Lauren Scharhag is a writer of fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared most recently in The SNReview, Infectus, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry.
She is the recipient of the Gerard Manley Hopkins Award for poetry and a fellowship from Rockhurst University for fiction. She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband and three cats.
1. What inspired you to write West Side Girl and Other Poems?
I didn’t set out to write a book of poems. I’ve been writing seriously since I was very young, and I’ve always alternated between prose and poetry—I have long periods where I write prose almost exclusively, and periods where I write poetry almost exclusively.
Back in 2005, I had the urge to write poetry, and I made a conscious decision that I wanted to improve my craft. So I joined an online poetry community where I was fortunate to find a lot of people who read each other’s work and gave a lot of really great, constructive feedback.
Working with that community, the poetry cycle lasted a good while. I didn’t start to slow down until about 2010, and gradually returned to prose. I think I really found my voice during that time period. I really cultivated my poetic eye. West Side Girl is what I consider the best of the poems that came out of that period.
2. What are some of the themes that you explore in this book and why?
Most of the poems are biographical. In the book description, I say I explore themes of womanhood, my family and what it’s like looking white but being Latina. My mother is Mexican, from a very poor family. My father is German, from a very wealthy family. Neither side approved of the other. My parents divorced when I was small, so I was mostly raised by my mother and her family. Everyone lived in the same neighborhood. My great-grandmother and grandmother lived next door to each other. My aunt and uncle lived across the street. For a time, my other two uncles lived in that same neighborhood. Almost every day was like a family reunion. So in some ways, I had all the good things that go with the big Latino family—that constant love, that loyalty and support-- not to mention the food! A lot of the poems are about food because in my grandmother’s house, life revolved around the kitchen. When you walked through the front door, the question was never, “How are you?” but, “Are you hungry?”
But there’s also the baggage that goes with being Latina—the biases, the Catholic guilt, the neuroses. My grandparents used to call me guera and bolilla, and kids in the neighborhood used to say I wasn’t a real Mexican. I didn’t understand what that meant until I was older. I didn’t realize I was so white until one day, at a big neighborhood fiesta, I looked around and realized how very pale I was compared to everyone else. It was a very rich and strange childhood.
I also write a lot about femininity—one of the reasons I threw myself so wholly into writing during this period was because of health problems. They were so bad, they hindered me from going to college and even holding a job. I had to have a full hysterectomy when I was 26. It was a relief having the physical problems mostly taken care of, but knowing you will never get to experience something so fundamentally female as being pregnant or having a child is very painful and complicated. Between being ill and being barren, I am keenly aware of my own mortality, so there is a lot of illness and death in my poems. Writing is the only way I have to confront these things, to make peace with them.
3. What was the development process like?
The poems were mostly written, in some form or other, before 2012. A few had been published in literary magazines. I put the poems in reverse order—the newest ones went up front, the older poems went towards the back. That felt right to me because the poems are, essentially, memories. So it makes sense to take the reader on a journey backward. My husband actually took the cover photo, which is the Hereford Bull overlooking the West Bottoms, which is the area where my family lived—some of them still live there. Of course, it’s easier now than ever to do a project like this, with self-publishing and e-books.
Now that I’ve done it, though, I wished I’d consulted with some other poets to see how they compiled their work into chapbooks and such. I think there are some layout things I could’ve done better. But I’ll know for next time.
4. What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Learning to be brave enough to tackle the hard subjects—to look at the situations honestly, and to be as objective as possible. The poetry group really helped with that. There were some poems that I wrote and was too scared to post because they were so personal, so revealing. But when I shared them, people would comment on how it related to their experiences, which was very rewarding.
5. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
I think one of the most important things all literature can do is convey an experience—something the reader either profoundly connects with because they’ve been through something similar, or introduces them to something very new that makes them see the world in a new way. I hope to accomplish that with all my work.
6. What inspired you to be a writer?
I wouldn’t say was inspired to be a writer, it’s just something I’ve always been. For me, it’s more like a vocation, a calling. My whole life, I’ve loved reading. From a young age, I kept journals. I wrote stories and poems. When I was thirteen, I started writing for the Kansas City Star’s teen section. That same year, I wrote my first novel (which was very awful and will never see the light of day). I completed my second novel by the time I was seventeen (only marginally less awful). I studied literature in high school and college. In 2005, I wrote a script for a small independent production company here in town. But I don’t feel like I really hit my stride till just a few years ago, where I can actually look back on some of the stuff I’ve done and feel something other than embarrassment.
7. What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?
The worst part is everything to do with trying to sell what you wrote. Submitting to publishers and magazines, marketing, reading negative reviews—that part’s all very stressful.
The best thing about writing is the writing—escaping reality, playing with words, getting to live vicariously through characters and imagined situations. Wherever I go, I’m not alone because I have a legion of characters in my head keeping me company.
8. Who are some of your favorite authors?
Too many to name. Some of my favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, Ai, Louise Gluck and Margaret Atwood. My favorite authors are Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Adams, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, Barbara Kingsolver, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Hardy and W. Somerset Maughm.
9. Are you working on anything right now?
Oh, yes. I co-author a series of scifi/fantasy novels with my best friend, Coyote Kishpaugh. The series is called The Order of the Four Sons. We’ve written the first four books, and just signed with a UK publisher called Kensington Gore. Books I and II are going to be re-released this year. Next year, Books III and IV are going to be re-released. Coyote and I are working on the final two books, V and VI. It’s about two ancient organizations, the Order of the Four Sons of Horus and Starry Wisdom, who have been battling for centuries for possession of a powerful artifact known as the Staff of Solomon. Whoever has possession of the staff can rip open the very fabric of existence.
Independently, I am working on a vampire trilogy based on my short story, “Our Miss Engel.” I’ve also signed with Kensington Gore on that.
Otherwise, the year is young. I’ve written some poems and short stories. I never know where my imagination will take me.
10. And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?
I think the US has become very cognizant in the past decade or so that ethnic literature has been ignored in favor of the traditional Western canon—not just Latino, but other world literature. I was finally able to finish up my degree a few years ago and it was something that my professors talked a lot about. They made sure to include in their curriculums books by Latino authors, as well as African, Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern authors. I think that’s an important, positive step, not just for writers but for readers too. Technology keeps making the world smaller, and we should be more aware of other artistic and cultural identities. Books are a window into other people and places.
For Latinos specifically, I think it’s a very good time to be a Latino in the US. Our voice is being heard and recognized like never before. Other ethnic groups are interested in learning about our traditions. I’m old enough to remember when being Mexican and speaking Spanish was very exotic. When my parents got divorced, my mother remarried to my stepfather, who is white. We moved into his house in what, at the time, was a rural, white community north of Kansas City. In that small town, we couldn’t find things like corn husks, peppers or cumin. We had to go back to the city whenever we wanted those things. When my grandparents came to see me in a school play, all the white kids stared at them because they were so small and dark, because they spoke Spanish. When I said in class that my favorite food was tamales, no one knew what that was. Now, Mexican food is hardly considered ethnic, in the way that Italian food is no longer considered ethnic.
In the long run, I’m curious to see how deeply assimilated we will ultimately become in the US. A hundred years ago, Italians and other ethnic groups were considered foreign and exotic but have become mostly integrated into the culture. I wonder if that’s what will happen with us, or if we will maintain a separate niche.For more info, visit http://laurenscharhag.blogspot.com/.