A Lesson in Puerto Rican Poetry

A few weeks ago I brought Roberto Marquez’s anthology, Puerto Rican Poetry, to my afternoon writing class. All of the students are from Puerto Rico, or their parents are. When I held up heavy, 490  page tome, one student said, “I never knew there was any such thing.”

“Any such thing as what?” I asked. “A kind of writing called Puerto Rican poetry? Poets who are Puerto Rican?”

“Any of it … All of it,” she said.

For the next class I covered a desk in a bright green and blue scarf and piled it with books by Puerto Rican authors including Julia de Burgos, Martin Espada, Naomi Ayala, Pedro Pietri, and Marquez’s anthology … among others. I passed the books around, we read some of the poems, and discussed what it means to call a poem a “Puerto Rican” poem, what it means to write from a Puerto Rican point of view, and so on.

All of this brought me back to when I was eighteen, the age many of my students are now. I took a poetry class during my freshman year of college. The teacher encouraged each of us to discover our unique voice and to write a poem in it. After class I approached her: “But I don’t have one,” I said, “I just talk like everyone else.”

She looked at me and said, “Are you from New York? Are you Jewish?”

I nodded.

“I can hear that in how you speak,” she answered.

That conversation represented an early step on a journey of inquiry into who I was. I began to read poems by Jewish women, I read poems by contemporary women, I looked at the history of Jewish women.

And now, a few decades later, I am coming full circle. I have learned that what I’d said to that teacher was true, after all. I do sound like everyone else. That is, deep down, my pain, my longing, my love, my disappointments and hopes are written in the same universal language of the soul that every human speaks.

At the same time, I know that what my teacher said was true, too: In order to know myself as one among many, I first had to meet myself as a unique representative of my time, culture, gender and ethnicity.

Another writing teacher told me that poetry is about listening to the ‘other.’ You must read and teach poems by people who are different from yourself, she said. Read poets of different eras, different ethnic, race, class and geographic backgrounds.

I’ve taken that message to heart. In my teaching I always bring in poems from the past and the present, classic and contemporary writers. My students are predominantly Puerto Rican, and all are teen mothers. But if we were only to read the poems of young, female, Puerto Ricans we’d taste only one flavor of truth. I love when we read a poem by Christina Rossetti or Anna Ahkmatova and my students get quiet and someone says, “Yes, I’ve felt that, too.”

But after that comment that revealed that some of my students did not even know there are Puerto Rican poets, I remembered the value of starting out with our own voices, and following the sound of our own words into the larger dialogue, then out and back and away …   

This week we read and wrote about food, as that is one of the best ways I know to explore one’s heritage. We read Latina authors, some Puerto Rican, some not, including:

  • “Mango Juice,” by Pat Mora
  • “Risotto Ariosto,” by Aleida Rodriguez
  • the preface to When I was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago (in which she describes the experience of buying a guava from a supermarket in New York, after spending her childhood in Puerto Rico eating the fruit directly from the tree).

Writing prompts included:

o       Describe in detail (using all five senses) how to prepare your favorite food

o       Describe in detail (using all five senses)what it feels like to eat your favorite food and/or

o       Describe in detail (using all five senses) how to eat your favorite food

La Cucaracha

Growing up as a budding young writer, it seemed anytime something difficult would happen to me my mother would say, “Look at the bright side, at least you’ll get a good poem out of it.” Granted, when I was crying my eyes out over my latest heartbreak, those words could be cold comfort. But of course, in the end, Mother was always right. So it is that when I teach my students, teen moms who can describe the variations in color of cockroaches the way some people can describe the nuances of a sunset, I from time to time like to assign poems about bugs. As much as they hate the crawly crunchy critters that plague their attempts at maintaining spotless kitchen floors, the poems they write about cockroaches … or insects in general … are almost always gems. Here are some suggested poems to get the creative juices rolling. (Who knew there was such a wealth of poetry about the humble, confounding roach!)

  • “My Cockroach Lover” by Martín Espada

  • “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project” by Pedro Pietri
  • “The Coming of Archy” by Don Marqui