Seat in the Shade 2013 – Judith Ortiz Cofer

Seat in the Shade 2013 – Judith Ortiz Cofer


Misha is such a talented writer and I knew
that I had seen her poems before and I knew that we can come up with all kinds of reasons
not to write, or to postpone writing. And postponing writing is like postponing practicing
the piano. If you intend to play Carnegie hall, you know, you don’t do that. You get
up and write every day no matter what’s happening in your life. And that’s the only way I’ve
managed to get it done. But anyway I want to thank her for being both a poet and an
educator. I have a very strong affinity for teachers. My husband is a high school math
teacher and if you think that is not the definition of being oppressed- he loves it, he must,
you know, he absolutely loves going in at six thirty in the morning, breaking up at
least three fights during the day, teaching a little algebra, then coming home and falling
asleep at six thirty while grading papers in front of the TV is- we’re both party animals.
So I have just a great admiration for people who do the most heroic job of all, to teach,
and also to manage to keep art in their lives. Misha asked me to do something tonight. She
said, “I want you to read your poems, but I want you to remember that we are learning
about poetry and could you inject something on the craft-the art and the craft of writing
poetry?” So what I did was I selected mostly from my book a love story beginning in Spanish,
um, and a few newer poems, I won’t say they’re “new”- it just means I’ve written them since
I published this book like in 1995 or something. So it takes me a long time to write poems.
The love story beginning in Spanish is not romantic love; it’s a love of language. I
was a non-English speaker until I was 13 years old. I learned English and I didn’t just learn
English, I decided to possess it. And when you fall in love with a language it’s different
that just accepting it, like, you know, an old spouse or an old pair of shoes or something.
It means that you’re in love with the word, and that is what happened to me. Poetry to
me has been both a tool and a weapon of defense and survival. So, my love story is basically
just an obsession with what language can do for you and what you can do with language. So what I decided to do tonight was to ask
the question and try to answer it: “What makes a poem happen?” Often you call it “triggers,”
but that’s a little too facile I think. We do it do our students all the time. I say,
“Here’s a trigger for you: go to an Athens establishment and eavesdrop on a conversation
and see if you can make up a story.” And, you know, for freshman students, or whatever,
beginning writers, you know, you have to get them going like motivational coaches, you
know. But for poets I think it’s a little more, you know, subtle. What makes a poem
happen to me is definitely not sunsets and rainbows- that’s been done and done and done
and even love and sweetness and all this, and I think that the hardest thing to do is
to do what Virginia Woolf said, “to follow the tracks left by strong emotion back to
a moment of being. To really follow what obsesses you and what shaped you back to a moment of
being and try to find something to write about in that moment.” So, for me, it begins with
memory, and I have to tell you something, I fully- at this stage in my life, I fully
accept the fact that memory is a creative construct. I mean, you are making up the story
of your life as you go along, and you cannot claim that memory is fact, that memory is
history even. Aristotle said that the role of the poet is to record the emotional history
of humankind. The role of the historian is to record the factual history. When I read
that I said, “Oh, thank God for these dead Greek guys, they really knew what they were
talking about. He released me from having to tell the factual truth when I’m writing
a poem.” And frankly, if I read you a poem, so far I’ve never had anybody ask me this,
“Is that true?” Actually I had some fourth graders ask me that. “Did that really happen?”
I said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s poetry.” They said, “But we’re supposed to tell the
truth.” No, not after you’re 21 and you declare yourself a poet, no. but it was a difficult
class. So anyway, rather than lecture to you, you can tell I’m an English teacher, I could
just go on for the next 15 minutes and never read a poem. I’ll begin with what makes a
poem happen, poetry and memory, and poetry as emotional history. And what I’ll do is
I’ll mention the topics, read you the poems, and then at the end of the reading if you
have questions or comments about he process I can discuss them with you. So this is the
first poem in my book and it’s called “Beans: An Apologia for Not Loving to Cook,” and it’s
dedicated to my daughter Tanya, who is both a mathematician and a wonderful cook and doesn’t
understand why I can’t be a poet and a good cook. Beans. For me memory turns on the cloying
smell of boiling beans in a house of women waiting, waiting for wars, affairs, periods
of grieving, the rains, el mal tiempo, to end, the phrase used both for inclement weather
and to abbreviate the aftermath of personal tragedies. And they waited for beans to boil.
My grandmother would put a pot on the slow fire at dawn, and all day long, the stones
she had dropped in, hard and dry as a betrayed woman’s eyes, slowly softened, scenting the
house with the essence of waiting. Beans. I grew to hate them. Red kidney beans whose
name echoes of blood, and are shaped like inner organs, I hated them in their jaw breaking
rawness and I hated them as they yielded to the fire. The women waited in turns by the stove rapt
by the alchemy of unmaking. The mothers turned hard as the stove, resisting our calls with
the ultimate threat of burned beans. The vigil made them statues, rivulets of sweat coursing
down their faces, pooling at their collarbones. They turned hard away from our demands for
attention and love, their eyes and hands making sure beans would not burn and rice would not
stick, unaware of our longing for our mothers’ spirits to return back to the soft sac that
once held us, safely tucked among their inner organs, smelling the beans they cooked for
others, through their pores. The beans took half a child’s lifetime to
cook, and when they were ready to bring to table in soup bowls, the women called the
men first in high voices like whistles pitched above our range, food offered like sacred,
steaming sacrifice to los hombres. El hambre entered the room with them, hunger as a spectral
presence, called forth from whatever other realm the women visited when they cooked,
their bodies remaining on earth to watch the beans while they flew away from us for hours. As others fed, I watched the dog at the screen
door, legs trembling, who whimpered and waited for the scrap. I hated the growling of pleasure
when at last it got its gory bone. I resisted the lessons of the kitchen then, fearing the
Faustian exchanges of adults, the shape-shifting nature of women by the fire. Now it is my daughter, who keeps a voluntary
vigil by the stove, she loves the idea of cooking as chemistry, and the Tao of making
food. Her waiting for the beans to boil is a meditation on the transformative properties
of matter; a gift of memory food from my island. And I come out of my poem to partake, to share
her delight in the art of feeding, like a recently freed captive of a long ago war,
capable at last of a peaceful surrender to my old nemesis, el hambre. So, I will tell you at the end of the reading
if you’re interested why this is an emotional history of a memory. I wrote this poem when
my daughter asked me, “Mother, why don’t you just learn how to cook?” And so I decided
to write an apologia, which is not an apology, as you know, it’s an explanation, it’s just
a damn explanation, that’s all it is, of why, and then this poem emerged as truth. So, the next one, my father was in the Navy,
he was in the Navy the entire time I knew him, so he was gone most of the year. I could
not return, I could not follow the tracks left by memories back to my father, because
I only knew what I heard or could imagine about him. I only knew that he was lonely
and that he spent six months out of the year on a ship out at sea. I only knew that every
time he came back he was more silent and more distant. I only knew that at one time he had
been a Puerto Rican man who loved playing dominoes. He was obsessed with them. He loved
partying, he loved lauging, and every year he came back and laughed less and did not
play dominoes, though he took them with him on the ship always. So when he died I decided
to imagine a memory and I realized that I couldn’t do like my mother and think of her
cooking or in Puerto Rico or whatever. I had to imagine this man on a ship and I couldn’t
connect to him so I did something that I do when I need to make myself go to a poem and
that is I find an object, thing, fact, historical event that can lead me to this thing. So I
found two things, my father was in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and he was
in the embargo. So, I knew Cuba and Fidel were connected to my father. And the other
thing was that, I just read all these weird books, I have a collection of weird books
that I find at yard sales, sometimes at Misha’s house, but I didn’t find this one there. It
was on methods of divination, how people through the ages have discovered what they need to
know by looking at mirrors or games of chance. So anyway, I’ll tell you about this. Dominoes, A Meditation on the Game. The first
record of them comes from 12th Century China, where they were used for divination rather
than gaming. Dominos are usually made of ivory, consisting of 28 rectangular tiles. Each tile
is bisected and the halves that are not blank bear dots numbering one to six, representing
all possible number combinations ranging from double blank to double six. In their Western
incarnation, dominos have tended to be far more popular as a game than as a tool for
divination. Certain tiles are thought to be lucky for the player regardless of the outcome
of the game. Domino games may go on for years and through generations. There are Cuban men
in Calle Ocho who have been playing since the Revolution. They have taught their sons
and grandsons to play. There is no end to these domino games. The men play in waves,
rising only when the new players come in at sunset, taking up the game the next day. They
sit before their rows of black and white tiles, 28 in all, arranged like the headstones of
dead soldiers. 28 in all, each tile is bisected, and the halves that are not black bear dots
numbering one to six representing all possible number combinations ranging from double blank
to double six. Certain tiles are thought to be lucky for the player regardless of the
outcome of the game. On January 8, 1959, Fidel Castro led his ragged army to Havana. The
previous night Don Miguel had called a game early after having drawn a double blank under
the roof of his own home. In the city his son Miguelito had drawn a double six and spent
the night drunk on his own luck. Don Miguelito plays all day on Calle Ocho. He has taught
his son and grandson how to play. In their Western incarnation dominos have tended to
be far more popular as a game than as a game for divination. Certain tiles are thought
to be lucky for the player regardless of the outcome of the game. In 62, my father, called
to duty at sea, left his game in Puerto Rico forever, and learned that embargo is an American
word. Seen embargo he had also drawn a double six in his last hand. Aboard his ship there
were no domino games. No one played. He later said the ivory pieces in a cigar box under
his bunk clicked like the bones of the dead all that long October month when the water
between the islands got rough. I can still see him studying the black and white faces,
28 in all, representing all possible number combinations ranging from double blank to
double six. I never saw him play again. My father’s bones lie under a headstone listing
all the wars since his last game. He did not lose his life in a war, but he did lose his
love of the game. My father’s ivory tiles, 28 in all, feel like dry bones in my hands.
I cannot play. It is lately that I learned that six six is the luckiest domino of them
all, predicting happiness, success and prosperity, while the direst of omens is the double blank,
with danger, despair, and death, all to be written in black ink on the ivory page. This
is an old game. The first record of dominos comes from 12th century China, where they
were used for divination. In their western incarnation, dominos have tended to be far
more popular as a game. Certain tiles are thought to be lucky for the player regardless
of the outcome of the game. And so one of the things that poetry is is
divination, and it’s divination of the self. If you don’t know yourself better after you
write poems of meaningful things in your life, then you’re playing games. You’re writing
for others, not for yourself. And one of the things that I have learned is whenever I write
about my mother or my daughter or the things that I am close to, I go directly to the source,
even if it’s not the straightest route. When I write about my father I always have to have
an outside thing that leads me to him. The next thing is poetry and literature, for me
intrinsically connected. Teaching for me, and I’m about to leave it I’m about to retire
in the fall, I’ve been here for 28 years, at the University of Miami for three, so give
me a break. I need to spend one Sunday without papers to grade if you don’t mind. I’ve loved
it though, and this poem comes from a long time ago. When I first started teaching, teaching
is sort of life being in the naval academy where the new people get the eight a.m. classes,
they get beat up all day. So I was told we need someone to teach world literature from
genesis to the renaissance in the afternoon and I said, “No problem!” even though my degree
was in american literature and I had read the bible last in 8th grade St. Joseph’s class,
but I said, “Hey, I can do it.” Then they said there’s another section, the second part
of world literature is to be taught before the first part of world literature, it will
be the renaissance to the present. I said, okay, no problem. And so anyway I ended up
immersing myself in those things, just going to the bible and to the library and reading
the Jerusalem Bible and St. James Bible and all that right before I had to teach Genesis
and whatever and then I had to teach The Odyssey and I became very obsessed, this was a time
when my daughter said you were a seventies feminist for about 20 years. I was always
the seventies feminist, the angry one, so anyway I was really pissed off because Penelope
refused to just get out, you know, she didn’t want to leave the house, she had to sit there
and weave and unweave, so I decided to try and get her out of the house, and I started
writing a series of poems called A Sailor’s Wife’s Journal. And I just wrote them and
wrote them and I realized first of all I wasn’t writing about Penelope, I was writing about
my mother and our life waiting for father, and the second thing was I was never going
to get Penelope out, she had hooked me, I was now doing the weaving and unweaving, and
so after about 13 poems I just said, “You get yourself out, I’ve had it.” So anyway
I’d like to read you just a couple of the letters that she writes to Odysseus while
he’s out having fun messing around with goddesses and getting stoned with the lotus eaters and
whatever and she’s home weaving and unweaving. But she loves him. Okay, from a Sailor’s Wife’s Journal and this,
the epigraph is I waste my heart away longing for Odysseus, book 19 of The Odyssey. Dear Odysseus, the moon looms over our house,
its face split in mockery of my grief. I have seen it change expression six times since
you left. Half a year ago you last made love to me on the lap of this old tree you carved
into our marriage bed. The branches you said were the fingers of gods blessing our union
seem now to threaten. Their shadows fall across my body one-by-one with the movement of the
moon. Before your journey you took me to your ship, together we watched the men raise the
sails, flapping in the good wind they were the wings of a white bird you held captive
to move your ship with its desire for flight. With the sounds of its struggle we came together
in your cabin, in the dimness of this man place you promised me with a thousand kisses
that you would return, Odysseus. A sudden gust has swollen the canopy of our bed like
the sails of a ship, my ship, Odysseus, a ship that goes nowhere. Dear Odysseus, this morning a lark entered
my chamber alighting on the lowest branch of a tree that is our marriage bed. He sang
for me. At daybreak I heard chanting and laughter in the distance. It was a crowd of young worshipers
welcoming Spring, walking home from the fields they had left with wine, songs, and lovemaking.
The girls walked arm-in-arm ahead of the young whose eyes were fixed on their graceful bodies
like mariners first sighting land. When you came for me we walked on my father’s fields
and you said green was not the color of your destiny. The sea was calling you even then.
Bird song and nursing calf amused but did not hold you. The mystery of earth-grown things,
the passing of palace chariot were matters for the minds of lesser men, you said. Stars
enticed you for coded messages, Odysseus. The moon was a torch held over the chart of
the night sky so you, forever captain, could plot the next destination. I have begun to
see things more clearly, as if my eyes were stronger from willing your ship to appear
on the horizon. On the ledge of a window facing the setting sun, I found a moth with nearly
invisible wings. I wished him to flight. I watched a leaf leap down from the branch of
a tall tree to ride the gathering wind. I wait for clouds, moving slowly as wounded
soldiers to bring me the smell of rain. That distant promise I take in in deep breaths. And so when I say to you that poetry has been
divination, it has been looking into my heart, like Sir Philip Sydney said, the only thing
I remember him saying, “Look into thy heart and write.” And so, I found out one other
thing about me, why do I love literature? Why don’t I put my intelligence into the stock
market? Why not do something other with, you know, my brain, and I realized that literature
is life for me, that I never understood my mother or why she waited for my father, and
the things that came to her in the waiting until I read The Odyssey, that literature
reveals yourself to you, and if you can do that for at least one student then you have
done something with your life. Okay, now place. I have been writing, of course,
about the place I was born, Puerto Rico. The place where I grew of, the inner city of Patterson,
New Jersey, the urban jungle, during the nearly deadly 1960’s, and then we moved to verdant
Augusta, Georgia, where I learned how battles are fought without Molotov cocktails in sweet
sounding words. So, and then I met my husband who is a deeply devoted Southerner, and I
stayed. So I would like to read the first poem I ever wrote about the South. It was
about my first year in Augusta, Georgia. We had moved from a barrio in New Jersey, where
you didn’t need to know English. Everything you needed was there. My mother didn’t have
to speak Spanish and we moved to Augusta during the riots in New Jersey. My father said it
was temporary but anyway my mother was very unhappy, she didn’t have anybody to speak
Spanish with except me so she drove me crazy. And so this is about how we were shopping
one day and we were stopped at this place like you have in the South, like we have in
the South, I’m from the South now, like we have in the South, which you know like in
some places you have bake shop, bakery, auto repair, and you know, therapy and you know
not so much now, we’re so much more sophisticated. I did visit Alabama the other day though,
and across from the restaurant where I ate there was this Jesus Saves Beauty Shop- come
in and the lord will transform you. I have pictures, I’ll send them to you. The Jesus
saves , come in and the lord will transform you. It was all I could do not to go in. Please,
do everything, the whole makeover. So anyway, it’s part of the charm of the south.
So anyway this is the first job the southern sweets subway shop and bakery. I was talking
to my mother, this voluptuous woman, this waitress, came out and said, “Honey, what
kind of foreign are you talking?” And I said Spanish, and my hair was really long and she
started to braid it, she said, “I love your hair.” And I said, good. She said, “You want
a job?” I said, “Yes! Please, save me from my mother.” So anyway, I took this job and
I learned some things, I learned all about sex from watching her, how to, you know, do
it without doing it, and uh, see this is the kind of thing we have to edit out, I’m sorry.
And, she’s probably still alive and still voluptuous, but anyway, so the only things
you need to know about this is this was the year Hank Aaron was beating Babe Ruth’s record,
you know it was an empowering thing, the black cook in the kitchen never spoke up except
when she was listening to the game, then she would hold up a finger and nobody better ask
her to make a sandwich. Well, you know, Hank Aaron was up and the other thing is that there
is a word that, National Public Radio asked me to do a reading and when I went to read
this they had to take a meeting about it, until I pulled out he OED and I proved to
them that the word was not an obscenity, it was a vulgarism. And I’m not going to tell
you which it is, if you don’t know which is it, if you don’t know this much Spanish by
now, you really should learn a little. First Job: The Southern Sweets Sandwich Shop
and Bakery. Lilly Mae glows, she hates the word “sweat” as she balances a platter of
baked sweets over her head, showing me how to walk with grace even under the weight of
minimum wage and a mountain of cookies, turnovers and tarts, which she blames for her voluptuous
figure. She calls me “Suga” and is teaching me the job. We’re both employed by Mr. Raymond
who keeps her in a little house outside of town. I’m 15, living my first year in this
strange country called “Georgia.” Lilly Mae hired me for my long black hair she couldn’t
wait to braid and for my gift of tongues., which she witnessed as I turned my mother’s
desire for a sugar bubble she called a “meringue” into something nearly equal behind the glass
wall. “Suga,” she will occasionally call me out front, “talk foreign for my friend.” And
I will say whatever comes into my head. “You’re a pig, Mr. Jones. I see your hand under the
table stroking her thigh.” If they’re impressed with my verbal prowess, I may suggest something
tasty from our menu. If they presume I’m Pocahontas at the palace, there only to amuse their royal
selves, I tell them smiling sweetly, to try the mierda, which is especially good that
day. Soon I can make anything sound appetizing in Spanish. Lilly Mae carries her silver plated
tray to Mr. Raymond for inspection, looking seductive as a plump salon maid in her fitted
white nylon uniform. He is a rotund King Herod, asking for the divinity though he know it’s
on it’s way. She sorts her delicacies, pointing out the sugar coated wedding cookies with
the tips of her pink glue-on nails she’s so proud of, “Because, Suga, a woman’s hand should
always be soft and beautiful, nevermind you scrubbed, waxed, pushed, pulled and carried
all blessed day. That’s what a man expects. I watched them as they talk shop and lock
eyes but cannot quite imagine the carnival of their couplings. Instead I see them licking
their chops over streudel, consuming passion while ensconced in her edible house with peppermint
stick columns and gingerbread walls. In the kitchen of the Southern Sweets the black cook
Margaret worships at the altar of her zenith radio, Hank Aaron is working his way to heaven,
she is bone-sticking thin, the spices sweet, loves only her man Hank, Otis Redding and
a smoke. She winks at me when he connects, dares to ignore Mr. Raymond when Aaron is
up. Mysteriously the boss man understands the priority of home runs, and the sacrilege
of speaking ordinary words like my triple decker club on a bun with fries, frozen at
tongue tip when Margaret holds up one bony finger at us, demanding a little respect for
the man at the plate. That windowless kitchen with its soul-melting hot floors and greasy
walls had to disappear for her like a magician’s trick at the sweet snap of the ball and bat
that sent her into orbit, her eyes rolling back in ecstasy, mouth circling the o in wonder,
as if she had seen the glory. At closing Lilly Mae fluffs her boot black curls, heads home
to entertain her sugar daddy, or be alone, glue on new nails, pin curl her hair, and
practice walking gracefully under heavy trays. I have homework to do, words to add to my
arsenal of sweet sounding missiles from manana, my father waits for me in his old brown galaxy,
he is weary of these slow talking southerners, another race he must avoid or face, tired
of navigating his life, which is a highway crowded with strangers sealed in their vehicles
and badly marked with signs that he will never fully understand. I offer him a day old donut,
but no, at least from me he does not have to accept second best for anything. We drive
by the back lot where Margaret stands puffing perfect clouds, eyes fixed to a piece of sky
between the twin smoke stacks of continental can and beyond what I can see from where I
am, still tracking Aarons message hovering above us all in the airwaves, her lips move
and can read the drawled out “shit.” Followed by that characteristic shake of her head that
meant, “Girl, in this old world, some things are still possible.” Anyway, the next one is about yard sales.
Catherine, my friend who’s sitting back there, my loyal friend, is a Shakespearean Medievalist
poet and writer who is also a yard sale addict. Why do we do it? Well, because it’s like a
treasure hunt, and because we come up on the most wonderful stories, in fact we’ve been
writing orally “The Book of Yard Sales.” It’s a twofold book. One: how to have a yard sale,
such as: post the damn signs, you know, you have arrows, and don’t make it look like you’re
having a birthday party because have on occasion tried to burst into a kid’s birthday party
thinking it’s a yard sale. Things like that, but the stories we find are fantastic. One
time we came into this magnificently arranged man’s garage with very expensive tools all
for sale, like 50 cents a dollar whatever and the woman said, “come and get it, he left
me for a younger woman. All must be gone before he comes home tonight.” Or something like
that. I don’t know if you remember that one, I do. They’re almost too good to write, you
know. But anyway, this one has to do with something much more serious. First of all,
well the other thing that’s not serious is that GPS devices were invented for Catherine
and me because neither one of us has a sense of direction. The only thing is that she’s
a hopeless optimist and she thinks she’ll always find her way out. And I know that we
won’t. often I have said, “if we can’t find our way out of this neighborhood we’ll have
to knock on a door, live with people, you know, let them take us in because we’ve gone
around and around. So we do have a GPS and Catherine will sweetly say, “Oh just shut
her up.” Ms. Garmon, we call her. “Hush Ms. Garmon.” You know because she thinks she knows
where she’s going. So anyway, I wrote this and dedicated it to Catherine because it has
to do with two events. We were out in this crazy town where Barnett Shoals is an endless
road and it changes names suddenly and we don’t know that it changed names, we’re in
a different road and we often find ourselves completely lost out in the woods and one time
we were out in a cotton field and Catherine had been saying, she’s a former catholic,
I think she’s still a catholic and just won’t admit it, but she’s always saying, “Give us
a sign.” Like in a very religious tone and what she means is the sign that says yard
sale, but she says it. And I said, “One day the skies are going to open and God is going
to say, “I don’t do yard sales.” But she was saying, “Give us a sign,” and we came upon
a field of cotton and there was a barn with a painted version of Guadalupe on it and that
was, to former catholics, that was pretty startling. And the other thing was that I
had just been telling Catherine that my daughter Tanya was pregnant with her first child and
she’s in Chicago and I don’t think that I can bear it, she’s too far away, I’m scare
for her. And so after I read you the poem I’ll tell you how these two things, and this
is how place and the occasional conjunction of almost miraculous symbols will force you
to write a poem. And this had to do with cotton field, the virgin of Guadalupe, and my daughter
having just told met that she was expecting a child. “Give us a sign,” my friend says, and for
a second I am back in my childhood of rosaries, candles and incense, kneeling next to mother
and grandmother who are pelting God with petitions. “Por favor, dios mio, da me, da me, da me.”
They are asking him to prove himself through a sign and healing as stray husbands return.
Relief from their female burdens, “show us proof, a small miracle, papa dios, of your
love for us.” My friend is joking. The signs we’re looking for are the neon colored yard
sale markers. We are hunting and gathering for the shear pleasure of the drive and each
others company, and certainly for the pre-owned treasures we don’t yet know we need but will
as soon as we spot them. To we’re also talking motherhood, specifically the impending birth
of my first grandchild. My joy tempered with concern for my daughter, so far from home.
Deep into our woman wisdom we fail to notice we are in unfamiliar territory. No surprise,
we’re invariably lost on these Georgia roads that change names apparently at someone’s
whim, as Gaines School Road turns to Barnett Shoals, and a little further ahead White Hall.
They didn’t change names often enough; Milledge Drive, Milledge Circle, Milledge Way… on
this crisp Autumn Saturday we have wondered far off. We see only wood circled with trees
still green, but tipped with fall’s gold, and a field of soil so rich red it looks like
velvet cake. Appetizing. The word comes to mind out of stories I’ve heard out of cravings
for clay, of some pregnant women in rural Georgia, driven to seek iron in the soil,
drawn like dousing ones to water. “Give us a sign!” Says Catherine, and we come upon
a field of cotton, snow in September. And just beyond the last row, a little barn. We
see it at the same time. I put my hand on Catherine’s arm instinctively as I used to
in church, grasping my mother’s hand when then hypnotizing latin and the clouds of candle
smoke and incense made me feel as if I would drift up to the cherubim rimmed cupola like
a lost balloon. Painted on the side of that dilapidated barn the Virgin of Guadalupe floats
on her cotton cloud, a brown woman with long black hair and brilliant robes of gold red,
and blue-green, crushing the snake with bare feet. Her slightly swollen belly cinched by
the black asdic maternity belt. Serene and majestic, she is with child always. The painting
is crude, perhaps done with house paint, yet this apparition over a cotton field in Georgia
is the kind of happenstance that empties your head of the mundane. That filters all brain
processes down dark passages and into a room you thought you had sealed off long ago. The
storing place for questions you no longer need to answer. We slow down but do not stop,
we laugh at ourselves, our awestruck faces, who would take the time to bring the Virgin
of Guadalupe to this place and why? I imagine a pregnant young woman handing cans of paints
and brushes to her man, working after a day in the fields to keep a promise that had made
for the safe delivery of their child who will be born in a strange land. We will never be
able to retrace our route to this field that will be harvested by workers under the gaze
of the queen of heaven, or more likely, the mural will be whitewashed or torn down and
this land will revert to just another cotton field in the Georgia countryside. On this
day we say no more about apparitions, we keep moving down a road we hope will lead us back
to the familiar, we follow the signs and we are lost no more. So what the miraculous conjunction of events
in this, and I use the word miraculous in the ironic way that a former catholic must,
is that I have been talking to Catherine about my daughter’s pregnancy and my worry over
her having the baby so far away from me and then the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared, you
know, and then, she’s not mine, all the other latinos wear different medallions and because
she’s the virgin, she knows what she’s doing, when she appears to someone she looks like
them, she’s the ultimate alien who takes on the shape, you remember the Martian Chronicles,
you know, this may have to be edited out too, because of the pope, but anyway, I still fear
authority, the fact is that the ones in Puerto Rico are different from the Mexican, the Virgin
of Guadalupe appeared to an Indian man and she’s dark skinned, and she wears the colors
of the Aztec people. And so I was researching her, you know so I could, I was thinking about
writing his poem, and then I found out the most amazing fact. The Virgin of Guadalupe
is the only pregnant rendition of the Virgin. The Virgin is always being told that she’s
about to have God’s child, and she’s a Virgin, or she is this Madonna holding the child,
but she’s never pregnant in the Western, so she’s the only pregnant so, you know, suddenly
like you’re given something, I’m thinking of my pregnant daughter, you know, this is
the only pregnant apparition or pregnant rendition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and it also had
to do with place, you know, the juxtaposition of the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe,
the red earth of Georgia, and it occurred to me that people do that, what they’re trying
to say is, “See me. I am working your fields, but I am here, see me.” You know and so anyway that was the trigger
for that and it’s almost time for me to quit so, one last poem set in the most unpoetic
location, the basement of my condominium in Georgia. I lead a privileged life now, very
different from the life I led. By very privileged I mean I get to be an artist, I get to write,
I don’t leave my apartment like I did in Patterson wondering whether I’ll get beat up or get
involved in, you know, horrendous things that it was a dangerous childhood and now, I can
get up in the morning, go to the basement of my condominium and someone else will do
my lawn. Of course I have to pay condominium fees, we won’t speak of those, but the occasion
for this was that I was doing my privileged thing, writing on my computer, trying to come
up with a poem and you can’t force it, you know, it just has to come to you or not, and
then you clean out the closet or you do whatever you need to do in your life, you know. So
I was working, trying to put some things down, and I heard that ridiculous machine called
the leaf blower. Why don’t you just let the leaves sit? Why do they have to be blown?
That’s not a question I need answered. Anyway, and so I said, “Oh no, not the leaf blower.”
And he came closer and closer and as I listened to it I realized that there was a Spanish
song being sung. It was a love song, by you know, the man wielding the leaf blower and
he was using the leaf blower to keep time with his song, and I said, “If this is not
joy of life, you know, then, what is?” And not only that, the love song he was singing
was one that my mother used to play on her little record player when my father was away
and she would cry, being a latina you know, and all this I, you know, the songs would
filter through the thin walls in our apartment to me and I guess they became embedded in
my head. So anyway, I’ll end with “Listen.” Listen. Today the walls of the basement room
in which I sit, willing myself to write, I hear leaf blowers come and go, and above it
its swinging hum and roar, a Spanish song, sung in the tempo of laden arms in motion.
The words come to me in rhythmic gasps that come in passion, breaking through the noise
of the engine that wants to push away into soggy piles at curbside el amor, la vida,
la tristesa. I think of the Spanish songs I heard in my childhood, mostly played by
my mother on the portable turntable she’d sometimes carry into her room at bedtime.
Our walls were porous, made of the thin plaster of transient homes, and her off-key singing
along to the broken hearted hymns of youth entered my room through keyholes and cracks,
smoke and scent of sadness that clung to my skin and stayed with me. Today, the leaf blower’s
unknowing serenade reminds me that I am here to listen. I stop trying to make things up
on my screen. All I want is to be silent and still, and to think of nothing but Canciones
De Amor, for who am I if not the one who waits to hear the fragment of a love song through
the wall, a forgotten melody rising over the engine’s noise. Thank you. One more, one more, whoo! I’ll move this and
sit next to you I think for a moment. I think I got water on it, is there a napkin in the
room? Oh I’ll survive, I’ll lean, just that I am kind of not gigantic. Okay, I wish I
were tall. I do. My daughter is, she’s the American blood, you know, from my husband’s
side. She’s eight inches taller than I am, but she has a Puerto Rican temperament. So
that makes her a very dangerous American. What a great reading, oh my God. Can you pick,
is this okay, can you hear? I just have a very few questions, um, and first I want to
start with gratitude. You’re such an amazing reader. This series has no funding, so we
have a little gift to you which I don’t think you’re going to appreciate very much. Is it a drink with alcohol in it? Actually, it’s actually a cookbook. A cookbook! Oh no! You know what, wait a minute,
I just have to tell you, it won’t be wasted. I married well. My husband is one of the best
southern cooks, and he boasts that to keep me happy he became the first multicultural
cook in America who got married at 19 and he learned to make rice and beans to go with
his southern fried chicken. So, right Catherine? Is he not like the best cook that you know? Does he make arroz con gandules? You know, he went to my grandmother’s house
in Puerto Rico and no man enters that kitchen, because they won’t, or at least didn’t, I’m
speaking of another generation, and he, my husband, is six four. My, all my relatives
are like four eleven. He entered the kitchen and my grandmother said, “Ay, dios mio, did
I, did we do something wrong? You didn’t like the food?” And he just went to look under
the pots, and she taught him how to, so, I married a southern man for a reason. Me too, me too. Well this book is, you may
already have it, New Turn in the South. No! Which is totally symbolic, I mean is she not
the new turn in the south? And it’s written by our very own Hugh Acheson. I know him. Yeah, it’s a poetic cookbook so. But that’s so funny, like I know that I look
like I should know how to cook. You know. I have that look. But I- I can’t. If you want
me to I’ll tell you the story behind the beans why I don’t cook. Okay, well save that for a moment, because- Well I might not tell you. We have another gift from the College of Education,
our very own mug. I do love coffee. And it actually says College of Education
on this pen. May you scribe in our honor. Please. For you. Thank you. These are beautiful gifts. Thank
you. Well thank you, what a gift to us. I am looking
for anyone who wants to co-support/sponsor this wonderful reading series. I rely on the
goodness of poets who don’t seem to be in it for the money. I am in it for the money. Trust me. I’m joking. For everybody else, pay her a lot, buy her
books please, if you don’t own them, they’re all amazing. It’s my pleasure. My question to you is I just learned today
from Craig who is an English teacher, that poetry is not in the Georgia, how did you
call it? The CCGBS which are our state standards. Oh no, why? I don’t understand that. It makes
no sense. I mean poetry is the distillation of language. I mean when I finally was able
to write a decent poem, I knew I knew English. Can’t write a poem if you don’t know the language.
You know. Yeah, so that was my question to you, so what
would you advise teachers and like the fact that usually poetry if it’s introduced at
all in the English classroom, it’s in late April after the testing is done when it doesn’t
matter, for poetry month. You know, I don’t know what to advise. I’m
currently engaged and I’ve been asked to edit a new anthology of you know first year English
Literature for Pearson and I said, “Why? They usually ask a male professor from Harvard,
you know.” And they said well first of all the demographics of the United States are
changing, you know there are people who look like me around, and they also wanted a writer’s
perspective because they find that their students are really intrigued by the notion that a
living author is speaking to them. Not just somebody telling them what to do. So my portion
of this anthology is going to have questions and exercises from the writer’s perspective.
You know, how do I read that’s different from like other people, how do they read? Where
do my ideas come from and all that? So, that was hopeful to me. I visit a lot of high schools
and a lot of middle schools because my stuff luckily is in a lot of anthologies. Many,
many English anthologies. Mainly I’m asked to come and talk about fiction but I always
read poems anyway and the kids seem to love it and they like writing poetry so I don’t
understand, it could only be that the people banning poetry probably fear poetry. There’s
a lot of poetry I don’t understand so why should I be asked to teach it? You know, so
that saddens me to think that kids are not getting poetry in the classroom. But I unfortunately
don’t have an answer because it seems to be so politicized lately, you the idea of what
should the kids should be taught and they all should be taught the same thing so I think
you guys are going to have to change the system. The teachers are going to have to demand some
things for their students. And then when they do they lose their job,
sometimes they really do. It’s very risky. Yeah, it seems like a conundrum, you know. I have a question about the bilingualism.
You know I fell in love with Spanish too, it’s my second language and you used hambre
at the end of the beans poem- Hombre and hambre. Hombre and hambre and you used sin embargo
and embargo, nevertheless but you don’t necessarily translate and I wonder how you think about
using the two languages. I trust my readers to be intelligent. You
know. I and if they’re going into the territory of poetry surely they can get up and look
up a word if they don’t know it. In my, like I’m working on a memoir right now and I’m
using some difficult language because it’s a memoir of my mother having died on the island
and my having to educate myself in the language of hospitals and stuff like that. So I tried
to incorporate some you know, explanations into the text, but with poetry I feel like
you know when
the great poets decide that they’re going to use a French word in their poem they don’t
inhibit themselves you know, they go ahead and do it. Or latin or whatever. I think that
we do not trust the readers enough, for example the word embargo in English means a ban you
know or a prohibition. In Spanish one of the most often used phrases is sin embargo usually
followed by a shrug of the shoulders. Means but in other words or in any case you know
and so I figured that because of the context of it I started sin embargo, you know that
the reader would be curious enough to look it up if they don’t know it. And you know
I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to give in to that demand that everyone be
catered to. Even the younger students. I have Spanish words in my stories that are in the
anthologies. And I just figured that it could be a teaching moment. The teacher could say,
“well, you don’t know what embargo means? Let’s go look it up. You know, let’s find
it. So anyway that may sound arrogant to you but I feel that southern writers, for example,
when I first saw the word persnickety in a story, I think it may have been Flannery O’Connor,
and some of the language that she uses, you know, I couldn’t find them in the dictionary.
I turned to my husband you know. I remember what he, he pointed out to a little puppy
crossing the road and he said, “Look at that thing go lickity split.” I said, “What did
you say?” He said, “Lickity Split.” I said could you spell it? He said, well, I’ve never
had to spell it before, let me see. And oh, one time he said I feel puny, I said for God
sake, you’re the biggest human being I’ve ever met, why should you feel small? You know,
our marriage has worked because of the constant translation issue. See what I’m talking about?
If you decide to use “persnickety” “lickety split” or “puny” in the sense of like sick
do you have to define it? It’s part of the context of your life. Nobody asked Faulkner
to define persnickety. So you know
what I’m talking about? You speak a different language than the people in Boston, do you
not? You’re all Americans but you certainly don’t sound like the Minnesotans I’ve met.
you have to in your writing you should reflect your natural voice, right? And that’s what
I’m doing but my natural voice involves Spanish. Well the assignment if any of you who are
not in the class who would like to take it up is I’ve asked the students by tomorrow
at nine fifteen am to come with a poem where they meditate like a dom- turning a domino
over but meditate on a term or phrase that’s familiar to their vernacular, just as you’ve
talked, so I think you just gave us some ideas we could uh- Right, it’s so rich you know. I’m always laughing
at the things that my husband says, we live in the country. So there are certain jokes
about bears in the woods and stuff that I won’t repeat here but it’s a you know I say
something and immediately he comes up with something like completely southern you know
it’s so rich. It’s such a rich vernacular. If you want to relish it completely, read
the letters of Flannery O’Connor who was brilliant, she was so wise, she could out do the pope
in theology, but she still used a southern vernacular like nobody’s business. And I relish
it. It’s delicious. I have one last question, the question is
a lot of people thing poetry is dour. It’s, you write poetry if you’re grieving if you’re
unhappy um, and a lot of you’re poems have dark themes, so as a teacher coming to write
a poem sometimes I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to feel that emotion. How do
you respond to that? Not to, to not feel deeply is to not know
yourself. For me poetry is a revelation. When I was writing the poem dominos for my father.
I’ve always grieved for him in a different way than for anyone else because I didn’t
know him. I had to imagine his life. And so that poem, to me, is a grieving poem. And
I have several for him that way, in which I try to imagine his loneliness. As a youngster
I only saw him as distant, authoritative, military, a little frightening, and when I
got into that poem and imagined him in a ship where he was the only latino, this is the
60s, and carrying his box of dominos and never being able to find anybody to play with him,
you know what I mean, I’m not trying to get morbid here, but it gave me a way to love
my father that I didn’t have before. I saw him as a lonely man who was doing that because
it was the only way to make a living so I could get the education that he wanted for
me. So before poetry, I saw things the way that they were represented to me by other
people or the way that culture had dictated that I see them after poetry. I see that I
have a well deep inside me, and I always compare this, I’ve never been in therapy, but I have
friends, mostly northerners that, they go in to therapy like in their 20’s and go for
like 30 years, “I’ve made a discovery about myself, a hundred thousand dollars later.
I’ve learned that I love my father after all.” I said, “guess what, you could write poetry
and find that out.” I know that sounds like an exaggeration but to me poetry has been
a delving deep into my psyche. And sometimes I discover things that I don’t want to know.
But why wouldn’t you want to know yourself, even if it’s dark? So I don’t know if that’s
the question you were asking. And I’m writing right now a full length, I call it a cultural
elegy. My mother died in 2011 and I had to immerse myself back in my culture and my language
and I stayed with her and I gave her the catholic funeral that she wanted. And I found out something
in writing this book. I’m no longer from there. I am here and I belong here and I will never
look like a Georgia Peach, but like my husband says, I’m a Georgia Mango. He says, that is
a fruit that cannot exist in nature but we just have to imagine it. So, like while I
was grieving for my mother I was writing this book in which I said, I always say I’m from
Puerto Rico but that was my soul and my dream life, my actual life is in Georgia. You know
this is where I feel at home now. But I wouldn’t have learned that if I had not written the
book. So now I don’t have to ask like why am I getting up at five o’clock in the morning
to do this useless thing that nobody pays me for? And now I know that it was as silly
as this sounds, it was my quest for self-knowledge. It has always been that. Does that-? Yes. I want to say thank you again for sharing
yourself with us. But I wanted to thank the College of Education
for allowing me to do this and their great support, particularly June Marshall, Michael
Child, Jen Williams and artistic tech guru Ron Braxley in the back. I also want to thank
my department head Bob Fecho and the entire department of language and literacy education
and my from which I hailed ESOL and world language education. I also want to thank all
the poets that have read in this series, starting with Judith Ortiz Cofer, Steven Cory, our
greatest fan right there of the Georgia review and Jenny Gropp Hess, also of the Georgia
review, Laura Nubern, Jericho Brown, and Tamara J. Madison. I want to thank Johan Kwan for
his extraordinary assistance in all things including the beautiful flier that you may
have seen which brought you here upstairs. Jim for his artistic support as well. Woodland
Farms and Roots Farm for providing us with some amazing locally grown fresh vegetables
to nourish us this week and to restaurant which helped us nourish us today, wonderful
authentic Mexican cuisine. Of course the Georgia review, an awesome literary nationally famous
literary magazine in our home town. Subscribe subscribe subscribe. The English literature
and creative writing programs at UGA. WUGA for featuring many of our poets on the radio
this week and to be rebroadcast in September. Of course these feature readings will all
be broadcast on the college of education youtube channel. So you can look forward to that,
Ron is to credit for all of that, and so you can google “Misha’s poetry podcast” or “college
of education youtube channel podcast” and you can see all the readings if you missed
any of them. And of course this reading tonight will also be on air. I’ve already thanked
these wonderful students in the class. Georgia teachers everywhere for the creative work
they do. Of course, one other thing I forgot to mention is that we have taken poetry field
trips on many of the days of our course to inspire new writings and I want to give a
shout out to Katie and Lakesha at the vet school who helped tour guide us and inspire
some animal poems here. Ann Myers Divine at the Hargrett rare book and manuscript library
whose documents have inspired some of the poems tonight. Andrea Sweiger from evolutionary
biology who taught us a great deal about the monkey flower and genetics at the beautiful
botany lab on campus. The green acres pool where we swam today, some of us. And I also
wanted to let you know that if you want to be a part of our group we want you to be a
part of our group. I have started a facebook page called poetry for educators, but it’s
also for our and our friends. I think educator and education is a term we can all feel a
part of, in many ways, we are a part of education broadly speaking so please sign on poetry
for educators. You just go to that group, it’s a closed group but it’s open to anyone
and we welcome you there.

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