Behind the Scenes: Frijoles de la Olla by Melody Rose Serra

Lightly edited transcript is below

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. In today’s behind the scenes, we’re going to be talking to Melody Rose Serra, who is the author of the poem Frijoles De La Olla. Melody’s passion is teaching and empowering others by sharing what she has learned. She helped launch an arts and crafts program at a children’s hospital, and also taught at San Quentin State Prison. Melody hopes to inspire youth to explore and expand their creativity through web development, writing, and art. Welcome, Melody.

Melody Rose Serra 0:48
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Teresa Douglas 0:52
I’m just so happy to have you here and to talk about your poem and talk about you because I just loved this poem when it came through. But before I get distracted and launch into that, we have to answer one of the most important questions. If you were sitting at my table, metaphorically here, and you came to visit, I would of course, offer you something to eat. And I would love to know what your favorite comfort food is.

Melody Rose Serra 1:22
That’s a great question. So I am a huge fan of food. So it’s really hard to choose. But if I had to choose I’d say either my Abuelas Frijoles or Lentejas. I think they’re just so comforting. We’ve had them at every get together every holiday or just during a random visit. And it’s just something that I really love. And I think I would be remiss to not mention my other Abuelas empanadas. So also another huge favorite.

Teresa Douglas 2:06
Oh, we can’t have abuela wars because that will never do. Can I ask about the empanadas? Were they savory, sweet or both?

Melody Rose Serra 2:17
So she would make both kinds savory and sweet. And every once in a while she would take a savory empanada and like put in some raisins in there. And I always loved that. And that’s something I still really enjoy, when you kind of blend those two flavors.

Teresa Douglas 2:36
Yeah, I don’t know what it is about raisins that remind me of Lent. But they really do. And I would get those special things from my Abuela too and honestly, I think the biggest ingredients and we’re gonna hint a little bit at your poem here, which talks about the secret ingredient is love. But I also think there’s magic in there somewhere. Because well, Abuela food is just like in a class all by itself.

Melody Rose Serra 3:04
Absolutely, I agree.

Teresa Douglas 3:07
So that’s wonderful. I would definitely have you over and try to find some empanadas, though unless we invited your Abuela or your other Abuela who makes frijoles, then of course, it wouldn’t taste quite the same. But I share a deep connection to food. It’s one of my chief distractions. Moving on a little bit to your poem, and to you. Can we start with you telling us just a little bit about when you started writing?

Melody Rose Serra 3:40
Of course. So I don’t really think I knew that I was writing poetry or stories when I was really little. But as I was learning English, around like five, six, I learned a lot of my English with my grandfather and my grandmother. And they, my grandfather loved to write words down, poems or songs or like silly little, love letters to my grandma and read them out loud in English. And that kind of inspired me to do the same. So I was just like, I was writing poetry in hindsight. I didn’t know it then but I was just writing like little observations or feelings. So it definitely started really young. And I’ve carried it with me until today and I’ve recently learned I also really love art. So I recently kind of started playing with bringing those two mediums together and creating like visual poems and I’m really enjoying that and exploring that right now.

Teresa Douglas 4:50
I have to say I wish you’re Abuelo put that tactic about leaving little love notes for his wife around the house. I think there’ll be a lot of marriages that can benefit from that. So any of you men listening or people listening who are married, maybe try that, that would be a great idea. Leave these notes and read them out loud to your beloved. So it seems like it worked well for him. Would you then call poetry your first love? Or do you say it’s more writing in general because you weren’t focused on just the definition between fiction or poetry?

Melody Rose Serra 5:34
Yeah, I would say it definitely was just writing in general and like playing with words and learning the language by writing and then reading out loud what you wrote. And so I definitely think there were some various genres that I was playing with. But poetry is the one that really stuck.

Teresa Douglas 5:58
And it’s such a lovely form. And I’d love to transition now into talking about the specific poem, because it’s hard to not talk about it, while we’re talking about what it is you enjoy about the form. So when we’re looking here at Frijoles de la Olla and some of the things that I really loved about this piece, in particular, is how, in just a few sort of strokes–I talk about this, like it’s painting, but even though it’s words, you’re painting with words. And, I see so many of these images, in just a minimum amount of words, but so vividly. Even the beginning, the color of terracotta, and that springs into your mind, and, talking about the artist’s studio and, talking here about finding with the fingers, those beans that are bruised. Which go to the pod and, considering your Abuela, as an artist, where she followed her intuition, so much so it was like watching somebody, I’m just gonna read this line, like watching a basket maker choose which tree will make the most lovely basket.” And I thought what a lovely description of something that is, like the sublime and the every day. There’s nothing, I would say, more basic than beans and cooking, and feeding somebody. It’s a basic need that we all have. And yet in this piece, just the way that you write it, and talk about it, and this person who is a master in this sphere, that is also a refuge for her and for others, because people don’t come on a random Tuesday, if they don’t want to be there when there’s no special significance. So I just loved that, about this piece, it felt sort of like a hug, especially by the end. We have the idea that she’s a master at these things. And yet, it’s also driven by love so I, would love to hear from you. The idea that maybe sparked this piece, and how you went about writing it down.

Melody Rose Serra 8:17
A few weeks ago, I was really craving my abuela’s frijoles. And I called her and told her I was going to make it based on what I remember her doing and just like asked her for some tips and was really excited. And then that very same day before I even started the process of making them I was already like thinking about this, like super vivid and intimate moment where I observed my Abuela and it wasn’t even just one moment. I saw her do this so many times. But for some reason, there was like a very specific vision that I was kind of playing in my head and I I sat down at my computer. Sometimes I write with pen and paper but in this case, it was on my computer and I just started writing this and it’s funny, it sounds a bit like a story like but I wrote it the day that I talked to my grandma and was planning to make the frijoles de la olla. I was just inspired by the, the things I was imagining and bringing myself back to those moments. And I really was also inspired by–there was a poet that I went to a reading for and he was talking about how poetry can really take on the role of a time capsule, and I found that language to really stick with me. I was like, Wow, that’s so powerful. And I felt like that was this poem for me. I wanted to capture a memory, a real story in my life and the feelings that came with it. And also, as you said, like all this love that was put into this, this what might seem simple moment, and how, because of that love, it’s transcended into something more that stays with me.

Teresa Douglas 10:43
And I really feel like one of the strengths of this piece is that you are as the child or the person in this moment, you’re both so very much present, in the fact that your feeling comes through. It’s that love, it’s that closeness and that intimacy, and yet you don’t really refer to yourself at all, on this page. It’s a wonderful example, I would say, of having that feeling there without coming out and saying, I really love to watch my Abuela do this, I really enjoyed the happy memory of being there. You show it through all these little, little details. And just again, coming back to this idea that family, both blood and chosen is gathered around the table, the idea that just hearing your Abuela, sort of hum a tune. And it’s this wonderfully, I don’t want to say vulnerable, but it’s like a trusted moment where somebody who is totally comfortable in her environment, she has the people that she wants in her home, and she’s allowing the family the privilege, in some ways, I’ll use that word, to just be there and see her in her refuge in this place where she is happy doing this thing. And it’s like even the idea here, toward the end, where you list the things as they go in: beans go in water, broth, onions, it’s just a very domestic in the best possible way, sort of description of what can be a loving moment. And I feel like we get to be close to your Abuela just in that moment. Even though we don’t necessarily know her name. We don’t know you and how you grew up, but we get to see that. And I love that idea of the time capsule. It’s like, we could all look at this poem again and 20 years and see that again, like almost as if we’re there. It’s just beautiful.

Melody Rose Serra 12:59
Thank you so much. That means a lot for you to say that.

Teresa Douglas 13:03
I gush, I’m sorry. You’re not allowed to talk on this podcast. It’s just gonna be me telling you about you and how wonderful you are. So this is lovely. And I love to hear that you just sort of sat down and wrote it. Did you feel once you did that, like did you start editing right away? Did you not edit at all? Because it came out whole? Did you let it sleep a little? How did that all work?

Melody Rose Serra 13:33
With this particular piece, I didn’t edit very much. Even the tune that I mentioned that my abuela was humming, and even that it just came naturally. I was like I can remember her singing to that tune Si nos de han, and that continues to be like a really important song in my family. Because it was a song that my grandparents used to sing to each other. So it just kind of all came and that’s definitely not the norm for me. I often like edit and get hung up on like words and pauses but with this I think it’s because I had this like really vivid image in my head. I was able to get it down and didn’t have to do too much. And, yeah, and I really enjoyed just putting it together. It was it’s, I think one of my favorite poems that I’ve written so far.

Teresa Douglas 14:47
It’s lovely when you get that gift from the universe where it all sort of pulls together in your mind and you can just write it down. That’s not going to happen every time. But it’s lovely when it does, and it comes out whole. It’s interesting to see real life coming together to help you write this, you had this thing you wanted to make you were talking to your Abuela and it just sort of all came together. Wow. Well, I love this. And I would say that you’re Abuela and Abuelo sound like amazing people to each other. I mean, they’re singing to each other and he’s writing notes. And it’s nice to get that intimate feel like, I feel like I would really like them had I ever met them. And that’s great, because I’m a stranger, but it’s one of the best sort of legacies that I think we can leave is to have these pieces about good moments or significant moments with our family that people can read and enjoy no matter when they see it now or 15 years from now or whatever it is. Wow, this is lovely. I do wonder because this poem is so nice. If there are other places where people can read about your work, if you have things that are going to come out, is there is there a website or social where people might keep tabs and see what else you come up with?

Melody Rose Serra 16:25
I do have a website and it’s Melody Serra.com. And on that site, I’ve started putting up the pieces that get published, the poems that get published. And then I’m also over at Twitter at Mel R Sarah. And I actually just started submitting work late last year, I was inspired by the young people I volunteer with to put my work out there and see what that feels like. And I’ve really enjoyed that. So I have some poetry that’s been published at a few places like wine cellar press and Gulf Stream magazine, and a few others and I also have some upcoming work that will be published later this year.

Teresa Douglas 17:22
Wonderful. And I think I can speak for everybody listening that we all look forward to reading those pieces and seeing what else you do. So thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us sort of the behind the scenes of this lovely piece and telling us more about your work.

Melody Rose Serra 17:42
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

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