I have met some impressive people in my life – many, in fact. María Luisa Arroyo, the inaugural poet laureate of Springfield, Massachusetts (2014-2016), is one of those people. From her bravery in confronting her own pain in poetry to her resolute pursuit of higher education and her work to raise the profile of other writers, from her assistance to young poets to her efforts to bring attention to the topic of bullying, it is hard to imagine someone more hardworking or accomplished. Yet that list doesn’t even mention the beauty of her own poetry or the success she has experienced as a writer.
I will say this as a general introduction: María was born in Manati, Puerto Rico, and raised in Springfield. She earned her BA from Colby College, and then a Master’s in German from Tufts University and an MFA from the Solstice Creative Writing program at Pine Manor College. She is also ABD in Germanic Languages & Literatures at Harvard.
María is the author of Gathering Words/Recogiendo palabras (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 2008) and Destierro Means More than Exile (June 2018). She has received a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and New England Public Radio’s Arts & Humanities Award.
María is currently an Assistant Professor of Writing and First-Year Studies at Bay Path University.
Let’s learn more about this fascinating poet and the causes she champions — she even includes a poem of her own for us to read.
FRD: How, in your case, was a poet born?
MLA: Puerto Rican boleros played by Papi (Gerónimo Arroyo Figueroa 1941-2016) on his cuatro and sung by Francisco “Colón” Reyes (1942-2015), his soul brother in música, have been informing the music of my poems, ever since I was a young girl. I learned through repetition how to sing the words of plaintive boleros even before I knew the meaning of their words: “Toma este pünal./Ábreme las venas” (Take this dagger. Open my veins.) and “Solo rodando por el mundo” (Alone I wander the world) in Spanish, my first language. I also learned about breathing pauses, pacing, the use of persona, and the power of storytelling through song, even if back then I didn’t know the literary terms for them.
In elementary school, I enjoyed my teachers’ encouraging responses to my increasing mastery of English in sing-song phrases that rhymed. When there were monthly poetry contests, I was among the first to submit new poems; “If I Were a Bird”, “Tucker Turkey” and “The Fog” were three among many poems I wrote.
I still clearly remember my classroom visit to get our first library cards. Free access to so many words in so many books I could borrow! At home, the Spanish-language Bible with its onion-thin pages and the scenes of violence splayed on the front page of the Spanish-language newspaper were the only sources of reading materials I can remember from childhood that my parents read. My book reading came from borrowed library books from the school and public libraries, books that fueled my journaling and writing of poetry. The first book I remember owning? A dictionary with no cover that I stuffed into my backpack when I saw it on the library’s “FREE BOOKS” shelf. I remember the red dots I put by new words as I made up and wrote down sentences, sometimes with internal rhyme, to remember their meanings.
FRD: Sometimes I start a personal essay thinking I am writing about one subject, and a year later I transform it into something totally different because my life or perspective has changed. Does a specific theme shine through in your poetry, or have you focused on different subjects or themes at various points in your writing life?
MLA: As a self-taught poet and a journal keeper since childhood, I quickly understood that my creative process and the themes that emerged in my writing didn’t flow linearly. I am always responding imaginatively to my life experiences; to my literary reading habits in English, Spanish and German; and to my sense of wonder in response to the experiences others share with me or I witness. That’s why I never leave home without a journal.
My beehive creative mind works on multiple series of poems with varying themes. Because I respond positively to writing prompts and to visual images, I also enjoy generating rough drafts of poems on paper and keeping them in one folder until I begin to see connections between them Once I do, I label a new folder and move drafts there.
I learned that some series of poems cannot be pushed to fruition, such as the poems about my experiences in Iran – which took more than 15 years to write – or my poems about child abuse and domestic violence, many of which I wrote but never shared for years until my wounds had healed enough. Others, such as my most series of poems in the collection, Destierro Means More than Exile, a tribute to 32 women poets who influence me as a poet and teacher of poetry, flowed quickly as each woman poet’s aesthetics served as creative lightning rods. In that instance, every morning for a month, I generated raw material for a new poem after re-reading a collection by the woman poet. Then I crafted each into poems that felt finished enough to share with each woman poet and with the 30/30 Project organizers at Tupelo Press throughout May 2018.
FRD: If you had to translate your writing into a very short parable, how would it read?
MLA: This poem serves as my parable. I wrote it for Kathi Aguero during the 30/30 Project for Tupelo Press in May 2018 and published in Destierro Means More than Exile (June 2018):
comelibros: the girl who ate books
for Kathi Aguero
Kids in school & on my street nicknamed
me “The Brain”. Where their backpacks
slacked, mine swelled with books
from two libraries, some stamped “obsolete”,
mine to keep. Mami called me “comelibros”,
the girl who ate books. Abuela feared me,
whispered “loca”, my appetite for books
matched her son’s, an urban hermit in Puerto Rico.
He crammed towers of books into his head.
Words gushed out his mouth – non-stop.
I live in my head to protect my body.
FRD: In 2012 you co-edited the multicultural, intergenerational anthology, Bullying: Replies, Rebuttals, Confessions, Catharsis (Skyhorse Publishing). What prompted you to initiate that project, and what has its reception been like?
MLA: Sirdeaner Walker (1965-2016), the Director of the Homeless Program and I, an ABE/GED instructor worked together in the now defunct MCDI, Inc., in Springfield. Her son, Carl Joseph Walker Hoover, age 11, committed suicide in April 2009 after pernicious bullying at school, even as Walker advocated on his behalf. My GED students at MCDI – who ranged from 16-year-olds who dropped out of school to laid-off factory workers with kids of their own – and I felt the pain of Sirdeaner’s devastating loss. In response, I asked my students to write letters to school administrators that conveyed their outrage and to share concrete, helpful suggestions to interrupt bullying. I gifted copies of these letters to Sirdeaner along with my poem in response.
Magdalena Gómez, a sister/girlfriend of mine who is a brilliant playwright and poet, and I talked about the possibility of putting a call for submissions about bullying to the greater Springfield community. Our call? “You don’t have to be a published writer to speak your truth.” When I learned from Sirdeaner how stunned she was by the silent treatment in our Springfield community in response to her son’s suicide, Magdalena and I decided to proceed with the project after we sought Sirdeaner’s blessing.
As poets and writers, we too became stunned by the lack of local responses to the call, which invited writers of all ages to submit writing in any genre and to show the courage to write pieces from the vantage points of the bullied, the bully, and the bystander. Thanks to our respective networks – mine through my community-based poetry workshops and readings; Magdalena’s through her local, regional and national reaches; and through our collaborative work with youth through Teatro V!da, which Magdalena founded in Springfield as the first Latin@ theatre group for youth – we received submissions.
Given our experiences as poets and writers in Springfield, we were discouraged but not surprised by the local reception to the book. Just as Sirdeaner Walker experienced silence locally in response to her son’s suicide after being bullied, so did we after we published the anthology. Magdalena and I separately and together did give some talks and readings about the book.
Because bullying continues to happen, this anthology will never lose its relevance.
FRD: Some writers might look at your impressive list of accomplishments and awards — including being named the inaugural poet laureate of Springfield — and think it must be easy for a talented writer to “make it.” I’m sure it isn’t easy. What kinds of challenges have you faced, and do you have any “words of wisdom” for other writers facing similar challenges?
MLA: When I was working as a college admission counselor at Colby College, my undergraduate alma mater, I had the joy of listening to poet Lucille Clifton read her poems during her visit to Colby in March 1993. That night after the reading, I brought her a piece of her own wisdom from an interview to sign after we talked briefly and quietly about what if felt like to be women of color at a predominantly white college.
When I write, I don’t set out to seek accolades for my work. Instead, since my return to Western Massachusetts in 2004, I have worked to manage raising my son alone, full-time work, my writing life and community engagement – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Writing and reading are two non-negotiable joys and lifelines for me as a poet. Whenever I didn’t tend to these, even my son, when he was younger, would wonder: “Mom, are you creatively constipated?”
Teaching too is my joy. As a poet with a writing life and an educator, I have taught poets in various settings: summer middle school programs, elementary after-school programs, colleges, and through library programming with the Springfield City Library since 2005, In Western MA I’ve developed a public reputation as “la poeta” in the Latinx community and as one of many poets.
While I valued the opportunity to partner with the Springfield Library to organize readings and poetry workshops, I found it challenging to identify a writing group to belong to here. That is why I will always value my Solstice MFA experience; joining the Solstice community gave me the validation and support I needed and wanted as a multilingual Puerto Rican poet and teacher of poetry.
FRD: What projects are you working on now?
MLA: Despite the reality that 64% of Springfield Public School students are Latinos in a school district of 26,000+ students, few Latino/a/x poets and writers are introduced to students in the MA curriculum framework. So, one of my projects is to develop a series of poetry handbooks for students to keep and write in that includes original poems by me and some by past students of mine to inspire students to write in response. With the poems, I plan to have accessible, encourage instructions to provide context for the poems. As the first Poet Laureate of Springfield (2014-2016), I want to leverage my visibility to promote poetry in the schools. This summer, I self-published Just Imagine in Springfield: A Poetry Handbook for Middle School Students as the first one in the series.
Other projects, which I am balancing with my full-time position as Assistant Professor of Writing & First-Year Studies at Bay Path University:
-to write the second book in my series, Just Imagine in Springfield: A Poetry Handbook for Elementary School Students
-to continue my research on Hilde Domin’s experiences in the Dominican Republic as a German Jewish poet in exile during the Nazi period; to travel to the DR to locate archival materials there; to travel to Germany to research archives there; to write poems in response to her life for a future bilingual (German/English) collection of poems
-to revisit my series of German-language ekphrastic poems in response to Hannah Höch’s collages; to research more details of her life to transform into poems as part of the future bilingual (German/English) collection of poems;
-to generate more poems in English, in Spanish, and code-switching ones to develop Destierro Means More than Exile into a full-length manuscript for submission
-to revisit my Solstice critical thesis about the three types of American ghazal to revise it for scholarly publication as one or more articles
-to write scholarly articles about Magdalena Gómez’s collection of poems, Shameless Woman.
FRD: Thank you for spending some of your valuable time on this interview, María. You are doing such valuable, important work in so many areas, and I hope this piece will help to raise awareness about some of your ventures.
María Luisa Arroyo will appear and sell her books as part of Author Fair hosted by the Springfield Library on Saturday, Sept. 29. For information, visit: https://www.
María will also host a poetry party on Saturday, Oct. 20, in the Mason Square Community Room at the Springfield Library from 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. The party, in celebration of her 51st birthday, will feature readings by María and emerging local poets, along with poetry pop-up stations.