I’ve been asked to write about how poetry can bring a community together. My answer is framed by my own experiences, as a poet and also as a collaborator, and how both have given me a sense of belonging that has transformed me in ways that feel particular and tenderly human.
The particular part refers to my own ongoing love affair with language, the shape and sound of letters, how they appear as mutable creatures, and how words feel in my mouth when I speak in English or in Spanish, both of which have their own flavors and manners of arrival. As a poet, I am compelled to document what flashes large and small around me, whether that means the ongoing assault on our reproductive rights or the geometry of dried leaves in the alley outside my window. There is so much to remember, to protect. Poetry can gather us into conversation with one another and with the times and landscapes whirring around us.
So can community. The great poet and naturalist Mary Oliver wrote that “poetry is a life-cherishing force...poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” Poems nourish us; they can give us comfort, cultivate our wonder, or create a place in which to pour our loneliness or despair. The important words in these sentences are “us” and “our.” Poems have given me a shared shelter with my communities. When I think about my own arc as a poet, I always think about the friendships I’ve made before anything else—before publication, awards, acclaim. Of course, I want those things as much as anyone else—who doesn’t? But that’s not what makes my work matter the most.
It’s people who bring meaning to my poems and projects, and the compassion that comes with knowing them and listening to their voices, mingled with my own, that gives me a richer understanding of what it means to be alive. I find this in the Mission Poetry Series, which I’ve curated for more than eight years here in Santa Barbara, and with the deep ties I still have with my cohort from my MFA program at Florida International University. I find compassion in the rambling conversations and laughter I’ve shared at conferences and residencies, at tiny open mics, readings in libraries and coffee shops, in creative writing classes I’ve taught and continue to attend, and as the series editor of the bilingual Alta California Chapbook prize, where I’m entrusted to open the doors between languages through translation. I find this community, this humanity, when texting lines to a poetry sister while we’re drafting our poems in different countries, or at a Sunday afternoon get-together with local poets beneath the wide purple lace of a friend’s jacaranda tree. Poetry has given me a much bigger life than I could have ever imagined.
Many years ago, so many that I am shocked when I actually count them, I heard Li-Young Lee speak about the role of poets in our culture and communities. He said he believed it was our job to draw the constellations between the stars. I have carried this idea close to me since then, and I think it’s because it speaks to the motion of time, and how we must gather close when we can, wherever we can, and create something visible and shining with our words and with each other.