By Millicent Borges Accardi
With roots in the Azores. activist and a poet Dian Sousa has been writing poems since she was five years old. She is the author of two books of poetry: Lullabies for the Spooked and Cool (Millie Grazie Press, 2004), The Marvels Recorded In My Private Closet ( Big Yes Press 2014), and an anthology called The Third Power: Poems from the San Luis Obispo Women’s March 2017-2020 (Women’s March SLO 2020).
Sousa‘s poems have appeared in multiple publications, including Prairie Schooner, The Banyan Review, Great Weather for Media, American Poetry Journal, The Gavea-Brown Journal of Portuguese American Poetry, and Margins/Margens: A Teaching Anthology of Portuguese Migrant and Ethnic Literature in North America.
Nominated for a few Pushcart Prizes, her awards include serving as San Luis Obispo Poet Laureate and receiving a fellowship to the Disquiet Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal.
On the web site, Poems from the San Luis Obispo Women’s March, Dian Sousa is called “an activist, drinking companion and reverend to the heretical and free.” She lives and surfs in Los Osos, California.
For this interview with PAJ, Dian discusses Terceira island, Ana Luisa Amaral, David Oliveira, Artesia, Disquiet, Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage, poet Marsha de la O, Henry Miller Library, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Allen Ginsberg, the Women’s March and other favorite topics such as working while drunk, the perfect egg, how to eat sardines, and gambling.
Q: Can you tell me about your connection to Portugal, the Azores or Madeira? (PAJ readers are always interested in the heritage of and connection to Portugal, such as family ties).
A: My father was the oldest of eight children. His parents sailed the family to America from the Azores. Terceira. My grandmother attempted to save money on steerage by trying pass all the boys off as twins and triplets.
My grandfather was a dairyman. When they arrived in Artesia, CA (now Cerritos) he bought land and started a farm. All the sons milked cows until they eventually lost the dairy due to the nefarious gambling habits of some of my dad’s younger brothers.
I grew up going to the dairy before it was lost, eating my avó’s kale soup and her mythically delicious sweet bread. I remember going with her to a chicken farm. She delicately foraged only the rare soft shelled eggs for her bread. Witnessing the great care she took to find the perfect egg which would give her bread heft enough to fill our bodies and buoyancy enough to feed our joy stayed with me. This little memory has taught me so much of what I know about how to cook and how to write.
I have hundreds of cousins and not one of us can cook like my avó Not one of us can make her sweet bread. My favorite cousin and I tried, but the recipe we had was for like 50 loaves of bread and our math was suspect. Plus we were drinking champagne. I only ever saw my grandmother drink Mateus. Obviously, we failed because we had the wrong libation.
Q: Do you have Luso themes in your writing?
A: Here is an excerpt from a longer prose poem about my dad, Joe Sousa. I selected it because he loved the ocean and he loved fishing and eating sardines. This love of his must have been instilled by his childhood in Terceira. It is my most overtly Luso-themed poem.
HE BRINGS SARDINES
My father conducts himself in chords not yet found on the musical scale, notes risen from fig leaf, fried cow tongue, raw clam, notes fluttering into songs that only make sense on boats, fishermen’s boats painted the color of mackerel, boats visible only to the fog, to the moonlight, to the lightning storm. The salt in his hair, the currents in his blood rise holy in every silver light. This is how I know I am his daughter. I swim in the waves, green and toothy, they hunger to take my body, scatter my breath over barnacled rock. My father sings on a boat. No one can hear him, and the tide is unimpressed. His song has an island and too many trees. I am his daughter. I sing to eight flies in the seaweed and five people who hear me, but don’t care. The island and the trees are unimpressed. My song has too much ocean. My father and I meet in the sea mist. He brings sardines.
Q: Have you traveled to Portugal or the Azores?
A: I have been to Portugal twice. Once with friends and once on the Disquiet Luso-American Fellowship.
I would return to Portugal a thousand times more if I could. Maybe I would even move there. Sadly, I have not yet been to the Azores. When I was in Portugal the first time, my friend kept asking people if we could “see” the Azores from here. Everyone she asked thought the question was ridiculously funny. “It’s a thousand miles out at sea!”
To think of my family as migrating from a thousand miles out at sea is stunning to me. My father always took me fishing, clam digging, and body surfing. The sea was what his body craved and I am so grateful that he passed that great love on to me.
Many people in our family have little flecks of green in their eyes. I think those flecks are bits of the Azores stuck in our blood like gene-spliced souvenirs telling us to come home.
Q: High praise from the Ventura poet, Marsha de la O about your book, The Marvels, “Each poem is an axe and you’re the kindling log ready to be split open, waiting to burst into flame.” Do you think poetry is meant to transform us?
A: Marsha de la O is one of my very favorite poets and one of my favorite human beings. She is incredibly smart and funny. Intimidating really. And beyond that—crazy wise as the molten core of mother earth. So of course I agree with her.
I think of all the music that creates the atmosphere and anthems of our lives and the language risen to poetry within it. It’s not just background. I have to believe it moves us—puts its fierce hands on our backs and pushes us to be deeper. Real. Free. Change always comes with its own powerful soundtrack.
Can you imagine the cultural shifts of the 1960’s without Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Allen Ginsburg? Poetry (all art) transforms us because it speaks beyond that which traps us: Patriarchy, racism, misogyny, and the unimaginative, slavish language of capitalism.
Every year since the terrifying dawning of 2017, I have written and read a poem for the San Luis Obispo Women’s March (the first year there were more than 10,000 people), and I am always amazed and humbled that the organizers even request a poem and that people truly listen and want to hear the poem.
Afterwards people always ask for a copy of the poem to share. So yes, I believe poetry can be “an axe” or maybe even better— a communion wafer that feeds us what we have forgotten. An elixir that revives us so that we can really be alive, so that we can rise up in love, see the beauty in one another and bear witness to the marvel that is our Earth. June Jordan said, the function of the poet is to make revolution irresistible. This truth is my axe, my communion, my holy elixir.
Q: An Amazon reviewer Luk2c says, “Dian has a way of showing feelings towards things that matter to her while taking you on a voyage inside your own mind,” Do you consider readers when you write poems?
A: I come from an oral tradition. My father was always quoting some kind of song or poem and my mother liked to read Khalil Gibran aloud at the dinner table.
My poetry is rooted in and driven by the voice so it is important for me to give readings. I would rather give a live reading than see my work on the static page. Not that I don’t like being published. Of course I do. However, when I do read my poems in journals I often cringe. I absolutely do consider a listener when I write but the listener is me.
When I finish a poem I always record it and listen to it, asking myself difficult, and horrible questions: Is this poem boring? Is this my truest language? Why should anyone care? Can I see and understand the imagery? Can I hear the music? If I were sitting in an audience listening to myself would I be so bored I would want to kick the chair of the person sitting in front of me? Or worse, if I heard this poem at a reading, would I want to stand up like Roberto Bolano and shout at the stupid poet (me) with great disdain?
Q: Two other reviewers commented positively about your in-person poetry readings. What is your strategy for bringing poems to life when you read aloud?
A: Like every piece of music, every poem has its intrinsic melody. I think it is so important for the poet to give the poem enough time to develop its distinctive sound, so that when they give a reading they fully inhabit the poem. Not theatrically, but as the poem organically demands.
We all know the “poet voice” and “the spoken word voice” and at least for me those two voices seldom ring true. So I give my poems plenty of time to develop their true cadence before I ever read them in public.
Q: What was your favorite reading?
A: I have several favorite readings. I love any reading set up by Phil Taggart in Ventura. They are always well run, well attended, and fun. But, two readings stand out for me. One was at The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur opening for the band Blame Sally. The reading and concert were held on a clear night outside on a big, cool stage set in the redwoods. The second one was at The Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones from Blame Sally heard my first 2017 Women’s March poem and invited me to read it at their concert. It was the night Trump signed an executive order banning people from six predominately Muslim countries. The concert hall was packed with over 1000 people and I was TERRIFIED because I was thinking that people are here for the music, they will be annoyed by some poet they never heard of cutting into their Blame Sally time. But then I also thought, What would Ginsburg do? It was great! I read my long poem and got a standing ovation. I even got to write my name on the Freight & Savage green room wall which is covered with names of all the musicians who’ve played there.
Q: Your poems are often humorous, which is a tricky achievement for poetry, an art that is so often perceived as serious. A poem of yours in particular, “Ain’t Nobody Going Back to the Farm Now,” about animals rising up to attack humans. Do you use humor as a way deliver serious messages (about the environment for example)?
A: It is never my intention to use humor. The stress of having to make people laugh would kill me.
I had a nightmare in which I was forced to do a comedy set at the Hollywood Improv. I just stood there and mumbled and everyone yelled you suck and walked out. I think humor just rises up in my poems because it’s a part of me.
I’m the youngest and only girl in my family. When I was growing up, my parents and my brothers would always be involved in what seemed to me to be extremely important and witty conversations that I was too young to be a part of. They shared such warmth and admiration for one another. It occurred to me that if I could just do something or say something to make them laugh maybe they would include me. So I would say that I subconsciously use humor in my life and writing so that people will let me be a part of the conversation.
Q: Who are some of your favorite Luso writers?
A: I am still discovering Portuguese poetry and literature. But yes! Jose Saramago. I think I read Blindness twenty years ago and I still cannot get some of his imagery out of my head. Such a brilliant book.
I also love Ana Luisa Amaral, David Oliveira and Frank X. Gaspar. And, of course, Pessoa. I can’t imagine being a Luso-American poet without reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.
Q: What are you writing right now, and can you share an excerpt?
A: For several years and for and for fun I’m working on an autobiography called Snippy: A Memoir of Poetry and Transmigration.
I have also just finished a new poetry manuscript titled Borracha Dreamland. Quite a few of its poems have been accepted in different journals now, so I am hoping it will find a publisher. Augh!
Working Retail. Drunk.
I am too old to work retail and I know it will destroy me quicker than my missing tooth. But the ocean suggests I drink more and stop worrying. She will devour me first. I know this because I love the ocean every day. Unrequited. And she tells me how small I am. How fragile. How she will break my teeth and bones to bits like ocean glass. Only not as pretty. Not as moon-tinged.
Excerpt from Kelp Journal
Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Through Grainy Landscape, 2021 (inspired by Portuguese writings) and Quarantine Highway. Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant). Yaddo, Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal), and the Barbara Deming Foundation, “Money for Women.” She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.