Notre Dame Press staff member Katie Campbell interviews Jordan Pérez, author of Santa Tarantula, about her poetry and her work to prevent child sexual abuse.
There are so many powerful and necessary voices speaking up, and so many that go unheard. Our work as a university press helps lend space to those unheard voices in works of scholarship and literature. The Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize is given biennially for a debut poetry collection by a Latinx poet residing in the United States, elevating their work with publication by the press alongside a cash prize to help fund their art. The winner of this year’s prize is Jordan Pérez, for her collection Santa Tarantula. Pérez works professionally in online safety and childhood sexual abuse prevention, making sure those who have suffered such intimate trauma find healing and have their own voices heard. Her experiences influence her writing, as well as her Cuban identity and heritage. She has an MFA in creative writing from American University and has published poetry in Cutthroat, Poetry International, Mississippi Review, and more.
Here is her voice, talking about her collection, how it came to be, and more.
KC: When did you first get the idea to write this book?
JP: Many of the poems in Santa Tarantula originated when I was in the MFA program at American University. I came to the program without having a solid footing in my poetic style and voice, but after diving into reading and workshops, I began to settle into my sense of self as a poet.
The book covers sexual violence, sense of cultural identity, and political activism—all of which are front and center of many of the issues we’re currently facing.
In my day job, I work for SOSA, a sexual abuse prevention nonprofit, and one of the biggest messages we share to help combat the issue is that victims of sexual violence are never responsible for what happened to them. It’s something that still prevents survivors from coming forward or asking for help. It’s something perpetrators often rely on. And—as you’ll see in my poems in the voice of Biblical women—it’s something that hasn’t changed in the hundreds of years since those stories were written.
There’s no explicit argument being made in Santa Tarantula, or “lesson” being imparted. But I think my perspectives on human dignity and rights are probably not lost to most readers.
KC: What did you learn while writing it?
JP: I learned that a lot of things are not as new as they initially seem. Everything from struggles to wonders have existed in some form for generations . . . if not longer. This can be comforting, like a full moon that comes back each month. But it can also be really depressing.
LGBTQ+ folks are still being persecuted. Sexual violence is still widespread. Pain and violence are being passed down.
KC: Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?
JP: Ada Limón was a visiting writer when I was in my MFA, and getting familiarized with her work was truly a life-changing experience—for my writing, yes, but also for my broader sense of being a person. Her work is often quiet, somber, and attentive to the tiniest detail.
KC: What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?
JP: I would say to write a book for yourself first and foremost. I think many folks want to write a book that many people will read, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you also have to really want to sit with your own words.
Do you love books like the one you’re thinking of writing? Would reading this book affect your life in some way? Then maybe it’s one other folks need, also.
KC: Who would you like to read your book and why?
JP: Anyone who has any connection to sexual violence would probably gain something from the book. Anyone who has religious trauma. Anyone whose family history is complex.
Then, on the happier side, anyone who finds themselves searching for light even when it may seem there’s none to be had.
KC: What books are you currently reading? What books are in your “To Be Read” stack?
JP: I’ve been on a campaign to get everyone I know to read O Beautiful by Jung Yun since I first picked it up, and I recently went back to re-read portions. I picked up Late Bloomers by Deepa Varadarajan from the new releases section of my local library, and have been finding it really fun so far. On the list? All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran, The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, and The Garden Maker’s Book of Wonder by Allison Vallin Kostovick.
KC: What book or project are you working on next?
JP: Most of my writing these days is done for my job. That entails everything from social captions to resources for survivors to elaborate backstories for undercover decoys. There’s a surprising amount of world-building, character development, and language choice when I’m doing work identifying perpetrators of online child abuse. I certainly wouldn’t call it fun, but it’s very very interesting.
I’ve long been solidly a poet, when it comes to my personal projects, but I’ve been thinking about exploring a novel. I have some ideas taking shape . . .