Interview with Lisa Marie Sandoval: Poet, Performer, The Yowling

Young Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Urban Sociology course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities.

Lisa Marie Sandoval is a graduate of Occidental College in English and Comparative Literary Studies. She is now a poet-performer associated with the Highland Park community. For more about her work, visit her site, The Yowling Creator.

Can you describe the particular identity or reputation of your business or organizational work?

It started out with "The Yowling." The identity of the poetic work was to give the people of Highland Park a voice, because at the time they didn't really have a voice. The purpose was to create beauty out of brokenness. So that spun off into an urban youth project called "Life Through My Eyes." I worked with almost 1000 youths from Highland Park and Eagle Rock, teaching them how to tell their own stories and doing community projects with businesses. That spun off into what I am doing right now with The Yowling Creator, which is consolidating everything from artistic to academic to business.

Who are your inspirations and what are some influences on your work?

I was a "closet poet" for many years as a kid and a teenager, and I wrote but never showed to anyone. While abroad in Spain during my junior year at Occidental College, someone sent my work to be published and I didn't know it. That was my first publication. I have always loved words and the patterns that they make in both English and Spanish -- I often write bilingually.

I took creative writing at Occidental with Martha Ronk, and that was when I started exploring more stories and decided that was something I want to do. While pursuing a master's degree for professional writing at USC, I started publishing under the name Lisa Marie Sandoval. I love Toni Morrison. I love Lucille Clifton -- she's probably the number one influence on my work. She was a local poet who wrote during the 70s and 80s and uses a lot of imagery. I also love John Donne. I love that Donne explores the themes of universal experiences of love, the question of whether there is a God, and bridges between the emotional and spiritual.

How did you initially enter this role, and how did your role develop over the years? How did you come up with combining your poetry with the dramatic stage?

It was a fluke. I was in the professional writing program at USC, and was on the fiction and screenplay track. The director of the program also taught an advanced poetry class that required a submission of a piece of work to be considered for the masters class. He said why don't you give me some of your poetry so I did and he bumped me right up to the master class.

My first piece was called "The Yowling," which is the experience between a mother and child in the process of abortion. The work is dedicated to a young woman I knew in Highland Park who had experienced abortion. I did my first reading here as part of the masters class. Then some of the young girls at Franklin High School, a local high school, asked me to come read some of my poetry at lunch and I agreed. After the reading, which was at the end of January 2002, I set a goal for myself that once a month I would put myself out there.

Then in February 2002 there was a performance at the Fuller Seminary called the Fuller Follies. My first performance was in front of 300 people! It was at this performance that I started using body movements to accompany the reading. I have a background as a professional Polynesian dancer, which initially drew me to using hand movements. No one was really doing this at the time, no one was writing about the Latin American story in a mainstream way in poetry. No one was combining story, poetry, drama and body movement.

Why "Yowling"?

The word "yowl" is now in the dictionary, but twelve years ago it wasn't. It's a combination of "yell" and "howl." I think it was just something I was feeling inside myself at the time -- this internal, guttural drive to create and express myself. So "The Yowling" was the first poem. I love sound, melody and the musicality of language. I played the guitar and I use a lot of imagery in my work.

Why Highland Park out of all of the Los Angeles areas?

I was living in Highland Park at the time. Whenever people asked me where's that I would always have to tell them -- in between Glendale and Pasadena. I heard them once call it the "armpit of L.A." It has a lot of the same characteristics as East LA but it's separated by the mountains, so it's a little different. I was meeting all these amazing beautiful people with amazing, beautiful stories who were going unnoticed and it was a tragedy to me. They were just as valuable as people from the Westside. So that's what prompted me; their being so invisible disturbed me.

Can you reflect on your social role as a younger adult participating in your field or organization?

My role has been catalytic -- as a catalyst -- and also as a translational voice. I am not Latina, I am Sicilian. The area of Highland Park used to be inhabited by Italians, so when I moved into the neighborhood there were a lot of old timers. I noticed many similarities between the two immigrant groups, and I am very in touch with my immigrant roots.

Young people that I have worked with have gone on to college, writing rap, stories, poetry and publishing. That is very exciting for me -- for them to be able to tell their own stories. Knowing that there is nothing to be ashamed of and that there is power, strength, love and joy even in the midst of the most downtrodden circumstances.

What facets of social media do you use?

Social Media has changed a lot. When I started the internet wasn't very popular, so for a long time I depended on word of mouth, and people would commission me to do pieces for The Center of the Arts. Then I got a lot of people telling me to use the internet and I created The Yowling as a sort of calling card. The Yowling is my brand and I will probably be doing that for the rest of my life.

To what extent do you represent the local (arts, music, food, cultural) scene?

I've lived in Highland Park for 20 years. I did all my business as a consumer in Highland Park. One of the ways I support the community, in a small role, is as a big supporter and proponent of local businesses. I married someone from Highland Park -- our marriage is representative of the controversies between the United States and Mexico. We are a microcosm; we are such a strange couple to people. I have a master's degree and he's the "jornalero." People ask what could we possibly have in common -- we both have a yowling and we are human beings and we make the sociological racial tensions between the US and Mexico real. We have crossed that sociological racial divide.

"The Yowling and Other Sounds of Highland Park" is my book that turned into a one-woman show, which focuses on the stories about my husband and me, and how I've met someone from the other side of the tracks, so to speak.

Have the racial and ethnic tensions of your marriage changed over time?

I think on the surface people would like to think they're more open-minded, but not necessarily. I think racism is a lot more subtle; it's not as easily recognizable. A lot of times people wear masks. When you get right to it, what we don't know seems strange to us and that's a natural human response, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. Ignorance is not bliss but it is also nothing to be ashamed of. People are curious, but are afraid to ask questions, so there are barriers that make them seem out of touch and strange. We need to have more open communication about the presence of racism. I think if people were not so afraid to express their yowling there would be a lot more honest communication.

What are your plans for the future?

The Yowling Creator is what I'm working on now. I would love to incorporate it as a business. One of the reasons I want to do this is to give people jobs, particularly those coming out of college. I want to be able to help people who want to be writers and form their own career, but don't know how. For the past twelve years I have formed my own career, when ten years ago people were saying that was not possible.

The arts is something that I will always be doing for my own personal satisfaction. I love telling stories, telling true stories. I love helping people be seen. I think there are a lot of women who are seen as "that poor thing" instead of the woman who is thriving despite her surroundings. This is all connected to what I did in Highland Park.

My next project, "The Yowling Heart Jar" is on the poetic side. However, the most current and in-progress work is The Yowling Creator's Way. It's a "how to" book that walks people through birthing their passion with joy and satisfaction and demystifies the creation process by holistically addressing it collectively from a scientific, spiritual, and psychological perspective. It's the culmination of nearly 10 years of work.

Is your work giving a voice to women, breaking those gender lines?

That's interesting, I hadn't thought of it before. "The Yowling Heart Jar" is more targeted towards women. The women who have contacted me in the past years have been young, and the ones that I am mentoring are young women. I grew up in an era when women were discovering themselves. They were discovering that they could have a job and be in business. I would like to see women knowing that they have a choice -- that we are free to make a choice -- and that they're not alone.

Why "heart jar"?

I think our hearts are fragile. I was teaching a creative writing class with a student from El Salvador and he used the word 'jarra del corazon,' and when I heard that I thought, "heart jar": the heart being fragile, being like glass. And how as women we live from our heart. The heart in proverb says, "guard your heart because that's the wellspring of life."


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