As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Alberto Ríos in response to a video of him reading his poem “Nani” aloud. Alberto Ríos wrote letters back to eleven of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
Alberto Ríos also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you all for participating in the Dear Poet project. Your questions and observations have been smart and eloquent. Everyone who took the time to respond to a poem participated in a fantastic conversation that adds meaningfully to the arts for all of us.
As poets, we love hearing what happens to our poems in the world. And the world today!
Wild days, I know. We all know. They are exhausting us all and scaring us too much, but we're moving forward—sometimes sadly, sometimes hopeful, sometimes patient, sometimes not. It's hard to know how to move. But through this all, there is still some magic left to be found.
I often ask people who the most powerful wizard in the Harry Potter universe is. We're all tempted to say Dumbledore, or Lord Voldemort, or Harry himself. But, in stepping back from this wonderfully imaginative world, we know those answers to be patently untrue. The most powerful wizard in all of this is the author of the books, J.K. Rowling.
The author is everything. Dracula is not powerful, ultimately; Bram Stoker is. Mr. Hyde is made powerful by Robert Louis Stevenson. Harry and the other wizards all cast spells with their magic wands, but the real magic wand is the pencil that belongs to J.K. Rowling.
For decades, everywhere I go I have said to young writers "every pencil is filled with a book." As it turns out, it's absolutely true. Sometimes what sounds like a metaphor, isn't. A regular #2 yellow pencil actually has enough lead to write about 45,000 words—a small novel. Every pencil is indeed filled with a book. Alternatively, a pencil could instead draw a line 35 miles long—if you wanted to. Whatever you choose, that small device is, at its heart, a magic wand, and we are the wizards in its debt.
J.K. Rowling's magic wand is her pencil, as potentially it is for each of us. There are 1,084,170 words in the entire Harry Potter series—that constitutes only a little more than the use of 24 pencils. The math is fanciful, perhaps, and she may have used a computer eventually, but the underlying fact of this metaphor remains clear.
This detail does not diminish the accomplishment, but rather amplifies the real wizardry implicit in it. And potentially, implicit in you.
Go on, go out—if not into the world yet, then onto the page. Write your words, read great books, think excellent thoughts. Nothing today can stop you.
Alberto Ríos reads "Nani" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
I was especially moved when reading your poem “Nani.” I am from Indian descent and the language barrier between older relatives is parallel. My grandmother and I communicate through food and culture especially whenever she comes over. We always seem to connect perfectly even though we do not speak the same languages. Whether the medium for this connection is food or even watching television together, everyday spent with her is a great time. The food is always magical as well and I am sure that it is the same with you.
I am wondering when you had these experiences. For me, I have these experiences every few years, since that is when my grandmother comes to my family’s home to visit us. However, because of the coronavirus, my parents decided that it wasn’t safe for her and some other relatives to come over. I’m also wondering the reasons for the structure of the poem. Having “Nani” be a sestina definitely changes the impact of the poem. The end words, “serves, me, her, words, more, and speak” are very interesting and I was hoping you could tell me more about the ideas behind these words.
The generosity of grandmothers is unmatched and can never be replaced. It seems surreal how selfless they can be and how benevolent they are. I hope that you can tell me more of your amazing experiences with your Nani and I can share more of mine.
San Antonio, TX
Thank you for your insightful letter. When I was growing up, we were encouraged to learn English and leave Spanish behind, so much so that by the time I was in later elementary school I thought I couldn’t speak Spanish. That wasn’t true, of course, but it felt that way. I was still going to my grandmother’s every week for lunch, however. And here is the thing: she couldn’t speak English, the same way I couldn’t speak Spanish, so you would think that we had a problem. But, as with you, a grandmother and a grandson having lunch together is simply not a problem, and nobody should make it one. Food, as my poem sorts out, is the way we finally found a mutual language that we could both indeed speak, and speak well.
I’m impressed that you know about this being a sestina. I have a series of sestinas, which is something of the ultimate single-poem form, all about my grandparents and my great-aunts and others who were very important to me in terms of family. The idea of using a sestina, then, was simple—the preeminent poem for the people who were me before I was me. At least that’s how I was thinking. The repeating word choices are simply true to my family and upbringing—service, language, striving for a better life, and so on.
What this comes down to, I think, is that we don’t write poems—we live them.
Thank you and good luck. Please give my best to your grandmother if you can, and tell her that, in my own way, I know her.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
While I was reading your poem, I could sense myself smiling as I thought of my late bà ngoại. On my very last trip to visit her in Vietnam, I remember how I would spend every afternoon watching her cook fresh seafood that she had bought from the market earlier that morning. Too young to understand or cherish her actions at that time, your poem painted the lost details that I had forgotten.
“To speak, / now-foreign words I used to speak, / too, dribble down her mouth as she serves / me albóndigas.” At the time I visited her, my Vietnamese had become fragmented. We spoke to each other less with our words and more through our gestures. I wonder how you too strengthened your bond with your relatives who lived farther away and how you overcame the barrier created by language. My grandma and I both knew that we loved each other because of our shared blood, but the difficulty of communicating made it hard to express all our feelings. Not only do I ask this question about your own experiences, but also for your guidance on relationships outside of family, to find commonality when a barrier exists.
I absolutely adore the lines, “Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak … Each serves/ as a tremendous string around her, / holding her together”. When I remember my grandma, I cannot recall the specific details of her appearance; rather, I rely more on the stories my mom has told me about her. How are you able to balance and fill in the spaces of moments that you have forgotten? My forgetfulness may be the cause, but the “string” that keeps my grandma in my memory is very delicate and can easily be unraveled.
You paint a vivid and compelling picture of your grandmother, seemingly remembering much more than you at first believe. It makes me very happy—and you as well, I hope—to have this memory come back into the world through your words. And I’m sure those around you are equally pleased. That’s one of the curious things about writing—we’re rarely writing simply for ourselves. Remembering events into words is one of the best ways of overcoming the barriers you describe. Though it’s not immediate, the barrier-breaking power of story and poem is long lasting, and serves so many.
You also talk about the wrinkles I invoke, the strings that hold my grandmother together, much in the way that your mom’s stories about your grandma help you to do the same. I suppose we could call them storylines. But any humor aside, I remember so vividly the wrinkles of a long life, how lithe they were when she smiled, and how many she seemed to have. This seemed to give her a life that was so full, whereas mine was just starting out. Part of what those wrinkles and lines have meant to me 3now, as I have thought about them through the years, is that they really are mouths, and are in fact trying to tell their stories. Scars work the same way, but they’re loud. Wrinkles tell the real and longer life.
I wish you all the best, and I thank you for your kind words.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
My name is Maria, and I am currently a junior at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School and Corporate Work Study Program. I am 16 years old and live in Hyattsville, Maryland along with both my parents and two brothers. My favorite subject at school is English because I like reading books and poems as well as finding what the author is trying to say through their writing, your poem in fact, really caught my attention.
The poem you wrote, “Nani”, really made me feel some type of way about my mom. It made me think that I don’t appreciate her as much as I should. I have a feeling your poem is directed more towards grandmothers, but I’ve never seen my grandparents in person, so I think about my mom instead, since she has cooked for me almost my whole life. A line that really stood out to me was when you said “Nani never serves/herself, she only watches me/with her skin, her hair. I ask for more”. This line gives me nostalgia because my parents would tell me story’s about how much we struggled economically when I was just a little girl and how they would have a hard time looking for money just so I could eat. Remembering this makes me feel so sad because my parents really sacrificed so much for me and one of my goals in life is to repay them back for everything, they truly deserve it. I also liked when you said “She asks me if I want more. / I own no words to stop her. /Even before I speak, she serves.” To me, this line is showing me that when my mom makes me eat more, she just wants the best for me, even if she shows it by adding a few more pounds to my body. I loved your poem and I hope you are able to visit DBCR so you could inspire my peers as well as myself to tell our own stories with poetry.
I’m so pleased to hear you connecting the generosity of any kind of parenting to my poem, and to my grandmother in particular. People doing very real things for other people, whether parents and grandparents for children, or neighbors for neighbors, or teachers for students—all of this is what I think constitutes the real world, the world I want to be part of and live in. Recognizing help, or rather, recognizing love—this is the first step, and it’s sometimes hard. If someone has always done something for us, when that changes it’s hard to understand, and so often we appreciate it way too late.
I especially love the point at which you talk about understanding why your mother always wants you to eat more—how of course she wants the best for you, but also how it is an expression of your family’s struggle.
I wish you good luck, and I hope you will say hi to your family for me.
And thank you for your kind words.
I wish you all the best.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
Hello, my name is Max and I am currently a sophomore in Long Island, NY. I am writing this letter in regards to your poem “Nani” which I found to be a truly nostalgic, warming and an insightful piece. Forgive me for not coming up with a better analogy but upon reading your poem it’s like an ocean of warmth and tranquility came over to sooth me and transcended me back to a simpler time and situation, cliché I know, but nevertheless it’s true. These past few weeks I’ve been stressed out of my mind with various predicaments going about my life, and reading “Nani” helped me ease those burdens plaguing my mind. It reminded me how blessed I am to have a “Nani” in my life, two of them as a matter of fact, one who is Dominican and one who is Salvadoran to be exact. Weather it would be Mangu con Queso Frito or Pupusas con Frijoles, served to me on a warm summer afternoon or a cozy winter morning, I would always love to sit on the kitchen table as a child, eagerly waiting for my meal as the smell of the comeda would simmer through my nose. All was bliss when my Nani’s would bring the dish over as their hospitality filled the room from corner to corner and into the crevasses of my heart, topping it off with a “Buen Provecho,” two words, and two words only, but those two words will forever be intertwined with a million pounds of affection. Even as a teen I still feel the same way and I still get that same loving aura from them, and from as far back as I can remember to this present day not a single ounce of their compassion has gone away, and as long as they’re still around I doubt that will ever change, an Abuela's hospitality has no age limit nor expiration date. Of course we can unanimously agree that our Nani’s have had a huge impact on our lives, but I feel like what you’re trying to convey goes much deeper than that, and I think that the ultimate meaning of this piece stems from this one core element, which was something that I just couldn't ignore, something that was clawing its way into my eyes as I read the poem, that being your abstract mentioning of words and speech. In this poem you seemingly represent words in the form of the food that your Nani selflessly feeds you, to the emotions that you both convey, to the wrinkles on her face, giving each and every one of them a story and a voice, a voice that can’t be heard of course, but a voice that can be felt. The way you describe your revelation upon hearing the voices of her past that you never got to hear from speak about your Nani from the depth of her wrinkles just absolutely amazes me, it opened up a new perspective for me and had me thinking, what stories from others lay in the depths of the wrinkles of my own Nani’s? As a child I only saw who they were on the surface level and didn’t take into account that they had a past and legacy filled with ups and downs, but as I grew older I got to hear stories from my father about how my Abuela risked it all coming to the USA and how her selfless actions helped her entire family seek a better life here, and stories from my mom about how my other Abuela would stop at nothing to gain asylum for her kids in the midst of a war to ensure a brighter future for them. All in all, I knew that my Abuelas have done some amazing things that further displayed their characters that I've always known, but even so, I could only imagine that everything that I heard from them is only a snippet of the full picture. I don't know how I’d react if I heard the individual wrinkles from either one of them introduce themselves and speak about them, more so the words of the remnants of the people from their past and present. I call them my Abuelas and they’ll always be my Abuelas, but who knows what they could mean to other people? Who knows how many people's lives they’ve impacted that are exempt from my knowledge? Who knows how many people have impacted their lives? there is more to the story than I could ever imagine. However, that also begs the question, will I become one of the voices engraved into the wrinkles of my Abuelas? Or as you put it, how much of me will end up dying with them? There isn’t a definite answer to that of course, but after making the connection to your other poem “A House Called Tomorrow,” another masterpiece of yours, I can see the full correlation as in that piece you describe people as not being fifteen, twelve or seventeen years old, rather the age of hundreds of wild centuries, which in regards to "Nani," one can see how these centuries correspond to generations with "words" engraving themselves into the lineage. Nevertheless, those engravings can be passed both ways in terms of lineage as older generations will somehow have some of your "words" trapped within their wrinkles, so when they pass, a piece of you goes along with them, so that who you impact and what you achieve will always be a part of them, and so on. I also believe that in both pieces, you're trying to convey that there is in fact a purpose and story behind everyone and everything, and that whatever you may achieve will forever be engraved in the wrinkles of your ancestors. Thanks for letting me know that they’re rooting for me out there, I hope than I can have some sort of creative impact on this world make them proud, people such as my Abuelas have done so much for me and others, and their previous generations have done so much for them and others, so on and so forth, that it would be an injustice for me not to impact others in a positive manner, I’ve always wanted to make people feel joyous and content just like how my Abuelas would make me feel, someday I’ll get there, I know I will. There is a lot to dissect from not only the poems themselves but from the overall intricacy of your mind, it astonishes me how you make such deep connections to the most obscure, improbable things and make sense out of it unraveling an entire mosaic of thoughts and wonder. Overall, all I have to say left is Thank you, Thank you for opening my mind to a plethora of insightful thoughts that I have never considered before, Thank you for bringing back those fond memories and making me relive those delightful experiences with my own Nani’s, Thank you for making me appreciate them more for every single thing they’ve done for me and everyone else, I’ll make sure to fully embrace them the next time I see them. As for you Alberto, I wish the best for you and only the best, Thank You.
The truths you describe after reading the poem are hardly clichés, though I of course understand what you’re saying. But the feelings, the feelings themselves—they speak loudly, clearly, and without apology. Love tastes, quite exactly as you describe, like mangu con queso frito and pupusas con frijoles and everything else you’ll remember as you move forward in life. And you’re absolutely right—buen provecho means so very much. It comes from whole lifetimes. Enjoy your meal. That is a gift that comes from struggle and is given to you from the heart as much as the hands.
Farther on, you totally connect to something I was trying fiercely to convey—that words are themselves food. And, further, that wrinkles come from somewhere or something—this is a very good observation as well. We are simply not alone in our lives. There were people, and stories, that came before us, and soon enough we ourselves will be those people and those stories for a next generation, though that’s quite difficult to see when you’re young. But it will happen fast enough, and you will, I guarantee, be a story.
You also go on to connect much of what I’m saying here to another poem of mine, “A House Called Tomorrow,” which I think is perfect. I think of all my poems as absolutely interconnected, and discussing only one is always a little bit frustrating. I very much applaud the ways you bring the two poems into a kind of harmony. It makes the whole sense of family far more complex—as indeed it is.
Thank you for these astute interpretations. I wish you good luck as you go forward into next year—which, I trust, will be a completely new beginning for everyone. Nanas included.
I wish you all the best and I thank you for your kind words.
Dear Mr. Alberto Ríos,
I’m Phúc, a Vietnamese international student that is currently studying in the United States. My English class lately is focusing on poems, and “Nani” caught my attention immediately as soon as I lay my eyes on it. I was really curious about the poem title, so I decided to take a look through it, and your poem really moved me. It brings back the memories that I have with my grandma who passed seven years ago.
When I read the poem, somehow, I feel like it was me who sat on the table and watched my grandma serving food. She lives in a different city not so far from the place that I used to live in Vietnam. She usually visits my family and me two times a year. She has a small food grocery on the side of the street from where she lives. Every time that she visits us, she always brings big baskets of craps and baskets of many kinds of fruits. When she visits us, she always makes us Cua Ghẹ Luộc, which basically stew craps. It was her specialty, no one that I know has ever made stew craps as good as my grandma. Although we speak the same language, I found it’s difficult to communicate with her. The thoughts that I have when remembering her was that she was always quiet, sweet, and caring. Through your poem, I understand that you also have difficulties trying to communicate with your grandma because it seems that you don't speak the same language as she does.
I don’t usually encounter sestina poems. I noticed that instead of six stanzas you choose to have only two stanzas and one envoi, why did you choose to write your poem in style? I admire that you could connect with your grandma through her motions, and gestures when she prepared food. I understand that you could connect with your grandma through her culture, through the dishes that she serves. That the food she is serving is not just simply food but it also a part of your culture, which is a part of you. In the poem, you expressed that you felt embarrassed when your nani is serving sopa de arroz for you. Is it because of the language barrier that makes you feel you could not show your appreciation for her? Is it because the language barrier also creates an invisible wall that blocks your way to connect with your grandma? Do you believe that people could cross the language barrier to communicate with each other through their different cultures? Or is it just a far away luxury dream that we would not be able to see in reality?
I really appreciate that you spent your time reading my letter. Take care and I hope that you and your grandma are well.
Kansas City, MO
I am sorry to hear about your grandmother’s passing, but I’m happy this poem made you think of her.
I am very interested in hearing you say that you had a difficult time communicating with her even though you spoke the same language. This tells us much about language—that words can’t simply be looked up in a dictionary, but instead have to be lived. She had what is quite likely a different life from yours, even though you are closely related. She lived in different times and had to do many things that are profoundly different from what you are now doing. This always makes communication difficult, but not at all impossible. You found food together, much as I talk about in the poem with my own grandmother.
Rather than working from words, you worked from the immediate moment you were sharing. This is a very special circumstance, to be at the heart of what words are. And even more—some moments don’t have any real or good words to describe them. They just are.
The various questions you ask are good ones, with the common denominator being language—as if it were a third person sitting in the kitchen with us and doing—or not doing—all the talking, invisibly there but felt by both.
Regarding the sestina form, you also make a very good observation. I change the traditional stanza breaks. When I wrote this, I had in mind to disguise the form, letting it work as architecture and not neon. That is, I wanted my grandmother to stand out, not the form.
Good luck as you move forward, and keep the observations coming.
I wish you all the best and thank you for your kind words.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
My name is Tyler and I am a ninth-grade student in Phoenix, Arizona. This month, my English class has been studying poems and attempting to write our own. As part of the Dear Poet Project, my English teacher gave us a list of poems to choose from and our assignment is to send a letter to the poet of our choosing regarding their poem. I read your poem “Nani,” and it genuinely struck a chord deep within me that resonated far beyond the poem itself. My paternal and maternal grandparents’ first languages are not English, so I was very emotionally connected with the message of your poem and your personal experience. At times, I often wonder if I am not doing enough to create the strongest bond I can with my grandparents, or if I should’ve learned their language to connect with them even more, and your poem embraces similar questions with a gentle hug. Reading it shed light onto answers for my questions, and it relieved me to know that I am not alone in this situation.
As I read your poem, what first stood out to me was how you used repeated words to take on a different meaning each iteration. At the beginning, “serve” represents the action of delivering food, as in “she serves / the sopa de arroz to me.” Later, “serve” means “function,” as in “Each serves / as a tremendous string around her.” Finally, at the end of the poem, “serve” takes on a much broader symbolic significance, denoting self-sacrifice and unselfishness. I understood this as your way of saying that in a relationship, nothing ever stays the same and nothing is ever certain, and if we want the strongest possible bond, we must give a part of ourselves to others. Another thing that stood out to me was how vividly you painted the image of both your own feelings and your grandmother’s wrinkles. When you say, “They speak / Nani was this and that to me / and I wonder just how much of me / will die with her, what were the words / I could have been, was,” I can instantly perceive the agony you feel of the language barrier between you and your grandmother and the battle it creates within your thoughts. Upon reading this section, it felt as though I was sitting right in front of you, having a conversation. I also enjoyed the lines, “Her insides speak / through a hundred wrinkles.” I connected so emotionally with your poem because the pictures you are able to portray with writing are as clear as the moments I have with my grandparents.
Parts of your poem made me wonder about your writing format, the importance of point of view, and your life beyond the poem. My first question is regarding the form of your poem you chose to write in. You wrote the poem in the form of a sestina, which usually contains six stanzas plus an envoi. However, you formatted your poem into two stanzas and an envoi. Was there any specific symbolic reason you chose to do this? My next question is regarding your grandmother’s point of view. Do you think your grandmother’s point of view in this poem would be any different from yours? What do you think she would be thinking? Finally, my last question is about how much your grandmother meant to you. How large of a role did your grandmother play in your life, and did you ever truly overcome the language barrier? Thank you for this opportunity!
Paradise Valley, AZ
Addressing problems with a gentle hug seems extraordinarily insightful as a commentary on what you’re describing, Tyler.
I especially enjoyed your observations on the single word “serve,” how in each iteration it changes. That’s something especially important to me—the idea that every word is a hundred, and every language has a different sound for that very same moment. Along with that, ideally in the sestina form, this slight changing and shading is how words should work in the body of the poem. Nothing should ever simply be the same, if possible. In that same sense, this ideal mirrors life itself—we may say a word in one moment, but an hour later, because we have had a new hour of experience, the word as we now use it is changed, however slightly. This is the human experience, I think, though it’s a little unnerving to lay it on the table straight out: everything is changing, all the time.
You have some more technical questions, which are of great interest to me. I changed the sestina’s stanza form in order to let my grandmother stand out and not the sestina form itself. I did that as a kind of disguise. The form is still clearly there, but I didn’t want it to shout or point at itself. Things that are more important are happening in the poem. The form, I think, should emerge in a later reading of this poem.
Your final, major question about how much my grandmother meant to me is haunting, of course. I wrote the poem for her. I have written many poems for her. I wrote somewhere that she was me before me. So, in writing all these poems, I think it’s always a search for trying to understand what’s inside of you, not far away. No matter who you’re related to or who has passed away or who lives where, you can always have the real conversation you want by looking in the mirror.
I wish you all the best and thank you for your very kind words.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
After reading your poem “Nani”, I was struck by how deeply it resounded with me; as I began to research and read more of your poems, I realized how much I related to many aspects of your story, and because of that felt compelled to write to you.
The first five years of my life were spent in a small, rural town in Nicaragua. The next two years I lived in Tijuana, Mexico. Spanish was my first language, but I quickly lost it when my family moved to the States. The lines in your poem, “now-foreign words I used to speak, / too, dribble down her mouth as she serves/ me albóndigas. No more/ than a third are easy to me,” meant so much to me; the process of losing a language, especially as a child, is tumultuous and confusing. It can be heartbreaking: feeling like part of your past is no longer yours to claim, seeing the disappointment of loved ones when you cannot communicate with them like you used to, knowing that perhaps if you had not been so desperate to be as “American” as everyone else, you would still have the language that is a part of your history. Now, I am in high school Spanish, attempting to relearn this language that my childhood was built around. Still, somehow, it feels strange to learn something in a classroom that is so ingrained into who I am.
The reconciliation of pride in my past and hope for my future has always been something I struggle with. As I thought about this, I was reminded of your poem “A House Called Tomorrow.” It speaks of the process of looking forward but also taking the time to remember what brought you to your present place. I wonder, how do you personally balance your past with your future; specifically, how do you integrate your identity as a Spanish-speaker into your daily life as an American? How has your Latino heritage shaped who you are?
I often feel like language has created a barrier between me and other loved ones; whether it’s with my younger siblings who never learned Spanish at all, my parents who encourage me to practice more by speaking the language with them, or old friends with whom I can barely talk anymore. How do you draw close to the people around you regardless of the barriers? Is it possible to overcome these great obstacles?
Your poem Nani is so important to me; to see someone writing about the struggles of losing a language and that important part of one’s identity means so much personally. For that, Mr. Ríos, I truly thank you. Your story has inspired me in my own journey as an aspiring writer, it’s raised questions inside of me, it’s reminded me to embrace parts of my life that I have sometimes pushed away.
Your discussion of the heartbreak of losing language is just that—heartbreaking. Your observation that this leads to disappointment in others in that you can’t communicate with them is crucial to this discussion. It is so important to know that this is a disappointment tied to love, to wanting not to lose you, to caring.
Now that you are in high school and relearning your first language, I can only imagine the confusion you must at times experience. But the good part of that confusion is that you clearly understand the context, the starting and end points, the distance you must travel in your brain to work on this bridge. You’re not in the middle of nowhere—you are very much somewhere, no matter how confusing it seems. There’s something exciting in knowing this, even if it feels the opposite. I’m so pleased you connected these thoughts to my other poem, “A House Called Tomorrow.” I think it helps to point the way.
You ask how my Latino heritage has helped shape who I am. I think in so many ways, the poem “Nani” speaks to this issue. Language. I may not know every word in Spanish, or in English, or in any other language for that matter, but what being Latino—in a U.S. context—has helped me to see is that everything, absolutely everything, can be understood in more than one way. We wouldn’t have different words for things if that weren’t true. This has helped me immensely as a poet and as a thinker. When people use the word “multicultural,” so often they are using it in a sociological way. I very much think of it in a psychological way, in that inside myself I am many cultures, many words, many everythings.
And how do you get closer to solving all this distancing? People always say things like “you’re smart,” “just practice Spanish,” and so on. But what is left out of this discussion is how so often we are, in one form or another, punished for speaking Spanish and rewarded for speaking English. We learn this from the start, if you were part of the U.S. school system. What happens, however, is that you learn this at the same time as, for example, you learn to ride a bike. Much later in life, you know what they say about riding a bike? You never forget. Better said, your body never forgets. In this way, you may be as smart as Einstein, but if you felt danger in speaking Spanish, it’s in your body. And this is something we don’t talk about very well, if at all.
Given all this, don’t give up. Starting to get some answers to help you understand where you are as a person will help immensely. I wish you good luck, and think you will tackle this voyage with energy.
Thank you as well for your very kind words.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
My name is Xuan Xian, but I go by the name Sam. I’m a junior at a high school in New York City. I’m an aspiring filmmaker and your poem hits a feeling that I hope to express in my future films. To be completely honest, as much as poetry captivates me with its enthralling language that opens up a new perspective on many ways we humans can interpret the universe, it at the same time fails to fully captivate my interest. I don’t actively look for and read poems. I have complete respect for poets and poetry, it just boils down to preference.
That being said, looking through the poems on poets.org, your poem, Nani, really stuck with me. If I’m understanding correctly and interpreting it the way you wanted readers to interpret it, you speak of a struggle with your grandmother, a nonphysical barrier between you and her. You struggle with words that you describe as “now-foreign,” words that you think you have to say more, embarrassed that you are unfamiliar with those words. Yet, despite this language barrier, your grandmother seems to know exactly how to talk to you. With the food in between you two, you find yourself wondering how much you showed your love to her and “wonder just how much of me will die with her.” With the food in between you two, you realize how much of herself she has given to you, in the form of the food she cooks and serves you. What I love about this poem is the way you use a form of anthropomorphism on the wrinkles, hair, and skin of your grandmother. You say that she “never serves herself, she only watches me with her skin, her hair.” You describe each of her wrinkles of having their own stories to tell, stories about your grandmother that you’ve heard over the years.
The reason your poem hits me so hard is the amount of familiarity I have with these feelings and my experiences with my family. I also grew up in a bilingual household as a first generation immigrant. I struggle to come up with coherent sentences for my parents and any time we go back to China to visit relatives, I feel alienated. But there’s also a load of strong feelings that I have when I try to talk to my maternal grandmother in China. My parents have some experience with English over the years, but my grandmother has no idea what I’m trying to say. And as I grow and everyone else gets older, I can’t help but wonder how much my parents would experience with a child that spoke their tongue. I can’t help but wonder how many memories my grandmother could make with grandchildren that spoke her language. When my maternal grandfather passed away last year, I can’t help but wonder about the amount of love I was able to give him and how much he died with. It depressed me, but in that thinking, I also realized how much love my parents and my grandparents gave me. It wasn’t through language but through food. The way that Chinese people say “I love you,” is by asking whether you’ve eaten yet. And it won’t matter if you have eaten, because they will roll out mountains of food regardless. That’s how they show love.
Sorry about talking about me too much. When in your life did you realize the struggle of living in a bilingual family? Why did you decide to write about this and the language barrier between you and your grandmother? What’s the significance of food in your culture and your family? Did you ever show your grandmother this poem? Have you ever talked with your family about these struggles and barriers? What did you do to overcome these obstacles, if at all?
Thank you for reading my letter, and thank you for this poem. It expresses so many ideas and struggles that are experienced by millions across the world. I go by the name, Sam, but that’s because my parents wanted it easier for me in America. For the longest time, I hated my Chinese name because every teacher messed it up and my classmates would laugh because of how absurd it was to them. But I don’t hate it anymore, because to people who don’t know my culture well, I’m Sam. To my grandparents and my parents, I’m Xuan Xian. That’s another thing besides food that we share well.
Sending lots of coolness and exploding stardust,
New York, NY
In your first line, you talk about your names and conclude with saying that you go by Sam. I laughed, because I myself go by many names as well, though they are all constructed between English and Spanish. Alberto is my given name, and in Spanish that is shortened to Albertito. My father’s name was also Alberto, so I suppose it’s like saying “junior” or something like that. Albertito is then shortened to Betito, which is in fact what my grandmother called me. Betito is then shortened to either Beto or Tito. Tito is what my friends growing up all called me. In school, Albert was what was on the record for a number of years, but not because I said it was my name. In a curious way, it didn’t matter, since in a small town everyone knows you and knows your nickname. Every word is full, even names.
“Have you eaten yet” is a way of saying I love you in various cultures. I’m so pleased that seemed clear to you here. You express some real regret at not having been able to speak with your relatives, your grandparents in particular. I’m sorry to hear of their passing. But another way to look at this, however, is to try and understand what they wanted for you, and what you might someday want for your own grandchildren. You will undoubtedly want the best for them, in all things. For this, there is sometimes a high price to pay. Some people have to go to war, some have to work far away. For so many, it is migration of one sort or another. This means leaving something behind, which is quite difficult except when paired with what we imagine will be a better future. There’s no easy way through this, except trying to understand everyone’s good intentions. This most surely includes your best intentions, so clearly demonstrated in the ways that you wish you could have said more.
You ask what it was like to live in the struggle of a bilingual family. I never saw it as a struggle—to have so many names and words for things simply meant that there was so much more in the world. On top of that, it invoked a kind of magic—out of one word, out of every word, came many rabbits.
I wish you all the best and I thank you for your very kind words.
Dear Mr. Ríos,
My name is Zoe and I attend The Barstow School in Kansas City, Missouri. I chose to write to you after reading your poem, Nani. I found myself extremely emotional while listening to this poem because for the first time in quite a while, I understood the setting of a poem and could relate to it.
I have been so lucky in my life to have amazing female role models, my mom, late grandmother, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou. All of whom love to cook. Dr. A was a very close family friend and before her passing she taught my brother and me to make her favorite dish, drunken fish. While reading the lines about wrinkles, I could see Maya smiling and hear her contagious laughter. The last lines of stanza one gave me chills thinking about all the stories that Dr. A would tell at family dinners. My grandmother also came to mind. I lost her at a very young age and my only sense of grief was baking and cooking her favorite meals. This poem had such an impact on me, it reminded me of the times in life that we need to cherish. Thank you for not only bringing back amazing memories, but reminding me of the amazing women who have shaped me to be the person I am today. I am so glad I came upon this poem because I now don’t think I could ever forget it.
“and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her”, this line generates a curiosity in me to better understand your message and vision. Something I struggle with is the acceptance that nothing I could have done would have changed what happened to my grandparents. My question for you is, How do you find peace through grieving and loss? The lines, “Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak of a man whose body serves the ants like she serves me”, I interpreted several different ways. How does this line express your voice as a writer? The stories behind each line build scenes in my head of childhood to adulthood, which bring life to your stories. How do you think sharing these stories will help people like me understand death and loss? Thank you again, I hope this finds you well during these hard uncertain times.
Kansas City, MO
You begin your letter by speaking of the actual power of a poem on a reader, which I appreciate very much. As a poet, we always hope that’s the reaction we’re getting—something powerful, something meaningful, something compelling. You are also very lucky to have gotten to spend some real time with Dr. Maya Angelou, who, no doubt, helped you to understand the power of a poem—even if it was just in her laughter. I don’t think you could have had a better guide. And what a wonderful thing to be able to say—that you have had such strong female role models in your life.
I am happy to hear that you responded to all the wrinkle lines, which I think are all the stories we have inside ourselves looking for a way to be spoken out of us. What’s great for you is that you don’t have to wait for wrinkles! The memories are already there and coming forward, certainly in the moment you remember your grandmother, for example.
You express a frustration at trying to figure out what you might have done differently regarding your grandparents in particular. The answer is likely not where you think it is, not in going backward and trying to fix something that’s already set. The answer is more in moving forward, and very particularly how you move forward, having all these threads in the fabric of your life.
The line about the ants bears some possible explaining. It is a very blunt way of saying that my grandfather, whom she served before me, was dead. When I was young, I remember going to visit his grave in Mexico, in a town called San Luís Potosí, and the confusion we had in trying to locate it. When we finally found it, based more on my father’s memory than on any directions we got, it was unkempt and haggard looking. What I remember, and what was so striking to me as a little kid, is that there was an ant hill right on top of his grave, and the ants all seemed to be going down under the ground to—I didn’t know what to think here at the time, to eat with him? To eat him? To talk with him? It was such a striking moment in my life, something I never forgot. That moment appears a little cryptically in this poem, but that is its origin. When you’re young, you think up all kinds of things to explain what you’re seeing. Sometimes you’re right.
What’s good for me is that I get to remember the ants in a much gentler context. Understanding death and loss, as you ask about, is sometimes just remembering, and bringing that memory, and respect for it, with you as you move forward.
I thank you for all your very kind words and interest.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
Whenever you know someone who you love but you know they can’t understand you it hurts. My name is William and my grandmother isn’t doing so great. It can be very difficult at times to communicate with her. This experience has shown and continues to show me that even when it is hard to communicate with someone you always try and find a way to communicate because of the love you have for that person. I go to Sidwell Friends School and I am in 6th grade. I am writing to you because the story you told about the language gap with you and your grandmother told me that you cared for her deeply and would have done anything at that age to be able to understand her. This reminded me of me trying to talk to my grandmother.
In your reading of Nani I heard that you loved your grandmother. I specifically heard this in your poem when you said, “Nani never serves herself, she only watches me with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.” This shows me that you appreciate what she is doing and since you can’t tell her you eat more of her food to show that you love her. Did you ever get to be able to speak to your grandmother in Spanish or another language to express your gratitude? If you did, do you think this brought you closer or farther to your grandmother?
When you spoke of your grandmother I could tell there was a distance between you and your grandmother. I specifically heard this when you said, “I owned no words to stop her.” When you say this you are referring to the language gap between you and your grandmother. In some ways this makes you closer to your grandmother because you know what she is thinking from facial expressions but in other ways it makes it hard to express your feelings. As a child did this language gap ever anger you at times, did you see it as an opportunity to learn a new language or to read facial and body expressions?
I loved your poem Nani and love the way you read it in the video. I know that when you think back on a relative that you may not be able to see today, there is always a feeling of regret for what you could have done together. I heard that there was a little sadness or regret in your voice when you read the poem and am wondering what you are saddest about in relation to your grandmother and do you ever imagine a world where she spoke English?
That is a difficult story you tell about your grandmother, and I respect the struggle to make things work.
You talk about how I communicated with my grandmother, and you point out that I say that eating was our best way, which was true. That is indeed how I showed her that I loved her and how she showed me, as well. But you also asked if I ever got to speak to her in Spanish. Later, as I got older, I relearned Spanish, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. I was always inside, waiting for me to call it to the front. In the poem, when I was younger, I always used to try to speak to her in Spanish, but undoubtedly it was not very good. That’s where I say, all my words make her smile. In other words, no matter how correct or incorrect the words, I was right in trying and she knew that.
You ask if this gap in communication ever angered me. That’s an interesting question. As I look back on those days, there simply was no time or room for anger. It was just the opposite, and even though it may have been frustrating, it provoked more amazement than anger. It helped me to understand, even then, that there is so much to learn in the world, and that so much of it matters.
Thank you for pointing out the reading I gave of the poem. It never fails to move me, and I think that helps me to understand the importance of the poem for me personally. It has personal emotion and it never seems to wear thin.
The final question about imagining a world where my grandmother speaks English is intriguing. It wouldn’t seem right to me, finally. She is Spanish. She is those words. To change them would be to change her.
Thank you for these questions and the kind words.
I wish you all the best.
Dear Alberto Ríos,
Your poem has opened my eyes to another point of view toward my parents. I'm at my house right now because of the Coronavirus. My family is having fun, playing games, reading books, and just enjoying each other's company. Unfortunately, I don't know how long this will go for and how we will be able to live like fish forever. Both mentally and physically, I know that I can't live like this forever and it clearly shows through my sleep schedule and bad eating habits. Despite that, your poem has helped me understand more of what's really going on and how much our parents give us compared to what they give themselves. I feel that Nani is more than just One Singular person, but all the good and heartful parents are trying to give their children the best opportunity to thrive in this cold world.
“To speak, now-foreign words I used to speak”
When I think back to when I was five, six, or even seven, I would always complain and throw a tizzy fit about why it wouldn't go my way. Sometimes, I still do it, and try to justify my actions by saying that my mom was wrong or I was just trying to defend myself. When I played that scene in my head now, I didn't want to accept that I was in the wrong, and I just used my mom as an excuse to have a pity party for attention. And when I apologize to her now, she doesn't even remember the instance, because she's forgiving and accepts me for who I am instead of for who I was.
“Nani never serves herself, she only watches me with her skin, her hair…Each [wrinkle] serves as a tremendous string around her, holding her together.”
Through this poem, I also learned that many people don't recognize what sacrifices their moms and dads make for them. An example of this is when my dad was talking on the phone, I peeked out the door and he was talking about something I didn't know about, taxes and finances. The same night, at about twelve, I was woken up by a door opening, it was my Dad and Mom, and he was fixing irrigation in the middle of the night. I didn't know what taxes and irrigation were back then, and even if I did, I wouldn't have put it into perspective to show how much my mom and dad gave me compared to what they gave themselves.
Thank you for assisting me through these hard times,
These are wild days, and the Coronavirus is a phenomenon we will all remember.
It’s so dangerous, but I hope we learn from the experience. I know it’s hard to stay in one place the way you describe, but I trust you will one day understand how important it was to take care of yourself and your family in this way.
But beyond our immediate sense of dilemma in the world, I am so heartened that you can read my grandmother into your safety in the ways that you do—you have opened my own eyes in light of the current pandemic, which focuses absolutely as you say on what parents and grandparents actually do all the time. As a father and now a grandfather myself, it’s strange to see myself in the roles I thought other people had. It’s my turn to do what was being done for me, and perhaps someday the same will happen to you.
When that time comes—and perhaps just generally as you go forward in life—I trust you’ll remember this conversation and your observations and that you’ll act accordingly yourself, with generosity and patience. Although your mom may have forgotten—or forgiven— moments where you acted up, this is going to be the very best way to pay her back.