This is half of the interview. Come back tomorrow for the second half and for one of Jessica’s poems. Here we celebrate a powerful woman’s voice, talent, drive, and fearlessness. She’s fierce. Don’t miss a bit of it.

Liza Wolff-Francis: You have a book that came out last spring Always Messing With Them Boys. It’s a beautiful book with radical poetry that plays on your tongue as well as in your mind. Can you say a little more about it and about how it has been to have a book of your poetry out.

Jessica Helen Lopez: Ok cool, let me start from the beginning. A lot of the poems in this collection started off when I started first writing poetry in a more disciplined manner, which was about seven years ago now and I started writing these poems because I attended an intro. to poetry class. I was on a long hiatus from school and I had my daughter and decided I needed to go back to college and because of that, I took an intro class as a prerequisite for an English degree that I was trying to acquire and I got involved in the poetic community here in Albuquerque, moreso slam poetry- and I just started writing because I became addicted to the performance accessibility of slam poetry. It was a grassroots kind of movement, I liked that a lot.

I felt really welcomed, so I kept writing and writing and writing with no thought to the idea that I’d ever publish a collection one day, I mean, I was just in the moment. I was embraced by this community of all these different poets and artisans that presented from all walks of life and I wanted to compete. You know.

I had never been engaged in something like that ever in my life and as a young mother who was going back to school, it really fed me in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. So fast forward seven years later, so many different opportunities came out of it and somehow I found myself in the classroom, I implemented poetry instruction, I met this professor, that professor, people became my mentors, they offered me more and more opportunities as a professional writer and lucky for me, I took them up on them. Because of that, I was admitted into the Macundo writers foundation founded by Sandra Cisneros.

It was there the first time I actually had to get all my poems in a manuscript form and it was very small at the time, it was only like fifteen pages, so I don’t even know how many poems that was equivalent to, maybe five or something like that- and I took it to a week-long writers residency, a writer’s retreat with the Macundo Foundation and I was very intimidated by the whole process because it really made me look at my poetry in a written form, not that I didn’t before, but more as a cohesive collection than ever. And so, the specific writer’s group I was involved in gave me enough support to go out and shop it around when I got home. So, I expanded my manuscript. I got all of my poems from everywhere, under the bed, you know, hard copies in different folders, put them together and shopped it around.

Small press- it didn’t work for me. It was a little censoring for me and I didn’t want to censor any of my work. Then I stumbled upon West End Press, as referred to me by Adam Rubenstein, who as you know, was the founder and publisher of Indestructible Heart, but they went defunct so he said, ‘you know, I wanted to publish you but I’m going to hand you over to John Crawford,’ this just coming off of me almost getting published with another small press, but they wanted to really, really censor my work and I felt like I just couldn’t do that. I’d rather have my own chapbooks if that were the case, and so I pulled my manuscript from there and luckily nothing ever happened, no contracts being signed. I’m so glad I found out before anything really went under way.

And so John published my collection, Always Messing With Them Boys. How does it feel? That was the real question. It feels amazing! I think a lot more spoken word artists should pursue it, if that’s really their calling, if that’s what they want to do. That means you just have to take a closer look, you have to get your eye closer to the page and see what’s working and make it visceral for the reader, as visceral as it is for the audience member when it’s a live performance. It’s a different type of access point to your audience, your reader, but I think you’re still capable of doing both.

That page- stage, I don’t think it needs to be versus. I think it can be a hybrid because slam poetry is a hybrid genre of art. You’ve got all kinds of theatrical elements. You’re a thespian up there, but you’re also doing original work so you’re also the writer. You’re not just covering someone else’s play, you also wrote you’re little monologue if that’s what you want to call it, but  you can do so many things with your original piece as a performance poet and then in addition, to getting it published in a collection, I was just astounded by it- and I’m constantly evolving what it means to be a published poet coming from a spoken word background. Contstantly. Every time I do an interview with somebody, or just a conversation where I have to talk about it, I discover things as I’m talking about it. So, I hope that answers your question.

Liza– It does and I had another question, thinking about all this. What kinds of things- I think of your poetry and some of the stuff that maybe I can imagine they would censor, it makes it richer, it makes it more intriguing, there’s just so much about it that it’s like, why would you want to censor that, can I just ask what kinds of things, were they like, we’re taking this out, or…?

Jessica– Sure, yeah, some of the things they wanted to censor, actually, there were a batch of poems from this collection that was put on the online website. There were a couple of websites attributed to this small press, and one of them, three of my poems went up there and the editor posted on them and it got really, really, um, just- it got a crazy response from the fan base of that website. That really showed me though how to shop around and to make sure I’m with the right press for the right audience. We’re talking Chicken Soup for the Soul- seriously, literally, this is the press that it’s affiliated with and the readers were like, What’s going on? Why are these poems on there?

They literally called my poems offensive. I can’t remember all the words, but they were scathing words, just offensive material, downright obscene, one piece is about La Llorona’s perspective, you know, the wailing woman. Another piece was about androgyny and sexuality, and gender identity in general. It’s been a while. I can’t really remember the third piece right off bat, but anyhow, the person took the poems down without my knowledge, but we were still going to move in that direction to publish and then I said, Wait a minute, where did my poems go and then this is when I found out what happened and I thought, maybe this isn’t a good idea that I publish with you because I don’t want you limiting where I’m at and it seems like this is not going to be the right place and so, yeah, we parted ways before we even danced.

Liza– Wow, Yeah, well maybe you can take the supposed insults as compliments.

Jessica– I do, I actually tell this story a lot, whenever I go up and present, especially before I read my Llorona piece. But yeah, I do take them as compliments, not insults. It made me realize though that somebody’s listening, even if somebody’s not listening the way I would like them to hopefully think, it’s a reflection, and I’m going to go there, I think it’s a reflection of some narrow-mindedness that is kind of always present.

Liza– Yes. My next question actually goes into WOW. You just won the Albuquerque Women of the World competition and Albuquerque is sending you to the Women of the World or WOW Championship in Denver in the beginning of March! Congratulations!

Jessica-Thank you Liza

Liza– So, tell me about that and how you feel about it. Have you been to WOW before?

Jessica– I have never been to WOW. I have never held a city title here in Albuquerque. This is my first city title. I definitely have competed for individual competitions here for the city and team competitions as you know. I’ve only been to one individual national event and that was IWPS (Individual World Poetry Slam) and I went in as a storm poet and I made my way through, but I didn’t do very well, but that’s okay because I learned a lot.

And WOW is running off the same type of rules as IWPS are and IWPS just includes men and women and WOW is for individuals who live their lives as women, so that’s where I’m going to in March. I’m excited about the prospect. I also am taking it pretty seriously. It’s coming at a time in my career where I know getting very far in this competition would benefit me, but not only career-wise, personally too. I multi-task a lot and sometimes I can’t see the trees for the forest or is it the forest for the trees? I always get them backwards, (laughs). And this is a really big goal for me, you know. Getting city champ for the WOW rep was a really major goal.

I had to overcome certain hurdles, like the little voice inside of me saying, ‘well, if you don’t win, it’s okay, knowing damn well I wanted to win and me allowing myself to say, ‘yes I am competitive. I feel competitive in this environment. Yes I do want to win and I felt like there was something wrong with me saying yes I want to win. Then that’s the whole conversation, the dialogue I have with younger women I mentor in the classroom, that yes you can want this and yes you can work for it and you deserve it. I was having this internal, emotional, psychological battle with myself. I was like almost losing before I even competed and guess what?

I find myself doing that again. So fine, I got city champ under my best. I’m humble, I’ll just be happy with that. But the thing is, I can’t go out there like that because I don’t think I’m going to go far if I go out there already thinking, well hey, I’m already city-champ, it’s okay. Or even, if I just make it to the final stage there in Denver, that’ll be fine too.

I’m really looking for ward to getting a lot out of it with the peers that will be there, surely, workshops, you know. But there are some really strong female forces there that I admire and I want to emulate and I want to ask them, how do you get past those mental hurdles, how do you get to the successful place where you’re at? Am I’m sure they’ll all have their unique answers and may not even feel that they embody that because sometimes I don’t feel that I necessarily embody that either. Catch me on a certain week, maybe I’ll feel a little different about it, but… I totally was tangential there, I went in a big circle, that’s my honest reaction though, that is exactly how I feel about it. I’m excited. I feel like, ‘what an opportunity. I’m elated. I’m intimidated. I’m nervous I won’t be prepared enough and I’m nervous I’ll be too prepared. At some point I know I’m just going to have to let it ride and go out there and say, This is it! This is going to be my experience, let’s go!

Liza– Well, and I know everyone who knows you will be proud of you for however that comes out, but that everyone is rooting for you to win.

Jessica– (she laughs) That’s nice.

Liza– Well, people who know you and aren’t competing (laughing).

Jessica– Yeah (laughing).

Liza– The other competitors probably don’t want you to win, and that’s okay.

Jessica– That’s okay.

Liza– So, from your perspective, how do you think your writing is affected by being a woman and by feminism in general and by being a feminist?

Jessica– I think it goes back to that censor thing. Once you censor others, once you censor yourself, the truth isn’t coming out and I don’t think it would be correct of me to censor some of the things I talk about, like in my book, like abortion rights, like queer issues, the duplicity of being a mother. Virginia Woolf said, you can’t get to anything good until you slay the angel that’s on your shoulder and Katrina Guarascio actually told me that Virginia Woolf said that because I couldn’t remember who said it. I was like, you’re so right and so, I’ve even come up with a workshop that I did for Out-Spoken once on UNM campus called “Slaying the Angel” and we did queer eroticism. And I think it went over fairly well, you know, we ate chocolate and wrote about body parts, it was awesome! But it was right before the big Outspoken Tournament last year. Um, what was the question again, Liza? (laughs)

Liza– And the Outspoken Tournament was like for…

Jessica– For anyone who identified being queer, bi-curious, queer-questioning, male, female, transgender. This was last year. It was the first year ever. And I actually competed because I fall under that category and I won the title last year and it was really cool because it was the first of its kind here in Albuquerque and because of that, it has grown exponentially. Tristan Silverman has come to feature. Erin Northern and Patricia Gilikin are the two main organizers. Cathy Arellano, she is a local activist and queer outspoken poet. She’s the upcoming feature and I forget the date, but you should see the attendance. It is amazing! People are standing up, sitting on the floor, trying to get in there, it’s awesome.

Liza– That is awesome.

Jessica– Yeah, Yeah.

Thanks for tuning in! Come back tomorrow for part 2 of the Weekender with Jessica Helen Lopez and a poem of hers that will leave you breathless. Please Follow Matrifocal Point by clicking on the button on the right.

See you tomorrow.