Leslie Contreras Schwartz, who served as poet laureate of Houston, Texas, is the author of Black Dove / Paloma Negra (FlowerSong Press, 2020) and a faculty member at Alma College’s MFA low-residency program in creative writing. In 2021, Contreras Schwartz was awarded the Academy of American Poets Poet Laureate Fellowship to create a workbook on mindfulness and writing, with poetry exercises centered around writing for mental wellness and healing. The book’s content will promote the practice of mindfulness skills through self-guided writing exercises, with the goal of helping participants deal with difficult experiences, trauma, or managing emotional and mental health challenges in daily life. The book will serve as a resource for the general public, young people, and students, as well as for teachers and community outreach leaders leading writing workshops. Contreras Schwartz will also commission a public exhibit of communal poems created from lines and fragments of poems collected from the public during the COVID-19 pandemic, documenting the experiences of the city’s residents during the pandemic.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Houston? What support do you hope future poets laureate in Texas have?
LCS: Houston has a thriving literary arts community, both in academia (University of Houston, Rice, and community colleges) and in the city at large, with long-standing organizations that bring world-renowned writers to speak and teach while cultivating writers through the city’s robust literary arts ecosystem (groups like Inprint Houston, with its workshops and reading series, and groups like Nuestra Palabra and Iconoclast, which promote local artists and nourish young and upcoming writers, especially writers of color and of diverse backgrounds.) Since the inception of the poet laureate program in Houston, and a growing number of public art and literary organizations over the last ten years, the community—across a broad spectrum of backgrounds—has gained greater access and opportunities to hear, see, and experience poetry through public art exhibits, readings, and workshops.
As a teaching artist, the most exciting part of the burgeoning access to poetry is the many opportunities created for young people and everyday Houstonians to see themselves as poets. As Joy Harjo has said in other ways, I strongly believe that poetry is a living thing—this creative impulse is shared and deeply embedded into what makes us human. We all feel the tug to name our experiences with beauty and truth using the lyric, to shape and use language in new ways, to carve out spaces within something we’ve written or said and to connect with others through our words.
The act of writing or expressing poetic thought has never been confined to academic hallways; it lives in the stories of grandmothers, the call-and-response conversations between middle school students speaking Spanish, Spanglish, or Black vernacular language, it lives in the spoken words of those who are not literate, but tell lyrical stories and sayings.
Poetry is also enacted. More light should be shone on the daily experiences of everyday people and how poetry is enacted through their daily struggles—the tumble and peaks of their personal narratives—and more teachers and witnesses need to be able to sit by those people to listen and be their audience. I believe in viewing poetry and poets in more expansive ways, not confined to selected individuals based on education or access to opportunities for a platform, but to people in the community viewing poetry as an integral part of how they live; to nurture that need for lyric, beauty, and language; to name our experiences. I hope that poets in community-oriented positions continue to promote this expansive notion of poetry and opportunities for more people to write and attend readings, and that the city’s thriving literary arts community continues to expose new people to poetry that speaks to a wide array of life experiences.
Poets.org: You are a community activist and a member of Macondo Writers’ Collective, an organization dedicated to fostering the work of writers who are advocating for necessary change in their respective communities. How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
LCS: During my tenure, I learned that one can impact the community one person at a time. Poets and poetry can provide a source of solace or hope, as well as give ways for people to name the difficulties they encounter, which is incredibly empowering, and can be life-changing if they are used to being silenced or having their experiences erased.
As a poet-teacher, my job is to listen, to give people opportunities to hear or read poetry that they might not otherwise encounter, and to sit with them as they explore ways to articulate their experiences. Activism can be the act of empowering other people, especially from underserved communities, one person at a time, to view themselves as living lives worthy of poetic storytelling. Community can be built around this growing awareness of one’s power in a supportive environment.
I have taught writing workshops in teen homeless shelters, a trans youth homeless care center, through the Houston Public Library, and in university classrooms. As the facilitator, my goal is always the same—to listen and validate, to reflect the poetry that flashes and glints in their written and spoken words. Poets learn by doing the hard work of inner reflection and taking ownership of their truths; as Mark Doty says in The Art of Description, we write “to refuse silence …to push back … to solve the problem of speechlessness, which is a state without agency.” With poetry, we are able connect with other people in profound ways not available to us in our day-to-day lives. Community activism lives in the places this hard work is carried out.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
LCS: As a woman of color, growing up in a community of Latinx, Asian, and Black working-class and middle-class people, and now a mother of three small children, my position in life has worked against me at many times to allow for a writing life. Becoming poet laureate opened doors for me, giving me the ability to write more and to continue to hone my craft. I am a better writer than I was before I was poet laureate, and I continue to become better. This opportunity allowed me to be nourished by the community work I was doing and renewed my beliefs in the purpose and the impact of poetry. When I go back to the page, I feel emboldened to try new things, play with form, syntax, try pushing the limits of language—and to talk about experiences that are not given enough of a platform, like living with a disability, or motherhood in a time with less support.
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
LCS: I am currently finishing a workshop book of writing exercises centered on the concepts of mindfulness. As a person who has lived with mental illness for all my adult life, the practice of mindfulness, which I learned through an intensive therapeutic outpatient setting, has helped to save my life.
Writing can be tricky, as many of us first come to the page to write about trauma or difficult experiences, and it can be harmful to writers if they have not healed from those experiences or reactivated nervous systems even by writing about them. But as a writer, teacher, and scholar, I have gained insight into how mindfulness concepts can be integrated into a writing practice in order to create a safe environment through craft-focused grounding, and by using writing to reconnect with a thoughtful way of living. It’s something I practice daily, and I’m excited to be able to share it with the community.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
LCS: COVID forced my projects to change formats and scope. What started out as a project highlighting individual poems submitted by Houstonians (called the Bayou City Broadsides), turned into a collective poem project formed from COVID-related poems people were submitting to me. I curated two communal poems from dozens of poems and will be producing multimedia poetry videos to share them with the public.
Poets.org: You are creating a “workbook” on mindfulness and healing, which will include poetry exercises to help others write through difficult experiences, trauma, and emotional and mental health challenges in daily life. How do poems provide solace and healing to people, particularly to anyone who is unable to receive professional support during the pandemic?
LCS: The mindfulness writing workbook will be a resource for anyone to use writing in a way that is healing and promoting self-care. Writing through difficult experiences, trauma, and mental health illness can be challenging because it can harm rather than heal if the writer focuses on aspects of difficulty or trauma that create a cycling effect of despair and being re-triggered.
Mindfulness and writing with specific intentions for self-care, using craft tools to promote those intentions, can be empowering and therapeutic by allowing writers to share their experiences in a way that is helpful and healing to them. Experiencing trauma forces people to enter a state of speechlessness, where we lose access to the part of our brain that forms language and carries out logic and reason. We want to be able to write about difficulties while remaining in a grounded state.
Poetry has the unique ability, according to the philosopher Susanne Langer, to convey experiences not available to us through other means of communication, everyday language, or even other art forms. Langer argued that poetry uses non-discursive language to convey human experience; we can say things in poetry through image, lyric, sound, and language play that are simply not available to us in everyday speech.
Poets.org: Is there a specific poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in the Houston community?
LCS: The poem, “You are Who I Love,” by Aracelis Girmay brings me back to the idea of seeing ourselves in deep connection with everyone we meet, that I feel called in both my work as an artist and teacher to honor our collective sacred journeys. The poem reminds me that my teachers are the people I meet every day, in the grocery market, or on a bus. Girmay reminds us that being on this Earth is blinding in both terror and beauty; but, it is through people, and our ability to authentically connect and love, that we can continue our journey. I consider noticing other people with deep attention to be one of our most precious activities. From this springs compassion and empathy, and from that, the possibility to create change with that knowledge.
From “You are Who I Love” by Aracelis Girmay:
You carrying your brother home
You noticing the butterflies
Sharing your water, sharing your potatoes and greens
You who did and did not survive
You who cleaned the kitchens
You who built the railroad tracks and roads
You who replanted the trees, listening to the work of squirrels and birds, you are who I love
You whose blood was taken, whose hands and lives were taken, with or without your saying
Yes, I mean to give. You are who I love.
You who the borders crossed
You whose fires
You decent with rage, so in love with the earth
You writing poems alongside children