Martín Espada, poetry, activism, and a what does it mean to live as a poet?

Last week, I had the awesome opportunity to attend the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors (FUSE) Conference with a few of my fellow classmates. Lizzie, Meg, Sara, and I stayed in a super cozy B&B just outside of Philly. I could go on about this fancy Air B&B and its fancy water-saving toilet, but I would digress.

Something I began thinking about legitimately during this conference was a career in writing. Although it would be natural to think about this during a writing conference, this question came about during a particular reading during the first night of the conference. The illustrious Martín Espada, a Brooklyn-born Nuyorican poet and activist, was the keynote reader and workshop-runner. His poetry– and especially his dramatic, funny, and lively reading style– made me laugh and cry. From cockroaches to hurricanes, I felt connected to this poet of my mother’s New York City generation, which is a reason I felt I could relate to his style.

In addition to poems sobre las cucarachas, there were many political poems– in particular, what Espada called his “lawyer” poems– since he was also a tenant lawyer and legal advocate for the Latino community. When I realized that Espada was both a poet and a lawyer for the type of advocacy I aspire to, something clicked.

Folks like Espada don’t live in a poetry bubble. They work out in the world, with their hands and their hearts. I realized that I, too, can think of my future career aspirations– which includes work in immigrant and refugee advocacy– and still write poetry. Poetry can always be a part of my life, as can the other work. Of course this would require some sacrificing, and some balancing. But all hard work does.

When I got my poetry book, Alabanza, signed by Espada, I told him about how I aspire to do work like he does, potentially in law. He addressed my book:

Dear Isabel, future poet-lawyer…

He read it aloud as he wrote it. I said “Now, because it’s in a book, it has to come true.” He agreed.


Losing poems, & why do good poets get to use abstractions and I can’t

A few months ago, I received a great poem in my inbox. I get those every morning, thanks to my subscription to Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets (Plugging not because I’m getting paid but because Poem-A-Day is awesome. ) But, this poem took me a little.

I forgot what the poem was called, or who wrote it. I remembered that the poem was about poetry. I remembered that the poem was almost all couplets . I remember it asking about what does “everyone else caress.” Lastly, I remember that the poem was full of abstractions, and that I loved it.

I’d lost the authors name, though, and couldn’t find the poem in my inbox since I forgot the title too. I looked everywhere for the poem about poetry. I didn’t read for what was probably six months.

The other day I got  a new poem that closely resembled the other one. The poem was in a very different form– it’s a prose poem in a block-format– but a line made me think it was the same author as before.

“You must take the fear of normalcy and the aerodynamics of emotions that fuel the sense of the present and jerk it to a gluttonous love.”

Again, so full of abstractions but somehow still relatable. “Normally,” “emotions,” “love”– all in one sentence. Why does it work for you, Prageeta Sharma? Why do I feel that I understand those lines? For me, the words “aerodynamics,” “gluttonous,”  and “jerk” ground me in the emotions and concepts in the poem. Aerodynamics is a concept, but it’s scientific, so it feels real to me in its basis in hard science and measurement, perhaps? Gluttonous, although an adjective, has hard g and u sounds that sound gurgle and stomach-like. And jerk is a such a quick, quippy unapologetic action.

I guess it might be about the very careful use of words. To frame abstract words in other words that have a strong sensory component, even if those words are rarely used in the poem. Every time I read poems like Sharma’s, I want to write like that, but the abstractions just end up taking me to my eleventh grade writing days. Do you guys have any ideas on how to successfully use abstraction in poetry? Should I just wait until I’m more seasoned? Do you need an MFA?

I read Sharma’s poem, “Seattle Sun,” and then was able to find the other one, called “Belonging as Consequence: on Poetry.” You can find both of these poems below:

Belonging as Consequence: On Poetry

Seattle Sun

more on moments

We’ve been talking a lot about the line as moment, but what should we do about the poetic moment overall? I mean to say– what do we do when we are struck with a moment of beauty, or sadness, or *insert other abstraction*– where do you go first?

There are deeper parts of my mind that I feel I am gaining access to lately, and they have an essence of nostalgia and longing. I think of my hometown in Florida, or the streets of my Long Island home, the way the library looked when I was in middle school. Does anyone else feel these pangs, these yearnings, for something deeper in the self?

I feel these yearnings are deeply rooted in the past, but also occupying my sense of the present. Sometimes I try to hone in on it, to understand the mindfulness of when I focus on he shadow on my dresser or the the sound of my housemate doing the dishes. But it’s something more than mindfulness.

What do you do when you find these moments? Do you pick up a pen and write? Do you let it sit for a bit? Do you eat some food? Do you go to bed? I’d like to know.

Ríos and the “long line” as a moment

Thinking about the line as a moment said exactly what I’ve been trying to articulate about poetry for a while. What draws me to poetry is something about the way that words and lines work as units that provide something intangible and sentient to me as a reader. For example, I’ve always been fascinated with the word “geography”—the way it looks, the connotations it brings, and the way that for some reason, it reminds me of my second grade Montessori classroom back in South Florida, and an image of a map on the wall. This is a very specific, nostalgic memory (and feeling) that is evoked by just one word that is only marginally related to the original content of the word.

Ríos’s interpretation of the “long line” is key: “[They are] lines that are long in their moment, that make me linger and give me the effect of having encountered something, something worth stopping for—the antithesis of our times, which seem to be all about getting somewhere else, and fast, we’re late already.” For Rios, the line is something we need to stop and appreciate. This is especially timely for me in a very personal way. After spending the summer recovering from a rough academic year, the concept of being mindful and honing in on a moment is both comforting and inspiring. It makes me want to write more as a practice of mindfulness in addition to an artistic practice.

Writing exercise: glossary poem

In Solmaz Sharif’s Look: Poems, pieces about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rely on using the dual meanings of words of war utilized by the government. Those include words such the one used in the collection title and first poem—

look— (*) In mine warfare, a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence. 

We can then note the last line of the poem, “Look,” in which the meaning is both relied upon and subverted to its original usage:

Let me LOOK at you./ Let me LOOK at you in a light that takes years to get here.

In this vein, try writing a poem that uses a of glossary of specific terms, allowing their use to perpetuate and/or subvert those topical definitions. Use the definitions or specific terminology in a way that gives a newness to the knowledge set: whether it’s a set of confidential government codes or a compilation of terms used to describe antique watch restoration, let the definitions create new meanings while also staying true to their world.

Snowy night and reflection on Joan Kane’s reading

Last Thursday, quite a few members of Geneseo’s English community took a breath as we listened to Joan Kane’s poetry. Not to my surprise, her poetry read aloud is as quiet as it is on the page. The natural imagery, icy but fluid, evoked senses and sounds of softness, of motherhood, and of peace, all occupying the space of the Doty Recital Hall and insulating it from the world outside. At one point in the reading I closed my eyes to feel the kiss of snow and the susurrations of moving water, along with woods and quiet air. I wanted to cry because in a world of so much uncertainty, I heard sounds and proof that the world was still moving around me. After the reading, I discovered that a few others felt the same.

These moments seem especially relevant now in the face of apparent chaos, and it felt extremely timely to be hearing these messages of life and of quiet contemplation at the dawn of a time filled with so much noise. I forget how much I learn when I stop and listen, like Joan Kane’s poems suggest we might do. As I write right now I look outside at snow whirling in the Onondaga field. As I was trying to do research earlier, one of my fellow RAs and I decided that we would go outside and walk into the white-covered and icy wind-whipped arboretum despite our responsibilities, and in that windy hour I spent roaming I was reminded of the word “katabatic” from “Force Majeur” and also of the second stanza of “Love Poem:” “If there was wind,/ I walked into it.”

Poets: Where do we go from here?

We find ourselves at an interesting intersection in history. Just yesterday in class (can you believe it?) we spoke prophetically about  our first woman president, our Madam President, predicting the epistemic event it would incur, all with a quiet surety hidden with “whens” quickly corrected to “ifs”, the “ifs” serving more as a “knock on wood” rather than an actual question of chance. Maybe it’s because we couldn’t mentally assimilate the other possibility. Last night, chance took the wheel and created a reality that millions of Americans’ minds and mouths hadn’t made room for.

Last night, the working people of America spoke and told us in their own words their fatigue with the establishment, with the status quo, with the harsh realities of an increasingly isolated world. We elected a president who uses racist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic rhetoric to reel in the whims of a tired and aching working class, and it worked. This says something about words and what they can do to bring people together. Words can bring people together in the most powerful ways, creating both the most humanistic and most grievous moments in human history, many too painful to recall.

It’s not my place to tell you what to do as a poet, but I think today is a good day to think about what that title means to you. It’s also not my job because I’m struggling to figure that out, especially now. Whether you use your words to highlight corruption and discrimination, or you speak loudly about the human condition, or you remark a moment of human beauty or fragility, or irony, or elation, or abysmal sadness—you’re changing the reality; you’re changing the status quo. Whether or not you consider yourself political, I’m sure you consider yourself a human being. And with your human words, words that drip with more surety and experience and commonalities than we can even begin to comprehend, perhaps we can make room on our tongues for the future.

The trigger warning as prevention

This Thursday at a Guerrilla meeting, after going over some ideas, plans, and hopes for future projects, we had a talk about trigger warnings. I realized during that discussion that I didn’t think that much about trigger warnings, or rather that I was not aware of the complete range of reasons for using them. Although I have used them before, I’m still not fully cognizant of how important they can be to certain individuals who have experienced a traumatic event or suffer from PTSD, since I can’t say I’ve had such an experience.

During the discussion, we highlighted the fact that a lot of the hype around trigger warnings as the symptom of an annoying  “social justice warrior” generation is due largely to a general lack of information or knowledge about the purpose of the trigger warning.  Although I have encountered individuals who would still oppose them despite this fact, mostly due to a staunch philosophical defense of free speech, I’m sure that more people would be open to them if they were understood for their purpose.

I can see why people would be doubtful of trigger warnings, and would like to engage in discussion with people who do believe that by tagging the work before being read, or by providing warnings, that the trigger warning is in fact a work of censorship. I think this is an important discussion to be had. My defense for the trigger warning is that it can’t be censorship due to the fact that the content is still there, it’s just a little tucked away under a safety barrier for those who would react to the content in a way that’s painful and potentially dangerous for them.

Someone at the meeting said something about trigger warnings that I won’t forget: they are like allergy warnings. Certain common allergens, like wheat or eggs, should be listed simply for consumer safety. A panic attack for someone with mental illness is in this way something very similar to an allergic reaction, something that is presently innate and hard to control without direct avoidance. It’s time we start thinking more about how we can start taking into account people’s reactions, in every sense of the word.

Hiding from identity

One of the things that first attracted me to creative writing and reading/writing poetry was the notion of it as an almost otherworldly, sublime escape from the rigidness and mayhem of daily life. One reason that until now, I have not (purposefully) brought my history major or my political views very far into my writing is because I tended to separate my “material” and methodical thoughts about history and politics away from my writing, which I saw as living in its own world: a world that is strictly personal, unhinged, almost spiritual in itself.

I’m realizing that although not a fallacy, this impression wasn’t one where I was being completely honest with myself about what I wanted to write. Perhaps I was trying too hard to create this separation, because now I am developing a notably different relationship with my writing. As I’ve become more comfortable with poetry as a discipline, all of my heated rantings and ravings have begun to start to take lineated form inside the deep and dark corners of the “poetry” folder on my desktop. Lately, all of my writing exercises, and even my most recent workshop pieces, have been delving deeper into identity politics and my thoughts on history—not because I’ve been trying to change my writing, but because my bubbling frustrations and concerns about myself and the world have, for some reason I cannot yet pinpoint, started to take lineated form.

My poetry is becoming more political because I am political, my academic studies are political, and integral parts of my identity are political in nature. I think my voice comes through stronger when I don’t hide this due to a semi-archaic and self-imposed mindset that poetry is more “pure”—a rule that just separates me more than what I could write. My most recent piece, where I tied together the election, womanhood, and my history research project on 20th century Jewish girlhood is a good example of my recent tendency to tie in identity, politics, and history into the poetic—


“The other day my coworker said that

in political discussion,

I tend to attack people and that I

am intimidating. Trump interrupted Clinton 51 times

in the debate. Marion Metz leans on her friend

in her shortcut bathing suit, laughing.”


Perhaps I’ve avoided the political because of discomfort, because of fear, or perhaps because of an even deeper fear of offending people. But as my voice has gotten bigger, so has my desire to write about big things.

The poem, alive

These past few weeks, I’ve been feeling poetry in a different way. Maybe it’s workshop, maybe it’s because of the literary organizations that I’ve decided to join, maybe it’s something happening to me neurologically that I could not pinpoint without an MRI. Maybe it’s all of the above. Whatever it is, it is a marked point in a lifetime when one starts to think in poetry, feel in poetry, and move in poetry. No, I am not a walking precocious self-proclaimed poetry prophet, but I’m definitely a little different. It happens in moments rather than states. It’s a flitting feeling. But it’s pretty rad when it happens.

It’s all in the interaction. This past Friday I had the awesome privilege of helping out Guerrilla in the set up of their poetry installment in the Rochester Fringe Festival. On a cold and rainy afternoon (when I very conveniently decided to wear Birkenstock sandals) I helped haul 20-pound hand-painted magnetic boards and place laminated anonymous poems onto wet tables with unyeilding sticky tack while questioning the well-being of my bare toes and watching strangers fiddle with my words.

There’s something so present about moving actual words around on a board, wiping off the water from laminated sheets of poems, and watching the ink drip from stanzas as the unlamented counterparts flap on the fences of the Spiegel Garden. People say that poetry is physical, but right there poetry was truly PHYSICAL. Poetry was transforming, both from natural and human interactions. Lines were changing and living in different universes, but the individual words of the poem rang with the same truth, as if the words had a character of their own, unchangeable by the changing of order.