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Georgette M. Dorn: It is a great pleasure to welcome today María Meléndez to the Library of Congress, and she will be recording for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape on April 11, 2013. I am Georgette Dorn. I am Chief of the Hispanic Division and also the curator of the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape, which is the very formal name. Maria, it is wonderful to have you here.

Maria Melendez: Thank you so much.

GMD: Especially in this wonderful historic recording lab. We have recorded many famous people, including Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and Borges, and García Márquez, and Vargas Llosa, and many others. So, I would like to ask you a few things about yourself. How did you begin writing?

MM: Well, as a young child I enjoyed writing poems in particular, but I also enjoyed writing stories. I would make up stories that had girl heroes in them. I don’t suppose I read many stories with girl heroes in them, so that was my own way of creating stories for myself. I wrote poems and I enjoyed reading poetry. There was a particular anthology actually that I read over and over and over again until the pages were falling out, which was called Piping Down the Valleys Wild. And I re-read that as a child. I also thought that writing was magical, in a way, when I was a child and so I planted a little garden behind our house and I would write letters to the plants, thinking that maybe they would hear me and listen to me and maybe grow better, because I had written to them. This was my logic as a nine or ten-year old.

GMD: Where did you grow up?

MM: This was in the East Bay area in northern California, in Livermore.

GMD: That’s very interesting. How old were you when you wrote to the plants?

MM: Oh, probably third grade, somewhere in there.

GMD: That’s wonderful. And when did you publish your first poems? Or works?

MM: Well, I published my first poem in a journal called High Plains Review. It was published in Denver at the time. I don’t think it is published any longer. I think it was maybe my senior year in college. I had some very encouraging professors and they had introduced me to the world of literary magazines, and so I was fortunate to have a poem appear early on.

GMD: I think that’s very good, yes. Do you have any major inspiration of other writers?

MM: Well, as an undergraduate Yusuf Komunyakaa, the African-American poet, was—he actually had attended the school where I was an undergrad, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and he came through and gave a reading. That was a big poetic awakening for me, his reading, and also Pat Mora came through at the time, a Chicana poet at the time from El Paso and that was, I think, an important—she was an important touchstone for me in that early stage as well.

GMD: That’s very interesting. And now you live in Colorado?

MM: Now I am back in Colorado. We’ve moved around quite a lot my husband, kids, and I. And now we live in Pueblo in southern Colorado.

GMD: Are you teaching?

MM: At the moment, I am working in a student service position at Pueblo Community College. I work with a program called Gateway to College with students who have dropped out of high school and are trying to recover diploma credits while transitioning into college. I had worked in college English departments for about a dozen years, so this is sort of a different take on higher education now.

GMD: That’s very interesting. How did you think of writing this book of How Long She’ll Last in This World? What was the inspiration for it? For the poems?

MM: Well, this book I wanted to really claim my space as a writer who writes about the environment, who wrote about nature, who wrote about science, and so I think that each section of the book—and I can talk about these sections and how they are put together later—but I think each section of the book has a kind of environmental thread to it. So that was one of the sort of organizing factors. And before I had this book, I had published a chapbook, a smaller book of about twenty poems and in that . . .  it’s interesting because in that book I was sort of testing out different kinds of forms and kind of playing around structurally, but then when I ended up putting this book together, I think it really was the sense of wanting to have a voice that had engagement with the environment was one of my priorities in putting it together.

GMD: Very timely, also. The environment is a great concern. We are having now this global warming with 80s and 90s, when the average is about 50 or so. Very interesting, so, How Long She’ll Last in This World is actually the Earth, right?

MM: Well, you could read it as the world. You could read the she as the Earth, or an Earth goddess. Yeah. The title is from a poem in there that creates a kind of imaginary Earth goddess. So, that is certainly a legitimate reading of it.

GMD: So do you want to start reading from this book? And would you please give the title of each poem and then we copy them for your file. We have it, it’s an easy job for Catalina to do.

MM: Absolutely. So, what I wanted to do, to read from How Long She’ll Last in This World, my first full-length collection, is I wanted to read the first two poems from each of the four sections and as I do, I’ll introduce the concept in each of those sections.

GMD: Excellent.

MM: I organized this book in four sections and conceived of each section representing a habitat or an eco-zone, so to speak. So, the first section represents palms that are set in mountainous areas, in or near mountains; so the first two are from this mountain section. The first one I’ll read is called “Remedio” and I was asked to write a poem in recognition of wolves returning to Colorado and that was for an anthology of celebrating the return of the wolves after they had been reintroduced into Wyoming, they are starting to repopulate Colorado, and Colorado writers were asked to contribute work on wolves and so this is the resulting poem. It’s called “Remedio.”

  • Poet reads “Remedio”How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

GMD: That’s very, very beautiful. I can almost see the wolf.

MM: Thank you. Thank you. This next poem in the mountain section, section one, is quite short, it’s titled “Backcountry, Emigrant Gap” and I wrote it on a backcountry backpacking trip in an area of the sierras in northern California. And that area is called the Emigrant Gap Wilderness.

  • Poet reads “Backcountry, Emigrant Gap”How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

GMD: Very nice.

MM: The next section, section two, uses the idea of the human body as a habitat, or as an eco-zone. As a setting, if you will—a place where things happen, a location where things take place. And that is section two, so I’ll read the first two poems from section two. This first one was inspired by an account I read by Biruté Galdikas. She was a primate researcher in Borneo. She researches orangutans and there is an account she gives of an orangutan basically attacking one of her camp workers, and this sort of cross species violation really caught my attention. I think that sometimes, I think sometimes of spirituality or religion as a cross-species transaction. I think the spirit world or the divine is a separate species from ours, so it caught my attention in that way and so this poem is called “In Burité’s Camp.”

  • Poet reads “In Burité’s Camp”—How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

MM: The next poem in this body section was inspired by a photograph. This is a photograph of a female boxer from the Capital Boxing Gym in Sacramento. And the poem is dedicated to the amateur fighters at Capital Boxing Gym in Sacramento, California, and the poem is called “Art of Combat.”

  • Poet reads “Art of Combat”—How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

MM: The third section in this book takes on the habitat of the central valley in Northern California, the Sacramento Valley in northern California, where I lived for five years, and the first poem in this section is called “Collections of Nearly Unlovable Spaces.” And the Central Valley, I will say by way of introduction, is a tough place to live if you are someone, as I am, who constantly seeks a relationship with the natural environment as a form of well-being, because there are many, many areas of the Central Valley that are sort of overrun with industrial agriculture. And where we lived on the campus of the University of California-Davis . . . we lived in student housing when we first moved to the Sacramento Valley. We lived in Davis in student housing, and our available nature, or our nearby nature, was an arboretum. And it was a wonderful arboretum in terms of its collection from around the world, so many interesting varieties of both trees and plants on the one hand. On the other hand, it couldn’t substitute for wild nature, which I wanted it to be a substitute for wild nature because I didn’t have a lot of access to wildness. So I think this poem probably reflects some of that frustration with the area. I wanted it to be more wild, and the poem appears in couplets. It is sort of an adaptation of the ghazal form of couplets that may or may not be associated with each other depending on how associative the listener or the reader is feeling when they encounter this poem.

  • Poet reads “Collection of Nearly Unlovable Spaces”—How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

GMD: Very, very nice.

MM: I should say before I move onto the next poem that there is a line in here that I borrowed from a Tony Hoagland poem, which is “what we are practicing is suffering, which everybody practices, but strangely few grow graceful in.” I guess I just thought that line was too pretty to exist in just one poem.

MM: The next poem, the second poem in this section that takes the Central Valley of California as its setting is actually the poem that contains the title line, How Long She’ll Last in This World, and the poem is called “Tonacacihuatl: Lady of Our Flesh.” So one of my mentors at UC-Davis was Francisco Alarcón, and he has made, has built an aesthetic around taking a sort of personal engagement with Nahuatl deities, and making that a part of his personal aesthetic, which began with his translation work, and I think has continued in some ways throughout his other poetry. And so that was very inspirational to me and so tonacacihuatl is one iteration of the female divine in the Nahuatl pantheon, and a translation of the world tonacacihuatl could be lady of our flesh. So, I wanted this particular lady of our flesh to redeem the central valley, the way in Christian terms Jesus redeemed the humanity. I wanted someone to redeem the pollution of the central valley. I wanted a figure to do that. So, I kind of cooked up this version of tonacacihuatl.

  • Poet reads “Tonacacihuatl: Lady of Our Flesh”—How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

MM: This brings us to the fourth and final section of this first full-length collection and this section uses water as its primary setting, or its primary habitat . . . poems that are set near bodies of water. This first poem in this fourth section, the water section, is perhaps more personal than the others that I’ve read so far, and I wrote it during a time when the Laci Peterson case was making national news—and certainly in California, it was all over the news when her body was found and her husband was later convicted of her murder. And as I was following this story, one of my mentors at UC Davis, Sandra McPherson, lost her husband, and I had been quite close to Sandy and tried to spend as much time as I could with her in the days following this traumatic loss to simply provide companionship. And the form that companionship took, more typically than not, was that we would watch court TV together as a distraction, I suppose. We would watch court TV and following this case, the Laci Peterson case, this poem emerged out of those days. It’s called “A Secret Between Lady Poets.”

  • Poet reads “A Secret Between Lady Poets”—How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

GMD: Very powerful; very nice.

MM: The second poem from this water section that I’ll read is called “Llorona’s Guide to Baptism.” And I felt early on as I came to understand myself as a woman writer, as an environmental writer, and as a Latino writer, I felt very early on that in particular for poets there is a Latino rota, like the virginial rota that—at least that, maybe a Chicana rota—that there are certain notes that a poet must hit to sort of take her place among Chicana poets, and one of them is a Llorona poem. So, I said, well, I need a Llorona poem. I better get busy on that. And luckily the Llorona figure in folk life is, her story already has environmental resonances. She either throws her children in the river voluntarily or she is forced to throw her children in the river and then she haunts riverbanks ever after, wailing for her lost children. And of course that’s an easy metaphor for the degradation of rivers, which in the Central Valley was a big issue from all the run-off from the industrial agriculture. The rivers were, in many cases, quite polluted and so, so my Llorona poem, to make it mine, became an environmental poem as well. And this is called “Llorona’s Guide to Baptism.”

  • Poet reads “Llorona’s Guide to Baptism”—How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006)

MM: So those are the four sections divided by habitat from my first collection, and to close I thought I would read a few poems from my second full-length collection, Flexible Bones. This collection has a prologue and the prologue is stitched together by the fact that each of these poems reference bats, the animal bats, and in fact, the title of the collection Flexible Bones refers to bats as well. There is an epigraph which describes that, “[T]he bones of a bat’s fingers have adaptations that promote bending . . . making them less apt than ordinary bone to splinter under stress.” That’s from an article in the National History magazine. So the idea that bats have flexible bones so that they can beat their wings as hard and as fast as they do without breaking them seemed like a good metaphor for me as I was working on this book. In this book, I am trying to teach myself how to be more flexible poetically. Part of that teaching myself involved writing unapologetically about political issues, more so than I had in how long. So here in Flexible Bones, I have more poems that overtly engage political events. That’s the case with this first one I’ll read. It’s the final poem of this prologue, and this poem refers to a moment in Austin where there is a well-known bridge that has a bat roost underneath it and you can see millions of bats leaving, if you are there at the right time of the year, leaving at dusk. And my opportunity to view this, this wonder, came at around the same time as I learned that a fellow named Tom Fox, who had been working with Christian Peacemaker Teams as a Quaker peacemaker in the Middle East, I learned that his body had been found in Baghdad. He had been working in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams. I had been following his story. He had been kidnapped and no one had heard from him for weeks, and I had been following this story because his home Quaker meeting, the Langley Hill Friends Meeting, had put out calls for friends everywhere to hold him in the light, to hold him in their thoughts and their hearts—and my family and I have been attending Quaker meeting for about nine or ten years now. And my children and I joined the friends. So I was following the story of this Quaker that had disappeared in Baghdad, and when his body was found I felt oddly as though I had some part in it, that I was partly culpable. And at the time, I also saw this bat event where so many bats pouring out at dusk to go hunt and to go eat and I thought well, you know, when something like this happens, the real challenge is to maintain hope in the face of a loss like this one. And so the poem is called “To Hope” and it’s dedicated to Christian Peacemaker Teams and to Langley Hill Friends Meeting.

  • Poet reads “To Hope”—Flexible Bones (2010)

MM: And I’d just like to read two more poems to finish our recording, and those will be the last two poems from each of the two main sections in this book, Flexible Bones. This book has a prologue with bat poems in essence and then a section one and a section two. Initially I tried to have section one and second two . . . section one represent a more public poem, some of those poems that speak to politics, and I tried to have section two represent more private poems, poems with a more private concern at their center. But there ended up being, I think much to my delight, quite a bit of overlap between the two. So in this book I don’t think the sections are as cut and dry thematically as they are in the first book. Nevertheless, this first poem from section one does happen to have a public concern at its heart. It’s called “Topaz Triptych,” and I wrote it when I lived in northern Utah and I taught at Utah State at the time. And Utah State holds the archives of the Topaz Internment Camp, which had been the World War II internment camp in Utah for Japanese and Japanese-American internees. This particular archive holds the newspaper from the camp, that was published inside the camp, and there are some aspects of that newspaper that sound very sinister looking back on them because they are trying to create a tone of everything is ok, cheer up, buck up, chin up, you know, and everything is not ok in this forced internment. So there are three, this poem has three sections. “Topaz Triptych.” The first section is called “Time Given to Revise ‘No’ Reply to Question 27.” And Question 27 appeared on the loyalty questionnaire that all men in the camp were issued. Question 26 was: Are you loyal to the United States? You were expected to answer yes. Question 27 was: Are you then, willing to enter the military to prove and support that loyalty? And Question 27, you were expected to answer yes as well and you were considered traitorous if you were not willing to enter the military, if you were a male in the camps. And so I thought that this, this is a real headline from the paper, “Time Given to Revise ‘No’ Reply to Question 27.” I thought that had a sinister edge to it, to the effect that you had better not answer ‘no’ to this question or you will be sent to prison, which is in fact what happened in many cases. So, I thought I should re-write the subtext of the little article, that sort of benign sounding article that appeared beneath that headline. So this is my re-write of the subtext of that article.

  • Poet reads “Topaz Triptych” Section 1: “Time Given to Revise ‘No’ Reply to Question 27”Flexible Bones (2010)

MM: This next article re-write, the second part of this poem is called “AMFP Seeks Part and Parcel” and it’s kind of a parody of an article that I saw in the newspaper, which the original article was a call from the American Museum of Natural History asking the internees to keep their eyes on the ground for archeological finds that they might discover so that the American Museum of Natural History could put them in their collection. And I thought, Well that’s some nerve. So I created this parody of that particular call for help, and it’s called “AMFP Seeks Part and Parcel.”

  • Poet reads “Topaz Triptych” Section 2: “AMFP Seeks Part and Parcel”Flexible Bones (2010)

MM: And the caesura, or the long pause in that poem is actually a blank spot in the page because mail coming in and going out of the camp was often censored, so I wanted to have a moment that acknowledged that censorship externally in the poem itself.

MM: The third and final poem in this longer piece, “Topaz Triptych,” is actually a found poem up until the last few lines. It’s a found poem from the newspaper inside the camp and I just modified the last—let’s see, that would be the last five lines of the poem were my addition. And at the time, photographers were allowed to visit the camps but they weren’t allowed to depict either the guard towers or the fences. There were armed guard towers and tall fences around the camps and those were not allowed in any of the official federal picture,s so the idea of the presence of a fence was something that I was trying to put back into the picture at the end of the poem. So this is “Birth of First Prize Puppies in Topaz Claimed” and I changed the names. That was another thing that I changed.

  • Poet reads “Topaz Triptych” Section 3: “Birth of First Prize Puppies in Topaz Claimed”Flexible Bones (2010)

MM: And the last poem I’ll read is the last poem in this book, the last poem in the second section. So this second section ostensibly contains the more, the poems with the more private concerns in it, and this poem talks about having lived in the Midwest for a while and then moving back to the Western states. And once you’ve been, sort of, overtaken by the Western landscape, at least in my case, it was hard to settle in any place else. I had lived in the Midwest for a time and had a hard time connecting with that landscape because it was so unfamiliar to me, and so this poem is called “Westerner Exiled to the Affordable Midwest Comes Home” and it opens with an epigraph from Louise Glück’s poem “Vita Nova.” Louise Glück writes, “I thought my life was over and my heart was broken. Then I moved to Cambridge.” And here’s the poem.

  • Poet reads “Westerner Exiled to the Affordable Midwest Comes Home”—Flexible Bones (2010)

GMD: Very nice. Excellent. Very, very nice. So you are in Massachusetts, in Cambridge, Massachusetts?

MM: No, the epigraph speaks of Cambridge, and I had lived in South Bend, Indiana.

GMD: Oh, ok. Well, that’s a very good center for poetry, too.

MM: It is, yes. My close friend and colleague who is with us today and who I first met in graduate school, Francisco Aragón, is a part-time South Bend resident.

GMD: That’s right, that’s right. At Notre Dame University. Yes, yes. But, now you’re safely back in the West.

MM: I’m safely back in the West.

GMD: Thank you very much. That was really very wonderful and very enjoyable.

MM: Thank you. I am so honored to be part of the Archive.

GMD: I hope I can still buy your book. I have the Flexible Bones, but the other one, the How Long . . . from Arizona—I’m sure I can still buy it, right?

MM: Sure. They are both available.

GMD: Good. Well, thank you very much.

MM: Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Top

Prose in English at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, April 11, 2013

Approximately 45 minutes.

Recording Title: Maria Melendez Reading from her Works
Reading moderated by: Georgette M. Dorn

- Introduction

1).  Selections from How Long She’ll Last in this World (2006)

- “Remedio” – (min. 5:53)
- “Backcountry, Emmigrant Gap” – (min. 8:23)
- “In Biruté’s Camp” – (min. 9:12)
- “Art of Combat” – (min. 12:00)
- “Collections of Nearly Unlovable Spaces” – (min. 13:14)
- “Tonacacihuatl: Lady of Our Flesh” – (min. 17:47)
- “A Secret Between Lady Poets” – (min. 20:46)
- “Llorona’s Guide to Baptism” – (min. 25:41)

2). Selections from Flexible Bones (2010)

- “To Hope” – (min. 28:58)
- “Topaz Triptych”
- “Time Given to Revise ‘No’ Reply to Question 27” – (min. 33:35)
- “AMFP Seeks Part and Parcel” – (min. 37:34)
- “Birth of First Prize Puppies in Topaz Claimed” – (min. 39:23)
- “Westerner Exiled to the Affordable Midwest Comes Home” – (min 41:01)

Conclusion – (min. 43:11)

End – (min. 44:03)

Flexible Bones

LC Catalog record:  http://lccn.loc.gov/2009029728
Maria Melendez, Flexible Bones (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010).

How Long She’ll Last in this World

LC Catalog record:  http://lccn.loc.gov/2005017354
Maria Melendez, How Long She’ll Last in this World (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006).

Related Resources

Maria Melendez

Maria Melendez

Maria Melendez is the author of two books of poetry, How Long She’ll Last in This World and Flexible Bones. Her essays have appeared in publications such as Ms. Magazine, Sojourns Magazine, and Isotope, and her work has been included in several anthologies, including Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity & the Natural World. She was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Poetry and a two-time Honorable Mention recipient for the International Latino Book Awards. Melendez lives in Pueblo, Colorado, where she teaches at Pueblo Community College and edits Pilgrimages; she also serves as contributing editor for Latino Poetry Review and acquisitions editor for Momotombo Press.

Learn more about Maria Melendez at The Poetry Foundation