Poetry is like a song, like a psalm, like a prayer. Poetry is different things to many people, and April being Poetry Month,
The Latina Book Club is celebrating by featuring Latino poets all week long.
We welcome to our site former Poet Laureate Thelma T. Reyna,
who has graciously shared with us an autobiographical poem, a glimpse from her childhood.
GROWING UP DUSTY
IN A SMALL TEXAS TOWN
Our ankles were always gray, caliche
dust swirling like guardian angels around twiggy brown
legs leaping potholes, tripping on dirt clods. Nine
children oblivious to what it meant to be growing up dusty.
In winter, rivers of mud separated us from Licha, Juan,
Susie. Dripping mesquite trees beckoned. Black puddles
dotted our ‘hoodscape far as child eyes could see, little
lakes navigated house to house as we grew up dusty.
When morning light tickled our bedfaces, dervishes danced
through cracks and chinks in sills and walls and floors and doors.
Grandma’s rag couldn’t stem the tide of constant coats
of dust as we grew up in our small Texas town.
On the other end were asphalt roads, mown lawns and
children with patent leather shoes that stayed black.
At school, only chalkboard dust bound them and us as
we grew up dusty in our small Texas town.
----by Thelma T. Reyna
Printed with permission. © Thelma T. Reyna. All rights reserved by author.
CHATTING WITH THELMA T. REYNA
Q: You are a published poet and a former Poet Laureate. What does poetry mean to you and are you happy that there is a yearly designated poetry month?
THELMA: First, yes, I’m delighted that a poetry month has been designated annually. Poets never receive the recognition and appreciation that our society owes them. Throughout our world’s history, poets have been prominent in molding and defining civilizations across the globe, going back to before books were available. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, Japanese, early Europeans--we still read their poetry! Here at home, our Native Americans and early European colonials left us their poetic legacies as well. Poets cultivate the best in human beings: our sensitivity, spirituality, love of nature, our ability to reflect on life and people, our musicality, love of language and ideas. Poets generally have keen insights, observational powers, and the freedom to express their ideas creatively. They do all this in compact, economic ways. Taken together, all this translates to, “Poets communicate in modes and at levels that most other communication does not accomplish.” All this is what poetry represents to me, and that’s why I consider poetry vital to civilization.
Q: How do you come by your love of poetry? When did you start writing poems? Are you working on a new collection?
THELMA: I was an introverted adolescent, all the way through college, actually. I loved my English classes, the books we read, my fantastic teachers, going to the library on my own (since we had no books at home). All the elements were right for writing poetry, which I began in high school. I’m working on a new collection of poems now--my seventh book, though it will be my second full-length collection of my own work. I’d like to publish it later this year, or early next year.
Q: Who are your favorite poets--Latino and non-Latino? Old and contemporary?
THELMA: I was a high school English teacher for 16 years, so I have many favorite poets of all cultures and eras from my teaching period. Some are Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and of course William Shakespeare. Then, as an occasional book reviewer of Latinos’ books and a supporter of Latino literature, I bonded with the work of Luis J. Valdez, Pat Mora, Melinda Palacios, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Blanco, and Blas Falconer, among many others.
Finally, in my work as an anthology editor, I’ve especially enjoyed the poetry of my fellow Southern California writers, such as Karineh Mahdessian, Luivette Resto, Lois P. Jones, Yago S. Cura, Mark A. Fisher, J.K. Won, and Beverly M. Collins, among many poets whom I deeply admire and respect. The depth and breadth of talent in my immediate poetry community (Pasadena, Altadena, and the greater Los Angeles area) is astounding! Readers can see this varied talent in our Altadena Poetry Review Anthology (2015, 2016, and 2017).
Q: You were the editor of the Altadena Poetry Review Anthology in 2015 and 2016, when it won two national book awards. How do you pick a wining poem? Is it structure? Type? Emotional depth?
THELMA: It’s more of a holistic assessment. Everything you mention can be involved, but it’s how the various elements of poetry are combined: imagery (word pictures), poetic techniques (alliteration, metaphor, irony, etc.), “voice” (persona, perspective, authenticity), for example. Funny, but things that others often connect with poetry--such as rhyme or pattern on the page--are not the dominant criteria. All “types” of poems can be “winning poems.” It comes down to uniqueness of expression in clearly conveying the sentiment or idea aimed at.
Q: What advice would you give new poets?
THELMA: Don’t throw away your poems. Keep all your poetry in a binder, box, somewhere in an organized, accessible place, and note the date you wrote each poem on the page. The poems that may not seem good enough for publication at this point might be ready to “see the light of day” in another year down the road, with revising or polishing. You never know. This has happened to me and to many published poets I know. I wrote some of my own favorite poems 30 years ago, but they weren’t ready for publication until the recent past. Never give up on what you wrote if you consider the topic or feeling worthy enough for future reconsideration.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: THELMA T. REYNA’S books have collectively won 8 national literary awards. She has written 4 books: a short story collection, 2 poetry chapbooks, and a full-length poetry collection, Rising, Falling, All of Us. As Poet Laureate in Altadena, 2014-2016, she edited the Altadena Poetry Review Anthology in 2015 and 2016, with the latter book winning two national book awards. Thelma’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals, anthologies, textbooks, and regional media for over 25 years.
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