An Interview with Jennifer Maritza McCauley
By Jordan A. Rothacker
When my manuscript for the story collection Gristle: Weird Tales was accepted for publication at Stalking Horse Press, one of the things I was most excited about was becoming labelmates with so many great writers. D. Foy, Kurt Baumeister, Emily Corwin, Jessie Janeshek, duncan barlow, Jason DeBoer, Michael Wilson, and Jennifer Maritza McCauley. . . these were my peers now. I was familiar with the catalog and had read many of the books from the press. Some were sent to me for review along with merch. With one book came a pin that read, “I Am a Rebel Language.” This accompanied a poetry collection titled Scar On/Scar Off by Jennifer Maritza McCauley. The pin worked. I was intrigued.
I’ve now read this collection a handful of times, and it certainly lives up to the pin. The title is from a quote by Rosa Parks and also appears as the book’s epigraph: “Have you ever been hurt and the place heals a little bit, and you just pull the scar off over and over again?” The last of the pieces in the book involves a visit to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama and serves as a confrontation with the past and with family connections. This experience in Montgomery serves as a conclusion to everything said, to every pulled thread. It is something you largely read for yourself, for I could never do it justice.
Scar On/Scar Off consists of thirty-two pieces over three sections (I, Us, and We), some with an obvious poetic sense of line, and some in prose, like crisp vignettes. The promotional materials for the book mention Gloria Anzaldúa, author of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. In this seminal work, Anzaldúa explores the relationship between language and identity, stating: “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language.” She also proudly uses the term “linguistic terrorism” when expressing how subversive it can be to code-switch and transition through different dialects and linguistic modes.
As someone who is of an Afro-Latinx heritage, and who works in various formal genres of writing, McCauley is very much of this tradition. In the poem “When They Say Stop Speaking Ghetto,” she expresses a stance similar to Anzaldúa and in the first line declares: “I am a rebel language, / the world bloodroot of ancestral line.” As the poem moves, the voice shifts in and out of street slangs, both English and Spanish. McCauley doesn’t just use a “rebel language” in her work, as a writer she is a “rebel language.” Identity is a text: if we don’t write it for ourselves, others will write it for us.
I ain’t gonna speak in / your cusses nor cursivos, / oye: this talk / ain’t school-taught, / it’s ready for a gotdamn / brawl. / whatchu ’fraidofman / tienesmiedo, ’mano? what horrors could / possibly come from / these dumb, / dagger- / words?
Jennifer Maritza McCauley has earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University and a PhD in English (Creative Writing and Literature) from the University of Missouri. She’s received fellowships from the NEA, CantoMundo, Kimbilio, the Knight Foundation, and Sundress Academy for the Arts, as well as awards from Best of the Net and the American Academy of Poets. McCauley currently teaches at the University of Houston–Clear Lake as Assistant Professor of Literature and Creative Writing.
Jordan A. Rothacker: Why do you write? Why bother? Is it a calling, a craft? Or something you can’t help but do?
Jennifer Maritza McCauley: Writing has been with me since I was a young child. I was a voracious reader and I wanted to conjure up my own tales and express myself through writing. It’s always been a way to capture what’s on my mind and in my heart. So I guess you could say it’s something I can’t help but do. I know I’ll always keep writing.
JR: What power does literature have? Or any art form? Is there anything that makes writing/literature special in regard to other mediums?
JMM: Literature is a special form of communication. You develop a sacred bond with your reader, you trust your reader, your reader is able to step into your work and look around at all the machinery that makes you you, regardless of the genre. With literature, the reader is also an active participant in your creation, they imagine with you, they experience sorrow and happiness with you, you paint a picture in their mind and they interact with that picture.
JR: Hybridity is a term that hovers around your work, and I mean this in regard to genre and form. How important is genre or binary categorizations like poetry/prose or fiction/nonfiction to you, if at all? Is this ever something you consciously consider, or do you just produce an individual work as accurately and as best as it can be produced regardless of those definitions?
JMM: I think about the genre to an extent, but it doesn’t dictate what I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll feel the compulsion—“Hey I want to write a poem”—so I’ll write a poem. Other times I’ll feel the need to tell a story and whatever genre calls to me is where I go. Sometimes I’ll start writing in one genre then realize I have to switch because I need more space to move around. I think categorization can work for some pieces but other times it doesn’t. It just depends on the work.
JR: Genre for some writers is a matter of identity—“I am a poet,” “I am a horror writer”—and so I am wondering what connections you see with genre and identity, and more specifically with genre-defiance/hybridity and intersectionality?
JMM: I don’t usually define myself by one genre; however, I am a poet, a fiction writer, a hybrid writer, and a non-fiction writer, and so I claim all of those identities. I see myself ultimately as a writer who writes a number of different things, in a number of different genres, who experiments with form sometimes and who writes what she wants when she wants.
JR: What role do other artistic mediums (music, visual arts, performance, etc.) play in your work or process?
JMM: I love music, theater, and visual art. Romare Bearden is one of my biggest artistic influences and I gaze at his work to gain inspiration. I love photomontages and collages in general. In terms of music, I love John Coltrane, Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, Kendrick Lamar, and The Hieroglyphics. Listening to their music immediately makes me want to create. I’m also a fan of August Wilson and Tony Kushner as playwrights. I generally like reading or watching interviews by artists and hearing about their creative processes, how they differ or are similar to mine.
JR: Who are your all-time favorites?
JMM: My mother, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Edwidge Danticat, Nancy Morejón, Mayra Santos-Febres, Haruki Murakami, Zora Neale Hurston, Monica A. Hand, and Shūsaku Endō.
JR: Who are the greatest artistic influences on your work and sense of aesthetics?
JMM: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Haruki Murakami, and Mayra Santos-Febres have had an incredible impact on my writing, and I return to their works over and over again to challenge me and to motivate me.
JR: Which of your works or projects so far are you most proud of?
JMM: Ah ha! I think everything I’ve written has had some stamp of myself in it and contains some piece of me that is important to me. So, I don’t know if I could pick one work that I’m most proud of, I think I see them all as different sides of me.
JR: What is next? Are there any new projects on the horizon as of yet unannounced?
JMM: I have a short story collection coming out in spring of 2023 on Counterpoint Press. It’s called When Trying to Return Home and it features characters who are navigating relationships, culture, and their ties to “home.”
JR: I hate to be indelicate or morbid—I’ve lost a lot of people recently, and time and longevity are on my mind—but what do you hope the legacy of your work to be? Do you think in terms of the future and the place of your work?
JMM: I’m so sorry for your losses. I just enjoy writing, and so I want to continue to write. If someone enjoys my work or takes something from it, then that makes me glad. So, if that continues to happen, then I’ll be satisfied.