Writing Life:
Reflections on the literary life

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The Importance of

Ada Limón

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:

 

Instructions on Not Giving Up

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.

Image of Ada Limon, from University of AZ site

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.

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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.  

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by University of Leicester

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.

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Erda Estremera

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.

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             Elena Putina

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.

Reading Aloud: A Sense of Belonging

Love of reading by marissa_strniste

"Poetry Reading" by oschene

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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.