Diana Marie Delgado is a poet and the literary director of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona, an Art for Justice grantee partner. Team Spitfire recently spoke with Diana about the release of her new book, Tracing the Horse, and the roles art and poetry play in shifting the narrative around the criminal justice system. Tracing the Horse is currently available for preorder on Amazon and will be released nationwide on September 10.
Spitfire: Tell us about your upcoming book, Tracing the Horse, and its portrayal of the criminal justice system.
Diana: Tracing the Horse was something that I worked on for over a decade. I attended [the University of California,] Riverside as well as Columbia University. During that time, I had an idea of what I wanted to talk about, but likely didn’t have the techniques, which often take time to build. What I wanted to do in [Tracing the Horse] was to talk about the effect that prison has, not only on the individual who enters into the criminal justice system, but also their family members — considering more closely my own family.
Spitfire: Let’s discuss the personal aspects of writing the book. Was it challenging to write about family members who have gone through the criminal justice system?
Diana: Yes, and that was probably still one of the most difficult things for me to do, but it was also one of the most necessary things for me to do in order to process my thoughts.
“Sometimes things can be so painful that you have to give it another life outside of that immediate pain. That’s what this book is made from.”
If I’m honest, it’s made from the pain that comes from a fracturing of self and a fracture within the family structure. A lot of the book came together over the past few years, when I was really able to speak more openly about my story. I was finally able to be honest with myself about some of the violence that I saw and how it affected me.
Ultimately, I think it was very therapeutic for me to write [Tracing the Horse], and part of the reason is because I was able to externalize feelings that were overwhelming. I’m thankful that poetry allows me to take that on. I can give that pain over to poetry to deal with. The other thing that you’ll see in the book is that I didn’t want to tell a straightforward story, a linear story. Many aspects of the book are truncated, paired with instances of transformation and magic. That unconventional approach helped me talk about topics that were really difficult.
Spitfire: Can you talk about how having members of your family trapped in the criminal justice system affected your family’s dynamic?
Diana: It’s like that incarcerated family member dies because you don’t have that person in the home. The main way of interacting is through letters or through visits and things like that. It’s this push and pull where you can’t necessarily help that person because they’re away. And there’s almost an anger toward the person for sometimes not being able to get it together once they’re out. But then, there’s also an anger at society.
There’s a lot to process as a person in society saying, “This person is a bad person and they deserve this,” and society coming to terms with the fact that that isn’t true.
Spitfire: Tell me a little bit more about what inspired you to write Tracing the Horse.
Diana: I come from a non-traditional writing background. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. I also didn’t do so well in high school. I landed at community college, where I began studying poetry, and read From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger by Lorna Dee Cervantes. The book talks about class and what it means to be a Chicana/o. I just remember reading her book and thinking, I can tell my story through this medium. Nearly 15 years later after studying and working hard, I created what I would like to think of as art.
But what inspired me most was that I saw a lot of lives being destroyed around me [by the criminal justice system]. And those who have been through the system oftentimes don’t have a voice because they don’t get to go to creative writing classes, you know? Writing this book felt very natural. It was almost like a form of justice to write Tracing the Horse, because if I hadn’t written it, nobody would know about what this experience is like, not only for my brother, but also for me and the effect it’s had on our relationships.
Spitfire: What role do poetry and literature play in helping us envision a world without mass incarceration?
Diana: Presentation or representation of the people who either have been directly impacted or are connected to those that have been directly impacted can really change people’s perspectives of what needs to be done if somebody does something that’s either disagreeable or breaks the law.
“Literature, poetry, fiction, all of these genres provide a greater insight into what it means when you decide to put somebody away, sometimes for life.”
Spitfire: What’s the central message about the criminal justice system or criminal justice reform that you want readers to walk away with?
Diana: That the system is corrosive. That it may have potentially begun as a means of reform, education or punishment, but that it no longer serves that purpose, if it ever did. And that more attention needs to be paid to reform and to the individuals that we have left behind.
I also want people to walk away recognizing the humanity behind formerly and currently incarcerated individuals, and how difficult some of their lives are. The precursors to their imprisonment oftentimes inform their behaviors and decision making due to situations that are sometimes incomprehensible to those outside the system.
Spitfire: Are there any concrete steps you’d like readers to take after they read your book?
Diana: I’m the literary director at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and we have a community group that comes together, led by Joe Watson, a previously incarcerated writer, journalist and activist in the community. He runs a writing group where he invites individuals from the community to correspond with those who are incarcerated and to give them feedback on their writing.
That’s one example of something that I would want people to do – to take a step in becoming part of their local community, by corresponding and engaging with individuals caught in the system. That includes the immigration detention centers that the U.S. is now operating, because that is also an important element of the criminal justice system.
Spitfire: Are there any final thoughts you want to leave readers with?
Diana: Ignoring [the need for criminal justice system reform] is not the answer. As difficult and tricky as it is for us to look within ourselves and see our own ideas about individuals who are entering into the criminal justice system, we must do it.