Madari Pendas discusses her creative nonfiction piece, “The First Woman I Loved Was Pain,” from Arkana’s 9th Issue, with Jennifer McCune and Arkana Editors.
Jennifer McCune: This is a very beautiful, lyrical piece. How would you say being a poet contributes to composing prose pieces?
Madari Pendas: This is a great question! Poetry forces one to think about language on an almost atomic level, so to speak. What I love about poets is that they are very attuned to the way their work sounds, and often you will catch them reading aloud their words. I want each sentence to go beyond its utilitarian function and feel like a gift. I want a reader to feel that the author has attempted to compose something beautiful for them, something that sounds lovely in their mind’s voice, something they too want to repeat aloud. Poets are so attentive to language and I think that type of careful curation is something I try to bring to my fiction and nonfiction works. Poetry is such a generous art; it gives you writing that you read for the simple pleasure of how lovely it sounds in your mouth. So when I write something, I want to give them a story, but something that is pleasurable on an additional level. For instance, my mother doesn’t speak English, but there are certain phrases or words in English that she loves and repeats because they’re fun to say, like “bouncing beach babies” and “what’s new pussycat?” from the Tom Jones song. In a certain way, poetry is like bubble gum and can stick with you and can be chewed over and over. Poetry carries a beauty beyond its literal meaning. Sometimes when I’m cooking or cleaning I’ll remember: “esta noche puedo escribir los versos mas tristes”/”tonight I can write the saddest lines,” and feels like a secret little pleasure. Poetry inspires me—if you do well, your lines can be with someone for the rest of their lives. So, I think language can go beyond being a means of communicating information and become something lovely, haunting, and borderless.
JM: You are a painter and author. Which medium are you most comfortable creating in, that is to say, which medium do you feel gives you the most freedom of expression of your intersectionality?
MP: There’s a line in one of my favorite Derek Walcott poems, “Love Letter from Brooklyn,” and one of that piece’s haunting lines is “heaven is the place where painters go/all who bring beauty on frail shell or horn,” and it reminds that all these different mediums are constantly conversing with one another. There’s a long history of writers also working as painters (or vice-versa), like Victor Hugo, Oskar Kokoschka, Maynard Dixon, Elizabeth Bishop, Leo Tolstoy, and many more I try to use painting and sketching techniques with my writing. For instance, sometimes an artist will sketch with their non-dominant hand because doing so helps them be more loyal to their reference. With the non-dominant hand, you’re focused on stability and keeping your lines straight. Whereas when you’re working with your dominant hand (in my case my right hand) there’s a tendency to deviate from the reference and draw the way you think the subject is supposed to look versus how the subject actually looks—you’ll make more assumptions. Some artists will flip the reference upside down to achieve something similar or drop grids on the reference and work from one box to another box. I apply this to writing by asking myself “what assumptions am I making about a character or their behavior?” “what are some references from real-life that I can look at?” “Am I looking at this in detail?” Also, longhand calligraphy is art itself. When I look at someone’s journal with cursive, I can’t help but think that too is art and something aesthetically beautiful—separate from the literal meaning of the words. There’s a theme here, words being emancipated from their meanings to do different work (visually and auditorily). To your question about freedom, I think writing is more liberating and allows me to be more expressive. Paints, turpentine/mineral spirits, canvases, thickening medium, palate knives brushes, and varnish are expensive, so it’s not the most economically accessible artform. I didn’t start painting until I got my first full-time job, but I’ve kept diaries and written since fourth grade. A notebook or journal at the Dollar Store is cheap and none of what I write is openly displayed the way a finished painting hangs somewhere on your walls. So I can be more open and dangerous in a notebook. I can write unfinished stories or bad poetry or about a memory or list off the first words I learned in English. With a painting, I’m always aware that when I invite someone over, it will be seen; it’s a bit more public-facing than a journal that I can stash away. But what painting gives me is the ability to express myself without the constraints of language. My mom, uncles, grandparents, and more relatives can’t read my work in English, so painting allows me to make art that doesn’t require language fluency. I’ve also found that with painting I don’t have to justify the subject matter—like in fiction I need a plot; in a poetry chapbook I need thematic harmony—it can just be a pretty sunset or a recreation of the way light from a streetlamp reflects across wet pavement at night.
JM: Which authors/painters inspire you the most and why?
MP: Painters: Remedios Varo, Amelia Peláez, Mario Carreño, Nikki S. Lee, Marc Chagall, Oskar Kokoschka, Mon Laferte, Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, and many more, especially the Dadaist (I dig the idea that art is the process of making art and not necessarily the final outcome). Authors: Ashley M. Jones, Jacquira Diaz, Carl Philips, Martin Espada, Christina Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Menedez, Julie Marie Wade, Richard Blanco, Martin Amiss, Gregory Orr, Tim O’Brien and so many more.
The works of the above-mentioned artist are always so layered, textured, rich in composition and color, and do an excellent job of deconstructing our assumptions on form and structure. Their paintings and many would fall under the flexible term “Expressionist”, demonstrated the importance of painting from emotional memory versus strict obedience to reality. Perhaps for similar reasons I love the above authors’ works—they’re beautiful, challenging, political, and instruct us. It’s the type of work that moves you off the page and into your own journal.
JM: When did you begin writing and painting?
MP: I’ve always had a diary. My abuela took me to the dollar store when I was in fourth grade and got me a pink plastic four-by-four journal with a tiny lock on the side. The pages were pink, and I believe perfumed too. I started submitting work for publication and taking the medium more seriously around 2013. The first poem I ever submitted for publication, to my local college’s journal, was a persona poem about Van Gogh’s painting “At Eternity’s Gate.” My grandfather’s brother, Cheito, was a painter and I remember as a kid seeing the stacks of canvas rolls in his poky duplex. He was always a little sad that when he emigrated to this country, he had to leave some of his favorite works. I began trying to imitate him—really, I just wanted to bring him something I had made and hear him say, “wow, good job.” I started at twenty-two, after getting a full-time job that allowed me to buy more materials.
JM: Aside from Arkana, are there any other recent publications, projects, or opportunities you are excited about? (Please provide links if available.)
MP: Yes! My flash fiction piece, “Mispronounced Girl” was recently published in Everyday Fiction. Another one of my fiction pieces, “Your Life as Told by a Stranger” is forthcoming publication in The Flagler Review.
Read “The First Woman I Loved Was Pain” here!
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer, painter, and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal aspects of the exile experience and the ways Latinidad intersects with other salient parts of her identity as a queer, working-class woman. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, Pank Magazine, The New Tropic, Lambda Literary, WLRN (Miami’s NPR affiliate), and The Miami New Times, among others. She is currently a graduate student at Florida International University.