Aug 17, 2022
Sheryl Luna (poet)
Magnificent Errors is a collection of poems that shows how mental health challenges can elicit beauty, resiliency, and hope.
In 2005, Sheryl Luna burst onto the poetry scene with Pity the Drowned Horses, which quickly became a classic of border and Southwest literature with its major point of reference in and around El Paso, Texas. Now with the poems in Magnificent Errors, Luna’s third collection and winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry, Luna turns her gaze toward people living on the margins—whether it be cultural, socioeconomic, psychological, or personal—and celebrates their ability to recover and thrive. Luna reveals that individuals who suffer and experience injustice are often lovely and awe inspiring. Her poems reflect on immigrants in a detention camp, a meth addict, a homeless individual, and someone on food stamps. She explores the voices of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or PTSD, poets, visual artists, and people living in a mental health community setting. The author’s own journey to recovery from childhood abuse and mental illness also illuminates how healing is possible.
The poems in Magnificent Errors are lyrical, narrative, and often highly personal, exploring what it means to be the “other” and how to cope with difference and illness. They venerate characters who overcome difficulties including ostracism and degradation. People who live outside of the mainstream in poverty are survivors, and showing their experience teaches us compassion and kindness. Ideas of art, culture, and recovery flow throughout the poems, exploring artistic creativity as a means of redemption. With language that is fresh and surprising, Sheryl Luna shares these remarkable poems that bring a reader into the experiences of marginalization and offer hope that grace and restoration do indeed follow.
“With Magnificent Errors, Luna has broken the regional boundaries of the American Southwest and become one of America’s finest poets.” —Dagoberto Gilb, author of Before the End, After the Beginning
“In Magnificent Errors, Sheryl Luna shows us once again why she is one of America’s premier poets. Her gutsy, gorgeous language, her hard-won vision of grit and grace—all bid us enter the universe of a poetic saint whose earthy wisdom is unparalleled.” —Joy Roulier Sawyer, author of Lifeguards and Tongues of Men and Angels
"Sheryl Luna's voice is unforgettable because she has a visionary touch where her experiences become our own. As readers, we are blessed to find ourselves in her poems. We have been waiting. As a poet, she shows us, in powerful poem after poem, what it takes for the poet to reveal her place in a difficult world. The result is a book that opens when the poet says so and rests, gently, in the reader's hands." —Ray Gonzalez, author of Feel Puma
"Since her 2005 debut Pity the Drowned Horses, Luna has excelled at the elegant lyric, yet what stands out here are the interior landscapes that bridge a visionary attention to nature and raw reflections on mental illness, abuse, trauma, and healing. . . . Luna’s book beautifully expands upon the many intersections between Chicana ecopoetics and disability poetics, while claiming its own lyric territories." —The Latinx Project
"Like her acclaimed first book 'Pity the Drowned Horses' and second book 'Seven,' Luna's newest work reminds readers, no matter a person's socio-economic or mental status, all of humanity is linked. Every poem in this collection is a standout. Each piece succinctly captures the discontent of the country's working poor." —Latino Book Review
Sheryl Luna’s first collection, Pity the Drowned Horses, won the inaugural Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize for emerging Latino/a poets (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005). She has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, Anderson Center, Ragdale Foundation, and Canto Mundo. She received the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award from Sandra Cisneros in 2008. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Puerto del Sol, Kalliope, and Notre Dame Review, among others.
"Listening to Sky: There are song shells in our pink ears. We take apart. We break. We forsake. Unthinkable girl dismembered by 17 year old boy. Sky weaving a red lit thread. We are but guests among dragging gray clouds. Tapping to the beat of stars and making music, we refuse to forget ourselves in the first snow. Newspaper stories tell us we matter, tell us we don't matter. The dying churches feed us the paradox of living, the peacock's beauty tinged pride, the Magnificence of Errors. Praise more than blackberries, praise more than sunshine.
At home in our graves, we are less than politics and language, trust and opening of windows. Let go of smug, selfish days. I hear leaves scraping across pavement, falling from above at an angle, pumpkins half eaten by squirrels. There are secrets we keep from ourselves. We're trying too hard. Language drifts, fogged and moony. We find our single voice in a flurry of birds. Forgetting the self, we can finally hear the sky sigh."
That's the poem Listening to Sky by Sheryl Luna and it's part of her book titled Magnificent Errors. Magnificent Errors, subtitled Poems by Sheryl Luna, winner of the Ernest Sanders Prize in Poetry. This volume is published by University of Notre Dame Press, 2022.
A couple of quotes about this. This is from Dagoberto Gilb. He says, "With Magnificent Errors, Luna has broken the regional boundaries of the American Southwest and become one of America's finest poets."
And this is from Joy Roulier Sawyer, "In Magnificent Errors, Sheryl Luna shows us once again why she's one of America's premier poets. Her gutsy, gorgeous language, her hard won vision of grit and grace, all bid us enter the universe of a poetic saint whose earthy wisdom is unparalleled."
And for my own testimony, I'll say this volume often I shared it with my son and my wife, and they both liked it. I liked it. It was something that was often poignant and lump in the throat, but also inspiring, or I said the word "bouncy." But I think it's the thing you read and you have a new appreciation for things, even though you're feeling more emotional.
So this is Talks With Poets and I'm pleased to welcome Sheryl Luna. She's the author of many poetry collections, including the award-winning Pity The Drowned Horses and Seven. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Puerto del Sol, Kalliope and the Notre Dame Review, among others.
Sheryl Luna: (03:38)
Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Great. So Magnificence of Errors was in that poem and it's also the title of your book. Quite a pairing: Errors and Magnificence. I'd often thought of Errors as being sometimes brilliant, but I was certainly not boring like correctness, but Magnificent is an interesting choice there. The sentence in the poem, it', "The dying churches feed us the paradox of living, the peacock's beauty tensed pride, the Magnificence of Errors." So looking at the sentence, you might think, "Well, this is something that is being fed to us by something that's dying." But, for me, I thought that there was something magnificent about errors in this context. It wasn't, "Oh, this is something that I don't like."
Tell me about that and the decision to name the volume Magnificent Errors.
Sheryl Luna: (04:39)
I think for that particular poem when it came about, I was thinking about mistakes, mistakes I've made, mistakes people make, in general, and how there's something beautiful in that if we learn something from the mistakes. And I think for the title that has a lot to do with it. A lot of the poems, I was in transitional housing for 11 months and a lot of the poems are about people I met in that situation and they were often making mistakes. They might have been an addict or something that they were struggling with, but that there's a beauty in learning from that and overcoming such a thing. So I thought that I wanted to celebrate people who struggle and make mistakes and that there's something beautiful in coming out of that and surviving.
That came through very strongly in all of the poems really. I don't know. Let's see. For example, we can take Rubbernecking. I'll just read the second half. "We have no answers. Some of us missed the broadcast to success. The neighborhood fills with unseen, deep throated robins. Remember what it means to be alone. We say disliking or loving mad streets where the broken fearlessly ride buses. We cannot fix the contest outside even if we rubberneck our way through accident and luck."
For me, I just thought about this being someone who was on the outside and I looked at it was looking at people who were fearlessly riding buses as though for this person to ride a bus was a big accomplishment. I mean, how do they do it really?
Sheryl Luna: (06:52)
And if you have social anxiety, it's very difficult to get in the car and drive down the road. How do these people get in these buses?
Go ahead. It looked like you were-
Sheryl Luna: (07:03)
Oh no. I was just saying that that's very true. Anxiety can get in the way of that, crowds. And it's just amazing when you take the bus. It's just the people on the bus. It's very interesting. Often there's almost something interesting that goes on every time you take a bus.
But it takes some ability to open the window or to take a risk to get on the bus. And also this idea of rubbernecking, it seems if you are ... I was thinking, to me, it was, if you are trapped at home agoraphobic or social anxiety, to give the medical terms, you end up rubbernecking your life or watching the TV and seeing what is happening to other people. Was that part of what you were thinking here?
Sheryl Luna: (07:54)
Well, I think we have a fascination for accidents, and not just car accidents, but just difficulty, drama.
Sheryl Luna: (08:05)
I was thinking of that Johnny Depp trial. People were involved in it and there is an isolation that comes with that, in a way, a deterioration of faith in people, but we survive and we move on. I think that's what I was getting at there. Just the fascination with difficulty. And do you believe in luck or not? A lot of people, a lot of writers, will say they don't believe in luck. I do. [inaudible 00:08:40].
Yeah. I got that sense from these poems. There's this possibility of something serendipitous happening at any time.
Another poem was Finding Water that says, "Deserts irrigated with labor. We do not understand our own messages. Cup bearers, givers of water. We can drown in the past. Drunks holding signs, begging for liquor money, forsaking our own names. We are fiery assurances, aquifers, mountain streams. What shapes us runs exhaustible, necessary. There is no meaningless voice in suffering. No one will remember the day we die in the end. In solitude heat breaks over our backs, yet all of us loving the musical sound of birds."
To me, what this poem said to me was you have these drunks and beggars, but they are actually the assurances and the aquifers. They are the fiery assurance and they have the heat breaking over their backs yet, like everyone else, they're loving the musical sound of birds.
Was that your idea that in this poem, the drunks and the beggars are ... That we are the fiery assurances?
Sheryl Luna: (10:06)
Yes. I think a lot of the book ... Well, these two poems deal a lot with idea of paradox that we can be two things simultaneously. We can be struggling with mental illness, for instance and, at the same time, beautiful and fiery, something to be celebrated. But I do think people struggling with poverty, there's oftentimes something beautiful about the way they survive and function just like that. So I think I have an interest in celebrating things that might be deemed inappropriate or abnormal or something negative to be despised or looked down upon. And so I think that may be where the fiery comes from. A fiery desire to live fully despite circumstances.
Yes. So I work in a psychiatric ward, and when you're saying that I'm thinking of, in the adolescent wing, a young woman who is in the psychiatric ward and yet playing music. She's 15, playing music. She wants to play really ... Well, music that's maybe could be said to be inappropriate. And that's lots of words that someone would say are inappropriate. As the song about quarter of the way through she climbs up on the table. This is outside in the school yard. Climbs up on the table and starts twerking and people say, "That's inappropriate. You have to stop [inaudible 00:12:03] music inappropriate." But in a way you'd think what would be better than dancing on tables? I mean, everyone would like to be able to lose the inhibitions that you could actually do that. And she's doing it, but it's all inappropriate.
Yet I walk away thinking she is so full of life. And also someone who comes to the aid of the other people when they're feeling down, more so than anyone else. I wanted to play this little clip for you. This is from Chris Farley. You remember the Chris Farley Show on Saturday Night Live?
Sheryl Luna: (12:39)
Okay. I'll show it.
Chris Farley: (12:45)
Mr. Daniels has done The Purple Rose of Cairo, Terms of Endearment, Arachnophobia and Something Wild, which is an awesome flick.
Jeff Daniels: (12:54)
Oh, thanks. Thank you.
Chris Farley: (12:57)
Remember, in Something Wild when Melanie Griffith had you handcuffed to the bed? Remember that?
Jeff Daniels: (13:02)
Chris Farley: (13:03)
And you had to make that phone call, remember? And you're chained to the thing and you couldn't get away?
Jeff Daniels: (13:11)
Yeah, yeah. I remember.
Chris Farley: (13:14)
That was awesome. Okay. So you were also in The Purple Road to Cairo?
Jeff Daniels: (13:22)
Yeah, yeah, I was.
Chris Farley: (13:26)
Remember when you were doing your movie and Mia Farrow was watching and then you came down off the screen and talked to her and you were in black and white when you were on screen, but then when you talked to her, you were in color?
Jeff Daniels: (13:40)
Yeah. What about it?
Chris Farley: (13:41)
Do you remember that?
Jeff Daniels: (13:46)
I thought that the one way this interview could go would be, I would just read your poem and say, "That was awesome [inaudible 00:13:57]-
Sheryl Luna: (13:56)
... and do you remember writing that?" But because I'm not sure about asking you other things about your biography or whatnot. In a way, the poems speak for themselves and if you thought that they needed biography, you would've added that.
But you hear a lot about culture these days where people identify as a certain thing. In the Blurb value they talked about you as being a representative of Southwest literature and as someone who has been ... Oh, it says, "The author's own journey to recovery from childhood abuse and mental illness also illuminates how healing is possible."
Is there anything about your biography that, I mean, you think is helpful, whether you'd listeners to know about?
Sheryl Luna: (14:53)
I think that our struggles come through. Well, I want to share my struggles in a sense. I had a woman that lives in my building and her mother came up to me and said, "Oh, my goodness, I can relate to the poems about trauma because it mirrors my own life." So I know some people don't like confessional type poems, but I think, in a sense, that's a silencing mechanism if you're told you can't write about certain things. So I went ahead and did that. It's not all autobiographical at all. I often write from first person with the conflating characters that I know. So I think the trauma from early childhood, maybe growing up along the border between cultures, I like to look at things as gray, rather than necessarily black and white. I like to try to do that. And I don't know how important biography is.
Sheryl Luna: (16:04)
I like what you said, you want the poems to speak for themselves. Every time I interview, I get a little anxious about having to deal with certain topics, but sometimes it's easier to write than talk about [inaudible 00:16:20].
Sheryl Luna: (16:21)
But I think everybody has a story to tell. Everybody struggles with something and I think that's what makes us human. And the term "universality" was thrown about a lot when I was in grad school many years ago. And I think you want your poems to reach as many people as possible, but it's problematic to say something that's universal [inaudible 00:16:54] everyone. So I don't know if that answers your question?
No, that does. That's very helpful. And I completely understand the sense of anxiety about that. Someone being reduced to descriptions, I'm not interested in that.
I think I'd like to talk about some poems, both about the border and about PTSD. Would you mind reading one of the poems?
Sheryl Luna: (17:22)
No, I'll do that.
I was thinking about Tornillo's tent prison for migrant children, page eight.
Sheryl Luna: (17:30)
"Tornillo's tent prison for migrant children: There's a compulsion to sing of ranches outside El Paso, where [inaudible 00:17:44] and [inaudible 00:17:46] keep everyone happy. Meditating on the familiar, I remember the fence, the border, and being alone. Better to be in the open desert than cave. Men in rags once slept on our lawn. Look, I am honoring men and mothers who cry. Tornillo, a tent city. 471 parents deported without their children. [inaudible 00:18:25] traded for freedom that never came. What is it that divides us? A fence, metal, reaching high to the sky along a highway? Or hate? What is this huge Mexican flag flaps nearby? I walk down a sandy path. All that is familiar, a mirage.
Sheryl Luna: (18:54)
There is only one pond in El Paso at Ascarate Park. The ducks, they're thin and hungry for more than bread. The powerful have the strongest appetite. The buildings are teaching us, things fall, all things fall. The demagogue bites cleanly. If I could calm the angry mob and send Mexico a song, I would. The Rio Grande, a slow, drying hope. The Santa Fe Bridge and its crossers know what we don't or won't. The deportees are seeking tenderness. The shadow on the wall of the Oval Office berates the universe. How bitterly we argue or remain silent."
Yeah, thank you. Yeah. This was just a really powerful poem and I think, for me, it took something that was in the news that I didn't want to think about and made it very close and concrete and emotional.
I thought the image of, "The ducks were thin and hungry for more than bread. The powerful had the strongest appetite. The buildings are teaching us all things fall. The demagogue bites cleanly." Really moving. And one of the things I thought was that this way we're talking about two objects, right? Buildings that fall and fences that go high. We're talking about these physical things in the world that mean so much, that matter so much to our experience, and the deportees are seeking tenderness. Just a really beautiful thought. Also, how bitterly we argue and how bitterly we remain silent. The silence can be very bitter.
Is there anything that ... Again, if you thought that commentary on this would've helped the poem you would have added it. But is there anything that came to mind while you were reading it that you would like to mention?
Sheryl Luna: (21:27)
Well, I think I was touching a little on the polarization that goes on regarding this issue. And I think most of the people with an opinion don't really understand what it is to live on the border. And I think one thing that makes Trump popular right now with certain people is a demonization, in my opinion, of immigrants that come across the border. I think he called them rapists. Once in a video I was watching ... And they don't show this often, but someone was protesting in the audience and he said, "Are you from Mexico?" sarcastically.
Sheryl Luna: (22:20)
And so I'm sure you know about the Walmart shooting in El Paso?
Sheryl Luna: (22:27)
I think I was writing about a lot of contemporary issues surrounding that and wanting to humanize those families that were separated. And I think that they, in a lot of ways, have been dehumanized and that's [inaudible 00:22:46].
Well, the poem really did. One of the people I showed it too, was a reflex Republican and read it and said that, "This really did show me a different side of this." It's the magic of really ... I guess the concreteness of it, of really seeing people, as opposed to these big abstract ideas. I think another person I showed the whole book to was talking about the birds. There are birds often. In this case, "The ducks were thin and hungry for more than bread." And in Rubbernecking, "The neighborhood fills with unseen deep throated robins." And The Hummingbird, which might be my favorite, "I will remember the red hummingbird I saw today hovering on the path before my heart."
I actually also, I don't mean to ... This is just for fun. I wanted to share another clip with you just to be whimsical here, something about the ducks. And I remember when I was a kid and grownups would talk about, "Oh, look at that bird there." And I was, "Yeah, whatever." And now I'm, "Oh, look at that great blue heron."
Is it something that you have always been interested in? Or recently? Or-
Sheryl Luna: (24:10)
Well, I think I grew up in the desert where there were pigeons and grackles. And now I live in Colorado, so there are all sorts of birds. I do love them. I probably could become a bird watcher.
Are you a bird watcher? Or you said you could be?
Sheryl Luna: (24:30)
No, not really. Maybe something I could do.
Right. Feel free to say this if you think you don't want to answer this question, but one of the people I show it to was asking, "So does she visualize some ... Say, take an image that she's seen and then try to get the words to match it, to capture it?"
Sheryl Luna: (24:49)
Oftentimes, oftentimes. I haven't written in a while. I've had a long dry spell with writing. But last night I jotted down some images along with some storylines or themes, I guess. And I was just brainstorming. Someone had told me, "Try brainstorming." So I guess some ways I do start with an image. It's not always something I've seen, but usually something that got my attention. I think it helps to be observant [inaudible 00:25:27].
Well, let's read, I think ... Well, the other two about PTSD, there's Adopting Stepfather and Lamentation to Praise. I guess I'll read Lamentation to Praise. They're both really moving. "Lamentation to Praise: Startled by trauma, I touch no one, hear only the silence of forgetting, talk endlessly but speak to no one. When I remember childhood rape, it is with clarity. Decades after disremembering, it all comes back. Do you want the details? I won't tell you.
Tonight a fox runs the streets, shaggy, thin and skittish. A burgeoning moon fractures the lake. I paint trees with pink, blue and purple leaves. Seasons drift like a refrain of thoughts. When I remember shock, it is as sunset and early moon hanging onto the light."
Really moving for me, this poem. For me, I was really interested in this image of the fox. "Fox runs the streets, shaggy, thin and skittish." To me, boy, I experience trauma. Is this like that? Being, you're less generous, you're more closed in, you're grasping. "Skittish" is a great word for it, though. I'd never thought of it before, but it's a great word for it. And things just seem harsh. It's not a time when you're generous and open. And I thought that really captured that nicely. And then the fractures, the touching no one. When you would most need touching and healing, you can't do it because of your trauma.
So I thought this was just very helpful even, and poignant. I wasn't sure about the title, Lamentation to Praise. I couldn't really make heads or tails of that which ... I don't know. What are your thoughts on the title or on the poem?
Sheryl Luna: (27:57)
Well, I think there are different stages to healing trauma maybe and just also grief. There are different stages you go through. So that was a lament to me, the poem. But the nature, I think, well, maybe there's not a lot of nature in it, but I think the lamentation can be followed by praise of the natural world or the things that-
Sheryl Luna: (28:31)
... help one get through a time maybe where trauma is affecting you.
I understand that completely now. I see. So it's a progress. It's going from one A to B, as opposed to lamentation is about the praise. That's right. Okay. This phrase, "Slowly beginning to move on. I am kissed by a wet, sloppy sky." Just not what you're expecting, and it's just really with such an image you're expecting wet, sloppy kiss. Those words go together. In this case it's the wet, sloppy, everything, the way I read it.
The Hummingbird ... I guess we're running out of time. So I can't read the whole thing, but it's about ... Well, maybe would you mind reading it? It is a longer one, but if you wouldn't mind, I would really like to hear you read it.
Sheryl Luna: (29:30)
You know what page it's on?
Yeah. It's 69.
Sheryl Luna: (29:33)
"The Hummingbird: There will be exploding stars during the Armageddon of my soul. I will gather all my pretty blooms, earn them for an urn. The flash will fizzle like a sparkler. I will seek my final pulse and brief life. I will die with dilating eyes, listening to an imaginary wind, watch streams glimmer with small stars. Lovers will moan inside my heart. I will swim frothy waters. Trees will loom perfectly irregular. Saplings will survive their traumas. If longevity will have me, my hands will tremble with thick blue veins. Addendums to my past will not be added. Poets will not write poems for me. Painters will pass by. I will no longer doubt the God of childhood. They will place a Bible in my clasped hand. I will remember the red hummingbird I saw today hovering on the path before my heart, uninterested in my procession toward silence."
Thank you so much. Yeah, that was just such a tremendous poem for me. I think it's amazing how much time one spends, or I spend, thinking about one's last moments, what they will be like and trying to make sure they will not be terrifying. And this, I thought, it's very hopeful really. "If longevity will have me, my hands will tremble with thick blue veins." Not, "Ooh, it's terrible to be old but, if I get there, my hands will tremble with thick blue veins." And I just thought the idea of ... To me, I was thinking, "Well, yeah, right on your death bed you don't have to be thinking about rosebud. You can be thinking about the hummingbird that you saw today. Some detail from today." So it was very uplifting really. And, "The hummingbird hovering before my heart." Yes. That's the thing about hummingbirds. They hover and they don't really hover up in the sky. They hover right at your level and it's a striking thing.
But thank you so much for reading and for talking with me again. I don't like to be ... If someone's asking me too many questions, I feel I've been poked and pricked on and all that. I hope you don't feel that way?
Sheryl Luna: (32:43)
No, I don't.
Okay. Good. Tremendous volume, again. Magnificent Errors. Poems. Sheryl Luna: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022. Thanks so much Sheryl. It's great to meet you.
Sheryl Luna: (32:57)
You too. Thank you, August. It was really, really wonderful. Bye-bye.