For the past 16 years, the Cuban American poet and novelist-in-verse Margarita Engle has helped train search and rescue dogs in her spare time. In practice sessions, volunteer victims must learn how to stay still and watchful, and the dogs must learn how to pay extra attention to even the familiar. Both skills are apt metaphors for Engle’s writing, which traipses geographies watchfully, illuminating what might otherwise go unnoticed or unsaid.
Born in Los Angeles to a Cuban mother and an American father, Engle is the author of more than 20 books, including numerous poetry collections, novels, and a memoir in verse. She is the first Latino to be awarded the Newbery Honor (2009) and be appointed the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate (June 2017). A trained botanist and agronomist, she lives in Central California with her husband, where she helps train those search and rescue dogs. The following interview was edited and condensed.
Growing up, you divided your time between school years spent in the United States and summers in Cuba, until the 1962 Cuban missile crisis prevented further travel to the island and created very real danger for Cuban Americans. How did those new boundaries affect you and your sense of identity and, later, your calling as a writer?
Losing the right to travel was catastrophic in a surrealistic way. I wasn’t a refugee with clear boundaries between a dangerous past and safety in the present. My exile was mandated by politicians who never thought about the personal effects of their actions. Travel and trade restrictions were cruel. They did not cause the violent rebellion they were recklessly intended to promote. Instead, restrictions simply broke families apart and pushed the Cuban people deeper and deeper into isolation and poverty. During the Cold War, Americans were suspect if they communicated with relatives in Cuba, and Cubans on the island could get in trouble if they kept in touch with us. Both sides were willing to give hatred an official status.
Books were my refuge during that time, and because I wrote a lot of poetry as a child and teen, writing was a safe place for my emotions. I didn’t reclaim my travel rights until 1991. Since then, I have returned to Cuba many times. I wrote my memoir, Enchanted Air, as a plea for peace and reconciliation. When President Obama restored diplomatic relations, I felt as if a prayer had been answered. Then the new US regime took office, and now, once again, some of those Cold War era restrictions have been foolishly restored. When it comes to Cuba, the United States needs to learn how to treat neighbors like friends. In the meantime, I hope to use my books to teach peacemaking skills, so future adults will understand the futility of endlessly holding a grudge.
I’m struck by how many of your books contain more than one perspective. Creating and sustaining just one narrative identity per novel is difficult enough, but switching back and forth must be as challenging for you as it is rewarding for readers. How do you navigate the challenges of imaginatively occupying these identities, and what role does empathy play in both the creation and the outcomes of such work?
The process of writing a poem feels like a form of daydreaming. That imaginative aspect makes it possible to visit another person’s mind. Of course, detailed research is necessary before beginning, but once I’ve read a lot of first-person narratives from a particular historical situation, I feel empathetic enough to venture into a sort of time travel, asking what living in that era and geographic location felt like. I don’t pretend to offer complete answers. Poetry is a process of questioning. I think one of the most important devices for achieving this time travel approach is the combination of first person and present tense, both so common in verse yet relatively rare in historical prose. Multiple-voice verse novels are wonderful for use as readers theater, and they’re interactive. A teacher can invite students to write in the voices of minor characters who appear in the story but aren’t represented by their own poems. Even in free-verse books that have only one voice, such as my memoir, Enchanted Air, someone could plunge in and write poems from the point of view of my sister, a cousin, an adult, or even one of the animals. The possibilities are endless. Poetry belongs to the reader as much as the author.
There seems to have been a recent sea change in young adult literature, as the difficult topics and subject matter that were once kept away from younger readers are more often being addressed. In your work—I’m thinking specifically of The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano—you offer a gritty, unadorned look at what slavery must have been like for the young protagonist. What responsibilities do the writers of young adult literature have toward illuminating the past and helping prepare young people for the future? How do you personally decide what to include, what to leave out, and where to draw the line?
When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, there were no multicultural young adult books; I read books written for grownups. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was the first novel I bought with my own money, when I was ten. In seventh grade, I chose Hiroshima for a book report. It was the global aspect of literature I craved, not the difficulty of the subjects. I was curious about the whole world, and I retain that curiosity. Though most of the young adult verse novels I write are about Cubans, some have branched out to Panama (Silver People) and to a Swedish suffragist (The Firefly Letters). Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots (Atheneum, June 2018) is set in Los Angeles, where I grew up as the only Cuban American in a vast Mexican American community. The violence of history in Jazz Owls, The Poet Slave of Cuba, and The Surrender Tree is not portrayed for entertainment. It is simply part of the experience of people who lived in particular times and places. To ignore it would be veiling history’s racism beneath a fantasy of benevolence. I think historical verse should be honest, no matter the age of the readers.
I firmly believe that poetry can show some of these complex historical situations in a way that distills them down to their emotional essence, allowing me to omit certain grisly details that might need to be spelled out in a traditional prose nonfiction account. I’m a pacifist, and my goal is to portray the need for peace, so my narratives don’t glorify brutality. I draw the line at hope. I refuse to tell hopeless stories. If a particular historical event offered no chance of survival, I will never choose to write about it.
As an educator at the university level, I often find that many of my students have been soured by earlier academic experiences in which they were either bored or intimidated by poetry. What advice would you give educators, parents, caregivers, and other well-intentioned adults regarding getting young people involved with, and loving, language, literature, and poetry?
I can’t count the number of times teachers and librarians have walked up to me and said, “I don’t get poetry.” It’s terribly offensive and ridiculously self-centered. I don’t know how to build a cabinet or play the violin, but I appreciate carpenters and musicians. The only things adults need to understand about poetry is that children instinctively love rhymes, and teens crave a safe, rhythmic outlet for emotions. I know with absolute certainty that my verse novels and picture books are straightforward and easy to understand. None of it needs to be analyzed. If you set young people free to enjoy the process of reading and writing poetry, you give them a gift they can treasure for a lifetime and share with their grandchildren far into the future.
How does the current political environment affect your understanding of your role as the Young People’s Poet Laureate? That is, what are the obstacles—and opportunities—inherent in your tasks as you perceive them over the next two years? What is your goal as you approach undertaking this work?
The constitutional right to freedom of expression has already been damaged in appalling ways, just within a few months. Journalists are being officially persecuted and directly threatened with violence. This occurs in all repressive regimes, and poets are never far behind journalists as targets. The very fact that it is happening clarifies the nature of this administration’s intentions. We must speak out, but we must also protect children. For instance, teachers should no longer ask students to write autobiographical poems in a way that could reveal family secrets. Latino and Muslim children, in particular, need to be free to tell their stories through metaphors, rather than in a factual form that might cause classmates to report them to racist parents who believe the government should put certain names on a list for deportation or internment. Yes, it really is this serious. I hope to use my two years as Young People’s Poet Laureate to speak out in favor of peacemaking, a process that requires freedom and equality for all, not just for the wealthy, white ruling class. Whenever possible, I will turn the subject of peace/paz into a bilingual forum for showing young people how they can change the world with words. Yes, words really are that powerful.
Stacey Lynn Brown is a poet, playwright, and essayist from Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. She is the author of the book-length poem Cradle Song (C&R Press, 2009) and is the co-editor, with Oliver de la Paz, of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of...