The New Young People's Poet Laureate
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the new young people’s poet laureate. In 2015, Jacqueline Woodson became became The Young People’s Poet Laureate, a title given every two years by The Poetry Foundation for outstanding achievement in poetry for children and adolescents. This year the baton has been passed to Margarita Engle who, over the next two years, will be promoting a love of poetry among young readers and also advising The Poetry Foundation on that mission. Margarita Engle is a novelist as well as a poet, and she joins me to read a few of her poems. Margarita, I read that you’ve been writing and reading poetry since you were a child, which is pretty unusually actually. How did that happen? Did you have great teachers, or literary parents? How’d you get into poetry?
Margarita Engle: My mother read to me a lot. She’s from Cuba, she loved José Martí. She would also recite poems in Spanish. Poetry was like a magnet for me. Travel books were also magnets for me. Through my lifetime, I’ve kind of combined my love of verse with love of travel stories and exploring the world. In particular, exploring my mother’s home country of Cuba.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, we’re going to get into that right away because I’d like you to read the opening poem from your book, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist. It’s in the voice of Tula, the nickname of, help me with this —
Margarita Engle: Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who would probably be a lot more famous to English language readers if her name was easier to pronounce. Luckily she did have a nickname, Tula.
Curtis Fox: So Tula’s her nickname, which is so much easier for us.
Margarita Engle: It does help.
Curtis Fox: Can you read that for us?
Margarita Engle: Yes, it’s in the voice of Tula, “Books are door-shaped”.
Books are door-shaped
helping me feel
But my mother believes
that girls who read too much
so my father's books are locked
in a clear glass cabinet. I gaze
at enticing covers
and mysterious titles,
but I am rarely permitted
All are forbidden.
Girls are not supposed to think,
but as soon as my eager mind
begins to race, free thoughts
the trapped ones.
I imagine distant times
and faraway places.
Fantasy moves into
the tangled maze
of lonely confusion.
Secretly, I open
an invisible book in my mind,
and I step
through its magical door-shape
into a universe
of dangerous villains
and breathtaking heroes.
Many of the heroes are men
and boys, but some are girls
that they rescue other children
Curtis Fox: So Tula faced a very different problem than a lot of young boys and girls do today. Tula was forbidden, she wasn’t given access to books. Books were relatively rare at that time. Now we face a different problem I think. Books are pretty common, most people have access to a lot of books except for very poor kids. Yet there’s still an urgency to try to get them to read. There’s other competing forces out there for their attention.
Margarita Engle: That is one of the great ironies of history, is that throughout history reading has been such an incredible privilege. In most societies, only the elite were allowed to read. In the case of women, even in the mid 20th century when my mother was a child, the books were often locked in a glass cabinet in her home because there were certain things that only her father was supposed to read. Women and children in particular, the Bible was one of the books that was always locked up in a Catholic home in Cuba, as late as the 20th century. Only men were supposed to interpret it; women and children were not considered qualified to interpret it. That is really something that’s changed now. Children are free to read, and yet might resent being expected to. Perhaps if they read more history or heard more history read to them — poetry being such a wonderful read-out-loud experience, and maybe a book like this could be kind of readers theatre in a classroom — maybe they would realize what an incredible privilege it is to be allowed to read freely and to write freely.
Curtis Fox: Can you tell us a little bit more about Tula? Was she kind of like the Harriet Tubman of Cuba?
Margarita Engle: Well she was white, so she wasn’t the Harriet Tubman. But writing about slavery was prohibited under Spanish rule. She wrote at great risk to herself. She wrote an abolitionist romance novel, which was published quite a few years before any abolitionist novels were published in the US. This is really a very daring act, to write not just about abolition, but about marriage equality, because it wasn’t just an issue of setting slaves free, she was saying that they should be free to intermarry because everybody was equal. By writing an interracial romance novel, she broke more than one taboo.
Curtis Fox: That’s wild. This is early to mid 19th century, right?
Margarita Engle: Yes, and at the time girls in Cuba in the upper classes, middle upper classes such as she was, had arranged marriages. The marriageable age was 14. She actually defined her families arranged marriages for herself twice, and was punished by being exiled to the countryside. It’s thought that the people in her interracial romance novel came through her experience when she was on a plantation.
Curtis Fox: Well, if listeners are interested they can find out a lot more about Tula in your book, The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Great Abolitionist. It sounds like a great story we should know. You mention your mother came from Cuba, but it’s a little bit more complex, your heritage, than that. As a way of getting into it, can we hear you read your poem “Kinship”.
Margarita Engle: Yes.
of family stories,
one long and detailed,
about many centuries
of island ancestors, all living
on the same tropical farm...
The other side of the family tells stories
that are brief and vague, about violence
in the Ukraine, which Dad's parents
had to flee forever, leaving all their
They don't even know if anyone
When Mami tells her flowery tales of Cuba,
she fills the twining words with relatives.
But when I ask my
about her childhood in a village
near snowy Kiev,
all she reveals is a single
on a frozen pond.
Apparently, the length
of a grown-up's
by the difference
Curtis Fox: That is unfortunately a very topical poem for our moment today. There’s a lot of immigration and escape going on in the world right now. You have a complicated family story. Your mother’s family came from Cuba, your mother herself came from Cuba, and on your father’s side, your father was American born but his family was basically drummed out of the Ukraine because they were Jewish.
Margarita Engle: Yes, they came much earlier. His family came in the early 20th century, escaping Pogroms.
Curtis Fox: So you’re mother came over I think in the 1950s, am I right?
Margarita Engle: My mother came in the late 1940s, and she came to the US to marry my father who she met when he was traveling in Cuba as an artist, painting. She came for love, not as a refugee. Yet she became an exile after the fact when travel was prohibited. I inherited that sense of exile. Exiles have a great deal of nostalgia and tell long stories, and listen to long stories, that are filled with love of the home country. Whereas I think that refugees who have escaped often never look back.
Curtis Fox: Now before your mother couldn’t go back to Cuba, you were born. And you had a chance, before the Cuban embargo I guess, to visit as a young child, am I right?
Margarita Engle: Yes, through the 1950s and as late as 1960 we did spend summers in Cuba.
Curtis Fox: These visits and your attachment to Cuba seems to have a dramatic effect on you and your writing.
Margarita Engle: Yes. Until I was able to start returning to Cuba as a result, I felt I had unfinished stories that I would never be able to tell completely. Childhood memories formed a basis for many of my stories, but they were often kind of incomplete. Whereas when I could go back and meet many of the same relatives again later in life and see the same places and go through a kind of experience of forgiving history, for me that was very important peacemaking experience within myself. I’m not saying that I approve of all the actions of history from either side, but making peace with them within my own mind was very important for me to be able to write about it.
Curtis Fox: Can I get you to read you poem, “Ritmo/Rhythm”? It’s from your book of first memoir, Enchanted Air, and it starts with a girl with the funny name of “Mad”.
Margarita Engle: Yes, my older sister is Madeline, so Mad was my nickname for her. This poem, “Ritmo/Rhythm”.
Mad has decided to catch a vulture,
the biggest bird she can find.
She is so determined, and so inventive,
that by stringing together a rickety trap
of ropes and sticks, she creates
a puzzling structure that just might
be clever enough to trick a buzzard,
once the trap’s baited with leftover pork
Mad and I used to do everything together,
but now I need a project all my own,
so I roam the green fields,
The skull of a wild boar.
The jawbone of a mule.
Older cousins show me
how to shake the mule’s quijada,
to make the blunt teeth
A cow bell.
Pretty soon, we have
a whole orchestra.
On Cuban farms, even death
can turn into
Curtis Fox: That’s a wonderful last line, “On Cuban farms, even death can turn into music”. It’s high praise for the vitality of Cuban music. This feels a bit like a recovered memory poem. It takes place in your youth, you were a young girl apparently in Cuba with your sister. Was this one of your poems that you recovered as an adult, going back and visiting?
Margarita Engle: This one I carried around with me for a long time, because it was such an odd thing for my sister to want to catch a vulture. When we get together now, we laugh about it. What was she thinking? She had no idea what she would have done had she caught it. We had caught tarantulas and scorpion and all sorts of things at that point. We refused to stay indoors. We loved animals. Our school year was spent in Los Angeles in the big city, and when we had the chance in Cuba we wanted to be indoors. It was a very strange thing to want to catch a vulture. It was strange for me too, I really wanted to ride horses. That was all I wanted, was to ride horses in Cuba. This particular poem doesn’t talk about that. But we were strange girls from the point of youth. A cuban who would have expected the girls to be indoors, helping to cook and clean and embroider and make lace and take care of the babies; that was what the other girls were doing. We weren’t doing what the other girls were doing, we weren’t doing what was expected of us, we were outside with the boy cousins.
Curtis Fox: You don’t write exclusively about Cuba, I don’t want to give anybody that impression. You have a whole range of books that you’ve written. You’ve got a whole book called Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal. Without explaining what that book’s about, can I get you to read “The Life of a Digger (Henry from the island of Jamaica)”.
Margarita Engle: The Life of a Digger
Henry from the island of Jamaica
Jamaican digging crews have to sleep
eighty men to a room, in huge warehouses
like the ones where big wooden crates
of dynamite are stored.
My hands feel like scorpion claws,
clamped on to a hard hard shovel all day,
then curled into fists at night.
At dawn, the steaming labor trains
deliver us by the thousands, down into
that snake pit where we dig
until my muscles feel
as weak as water
and my backbone
is like shattered glass.
But only half the day
At lunchtime, we see sunburned
American engineers and foremen
eating at tables, in shady tents
with the flaps left open,
so that we have to watch
how they sit on nice chairs,
We also watch the medium-dark
Spanish men, relaxing as they sit
on their train tracks, grinning
as if they know secrets.
We have no place to sit. Not even
a stool. So we stand, plates in hand,
Back home, I used to dream of saving
enough Panama money
to buy a bit of good farmland
for Momma and my little brothers
and sisters, so that we would all
have plenty to eat.
Now all I want is a chair.
And food with some spice.
And fair treatment.
Curtis Fox: This poem, and the whole book, is about the building of the Panama Canal, but similar conditions apply today. We have millions of workers, some of them in the country are undocumented, doing a lot of labor all over the country in every corner, largely unseen and unremarked upon. Was that in the back of your mind as you wrote this book?
Margarita Engle: It actually wasn’t, but now that you mention it, it does fit. There was a very clear color line in the digging of the panama canal. Under US rule, Americans and Northern Europeans were paid in gold, Southern Europeans and imported Caribbean Islanders who were mostly African-Caribbean were paid in silver. The amount of silver was measured by skin color, so that Southern Europeans received more silver than African Caribbeans. It was such a clear case of racism that I was really inspired for this particular poem by photographs where I saw the lunch facilities for white Americans and Northern Europeans, then saw the Spanish laborers sitting on train tracks — moderately comfortable, at least they were on train tracks — then the Jamaicas and Barbadians standing in mud, eating their food standing up. It was just such a clear distinction that I wanted to write in the voice of a Jamaican. I also wrote other poems in the voices of these other groups of people.
Curtis Fox: So you’re about to launch a two year stint as Young People’s Poet Laureate. What’s your plan? How do you convince more young people to take an interest in poetry?
Margarita Engle: Well this is just such an amazing opportunity for me. I’m dazed, I’m entranced, I can’t believe that I have this opportunity. I would like to tell young people not to listen to the adults who go around saying that they don’t get poetry. I don’t know why so many adults are afraid of poetry, I suspect that it’s because poetry asks us to slow down and listen, and feel with all our sense. That’s not something that’s done a lot in the 21st century. People are rushing around, being proud of multi-tasking. I don’t think you can multitask and read or write poetry. I think you have to set everything aside and focus on one page at a time, really experience it with all your five senses and maybe some extra sense that we can’t name. Poetry is not hard to understand. Music is not hard to understand. We don’t need to understand. Adults, unfortunately including a lot of librarians and teachers, will say I don’t understand poetry. Well, you listen to music. You don’t have to be able to analyze it to listen and enjoy it. I would say the same for poetry; listen and enjoy it, write it and enjoy it. You don’t have to analyze what you write either. I don’t think teaching a lot of rules for how to read a poem is an ideal approach for children. I think children will not be afraid of poetry if they’re allowed to approach it as a complete experience the way they do everything else.
Curtis Fox: Margarita Engle, thanks so much.
Margarita Engle: Thank you.
Curtis Fox: Margarita Engle is the new Young People’s Poet Laureate. You can find out more about her and read a sampling of her poems on our website. Do let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at [email protected]. You can link to the podcast on social media from SoundCloud, and you can subscribe to it on iTunes. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.