By SARAH BELLE LIN
Words have power. But on who?
“Poetry saved my life,” said Melissa Castillo Planas, associate professor of English at Lehman College.
This saving prose has now entered her second book, “Chingona Rules”, allowing Castillo Planas to safely say that she is now in a better place. This means that she doesn’t need to devote as much time to herself as she would to other people, as well as to social and historical issues that interest her.
“I think this book is about controlling what you can control,” Castillo Planas said. “I learned where I would like to take my poetry in the future, which is to say that I could write less about myself. You can come to a certain place, comfort in daring and pride in yourself. But you still have to work on it. “
“Chingona Rules” is a 10-part “memory” poetry book with thematic elements on family, Latina / Chicana identity, social commentary, sanity, love and grief, and an entire section about artist Beyonce, “obviously like all books should,” Castillo Planas said at a recent reading event with Lehman colleague and author Matt Caprioli.
In “My body is a scar”, Castillo Planas thinks of “the spectacle of the spectacular violence we witness in our streets, the black deaths as painful as they are public, the murders of children as tragic as they are preventable, children piled up as baskets of fruit, like Legos, a border that has become confinement.
Having suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, Castillo Planas reflects on the pursuit of happiness in “PTSD”. “Can you learn happiness when you don’t remember how it tastes, when everything tastes like the bitter seed of the world’s meanest fruit?” “
It took months to write the final poem, “Chingona Rules”, from which the name of the book is derived. Who are the rules for? “I imagine other young Latinas,” Castillo Planas said. “Not that you have to be Latina to be Chingona. Anyone can be a Chingona.
Castillo Planas honors the long line of “hysterical, savage, stubborn and difficult women” from which she came. In “Mother Tongue”, she writes about her mother tongue, “a memory that I want to remember. My mother tongue is also my secret weapon; hidden and blunt from abuse, waiting to be sharpened.
While deep pride in his heritage takes center stage in his methodology, Castillo Planas says there is also shame and humiliation in accepting his cultural identity. She admitted to never throwing a quinceañera – the Latin version of a Sweet 16 celebration – because she was “too embarrassed to dance my culture” and “afraid to be different, public, proud”.
Rather, the “Chingona rules” have to do with empowerment and being comfortable with the past in order to have a healthy present.
“Partly, it was to ‘undo’ my own feelings about things you shouldn’t be talking about,” says Castillo Planas, especially “internal beliefs about being inferior. Being able to put it on paper and publish it is like, “This is it. I don’t care what you think.
She attributes the earrings – they read “chingona” in large print – her cousin offered her a way to gain self-confidence.
Still, Castillo Planas isn’t entirely comfortable showing his heart and soul to the public. But she takes comfort in knowing that recent movements around mental health and sexual abuse awareness may have changed society for the better. She suffered from childhood trauma, eating disorders and abusive relationships.
“Some of these things that I locked out for 10 to 15 years, and I didn’t recognize that it had happened for a long time or didn’t tell anyone about it for years,” said Castillo Planas. “I don’t really like reading the mental health section, but a lot of people have found connections to them. “
There are still childhood memories that she blocked out, although she can remember her literary career starting as a “little fiction reader” making books.
As the Ithaca-raised writer grew older, Castillo Planas “tried fiction, journalism, then fiction again. And then I found poetry.
From hundreds of poems, she organized 40 into “Rules of Chingona”. She recalled that half of the pile was made up of poems Castillo Planas didn’t think was ready, believing that “the poem isn’t complete until you are able to dive deeper and get the job done.” .
His first book of poetry, “Coatlicue Eats the Apple” was a Mexico who takes a big apple that incorporated his time spent in the halls of Ivy Leagues to the sandy streets of East Harlem, and vice versa. The title pays homage to Coatlicue, a goddess steeped in Mexican mythology who is androgynous – half man / half woman – and both creative and destructive.
Humbly, Castillo Planas named some of his past and present students in the book acknowledgments. Known as “Dr. CP”, Castillo Planas is now in his fourth year of teaching at Lehman, specializing in Latin literature.
“They saw me sing poetry,” she said of her students. “They were the first readers (of the ‘Chingona Rules’). Me and some of the students formed a Poetry Support Discussion Group where we sent poems every day, and some of those poems ended up being in the book.
Castillo Planas’s courses, however, cover much more investigation of Latin literature, contemporary Latino writers, American literature, the Mexican experience in New York City, composition, and immigration. As it stands, Lehman’s student body is around 55% Latinx.
Some of the most exciting contemporary poets that Castillo Planas taught in his class include Natalie Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Indigenous poet, as well as Elizabeth Acevedo, who writes extensively in verse, and José Olivarez, to find a little bit of humor.
“I tend to choose contemporary poets of color for a number of reasons – the poets I choose are gorgeous, so this is number one,” Castillo Planas said. “A lot of my students tend not to have learned poetry from poets of color. It limits how well I think they can tell their stories. It’s not like they can’t learn anything about Keats or Edgar Allan Poe, but they also need other role models from more diverse backgrounds.
Helping students with poetry has helped Castillo Planas reflect on his own work – a process that is both engaging and cathartic.
“Writing them was like letting them go,” she said. “Poetry is like therapy for me. I always tell my students to write aloud – be an active participant.
“Language is so powerful. “