To Not Be Afraid of Negative Emotions: Analicia Sotelo’s VIRGIN

The speakers in Analicia Sotelo’s poems want, need, to tell you who they are. “I am a Mexican American fascinator,” one speaker says. Another is “South Texas Persephone.” Elsewhere, the speakers become contemporary versions of Ariadne, as the language creates a labyrinth, and the reader turns corner after corner, afraid to encounter the monster lurking at the center of Sotelo’s debut collection: “When a man tells you he’s a monster, / believe him.” But more prominent than any of these forms of self-identification is the one threading all these poems, the word that provides the title: Virgin.

“I wanted to take a character that’s not necessarily written about that much,” Sotelo tells me when we grab a few minutes over the phone during what’s likely a busy workday for her (she’s Director of Communications and Development at the Houston-based non-profit Writers in the Schools). “People tend to use the word ‘virgin’ as an insult or as belittling,” she says, “so that inspired the tone of the book: you get to see inside the mind and the heart of somebody who is seen that way, and [you see] her perspective of personal power and vulnerability. If you have a nice name and nice face, people might think you don’t know much about this world, but it’s possible to have a person who’s virginal of mind but still has great capacity for wisdom.”

Whenever I read a poetry collection, I try not to assume that all the speakers are the same (this may be the short story collection reader in me), but Virgin invites the sense that each poem is a version of the same character: a woman, a “virgin,” wrongfully defined by the men (fathers, possible lovers) around her. The character is fed up with bullshit—“When I’m with a man,” one speaker says, “I drag the yoke right out of him”—but also somewhat amused by that very same bullshit. These are not “message” poems: Sotelo’s version of “virginity” is self-assured, vulnerable, whimsical, angry, funny, and even hungry (there’s more food here—from barbeque to enchiladas “piled high with American mozzarella”—than one usually finds in a poetry collection).

Although Virgin is a debut, Sotelo is no beginner: she previously published an acclaimed chapbook, Nonstop Godhead, and her poems have appeared seemingly everywhere, from Best New Poets 2015 to The New Yorker. The poems in this collection span seven years of Sotelo’s writing life, a fact that makes the tonal cohesiveness of the book sort of remarkable. For a long time, she says, she was “writing poems where the language was good, the situation was good, but they were missing the raw energy that better poems can have.” She began writing with the intention of “saying one thing in each poem,” trusting that her own preoccupations would lead her to a coherent final product. “I want to make sure,” she tells me, “that I’m not prescriptive, personally, as a writer. If I prescribe what the book is going to be, then I’m trying to force it into a box.”

Still, the shape of the book didn’t become clear until she’d settled on her title—a move that, she acknowledges, seems a little provocative, and one that she debated for a long time. But it allowed her a clearer access point for some of her “darker” impulses. “One of the hardest things about writing poetry is that sometimes the person you discover as you write a piece—a mean the psychic person, the emotional person, not the everyday self—does things you might not expect.”

One particular poem, “Death Wish,” which careens from Theseus to Kanye West, which involves “women who are desirable / because they’re both sweet / and mean,” became something of a test case for Sotelo. “When I was writing that, I was trying my best to not be afraid of negative emotions and my dark side. After I wrote that poem, I was kind of afraid of it.”

Books like Virgin need to find passionate supporters and dedicated publishers. In Sotelo’s case, she found Milkweed Editions, whose ice-capped hometown of Minneapolis couldn’t be more different from South Texas. Sotelo won the inaugural Jake Adam York Prize, a collaborative project between Milkweed and Copper Nickel, judged by Ross Gay. When I talk to Joanna Demkiewicz, Milkweed’s Publicist, her enthusiasm for the book is immediately apparent: “Virgin is so on my level it’s insane!” For Demkiewicz, the goal is to work on a book that excites her so much that she can simply become conversational about it—a reminder to me that books mostly get sold, no matter who’s selling them, through enthusiastic one-on-one interactions.

As a publicist, Demkiewicz is often drawn to books that have a compelling narrative behind their creation (perhaps this has something to do with her background as a journalist: she founded the Minneapolis-based magazine The Riveter). “I love how [Sotelo] is turning that term or idea—virgin—on its head. I love any book that reclaims some tired, ugly trope that has affected millions of people in various communities.”

For Demkiewicz, this connection came as soon as she read the collection’s first poem, “Do You Speak Virgin?” which sort of acts as the book’s lead single, setting the tone for what’s to come. She describes the experience of beginning a book this way as though the reader is “waiting in an auditorium, the lights have been shut out…what are you getting into? Then, a single person comes on stage in stark light and begins to speak directly to the audience.” The first page—not the poem as a whole—concludes with the line, “I’m not afraid of sex,” and Demkiewicz recalls reading this for the first time and thinking, “Yes! I want to know what you mean!”

It’s nice to find a publisher and an author so connected to one another, aesthetically and emotionally. “When you’re a poet,” Sotelo says, “you have to do 99% of the [promotional] work on your own. But Milkweed is a true partner to their authors.” Demkiewicz, already seeming so enthused by and protective of Virgin, echoes this, saying, “What I’m nervous about most is that Analicia doesn’t have the experience she deserves or expects.” She pauses, then adds, “But she’s already having a fun experience.”

Sotelo seems excited to launch Virgin, but also thinking about the next project, something she describes as completely different—“still exploring the psychic self, but completely different and concerned with the world ending.” She laughs. “I can’t imagine why!” She views the project of writing as not restarting for each book, but locating a new kind of energy on a spectrum of experience. “In our lives, we go through phases of personality. The person we were in high school is not who we are in our 30s, and our considerations and fears and successes are all different.”

Nevertheless, it seems, we’re all always ourselves—something Virgin reminds the reader of over its 93 pages. And so who, ultimately, is the speaker here? It’s not a “Mexican American fascinator.” It’s not Ariadne or South Texas Persephone. It’s not even “Virgin.” The clearest lines in the whole book might be these two, which come toward the end: “I am Analicia / Why does the 21st century feel like this?”


What Analicia Sotelo Is Reading: 

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781555977887
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Graywolf Press - October 3rd, 2017

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The Story of My Teeth Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781566894098
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
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American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Poets) Cover Image
$18.00
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Availability: On Our Shelves Now
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When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (A. Poulin) Cover Image
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ISBN: 9781942683339
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: BOA Editions - April 11th, 2017


What Joanna Demkiewicz Is Reading:  


Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (Live Girls) Cover Image
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Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
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Property: Stories Between Two Novellas Cover Image
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Future Home of the Living God: A Novel Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780062694058
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Harper - November 14th, 2017

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