“Underneath the Cuento,”
by Leticia Hernandez-Linares


Underneath the Cuento

I count the story because to tell is to count
like numbering splotches on skin, having to interpret
layers of wrinkles that now camouflage them.
Te voy a contar un cuento.

Splotches on skin interpret and
keep time with the story she is going to tell you.
Te voy a contar un cuento.
It requires you breathe on a lower register.

The story she is going to tell you sinks in time.
You try to hold most of it, try to cut parts out.
Your breath dropping to a lower register will reaso
if underneath is low and the bass is the lowest note,
then the bajo will play a good rhythm.

The story is counted because to tell is to count.

1. Her husband will not have spit out pieces of
her devotion by the door before
he slammed it. Me voy.

2. A black and white photograph of a husband and wife
in a peeling gold frame will not sit on her dresser fifty years
and many deaths later. Same dresser.

3. She will not have bandaged desperate hands
in starless Hollywood apartments with the crinkled dollars
she scrubbed for in two story Pasadena
homes. A mother’s love.

4. Her oldest son will not spin the cylinder,
will not lose to roulette. Two out of three.

A good song rips the roots up from a telling
so you can move and hum the melodious edges,
only repeat the honeyed notes,
like Donny singing the song right to you.

Move, hum the edges melodious and off tune
until the order of things dance in your memory.
Tear the pages out, but don’t bury them until
you sing the words right for you.

1. I met him crumpled under hospital linens, trying to die,
small man who left big wounds. ¿Te vas?

2. All the male copies of his face crumbled
under the weight, so I wonder
if bones lowered into the ground
can make good canes. Better we limp.

3. Everyone is asleep but no one is resting,
and I keep going home.

4. The echo of so many footsteps
push me to keep marching.

Te voy a contar un cuento.
The story that she tells you
good for swaying to sleep.
But mine makes you hum
until you lose your breath.


 This poem is published in Mucha Muchaca, Too Much Girl (Tía Chucha Press 2015) by Leticia Hernández-Linares and is reprinted here by permission of the poet. Order the book here.


Leticia Hernández-Linares is an award-winning, interdisciplinary, bilingual writer, artist, and racial justice educator. She is the author of Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl and Alejandria Fights Back! / ¡La Lucha de Alejandria! Widely published, her work appears in Maestrapeace, San Francisco’s monumental feminist mural, Other Musics: New Latina Poetry, and The BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNext. She has performed her poemsongs, delivered keynotes, and presented throughout the country and in El Salvador. Her equity-focused education work includes school reform and curriculum development. Currently an Artist-in-Residence at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, she also teaches in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. She has lived, taught, created, and protested in the Mission District of San Francisco for more than two decades.


Poet’s Note

Te voy a contar un cuento. I am going to tell you a story. In Spanish, the word contar means to tell but also to count. This first poem in my collection, Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl, began as a pantoum, and then turned into something else. I find that when I try to write in form, my pen at some point resists and does its own thing. The homophone of telling and counting speaks to the stories underlying my poems, to the urgency that I need to tell them so they can count. The “underneath” is silence, family secrets and traumas, multiple languages, music.

Listen to the poet reading this week’s poem here.

Further reading about Hernández and her work:


Interview Questions:

Tell us about your path to becoming a poet. 

I have been involved in the arts my whole life. I started in dance and theatre and almost did a Drama minor in college. Early on, it became clear that I would be competitive only for roles specifically for Latinas, which were very rare in the early 1990s. I had not been exposed to any BIPOC writers before, and it was discovering the work of poets like Alice Walker, Gloria Anzaldúa, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Jimmy Santiago Baca that ultimately drew the poetry out of me. I wanted to write like they did. I wanted to write the stories I never saw in books. Given my performance background and my training as a singer, the stories came out as poems and poemsongs.

What is your writing practice, if you have one?

As a single mother juggling numerous jobs and commissions, my current practice prioritizes the deadlines. I do write regularly, however, since I usually have several projects in play. Given that I have two sons and live in a modest-sized apartment, I have become accustomed to writing wherever and whenever I can. I don’t need a room or even a desk, although I luckily do have both. My inspiration comes from experiencing the art and craft of others––a poetry reading, an art exhibit, a performance. While I have only done a few writing residencies (so many of them are not accessible funding- or family-wise), I find that travel really gets my pen moving.

How has the pandemic affected the way your local community values poetry?

I am part of the San Francisco, Bay Area, and Mission poetry circles (there are several intersecting communities), and poetry has always been front and center here, especially in the Mission where I am based. The Latin American traditions of art and poetry as tools for social justice are firmly entrenched here. Strangely, virtual poetry readings allowed more folks to attend and participate than normal because location and transportation were no longer an issue.

Do you find that having a background as a racial justice educator influences your approach to writing poetry?

My practices are interconnected. When I write, I aim to craft powerful, beautiful, moving lines; I strive to push my craft. And, I am political and intentional and write to uplift many of the issues I seek to address in my work as an educator and cultural worker.

How do you embed translation into your poems? What sorts of problems or possibilities does it present?

I don’t usually translate in my poems; I code-switch. I write bilingually so some things come out in English and some in Spanish. I made a conscious decision not to translate the Spanish in my book because translation is an entirely different process. I do have experience in translation and interpretation, and I also write in Spanish. The purpose of my book was to share multilingual poems, not translate the Spanish for non-Spanish speakers. I translate the title in a way, but not for understanding––for emphasis. “Too Much Girl” has many layers in English and within the context of my book and the song by Esquivel that inspired the title. It never seems to be a problem when non-English words in a poem are French, Greek, or Latin, but when they are Spanish they are suddenly suspect, unwelcome, disorienting. When I hear folks read poetry that includes a different language, I revel in the rhythm and sound. I focus on the ancestral vibrations. There are many opportunities in a chorus of languages.

Tell us about the process of forming your poem collection, Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl. How did you curate the poems that made it into the book?

This book holds poems I wrote over a span of fifteen years. Some of the poems have several different versions (I sometimes edit poems for performance versus publishing). Once I started to play with the order, the three sections started to form and it became pretty easy to see which poems didn’t fit. I had a lot of editorial support from generous and talented friends who weighed in as well. In the end, there were a lot of poems that I had to let go or that didn’t work.

Tell us about your interdisciplinary work. Do your poems begin as songs, and your songs begin as poems?

Sometimes the song is first and sometimes the poem. There isn’t always music; sometimes it is something else. The daily booming sound of the demolishing of St. Luke’s Hospital at the beginning of the pandemic fueled a few poems, one of which does not contain a song but does include sound effects. When I do installations, the environment is usually first and then the poem anchors it. I have only done a few installations, and I silkscreened the poem on fabric or wrote the poem on the wall so the very words were part of the installation.

Tell us about how responses to your work differ between the United States and abroad:

I have performed and published work in El Salvador, and that work is mostly in Spanish (written first in Spanish, not translated). It is hard to explain how it is different, but it is. As for the reception, I think my hybridity as a U.S.-Salvi writer with deep connections to Salvadoran history and culture comes through, but you would really have to ask the audience.

What future project(s) are you working on?

I wrote a children’s book, Alejandria Fights Back! / ¡La Lucha de Alejandria! and it will be out in August 2021 by The Feminist Press. It’s part of a national project, Rise-Home Stories, a collaborative of artists and organizers using multiple narrative platforms to inform and empower families around issues of housing rights.

I’m working on a collection of poetry about my neighborhood––the changes, the challenges, the violence, and gentrification. My working title for the collection is Vecina. These poems center around the embodied perspective of a female resident/neighbor in the Mission District witnessing a physical, at times lethal, displacement of people that invokes ghosts of past colonization. It’s related to a project I did before called “Despiértame,” a series of photo poems I did on the street, where I reenacted Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s “Good Reputation Sleeping.” During this project, when I found myself embroiled in an attempted eviction from my home (prevented due to community support), the project evolved, and a book began to form.

What does poetry reveal the most about the world we currently live in?

The rise of poet laureates around the country and the number of Latinx and BIPOC writers filling those posts reveals the need for the griot, the tlamatine (Nahuatl for poet: “someone who knows”), more than ever. In the context of the US, poets help excavate buried histories, invoke ancestral practices, make beauty of the chaos, and lead the truth-telling.


This week’s column was contributed by Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes.

Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes is a hybrid artist from Northern California. Her poetry, fiction, scores, essays, and interviews have appeared widely in journals including Dance Art Journal, Samfiftyfour LiteraryMarin Poetry Center AnthologyGallatin ReviewOctober Hill MagazineLOCULUS Collective, Washington Square News, and VerbalEyze Press, where she published her first novella, through EileenShe is an editorial writer for inbtwn magazine and serves as Marin Poetry Center’s webmaster, excited to launch its inaugural Youth Poet Ambassador Program 2021-2022. Her ongoing project, strikethrough-score.org, is a digital platform where poets can generate choreographic scores for dancers is currently being exhibited at the Museum of Wild and Newfangled Art. Visit her at www.poeticabythebay.com.



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