The Balancing Act: An Interview with Crystal Salas

Crystal Salas is a 2016 Fellow for the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and has been named one of “40 Poets To Watch Under 40” by the Ventura County Arts Council. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, YAY! LA Magazine, Da Poetry Lounge blog, The Moorpark Review, Chinquapin, as well as in True Focus Theater’s original stage productions: Cat Fight and Life, Death & the Middle. Currently, she teaches high school English and coaches a kickass, award-winning, youth slam poetry team in Los Angeles.


“My students will probably tell you, with varying degrees of understandable eye rolls, that I am always telling them to be more specific. I think that is one of the most crucial keys to expressing your lived-truth in a way that also opens the doors for others. As a reader, I am hungry to see this in writing, and it’s caused me to look at how I deal with that in my own work.”

1. What is immediate for you in your work right now?

Navigating the open and locked out spaces of mixed-race identity, legacies of immigration, the overlooked brilliance of my mother, memory and its loss due to aging but also due to manipulated narratives (at the hands of self and others), ghosts of the living and the dead, miracles of human endurance I see in my classroom everyday, memory (trauma and joy) as it lives on the body, cataloguing my grandparents’ every angle so I can always render them.

2. How did you come into poetry?

The first poem I can remember writing was in my eighth grade English class. One afternoon, my teacher, Mrs. Vigne, who used to stand and sing to us on top of desks in order to get our adolescent attention, gathered us into a circle and turned off the lights. She asked us to hold hands and bow our heads. She brought out a flashlight and held it like one would a candle. She told us that we were gathered there today to have a funeral for the word “sad” and that we were not allowed to use the word anymore. She asked us, in memory of the word, if we could each go around providing more specific alternatives that we could use in its place. As a teacher now, I know this to be brilliant, especially when addressing teenage content sensibilities. I wrote a poem that afternoon called “The Ominous Day,” and, while it of course wasn’t good, she made such a big deal out of it, which meant so much to me as the quiet kid, who might have disappeared any other way. Additionally, it was the day I began to learn that I could manipulate and sculpt language to do exactly what I wanted it to do, to get closer and closer to representing the abstracts of life which were, at that age, beginning to grow their ineffable scales.

After that transformative moment, I was so lucky to have gotten the opportunity to attend the California State Summer School for the Arts and Columbia University summer youth writing programs in my high school summers. Through those venues, I was given the opportunity and space to produce work as well as learn how to really read poetry and as well as the inseparable relationship between both practices. Despite all of this practice, I was still pretty shy and secretive with my work.

3. Where does your nickname “Little Bird” stem from?
Hah! It was a nickname lovingly bestowed upon me in college by a friend who considered that a hobby. It had originally just been a name she used, however, when when I transferred to UCSC, I worked on a collaborative poetry show as part of the larger Rainbow Theater, a multicultural theater troupe, and there was another Crystal in the cast. I offered up the name, everyone around said “Oh, that totally makes sense” and it became my name for the rest of college. I’m pretty sure no one called me Crystal for the next few years.

4. Does being a teacher inform your writing?

Atop all of the other things it requires, good teaching requires perpetual reflection and consistent presence. This extends of course to the actual practice of teaching but also to my humanity, though the two can often be inextricably linked as it is. For one, the challenge AND privilege of teaching teenagers has kept me in constant reflection/remembrance of what it means to become a person, the turmoil and awe-striking wonder of it. Whether it’s navigating day-to-day classroom interactions or developing curriculum, my interest in reaching my students on a human level often circles me back to foundries of my own youth and how I came to learn about the world. Furthermore, my students hold me accountable to my own writing. If I’m not willing to practice, experiment, stretch, how can I ask them to do it on the daily basis I’m asking of them? An example of my most common feedback suggestion:
My students will probably tell you, with varying degrees of understandable eye rolls, that I am always telling them to be more specific. I think that is one of the most crucial keys to expressing your lived-truth in a way that also opens the doors for others. As a reader, I am hungry to see this in writing, and it’s caused me to look at how I deal with that in my own work.

5. What are your writing rituals?

Real talk: Since I started teaching, I have been in, what seems like, an excruciatingly long period of transition with this. Teaching and going to grad school full time had made it almost impossible for me to develop/maintain any sort of established routine. It has also been really challenging to move back and forth between my writing self and my teacher self. Honestly, I’m learning everyday how that door works. For a lot of this time, the hinges have not worked at all. Lately, I have been trying to embrace this by trying my best to listen to what my conscience needs. I am trying to embrace being patient and accommodating. For example, if I’m sitting down to write and I’m antsy, I take myself outside. If my brain has decided that all the potential lines of today are only going to come as I’m driving (a common problem), I record what I have or I pull over if I can. Sometimes, if I’m feeling blocked, I will go over to mis abuelos’ house and sit with them. I’m finding that human connection is much more of a catalyst for me than talking about writing itself. Sometimes it is just ditching the writing all together and doing nothing but reading for a bit. I have come to accept that I am in a healing and recovery stage with writing and the best thing I can do to set new rituals is set the altar and be available for them, and for myself, as it comes.

6. Who is in your literary lineage? (By that, I mean: in your work, who do your poems follow in the footsteps of)

Poetry all begins for me with Frank O’Hara and Sandra Cisneros. I spent a lot of time as a kid going to bookstores with my dad and reading the merchandise while sitting in the middle of an aisle. Finding a collection of Frank O’Hara poems at age 16 was the first time poetry ever caused me to fall back and sit in the middle of a bookstore aisle. I felt invited by his love letters to his city and friends, his direct address, his piles of visceral angst into pique turns of nostalgia with simultaneous ease and obvious control. I felt like I was coming home to a memory I had but would not have recognized without his help. More than 10 years later, I revisit his work for that same feeling. Sandra Cisneros, for me and for countless others, was the first time I was able to see a place for me in the literary landscape. At a very young age, her work showed me that my stories and observations are still interesting, even if the mainstream canon is slow to represent them. Additionally, in my poetry I often find myself storytelling, and driven by some ghost of narrative. Cisneros’ work showed me that is possible to nourish both. In terms of the continual journey, I am in constant bookshelf conversation with Lucille Clifton, Aimee Bender, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, Brendan Constantine, Claudia Rankine, Ada Limon, Danez Smith, and many, many others.

7. In Poets4Progress’s mission statement, it says “We are an artistic community outreach organization that focuses on solution-orientated performance”. Can you elaborate more on what “solution-orientated performance” looks like?

Over the years, when working with poets, founding coach Kelly Grace Thomas, myself, and current co-coach David Hall, have worked hard to remind students of their responsibility as writers, particularly writers who engage in themes social justice.
To me, “solution-oriented performance” does not mean wrapping up the message in a bow, but offering more than a bouquet of triggering feelings and shock in pursuit of a high score. For our students, this has looked like a call-to-action threaded through the backbone of the poem, or even actual community involvement/service. About a year ago, we had the awesome opportunity to work with The Bigger Picture project (through Youth Speaks) on a campaign for Type II Diabetes Awareness. Our poets wrote poems on the topic, curated a school-wide assembly in which they presented information regarding the socioeconomic and health realities of diabetes, as well as participated in a “Recess” demonstration in Berkeley, where they engaged in recess activities in People’s Park and acted as youth ambassadors for the cause to community members who walked through the park to see what was going on!

8. You and Nikita Liza together birthed Atomic Tangerine Press. Since its inception, how many chapbooks have been hand-made?

We first started out at our kitchen tables when we were seniors at UCSC, binding our own senior thesis chapbooks + respective copies and helping our friends bind and print their chapbooks (I had a color printer at the time and an ink connection!) In recent years since then, Nikita has made some gorgeous chapbooks of her own. I haven’t made any of my own since my first but have used the skills and resources we picked up during that time (during our master class with Gary Young at UCSC) to help my high school students layout/bind their own collections. Perhaps one day we will formally publish manuscripts and run printings, but, for now, this has more or less been a project of facilitating access and imagination for ourselves and our community.  (I’m unsure of an exact number…)

9. In your remarkable poemTongue Memoir, you have these lines: “To live in the borderlands means / you’re constantly having a stroke in one language or another- / I reach to say “i see it between us” / this tongue action entre teeth instead producing /verlo.” What does it mean to have a body that holds both your mother tongue and the tongue of the colonizer? What does it do to the body to exist between languages?

First of all, thank you. It means a lot of confusion and a lot of learning that it is often up to me and me alone to validate my own identity. It means learning to honor one tongue and acknowledge/challenge/forgive the other for its privilege. It means feeling both tongue tied and betrayed but also keenly aware and uniquely articulate.  My body itself comes from a legacy of people who both accept and dismiss my identity because of my fractured relationship with my mother tongue. And then there are the folks on the outside…. the other day I was having early bird dinner at Coco’s in Mission Hills with my Abuelo, and we were speaking Spanish, which is commonly what you do when conversing with your elders, no matter how broken your language is. A man sitting to the side of us was giving us obvious dirty looks…so persistently it was distracting to me. The worst part of this experience for me, besides the prejudice, was the awful irony. This man was disapproving of our use of our mother tongue, perhaps thinking we ought to be speaking English, but, had he been able to understand any of it, he instantly would have seen how wretched my Spanish is due to collateral of assimilation and how much I struggle to connect with my family on a grammatically correct level. Even more ironic, I kid you not, we were talking about how much my Abuelo enjoys apple pie because of how quintessentially American it is. He is an immigrant who came here by himself at 12 years old and worked in the fields instead of getting formal schooling above an 8th grade education. He slept in dirt so he could pick produce, such as apples, and is still able to talk about how appreciates this American product largely facilitated by immigrant labor… and this man was judging us, perhaps for not being as colonized as we were supposed to be.

10. In 2012, your first chapbook “The Body Memoir” came into the world. During the inception of the chapbook, what were the big questions you asked yourself and do you feel the chapbook was successful in answering them?
I wrote/compiled “The Body Memoir” as my senior thesis project at UC Santa Cruz. My big question at that time, that particular wide-eyed threshold in my youth, was “how does memory live on the body?” I was really interested in how the human body develops reflex memories regarding emotional trauma (and how that can be passed down), how the body is haunted by the space inhabited by other bodies around it (missing people), how physical injuries heal but can lie in wait. When I was in high school, I had been pretty serious about running until I sustained a hip injury that was due in part to poor form (user error) but also due to the way my body is built (flat feet, uneven hips). In the years after, I struggled with feeling betrayed by my body, particularly as it changed after I was told by doctors that I should not be running anymore. I think this experience was one of the reasons I became obsessed with the idea that your body can make you feel like flying and it can also ground you just as quickly. As it turned out, this large question is totally not something that can be answered in 30 pages or with 21 years of life experience, but I love and appreciate my then-self for that ambition and for asking a question with so many years to it. I certainly scratched the surface, but, with more life experience, am still answering.

11. What is next for Crystal Salas?

I’m excited to report that I’m in the very early stages of gathering work to develop a new manuscript. I had a second manuscript before I started teaching four years ago, however, after such a life-changing journey, the whole of it is not reflective of my place in the world anymore. So, I’ve been gathering what I have written over the past couple years, seating it with current writing, and listening to the conversation. I’m in the process of working on it in the great Kim Young’s WWLA class and am eager to see how it grows from there.

Crystal Salas’s website can be found here


I.S. Jones is an Assistant Editor for Chaparral, Voicemail Poems, and Staff Writer for Dead End Hip Hop. She is a fellow at BOAAT Writer’s Retreat, Callaloo, and The Watering Hole.