The Earth and the Month of Love
By Michelle St. Romain Wilson
February 28, 2023
As we close out February, the month of Valentine’s Day and a celebration of love, my mind is focused on the Earth we share and the ways we can care for it. Spring is coming – just weeks away in Southern Oregon – and my mind is going to sprouting seeds, bulbs coming up from the frozen ground, and more days of sunshine. In spring our yard brings me sights that inspire feelings of love and joy – bright flowers, food from our garden, and trees that bloom in colors of red, yellow, cream, and green.
I’ve been returning to a few favorite books that focus on love of – and care of – the Earth. I started reading Guardians of the Trees by Kinari Webb recently and am struck by the amazing knowledge scientists are gaining about the ways trees communicate with each other and are so important for our planet’s health. Indigenous people around the world have always had this type of knowledge and one of my favorite books by an author who generously shares some of this is World of Wonders, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. A collection of reflections on a range of natural wonders, including squid, dragon fruit, and monsoons, the book reads like a love poem to the Earth and to those of us who live here.
I’m also thinking about A Wild Love for the World, by Joanna Macy. A Buddhist teacher and scholar of systems theory and deep ecology, her work has inspired countless people to enter into communal action on behalf of the planet. The book includes some of her most influential writings over many decades. The essays remind me of the drastic changes we are seeing in the natural world in our lifetime, the possible futures before us, and the ways we can all choose to become involved in our collective experience.
Finally, I’m thinking of a book I read a few years ago, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. A wide-ranging novel that takes readers across time and space, it explores the impacts of climate change on many people’s lives and on the future facing the next generation. Metaphors and science intermingle and invite the reader to read slowly, purposefully, entering time from the perspective of ancient tree families that have lived on this Earth for millions of years.
Reading these books brings me back to a larger experience of love and to an invitation to live each day with deep gratitude for the natural world around me. What are some of your favorite books that celebrate love of the Earth?
Who Lived Alone—
A Winter Comfort
By Alma Rosa Alvarez
January 30, 2023
In winter-time, I try to ward off winter dreariness by intentionally engaging in things that bring me comfort and joy. For example, yearly, a few friends give me blackberry jam, and in the coldest, rainiest of days, I open a jar to enjoy on toast for several Sunday mornings. I savor the taste, and I revel in the feeling that friends cared to share fruits of their labor with me.
One of my favorite ways of getting cozy is re-reading children’s books. Most of us are familiar with Donald Hall’s work as a poet. From 2006-2007, he was the U.S. Poet Laureate. What some of you may be surprised to learn is that he also wrote children’s books. Fourteen to be exact. A book I cherish is Donald Hall’s The Man Who Lived Alone, published in 1984. I have been trying to think about what makes this book so satisfying to read and hold.
Here are some of the elements that captivate me. For starters, the cover has a textured quality that feels good and substantial to fingers. When you open the book, you will enjoy Mary Azarian’s wood-block illustrations, which through their beautiful design elements, create a visual texture.
Hall’s book is one that satisfies the aspect of myself that is nostalgic for a time past. It transports the reader to a time when peddlers hawked curative oils and salves to people living in the back country and when taxes could be paid off by working on roads.
The book is also deeply satisfying because of the the tender relationship the protagonist develops with his cousins, their child (who is only two years younger than he is), their grandchildren, and their great grandchildren. He lives alone, but he exists as part of a familial community. At one point in the book, the man mails a nickel to his cousin’s granddaughter after she goes away to college, “for a treat.” Later on, when the granddaughter is married and has a son, he makes a baseball bat for him. When he and his second-cousin are old, they visit with each other and reminisce “about seventy years ago.”
Another source of satisfaction comes from the simplicity of the protagonist’s life. He darns his clothes instead of buying new ones. He salvages items that appear to be trash, but are still useful. The deprivation he experienced as a child allows him to be content with the food available to him, even if the variety is limited. And when Hall speaks of the man’s food in winter, food from Ball jars, I feel, a kindred spirit with this fictional man. And maybe this connection is what makes me enjoy the book the most.
A Year of Books
By Michelle St. Romain Wilson
December 29, 2022
Writers love to read. I read several wonderful books this year and am sharing some of them here, along with a few recommendations from Alma Rosa. Twelve books for twelve months!
Michelle’s favorites from 2022:
The Seed Keepers, Diane Wilson – a beautiful story of members of a Dakota family and their relationship with the Earth; this was my favorite book of the year
Poet Warrior, Joy Harjo – a memoir written by one of my favorite poets: inspiring, haunting, beautifully written
The Light of the Midnight Stars, Rena Rossner – a fairytale filled with Jewish folklore that captivated me
Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr – I love everything he writes, and this book takes the reader through time and space as it pokes at questions about how we choose to live our lives
Conjure Women, Afia Atakara – a book of women’s wisdom, healing powers, and mysticism that held me until the last page
Poetry of Presence, Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby R. Wilson, ed. – a collection of 150 poems that center around the theme of mindfulness
Eat Joy, Natalie Eve Garrett, ed. – this collection of stories by writers about food and its connection to our emotions and relationships includes recipes, making it a cookbook and a great resource for reflection
The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka – I finished this book in a few days because I wanted to know what happened to each of the women in the story and couldn’t put it down
Rhino Dreams, Carolyn Waggoner and Kathryn Williams – this is the first book by my first writing partner, Kathy, and I enjoyed this romp through the African wild in one weekend
A few recommendations from Alma Rosa:
Obit, Victoria Chang - a poignant description of loss: of a parent to death, of a parent due to dementia, and of self through the loss of objects or emotions
In the Dream House, Carmen Machado – an exploration of a relationship of abuse the author experienced that renders the violence in poetic, unforgettable ways
Adobe Odes, Pat Mora - taking cues from Pablo Neruda's Odes, these odes are beautiful poems about ordinary objects in a Chicana home
What are you reading? What are your favorites of the year?
Abuelita Trine's Legacy
By Alma Rosa Alvarez
November 30, 2022
The development of cheaper postage, better postage routes and mechanized printing all accounted for the success of Christmas cards and St. Valentine’s Day cards in the late nineteenth century. It wasn’t long after, that companies began developing other types of greeting cards, like the birthday card. November is a busy time in my family. There are quite a few birthdays, and so, with all the intention of sending cards out on time, I bought some in late October. That nice little pile rested on my counter for the greater part of three weeks. I had chosen beautiful birthday cards from a few local shops, but I was waiting for inspiration to write something special inside.
The bar for card writing, for me, I believe, was set high. For me, it does not feel acceptable to buy a card with a lovely sentiment and just sign my name on it. I know a lot of people do this, and I don’t have judgment about them. I understand that picking a card, in and of itself, can take time and care. And when I get a beautiful card with just someone’s signature, I do feel acknowledged and appreciated. For me, the whole card issue goes back to my paternal grandmother, Abuelita Trine. Abuelita Trine was born in Mexico in 1906. By the time she was five, she had lost her mother and had gained the responsibility of caring for younger siblings. She never went to school. To be honest, schooling wasn’t an opportunity many people from villages had, especially if they were girls. When she married at fourteen, she was illiterate. Newly married and with a strong streak of ambition to learn, she found support in her kind father-in-law; it wasn’t long after, that my grandmother learned the magic of putting letters together to make meaning.
Abuelita Trine had ten of her fourteen children survive into adulthood, and they provided her with forty one grandchildren. One of my grandmother’s joys was purchasing birthday cards for them. When I was a teenager, she would give me money to buy “a nice card” for the next relative having a birthday. My grandmother loved flowers, so I often picked cards that had flowers. When I could, I would purchase cards that had birthday wishes in Spanish. Despite this, my grandmother would always write her own birthday wishes inside. I can still picture her taking her ordinary ballpoint pen and laboriously writing. While her conclusion was always the same: que Dios lo bendiga y guarde por muchos años mas (may God bless you and keep you for many more years to come), the rest of her message was unique and heartfelt. Later, when her hand became too shaky to write and her vision grew dim, she would dictate to me card messages. It was then that I was struck by the beauty of her language. Abuelita Trine, my little grandmother who never went to school, who always felt some funny way about her cursive writing because she learned it outside of school, in each birthday card, gave us a little bit of poetry. And this is the reason why I can’t just sign my name. Abuelita Trine would expect me, with my privilege of an education, to write something personal and heartfelt.
Literary New Orleans:
A Stroll Through History
By Michelle St. Romain Wilson
October 31, 2022
Steaming, hot coffee. Sweet, tasty beignets with puffs of powdered sugar leaving their mark on your smiling face as you take the first bite. The wide Mississippi River close to its final destination in the Gulf of Mexico. Majestic St. Louis Cathedral overlooking the heart of the French Quarter, with artists of all kinds sharing their work along the black wrought iron fence around the square. New Orleans is a city rich with sights, smells, and sounds that can draw a person in and never let go. With its rich history spanning centuries, it’s no wonder that so many writers have called this city home.
I recently visited the Crescent City for a college reunion. Loyola University was where I began my young adult writing career, in the English department in Bobet Hall. I think of the city as the place where my own young writer spirit was first nurtured, so I took one day of the trip to myself and visited literary sites. Here are my tips for a literary day in the French Quarter area of New Orleans.
William Faulkner house and bookstore – William Faulkner wrote his first novel while living in a small apartment on Pirate’s Alley, just off of Jackson Square. Now home to a bookstore, visitors can see photos of Faulkner at work, peer into the back portion of the apartment which was once his living quarters, and talk to friendly and knowledgeable staff. In addition to Faulkner’s books, all sorts of great books are available on historical and literary New Orleans.
Le Petit Salon – In 1924, Grace King started the first women’s literary salon in New Orleans. She hosted many writers whose names may be familiar, including Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Dix, and Tennessee Williams. I happened across a plaque on the wall of the building on St. Peter’s Street, former residence of “Monsieur et Madame Victor David” and home of Le Petit Salon.
Arcadian Books & Prints – Be ready to spend some time here if you are interested in books written in French or arcane books you may not find any place else. The store is literally stacked from floor to ceiling with publications of all kinds. I spent a little time with the owner looking for books on French immigrants to Louisiana, hoping to come across some historical information on my family’s roots. While I didn’t find that, I certainly enjoyed being amidst such a vast collection of writing.
Hotel Monteleone and the Carousel Bar – Stay for a night or two at the beautiful Hotel Monteleone or just stop in for a drink at the Carousel Bar and you will be following in the footsteps of many great literary figures of New Orleans, including Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and William Faulkner. Over 170 stories and novels use this historic site as a backdrop. Hop on the 25-seat revolving bar with its carousel theme and picture yourself talking with one of many famous authors who’ve walked through the doors.
The Eliza Jane Hotel – Our group stayed at this boutique hotel on Magazine Street. It was the original place where the Daily Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper, was printed. Eliza Jane Nicholson was the publisher and editor in the late 1890s and was the first female publisher of any major newspaper in the country. Remodeled with a literary theme, the library is a great place to curl up on an antique couch, enjoy a book, and sip a favorite New Orleans drink.
The city boasts many other wonderful literary spots, including the Tennessee Williams House, Dauphine Street Books, the Anne Rice House, and a variety of small bookstores. I didn’t visit these on my trip, but they will be on my agenda the next time I visit the city.
By Alma Rosa Alvarez
September 30, 2022
W.K. Wimsatt, a literary critic from times past stated that poetry--read literature-- “should not mean, but be.” However, the heated discussions currently happening over what books are allowed in school districts and in public libraries demonstrate that texts, among them literary texts, carry meaning. But is what literature means and what it might accomplish a bad thing?
Kris Wiley, librarian at the Roseburg Public Library, before living in Oregon, was a librarian in Minnesota. There, she applied for a National Endowment for the Humanties grant through the American Libraries Association in order to offer a program meant to bridge cultures. Participants learned about the minoritized yet growing Muslim cultures/communities in Minnesota, and beyond, through the following literary texts: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, House of Stone by Anthony Shadid, Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie, Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi.
After a successful run of that program, Kris, now in Oregon, kindly invited me to be the project scholar for another bridging cultures project—this time one that focused on Mexican/Chicanx culture. Our program would run for less time than the Minnesota one—three sessions, which would then mean, three primary, literary texts. I reflected on my experience in teaching students in Oregon, some that come from communities with such low BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) populations they haven’t had the opportunity to know or interact with people of color. In my classes, I aim to ease students into learning about race, and I am careful to not diminish their experiences as people. In addition, the lovely part of my job is that I allow the literature I choose to speak for itself. Often, writers develop wonderfully round characters that in their complexity provide readers with multiple connecting points. A reader becomes invested in the character and follows them around in the world the author has conjured up. Through this, students are able to learn incredible lessons that I wouldn’t be able to successfully or as successfully transmit on my own. A case in point is that I can tell students about, for example, the impact that legacies of slavery have on Black people today, through a lecture, but if I have students read Octavia Butler’s Kindred, students are able to follow the character Dana and see for themselves the ways Dana is emotionally and physically wounded and scarred by slavery. After teaching a text like this, students understand, for example, the misguided idea espoused by a statement like “slavery was long ago, why don’t people just get over it.” In my Chicanx literature courses, through literature, students begin to understand the difficulties of the migrant farmworker experience, students learn about the generational gaps between immigrant parents and U.S. born children wanting to be American, just like everybody else, etc.
After careful consideration, I picked my three texts: Y No Se Lo Trago La Tierra/And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomás Rivera, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez, and Imaginary Parents: A Family Memoir by Sheila Ortiz Taylor. While I believe that a literary work, at its most basic is an imaginative work that exhibits aesthetic choices made by the author that a group of people have valued as having some sort of excellence, I don’t believe that a literary text's function needs to be or even ought to be didactic. Often, really great pieces of literature present that didactic aspect as a by-product. And when that happens, minds can be expanded, and in the case of cultures, they can be bridged. And is this bridging a bad thing? I hope, for the sake of our collective futures that it is not.
and the Deeper Way
By Michelle St. Romain Wilson
August 31, 2022
I love independent bookstores. Any time I visit a new city, I find at least one local bookstore and always buy something – books, small gifts, journals. And I always ask for bookmarks. I have a collection from many of my favorite places: Portland, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, small coastal towns, and – of course – our local Rogue Valley, Oregon favorites in Medford, Ashland, and Jacksonville. Each time I visit a new bookstore, I take my time, breathing in the smell of books, wandering through aisles to see what new literary surprises I may find.
I imagine all of these authors together, sitting on the shelves, whispering their words of wisdom and delight to me. Which one will pull me closer? What story do I want to hear today? Each bookstore gathers a different collective of writers, based on the interests of the region. I love considering the range of authors and wonder what their conversations would be: some lived centuries ago in faraway places and some live across town from where I’m standing.
One of the joys of independent bookstores is that they all share one thing in common: people who are steadfastly dedicated to books, stories, and literature. I count myself among that group. Stories, after all, are one thing we all share, no matter where our ancestors lived.
I think of the words of Linda Hogan, a Native American poet:
Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.
Stories shared from one person to another guide us through challenges, teach us the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us, and make us think about things we may not otherwise consider. They point us in the direction of a deeper way of living and making decisions in a complex world.
They remind us that we are all connected – to each other and to a long lineage of people who’ve walked the Earth – and that we are, indeed, the result of the love of thousands.
The Importance of
as Poet Laureate
By Alma Rosa Alvarez
July 15, 2022
This spring, in our end of year celebration, my chair asked if I could read a poem to our English majors and their family members. I thought about how despite the rough time with the pandemic, the students had made it to graduation. As I scoured through the web, I found a perfect poem that addressed the resilience students exhibited and the beautiful growth they could expect to come after the glitz of graduation:
By Ada Limón
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out/
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s/
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving/
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate/
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees/
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white/
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave/
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,/
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin/
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return/
to the strange idea of continuous living despite/
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,/
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf/
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
Line breaks inserted to indicate lines and line breaks.
On July 12, 2022, Limón was named the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate. Juan Felipe Herrera was the first Chicano appointed to that post in 2015. Limón is the first Chicana. There have been other Chicanx folks appointed to state poet laureate positions. Carmen Tafolla was poet laureate of Texas in 2015. Levi Romero was named inaugural poet laureate of New Mexico in 2020. Cities sometimes also have poet laureates. For example Marisol Baca became Fresno, California’s first Chicana poet laureate in 2020.
For me, Ada Limón presents a possibility. As a professor of English, when I have spoken to Chicana students in general education classes, many can’t imagine themselves as writers. Not even those students that do well in class. Not even those that have produced fabulous poems. How could this be when we come from a culture rich in storytelling, in dichos? We love words! Many of those students, especially if they have immigrant parents, however, have been scarred by people who can’t listen to them beyond their accents, who have often made accents or Latinx surnames synonymous with a lack of intelligence. Limon’s appointment as U.S. poet laureate presents a possibility: for little Mexican girls to imagine themselves as poets.
A Reading List for These Times
By Michelle St. Romain Wilson
June 30, 2022
My shelves are filled with books I’ve read over the years and my wife and I have discussions about whether or not to keep them or pass them on. Why not just check all the books that we want to read out of the library or read them on a tablet?
For me, the answer is simple. Books are treasures. Once I read a book that inspires me or makes me think more deeply, I want to keep it and be able to look at it any time. I want to know it is not far away, that if I ever need to go back to a passage I read or remember the way the author created a character or a particular place, I can pick the book up and re-read it.
Books live long in my memory and I think of them as living teachers. Right now, as the world seems to spin a bit out of control, I find myself going back to them to learn more about people who lived through historical periods of huge change. World War II. Pre-Civil War America with slavery and a nation divided. Times in European history when women were sent to their deaths for being healers and teachers of the wisdom of the Earth.
Lately I’ve been reading books that reflect on American history – and current times – from perspectives not often told. I read Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence and Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper and have been reflecting on the way Indigenous people of the Americas have managed to keep their traditions alive even through unthinkable injustice and genocide. I read The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and was given the gift of understanding a little more deeply the perspective of Black Americans who continue to live with structural racism. Closer to home, I read The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom. I grew up in Louisiana and think often about the house where my mother grew up in New Orleans. The Yellow House showed me a very different experience of someone whose family has lived in that city for generations.
Others I’ve read include Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, and Sharks in the Time of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn. The list seems endless, and for that – I am grateful.
I shared in another blog post the ways books nurture me during difficult times. Today I am thinking about how they challenge and teach me. I’m thinking about the importance of reading authors who come from traditions different than our own so we can begin to see the range of issues we face as a world community from a different lens.
I’m especially grateful to those authors who write the hard truths that show me what resilience truly is – and give me hope and guidance on how to keep moving forward. History is one of the best teachers if we want to learn how to live. I find that the best way to learn history is to read fiction and memoirs, where the internal lives of people who lived during some of the most challenging times in history offer guidance for those of us searching for answers in a world that seems turned upside down.
My First In-Person Reading
By Alma Rosa Alvarez
May 26, 2022
Early on in the pandemic, most already scheduled public readings were abruptly cancelled. Technology came through for writers later on, once many of us became familiarized with platforms like Zoom. I am not going to lie. It was super cool to see Douglas Kearney, from the comfort of my Southern Oregon home, when he was hosted by Literary Portland. In pre-pandemic times, his presentation, had it been in-person, would have been inaccessible to me due to the five hour distance away, especially in the middle of a work week. In a similar way, due to technology, I was able to join a webinar hosted by the Harvard Radcliffe Institute featuring poet Camille T. Dungy. Most recently, I really enjoyed one of my current, favorite poets, Claudia Rankine, while she visited University of Chicago through the Berlin Family Lectures Series. Rankine’s presentation was the first one that I had jumped on that actually featured a hybrid format-- one that accommodated people in person and those of us on a Zoom link. Clearly, technology has been able to expand audiences, so people can literally be, not just across the U.S., but sometimes even across the globe.
Yet, for all the wonderful opportunities I have been able to engage in, I have to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed attending my first in-person reading since the pandemic, earlier this month. On that sunny Saturday morning, from the moment I woke up, I had the feeling I used to have as a little girl getting ready for the first day of school—excitement, anticipation. My friend, Jennie Englund, was doing a reading of her novel, Taylor Before and After, winner of the Willa Literary Award and the Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature (an Oregon Book Award). Jennie was a very engaging presenter who started us off by reading from the beginning of her book:
I thought Miss Wilson was talking about my eyebrow
When she asked me today
If I’m okay.
I rubbed my finger across it,
Rough now where it was once smooth. (2)
The audience was compromised of people of all ages—and all of us were enjoying our time there. We loved hearing about the creative process, and through Jennie’s facilitation of an exercise, we were able to see our own creativity emerge right before our very eyes. Jennie’s novel, is about a young girl that moves through loss and into hope. There we were, listening to a subject that has been taboo for too long—that children can suffer through mental health issues.
After the reading was done, I felt a deep satisfaction at having heard, in-person, literature being read and shared. I felt a deep satisfaction at seeing people be present through body language, facial expressions, nods, and those uh huhs so common in in-person readings.
On Poetry and Planting
By Michelle St. Romain Wilson
April 12, 2022
I worked in our yard with my family this morning. We were tending to the dandelions and other “weeds” that popped up in our grass in March. Sitting in the dirt, trowel in hand, we dug at the roots and plucked out these bits of greenery that would take over if we let them.
I thought about the tenacity of plants, the way miniscule seeds can fly through the air and rest in the grass around us without our notice, dig tiny tendrils of roots into the Earth beneath the surface of sight, and sprout up across the yard like living flags waving in the wind.
My mind turned to poetry as I turned the soil. April is National Poetry Month and I have been reading from some of my favorites: Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, David Whyte. I most love work that celebrates nature and our connection to something larger than us – the vast world around us in the sky and the microscopic world of all that grows beneath our feet. I thought about the way lines of new poems often come to me when I am digging in the Earth. I often say that the muse visits me in my garden, and many pieces of poetry I’ve written have started as lines that began to sing in my mind while I planted flowers and vegetables.
And my mind returned to the dandelions. As I dug and pulled each one out by the roots, I celebrated its ability to exist at all. I love the fact that each seed found its way to our yard and sprouted, even though it isn’t a plant we ultimately want growing in our yard. As I put the pile of plants in the green container to return to the Earth, recycled into the nutrients of the soil along with everything else my neighbors bring to the curb in their green cans, I thanked it for teaching me again about the gifts of resilience and growth. The dandelions remind me that I, too, have tiny seeds of insight and inspiration growing inside of me, sprouting up as poems or creative projects when I’m not paying attention, when my mind is wandering and receptive to the unexpected. As I removed each flowering root, I prepared to plant new seeds and bulbs next week: lettuces and kale, berries and broccoli, lilies and gladiolas. I wondered: what seeds of insight and inspiration are growing inside of me that I know nothing about? Will a new poem arise as I plant, just as this piece of writing arises today as I dig and prepare the Earth for the coming season? What is happening now beneath the surface of the dirt where bugs and earthworms dig, and what will pop up here next year?
The Earth is endlessly regenerative, and I breathe in great breaths of hope from this knowledge - as I dig and plant, harvest and celebrate what grows in our yard. I celebrate, too, the way our minds and spirits are regenerative, catching seeds of inspiration that sprout into new creative work. As I wipe the dirt from my hands and walk inside after time in my garden, I feel ready to write the words that blossom from singular lines into something larger than I might at first imagine. A poem. A new project. A piece of writing that wiggles its way into becoming a novel.
I wish you gifts of inspiration this month of celebrating poetry and spring planting. May we continually be nurtured and surprised by all that grows inside and around us, all that is ready to blossom in this new season.
Reading Aloud: A Sense of Belonging
By Alma Rosa Alvarez
March 24, 2022
My friend Cecilia had returned from Colombia where she had been visiting family. We were having dinner and I inquired about her visit. She shared that one of her favorite pastimes was having her sister read aloud to her. She recalled that when they were children, after dinner, and after they had prayed the rosary, her sister, would read some chapters from a novel to the rest of the family. Cecilia mentioned that her sister had always had a great reading voice.
Hearing my friend share her memories reminded me of my own experiences with my family when I was growing up. My parents would regularly take us to the Paramount Library. While my parents searched for novels or history books in the Spanish section, my brother and I would pick out a few books from the children’s section. Once we got home, if the day was cold and cloudy, my mother would read to my father or vice-versa in our living room. My brother and I sprawled on the floor looking at our own books, feeling a sense of comfort in hearing our parents’ soft cadences. If the day was sunny, my mother would spread a blanket in the backyard, under our peach tree. My parents would sit on the blanket and my brother and I would nestle between them, hearing them read to each other. As a child, I often wished that time would stand still under our peach tree.
Wanting to create a similar feeling for my son, every summer while he was growing up, we would pick a series or a longer novel to read. We would sit in our backyard hammock, and I would read aloud to him. Sometimes, our next door neighbor, out in their own backyard, would hear us read. Later, they would comment on how they enjoyed listening to me read and my son laugh or ask questions. In the hammock we read Captain Underpants, The Chronicles of Narnia, several books from The Magic School Bus series, The Harry Potter series, and Esperanza Rising.
According to Smart Reading, an organization that promotes literacy among preschool through third grade children, there are many good reasons to read aloud to children: for vocabulary, cognition, and reading development. According to various adult literacy researchers, reading aloud also benefits adults in multiple ways: preserving memory and allowing people to sort through complex situations. Both children and adult literacy specialists agree that reading aloud is a way of creating joy and a sense of belonging.
Wanting to pick up on this strand of belonging, more recently I have begun reading aloud again—this time to my husband and my son (when he is visiting). I am reading Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, originally published in 1906. We sit with mugs of hot tea as Okakura tells us “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.” I think about how reading aloud is a lot like Teaism. My husband and son listen attentively and sip their teas while I read our allotted chapter.
The Comfort of Books in Challenging Times
By Michelle St. Romain Wilson
February 28, 2022
As I write this, the world is bursting with issues that ask for my attention. A sovereign nation has just been invaded by an authoritarian country with children, families, and elderly people seeking refuge from an onslaught of strikes from the air and sea. In Texas, parents of children seeking supportive medical care for gender identity issues are at risk of being accused of child abuse, with potentially dire consequences. Changing protocols on COVID throughout the country are bringing up a range of emotions in most people I know, from fear to anger to the numbing sense of indifference after two years of changes to our lives none of us expected.
What do we do with all of this? How can we find solace or peace? And where do we focus our attention with so much happening at the same time?
After a restless night with little sleep, I awoke this morning and looked at a big pile of books given to me by a friend. She has finished with them but, like any book lover, wants to make sure they are loved in their next life. They are mine now to go through and choose which stories I want to immerse myself in, which adventures I want to experience, which environments I want to rest in with the characters of each story.
Even without thinking, I felt a tightness in my chest relax as I looked at that pile of books. Remembering stories that have brought me comfort from my earliest memories, I focused my attention on going through them. Some are classics by authors I haven’t yet read, and some are quick reads with fast-paced storylines. Some have character descriptions or settings I can’t resist (almost any historical fiction book has me at the cover) and some intrigue me by the hint of a plot twist I haven’t read before.
All of them bring me comfort and solace.
And so I remember what I’ve always known: the artists and teachers and writers amongst us are healers. Stories are our oldest form of passing wisdom and history on to the next generation. We can find answers to our most pressing questions by reading about those who lived in times similar to our own, times when the known world seemed at the brink of destruction or when ordinary people faced challenges they thought they couldn’t overcome. Everything we face now has been faced by those before us, on a different scale and in different forms, and the wisdom and tenacity of the human spirit can be found in the stories left behind.
As the world continues to turn with events none of us can predict or fully prepare for, I will turn to books, to stories and poems and essays. I know that in them I will find solace, comfort, and the necessary moments of peace that give us strength to move forward each day. With love and strength. With the wisdom of our ancestors leading us. In gratitude for those who write and teach and create art to mend our souls and ease our minds and bring joy when we most need it.
If you are a writer or poet or artist, your work matters. Keep going. Someone in another time, in a place you can’t imagine now may find it and be given what they need in that moment. Your words and art may inspire someone you will never meet.
Poetry in Community
By Alma Rosa Alvarez
January 25, 2022
Before we went into remote learning, whenever I taught my lower-division Intro to Lit course at Southern Oregon University, I would have students do something most had never done before—attend a poetry reading. Ashland, Oregon, pre-COVID, boasted many opportunities for people to listen to writers share their work. In all my years of having students attend a reading, regardless of the writer they saw, students always returned to class with a deep satisfaction in witnessing words from a page take form through intonation and enunciation. After attending a reading, students were required to complete a reflection on the value of listening to a poetry reading versus reading a poem on the page.
Through the years, I noticed similarities in responses from my students:
That intonation which is not found on the page is brought into the reading space by the poet
That the listener can hear what words the poet deems important
That the listener can hear a level of emotion or discern an emotional context not always evident on the page
That even when a listener isn’t able to make sense of each word, they are able to feel the meaning of each word
That the listener is somehow tugged into the world of the poet
Students marveled at the ways other listeners, moved by imagery would ooh or aww in unity. Students reported that they often found themselves participating in the emotional landscape created by their chosen writer.
As we moved into altered environments due to the pandemic, I bemoaned the loss of physical public poetry readings. I had to adapt the poetry reading reflection assignment. I opted to have students view recordings of poets reading their work before live audiences. The poets I chose were Sonia Sanchez, Billy Collins, Allen Ginsberg, Lucille Clifton, Anis Mojgani (Oregon’s Poet Laureate), Denice Frohman, and Melissa Lozado-Oliva. When students completed their reflections, I found that despite viewing a reading via video, students still felt drawn into the world of the poet. A student, after viewing Denice Frohman’s “Accents” remarks on the ways Frohman’s voice, movements of her hands, face, and body magically draws the listener so that they were trying to hang on to every word and respond, like the live audience members with laughter and affirmations.
In many ways, what my students didn’t directly say about a poetry reading, whether it is in person or viewed via video, is that poetry readings bring people into community. This feeling of community, I think, is one of the factors that made 98 community members log onto a Zoom poetry celebrating William Stafford’s poetry earlier in January. One of the readers of that night, Manya Orescan Campos remarked at how seeing the list of so many people in virtual attendance, people she couldn’t see because the reading was done in webinar form, she felt especially inspired to share her chosen Stafford poem and her own Stafford-inspired/connected poem. Poetry is a creator of community.