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Sandra Cisneros Returns To Chicago This Month To Read From 1st Poetry Collection In 28 Years

Cisneros will read from "Woman Without Shame" Nov. 22 at the Field Museum. She said the title represents a woman unconcerned about being judged: "What you think of me can't touch me because I know who I am."

Chicago native Sandra Cisneros published her first poetry anthology in nearly three decades in September. She will return to Chicago Nov. 22 for a reading at the Field Museum.
Provided/Keith Dannemiller
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CHICAGO — Despite the fame and accolades garnered in a 40-year writing career, reading poems in front of an audience is still embarrassing for Sandra Cisneros.

But that’s exactly what the acclaimed writer and Chicago native will do later this month when she returns to her hometown for a reading of “Woman Without Shame,” her first poetry collection in 28 years and first to be published in Spanish. The reading will happen 7 p.m. Nov. 22 at the Field Museum, 1400 S. DuSable Lake Shore Drive.

Tickets must be reserved and are $25. Members can get a $5 discount. The event, organized by the Field Museum and Museum of Mexican Art, is recommended for people 18 and older. Masks are required.

Because the universe is large enough

To encompass contradiction.

“Creed” from “Woman Without Shame.”

In her latest work, Cisneros writes bluntly about aging, sexuality, her relationships, artistry, love and her path to self-awareness.

“My poems are like my journal. I have to draw up a lot of courage to publish poems, let alone read them aloud. And as much as I look brave,” Cisneros said. “It’s challenging for me to do this.”

She gains courage when the audience is with her, when they react and engage with her as she reads, Cisneros said. “But when there’s this silence. It’s like, ‘Oh, oh!’ I chose the wrong poem!” she said, laughing.

‘Una Mujer Sin Vergüenza Is Not Asking For Your Approval’

Cisneros, 67, was born in Chicago, the only daughter of seven children. Owing to her father’s work, the family ping ponged frequently between Chicago and Mexico City.

Cisneros and her family moved to 1525 N. Campbell Ave. in Humboldt Park when she was 11, according to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. That part of her upbringing in Humboldt Park served as the inspiration for the setting and characters in her acclaimed 1984 novel, “The House on Mango Street.”

Cisneros went to school Wicker Park, attended college at Loyola University Chicago, worked in Pilsen and Little Village and taught young people who had dropped out of school at Latino Youth High School. Cisneros left Chicago in her late twenties and now lives in San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico.

For “Woman Without Shame,” Cisneros chose 57 poems that explore this Latina writer “experimenting to be / the woman [she] wanted to be” then growing into a “woman [who] seeks her own company.” 

The title represents a woman unconcerned with being judged. It’s about being in a powerful place in her life at this age: “a estas alturas” is the phrase Cisneros uses to describe it.

“If you’re a woman without shame, you know who you are,” Cisneros said with a softness in her voice.  “What you think of me can’t touch me because I know who I am. Una mujer sin vergüenza is not asking for your approval. So you cannot harm me.”

Even though Cisneros has earned a powerful place as a literary icon, Cisneros said she’s a work in progress as she continues to let go of shame she feels about different aspects of her life. 

“Because you know, we get over one shame and another one pops up at different times in our life,” Cisneros said. “When I was a kid, it was about being poor. And when I was a young woman, poverty was still plaguing me. But it was also about trying to be like white women and exploring myself sexually and trying to have an apartment of my own and and traveling like a writer.”  

I sleep to excess,

smoke cigars,

drink. Am at my best

wandering undressed,

my fingernails dirty,

my hair a mess.

”It Occurs to Me I Am the Creative/Destructive Goddess Coatlicue” from “Woman Without Shame.”

The collection “came to light” with help from her poetry coach, John Espinoza, Cisneros said.

“Just like when you go to the gym, you need somebody to work out with,” Cisneros said. “I work out with John Espinoza on my poetry. He helped me to fine tune and finish things.”

The collection showcases some of Cisneros’ most personal work, unearthing pieces from what called her “under-the-bed file” of poetry where she stores pieces she writes without an eye toward publication.

“I really do feel like they’re X-rays of my uterus,” Cisneros said.  “Who would wanna look at that? You know? They’re so personal.”

In “You Better Not Put Me in a Poem,” Cisneros unflinchingly writes of the men with whom she’s been intimate over the years. She said she was shocked when her editor and agent pushed to include the work in the anthology.

When she makes a private poem public, Cisneros says she’s “a little spooked and a little thrilled.”

“It’s like jumping off the Acapulco cliff and going, ‘Ahí vooooooy!’ You get into the foam, and you come up kind of glorious and hope you don’t get gashed by undercurrents and sharks and coral.”   

I live al revés, upside down.

Always have.

“Jarcería Shop” from “Woman Without Shame.”

Where people sleep, Cisneros works. 

In the solitary space of her bed, the place she often writes, Cisneros creates lines that connect her with people, no matter how brief the interaction.

“When we’re solitary, we most connect with ourselves and we pay attention to every moment. I use my solitary time and my writing time as a kind of sitting meditation exercise,” Cisneros said.

In these moments, Cisneros finds the poetry that “comes to us every day on its own. Every day it calls us, but do we pick up?” she said.  

In one instance, Cisneros was walking home with her dog when she noticed a young man carrying a machine gun. She’d noticed these men before as guards at the Office Depot, she said. Though other residents tell her they feel safer with them present in the city, Cisneros said she feels uncomfortable. But when she saw this particular guard, she said, “I don’t know why my hand went up like I was going to ask a question. And the guy just waved back. I thought, ‘Oh, hurry up! Write this down.’”

Maybe he is the same

age as the forty-three

from Ayotzinapa,

burned and buried

like trash.

”A Boy with a Machine Gun Waves to Me” from “Woman Without Shame.”

Cisneros said we sometimes can’t find the language to explain our connections with others. Or “You can’t pick up, or the connection isn’t there,” she said. But poetry can help “find the language for this swirl of emotions that don’t have any words.”

“Our hearts are like little snow globes. They get shaken up, sacudidos, like a Peñafiel bottle, and to get it to settle, and to clear out, and say, ‘What is that?’ is what poetry is all about,” she said.

The third section of poems includes ruminations on the experiences of Gandhi’s wife accepting his choice of celibacy (“Poem Written at Midnight”) and on a mother who lost a son (“Year of My Near Death.”) These dark moments in our lives allow us to “graduate into the next spiritual grade level,” Cisneros said.

“If we didn’t have penas and exploding cigars and disasters and heartbreak, we wouldn’t have an opportunity to process and grow. Otherwise, we’d all be stuck in emotional kindergarten,” Cisneros said.

As Cisneros moves forward into “25 more years, or 20 years, or 15, or one” because she doesn’t know how many years she has left, she wants to focus on “serving a spiritual apprenticeship.” 

“I’m not a master,” Cisneros said.  “In order to master what I have to master in this last segment of my life, I really have to focus and use my writing as a meditation hall, as a transformation workshop. And I’m hoping to be a good student,” she said.

May I remind you

I was twenty-eight only

in years. My true

age was oak.

Seedling. More

Acorn perhaps. Or

possibly spore.

“Mount Everest” from “Woman Without Shame.”

Cisneros comes back to Chicago having added yet another accolade to her career. In September, the Poetry Foundation included Cisneros in their 2022 list of Pegasus Awardees.

The journey means grappling with some complex feelings about her hometown.

“I had a lot of doubts and a lot of ill feelings about Chicago,” Cisneros said. “Chicago was kind of like an ex-boyfriend. And now I’m older, and I’m making my peace with this ex-boyfriend. I can sit down and hear what this ex-boyfriend has to say about me. We’ve made our peace. I’ve forgiven and asked for forgiveness. 

“Every time I come back, I’m making my peace with it and letting go of rencores,” or resentment, Cisneros said. “I feel overwhelmed in Chicago, to tell you the truth. It’s too intense for someone who’s so sensitive. I feel as if I know when I come back to receive the accolades and the respect that I’m getting, it’s helping me to heal my heart.” 

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