Thursday, May 5, 2022

Madhouse Author Interview: We Are The Ones Possessed by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda

Hello Friends and Friends, 

Today in the Madhouse, I'm chatting with poet Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, whose work I first read when I picked up a copy of his collection La Belle Ajar from Clash Books a year or so ago. Followers of this blog know that I'm pretty much obsessed with Sylvia Plath, so there was no way I wasn't going to read that collection, and I'm happy I did because it introduced me to one of my favorite contemporary poets, a poet whose most recent release We Are the Ones Possessed also took my breath away. As such, I wanted to chat with him a bit about his process, his inspirations, and just generally see what makes him tick when it comes to form, style, and voice in the poem. 

SMW: Hi Adrian! Welcome to The Madhouse. I’ve been a fan of your work since I read your collection La Belle Ajar two years ago, but for those readers who might be unfamiliar with your poetry, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you to poetry in the first place?

AEC: My name is Adrian Ernesto Cepeda and I am a LatinX poet living in Los Angeles. Although I have been writing poetry for over twenty years, it’s been in recent years that my poems have begun flourishing, catching lyrical fire. 2018 has been the most successful year of my career as a poet. My first poetry chapbook So Many Flowers, So Little Time was published by Red Mare Press, and my first full-length poetry collection Flashes & Verses... Becoming Attraction was published by Unsolicited Press. 2019 saw the publication of Between the Spine, a collection of erotic love poems published with Picture Show Press. This year, La Belle Ajar a collection of cento poems inspired by Sylvia Plath's 1963 novel by CLASH Books. Alegría Publishing published Speaking con su Sombra in 2021 and CLASH Books published my latest poetry collection We Are the Ones Possessed in 2022.

My first introduction to poetry was in sixth grade at Thurston Elementary School in Mr. Babcock’s class. Every week he would have us memorize a famous poem and each of us would have to recite it in front of the whole class. This was when I first learned about Robert Frost and “The Road Not Taken.” Well, I was very ill one week and when I came back to school, I thought since I was sick, I didn’t have to recite my poem. Poetry doesn’t take a day off from anyone, is what I remember Mr. Babcock telling me. So, I had to stand there as he fed me lines, and this experience left a trauma that would trigger me for years afterward when anyone even mentioned a poem or Poet.

This lasted until college, specifically during my undergrad years at the University of Texas at San Antonio. At UTSA, because I wrote many romantic poems, an older female classmate introduced me to Pablo Neruda. She told me if you want to seduce a woman read their poems from 100 Love Sonnets. She was right because I used Neruda’s book as inspiration, and I seduced her later that year.

Poetry has saved me. Given me strengthen when I felt embarrassed by my speech impediment. I have a stutter and writing poems empowered me. I found my voice on and off the page when I rediscovered my love of la poesía.

SMW: Your most recent collection, We Are the Ones Possessed, still features a heavy influence on Sylvia Plath, and you start the collection off with the following quote by her: “Death must be so beautiful.” Can you talk a little about your connection to/with Plath and her work? What about her continues to be a muse for you?

AEC: My wife is the Plath scholar in our family yet, after mi Mami passed away in 2017 and we arrived home from her memorial service in San Antonio, I became sick and very depressed. I was in my office, sitting on my chair when I turned to our bookshelf and saw a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar glaring back at me. I picked it up, I turned the pages to Chapter 1, and I started culling words and crafting cento poems. I was trying to channel my energies to something creative and I felt an instant connection with Plath. At times, I felt like she was there guiding me while I was writing these poems that became La Belle Ajar. Because mi Mami had died, I was looking for a mother figure, and Sylvia because this inspirational figure for me. I went and purchased all her books, so many bios and literary critical theory that wrote about her work. For a year afterward, Plath’s presence was with me, and she helped me so much. I owe her so much, for she was there for me when I was mourning and inspired so much of my work, and she still does to this day.

What I learned about Plath, while writing, La Belle Ajar, was that Sylvia would write with a dictionary open. She was so meticulous with her word choices. She was a Maestra of words and her books and poems reflect this. To this day, she inspires me to be as meticulous as she was on the page.

SMW: This collection has themes of death, loss, grief, and trauma, all of which are wrapped up in this idea of memory and possession, things we can’t forget or run away from. In your poem “A Ghost Can Be a Lot of Things” you write: “A daydream memory, /secret guilt, most times, /in grief, we wish to see/a ghost.” How do you think your poetry tackles ghosts?

AEC: For me, and my last two poetry books, Speaking con su Sombra, a collection of bilingual poems, published by Alegría Publishing in 2017, was written for and inspired by my mother and her death. And my latest We Are the Ones Possessed, published with CLASH Books, and both of these books tackle this issue. I feel like Sombra most of these verses I am speaking to the spirit of mi Mami. And in Possessed, I am having conversations with ghosts in my Poems. Especially in “Two Americans Estranged in A London Kitchen, February 11, 1963” and “Her Garage Emotes” where I am speaking to Plath and Sexton on the moments before their death.

Poetry has helped me heal and face the trauma of missing my mother. I feel like Poetry is the best medium to connect with ghosts. Often, we write to future paramours, former lovers, heroes we admire, our odes are ways to weave through time as we attempt to connect with them on the page.

SMW: Anne Sexton has always spoken to me as a poet, and I have such a complicated relationship with her, but nevertheless, I can’t deny that I’m attached strongly to her poems. You have a piece in this collection that I absolutely loved: “Her Garage Emotes.” This poem is heartbreaking for so many reasons, and there are pieces of this piece specifically that I think will stay with me forever such as: “Anne wants to make/ out with poems/in between breaths” and “Anne loves idling/eternally inside my mouth.” What draws you to Anne Sexton? Since she and Sylvia were contemporaries and even taught together on occasion, I’m curious if your relationship with her is similar to what you have with Sylvia or if you contextualize her work differently in the scope of your own writing.

AEC: I was actually into Anne Sexton before I Plath came into my life. Sexton was such a spark of inspiration. I would write so many love poems to her. Here, this unpublished poem is an example of how Sexton inspired me:

How Sexton Slays MeSometimes I swear seeing

her reaching through her
softback tinging my own
spine, nuzzling with this
goddess, I feel her whispered
couplets undressing title,
pages, her words definitely
recline, reigniting rolls from
my tongue as I read her free
verse reflecting our lips,
our skins intone as she
unfastens and intricately
interlocks our lips together
far away, some nights she
feels even closer. Forget
risqué—I love the form of
Anne's body of poetry, how
her verses nakedly swim,
splashing me as she entrancingly
intertwines with my longing,
flickering redefined with pauses
of desire—teasing me with her
dangling stanza break kisses,
Anne’s rhymes always
swallowing me initiating
another little death within
her seductive exhales—
Sexton always eternally
gripping me with her
softest end rhyme.

Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, 2022

She empowered me to craft some of the most erotic love poems which led to my second book Between the Spine published with Picture Show Press in 2019. Sexton encouraged me to embrace the art of the erotic love poem. And I love her and I am eternally indebted to Anne for her inspiration.

SMW: I recently listened to an episode about Assia Wevill via The History of Literature podcast, and it opened my mind to see her as a person rather than simply as Sylvia Plath’s rival. In your poem, “Assia’s Feet Almost Touched the Door,” you write: “she joined Sylvia/ Plath instead, on the other/side of the stove.” There’s always such a strong focus on women and tragedy in your work—one of the many reasons I adore your poetry—and I’m wondering if you can speak to your attachment to that topic and how if feels to write to and about that experience from a male point of view.

AEC: When I was in a poetry workshop in college, our instructor Heather Sellers, gave us an assignment where each of us would write a poem and she would read it aloud and the class had to guess which classmate had written the poem. The poem I wrote was called “Lonely as an Eyesore” and the speaker was a spurned wife. I challenged myself to write from a viewpoint that was not my own male experience. It was a success because they did not guess I had written it. Years after, I became enamored of discovering writers like Anais Nin, Anne Sexton, and Kim Addonizio, and I wanted to write poems that would honor them and make them proud. I also found out that Debbie Harry of Blondie always wrote in an omnisexual voice. Most of her songs were written from a male point of view. Along with reading writers like Nin, Sexton, and Addonizio, Harry inspired me to write in a female voice.

SMW: In your poem “She Eats Men for Breakfast” you write: “Using teeth, it’s the only/ morning after bed/and breakfast meal/ that satisfies her carnal/cravings.” First off, that phrase “morning after bead and breakfast meal?”—absolute perfection! Admiration aside, I love how you weave themes of death and sex throughout this collection. There’s this forever nod to la petite mort hovering throughout. What made you want to work with those specific themes this time around, and how do you think they speak to or inform your goals as a poet in general?

AEC: Ironically enough, the original title of We Are the Ones Possessed was la petite mort. I’ve always loved the term little death and it was this idea that sparked some of my favorite poems in Possessed. But my publisher wanted to change the title because not all the poems had this theme, and they were right. I prefer the new title.

As for the themes, it’s the continuation of the erotic love themes I had loved writing about for years. I just added a new layer of death along with female empowerment which made the poems more universal and carnal in the same breath.

SMW: There are a lot of attributions throughout the collection: Edvard Munch’s “Death of Marat I,” Nicolas Francois Octave Tassert’s “La Femme Damnee (The Cursed Woman),” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” lyrics from Tom Waits, etc. How did you go about selecting these pieces to write to in this collection? I often get a lot of questions about how to organize a poetry manuscript, so I’d love to hear more about the connection these artists have for you and how you went about using them and their work to create new art.

AEC: Writing every day, years ago, before I was published, to challenge myself I would find artworks and photographs and craft ekphrastic poems. Along with erotic love poems, the ekphrastic form was my forte. Later on, I discovered the art of the cento poem along with the footnote poems. Taking words and lines from other famous works, and culling them together is one of my creative outlets that has inspired some of my favorite poems.

The art pieces in the book, choose me, they called out to me, and since I love the ekphrastic form I wanted to honor the artist and the paintings I chose with my poems. That’s the goal, to take a famous piece of art, or even a song lyric, or a story like “The Lottery” and pay homage with my own ode in poetic form. It is a challenge but challenging myself is how I have grown as an artist through my five poetry books and one chapbook.

SMW: I like that you explore poetry through centos. For those who might be unfamiliar with that format, can you talk a little bit about what a cento poem is, as well as what your writing process for them looks like?

AEC: A cento poem is a work that is comprised of lines from another poem or literary work. Like the art piece of my ekphrastic poems, the cento verses call out to me. I found whenever I try to force it, they come out weak and uninspired. My best centos, from La Bella Ajar and in my new horror poetry collection, possessed me and inspired me to craft the poems. Centos are not easy to create. They are a challenge and the best ones take days, weeks, and months to complete.

SMW: What poets are you currently reading? Are there any collections you’re looking forward to adding to your TBR list?

AEC: Natalie Sierra’s brilliant book Charlie Forever and Ever from Flower Song Press. Clara Olivo’s bilingual poetry collection The Whisper, The Storm, and The Light In Between was published with Alegría Publishing. Dorianne Laux and Leila Chatti collaborated on a Poems in Conversation & a Conversation called The Mothers from Slapering Hol Press. Briana Muñoz Loose Lips from Prickly Pear Publishing. Dylan Krieger’s chapbook Hideous Compass from Underground Press. Cry Howl from Edward Vidaurre was published by Prickly Pear Publishing. Nadine: Love Songs for Demented Housewives by Natalie Sierra. This Poem Might Save You (Me) by Jesenia Chávez, from Alegría Publishing.

I am looking forward to Jenn Givhan’s Belly to the Brutal (Wesleyan Poetry Series); Erika L. Sánchez, Crying in the Bathroom: A Memoir; Lidia Yuknavitch's Thrust: A Novel, and new poetry collections from Alegría Publishing’s poetas Solany Lara and Virginia Bulacio.

SMW: What’s next for your readers?

AEC: I am working on a follow-up to Speaking con su Sombra. La Lengua Inside me is my most personal project to date, it’s a journey of rediscovering my bilingual voice. I just hired a manuscript consultant, and I will be sending my sixth book out to publishers in June.

I also am looking for a publisher to publish When Her Lips Spread Simpatico, a collection of erotic love poems written for and inspired by my wife.


Cepeda’s atmospheric poems evoke an image of death that’s horrific and lovely, which I believe is fundamentally an optimism. We Are the Ones Possessed is not only an honor to many literary women; it’s an image of death as something more beautiful than it is—a death beyond death, its redemption.— CHARLENE ELSBY, AUTHOR OF PSYCHROS & HEXIS

The "little death" of orgasm isn't so small after all in Adrian Ernesto Cepeda's We Are the Ones Possessed. With the historical awareness of a cento and the contemporality of a soundbite, Cepeda explores the knotted entanglement of poetry's two age-old obsessions--sex and death-- with an eye toward tying the knot tighter rather than separating terror from pleasure. "Waiting under the mistletoe with a knife," this book rubs romance against bare mortality until the two fuse inextricably--a marriage too often relegated to the realms of erotica and gore. Cepeda reminds us, such a union is the home of poets, where horror and desire cuddle up together, swap spit, and let the boundary between them blur.— DYLAN KRIEGER, AUTHOR OF SOFT-FOCUS SLAUGHTERHOUSE

Adrian Ernesto Cepeda's poems always leave me breathless; We Are the Ones Possessed is no different. The lines can be mistakenly simple but say so much—like watching snowfall over a lake. Lines like “I suggest we roll down/the windows, reverse/our front seat” create gorgeous images while also narrating the mundane yet poignant moments in our lives. This book tells us how we possess ourselves and others—and how no one gets away unscathed.— JOANNA C. VALENTE, AUTHOR OF A LOVE STORY, NO(BODY), SEXTING GHOSTS, AND SIRS & MADAMS

Haunting, unnerving, and sexy, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda’s We Are the Ones Possessed makes a case for dark poetry with his collection of passionate calamities, smearing his poems with feverish pleasures, cursed confessions, and death shadows lusting for Blood.— JEAN-PIERRE RUEDA, AUTHOR OF HERENCIAS FROM ALEGRÍA PUBLISHING

Few poets know sex and death as well as Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, whose verse relishes in the escape, release, and transformation that both pleasure and the cessation of life have to offer. Each piece in We Are the Ones Possessed is a petite mort—a potent and intoxicating little death that scares us titillated—and through these poems, we may learn how to live and die deliciously.— KIM VODICKA, AUTHOR OF DEAR TED AND THE ELVIS MACHINE

We Are the Ones Possessed marries the corporeal horror of a Cronenberg film with the gauzy, creeping uneasiness of a midnight ghost tour in Salem, Massachusetts. A must-read for fans of the ethereal and sublime.— KOLLEEN CARNEY HOEPFNER, EIC, DRUNK MONKEY

Spellbinding, sensual, and sinister, Cepeda's We Are the Ones Possessed is a powerhouse collection of sex & death that excites the senses with every line. This is wedding-in-a-graveyard poetry. This is strip-naked-&-worship-the-moon poetry. This is wash-down-your-ex's-heart-with- champagne poetry. Decadent, deadly, & as consumptive as Possessed is compelling.— JESSICA MCHUGH, BRAM STOKER AWARD-NOMINATED AUTHOR OF A COMPLEX ACCIDENT OF LIFE

With nods to various icons of art, music, and literature, these pieces are so beautiful and stunning. Gilded in twilight and darkness, We Are the Ones Possessed is a collection of poetry that guides us along fragments of moments, with the tortured and the torturer. Scenes in dark rooms, across environments and situations, pulsate with bloody ecstasy, attraction, and betrayal. We Are the Ones Possessed shows us not only what we’ve had done to us, but what we have done.— CYNTHIA PELAYO, BRAM STOKER AWARD-NOMINATED AUTHOR OF CHILDREN OF CHICAGO

We Are the Ones Possessed is a vivid, heartbreaking, and tragic collection of poems that drips from the pages with the viscosity of blood. Cepeda is a Latinx talent you should be reading as a horror and poetry fan. I highly recommend this beautiful book that reaches out and grabs you by the heart and throat. I adored Night Stalker Tattoo on Her Back.— V. CASTRO, AUTHOR OF THE QUEEN OF THE CICADAS

Cepeda’s haunting poems, inspired by existing written work and visuals, are a medley of daydreams & nightmares, floating in the middle of a fateful dance of death and sex. The winged beauty in the shadows of love/revenge painted by his exceptional verse in We Are the Ones Possessed will take your breath away.— LINDA D. ADDISON, AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR, HWA LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD RECIPIENT, AND SFPA GRAND MASTER

We Are the Ones Possessed brings poems that read like a movie you just don’t want to end. Cepeda’s brand of horror opens portals into worlds, immersing you into a collection of work that will leave you wondering if there’s anything more horrific than the human condition itself, and his brand of poetry is like a breath of fresh winter air — addictive and piercing. Cepeda’s work will sink its teeth into you and play on loop in your subconscious for years to come. A beautifully haunting piece of art.— JEAN-MARIE BUB, AUTHOR OF MANEATER


Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, author of La Belle Ajar, brings you a horror-death-themed collection with mortality, murder, and muerte oozing from every one of these terrifying verses.

Inspired by NightWorms, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties & Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, get ready to be haunted by serial killers, fatal femmes, and poisoners, as these premeditated murderesses slay you in terrifying poems. One step inside these grave-inspired verses, you will want to re-experience We Are the Ones until the very end.

Embrace the terror and prepare to be Possessed, Cepeda’s poems will mesmerize you with his bone-chilling death rhymes from the other side.

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