Dana De Greff on Poetry, Patagonia and Queerness

Born in Miami, Dana De Greff received her MFA in fiction from the University of Miami. She is the Founder & Executive Director of PageSlayers Summer Camp, a 2016 Knight Arts Challenge Winner. Dana’s work appears in countless local and national publications. Earlier this week she released her first collection of poems at Books & Books in Coral Gables. The chapbook titled “Alterations” was selected for publication by Seven Kitchens Press among Rane Arroyo Chapbook Series presenting original, unpublished poetry manuscripts.

#MIAMIGIRL sat down with Dana to talk about the inspiration behind her poetry.

Dana De Greff is an author of "Alterations," a love note to Patagonia
Dana De Greff for Miami Girl Magazine

What’s in the name? Why “Alterations”? Did you change the place or the place changed you? Is it about change at all?  

The name actually appeared to me quite literally. I was at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), wandering the streets of Los Angeles and a sign in bright green caught my eye. It read ALTERATIONS and was in the storefront of a sewing shop. The name seemed perfect for these poems, as they are all about changes, both the ones we choose and the ones that choose us.

The last poem in the book “Self-Portrait as a Gringa” ends with a tender nostalgic goodbye to the people of Patagonia. In the same poem you bring up the mixed feelings you have about the time spent there, not knowing “if you helped or hurt Patagonia.” What touched you the most about the place and the people you met there? What do you think you left behind? Did Patagonia “help you or hurt you”?

It’s a goodbye to the people and the place, and a little bit of an epistle to myself. I don’t know if when we travel and insert ourselves into cultures that are not our own if we hurt or help, but I do know that there is a way to do it in a mindful manner, which is what I tried to do by talking to locals, getting to know them, and wandering the park that became my home. The place itself is stunning–there are mountains and trails, valleys filled with pumas and guanacos. It’s also incredibly hard to live there because of the harsh winters and, for lack of a better word, the wild aspect to it. If the main road, for example, got too icy, then the truck carrying food from the major city to us would be delayed, and food would either spoil or arrive days late. Darkness came at 4pm, and I had no family to be with. I tried to etch out a space of my own, but I was never a true patagona.

Honestly, I don’t know if I left anything behind–you’d have to ask those I knew there. I think Patagonia helped me in making me learn what I can and can’t take, and how to set boundaries for myself. It helped me tap into the adventurer inside, and do amazing things like gallop on horseback, kill a sheep, and help track huemules (an endangered deer). Whatever hurt it caused, is hurt that could have happened anywhere.

In the poem titled “What to Pack for Patagonia” among other things you list one’s mouth to taste “the lips of gaucho, the lips of Santiaguino, the lips of a man with a daughter in your English class…” They are all men’s lips. Only once in “Abecedarian on Why I’m Not Married or Pregnant Yet” you mention your queer side. Can you talk about your experiences as a queer woman in the machismo society of Patagonia? How is it different from Miami or other places you’ve lived?

Being an out queer woman, in my experience, was not a good idea in Patagonia. Not only is it a remote locale, but I was also living in a valley in a park with 50 people in close quarters and I just didn’t want people gossiping about me. I don’t think I would have been in danger, but I didn’t want more hassle on top of already being a gringa. Navigating the hyper masculine world of the park was very difficult for me, and in hindsight, it made me much more vocal here in Miami. I no longer take much shit from anyone when it comes to micro/macro aggressions against women or anyone else not in a position of power.

There is certainly machismo here in Miami, and the whole world, but living in a valley, everything feels more intense and heightened, which is why I chose not to talk about it unless it was with my close friends. That being said, also in hindsight, I wonder if it would have made any difference. I was seen as a woman either way, and as a woman, many men felt they could hit on me and say inappropriate things. I was also sexually assaulted (which is no surprise if you’ve read the book) and when it comes to sexual preferences, I don’t think that stops anyone. I only wish that I had been more kind to myself back then, and more vocal. This book, in a way, is everything I wanted to say.

You are originally from Miami but lived around the world for over ten years. How was it to come back to Miami after all this time away?

I was born here, but moved to Nigeria with my family when I was four. From there we went to the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, back to Miami, Chile, and then back to Miami when I was ten. I stayed in Miami until 18, then went to FSU in Tallahassee, taught English in Spain, did my MA in Austin, a few months in Iowa City, and then Patagonia, Chile. After ten years away from home, I decided to try coming back and setting down the proverbial roots. It’s been almost 5 years now since I’ve been back, and I’d say it’s a love/hate relationship. I just got my MFA from UM, which was wonderful, but it’s also been a struggle to see what Miami is now versus as a teenager. I worry about gentrification, and the preservation of anything historic. I worry about how people don’t seem to have much empathy, how we stay in our bubbles and don’t try to cross those neighborhood lines. I worry a lot. My solace is in the artists I’ve met, writing, and people who come up with projects that help local communities.

What’s next for you and should we expect a poetry book about Miami?

I just finished my first fiction book The Odyssey Hotel and trying to find an agent for it. I have a new idea percolating for a second book of fiction. I also have some essays I’m working on (some about Miami), so perhaps a nonfiction collection is also in the works. I haven’t written poems in a while, but you may have just given me my next subject…

 

Abecedarian on Why I’m Not Married or Pregnant Yet

At the time, I was only twenty-six
babies were not on my mind
could have used a man, true, but
down in Patagonia, don’t you 
ever say you could use a woman;
for the first two months I
got asked two questions over and over:
¿how come you sola, che Dana?
¿isn’t it time you get yourself a gauchito?
just to shut them up, I chose a real cute 
kicker a tall, handsome potro, neither
loose in the tongue or bedroom, but
man enough to keep me warm at night;
now, I’m not saying I used him
(or maybe I did)–it was all too premature;
perhaps I should have chosen with my 
queer side, my need for soft in the night
rather than edges that left me sliced up;
still, to tell the truth, his words got me raw
to the point of craving blood and I confess:
under the winter moons I did consider
veining out to make sure I still had my flow;
well, obviously I didn’t (aren’t I writing this?)
x-marked where I belonged, surrounded by
yellow curtains, praying with a new fever,
zeroed in on a fictional me, the pregnant yegua.

The poem is published with the permission of the author. Purchase “Alterations” by  Dana De Greff HERE

Ekaterina Juskowski
Ekaterina Juskowski

Founder and executive editor of #MIAMIGIRL

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