Poet and playwright Valerie Martínez, an associate professor of English and creative writing at the College of Santa Fe, was named poet laureate of Santa Fe on March 10.
SFR: What drew you to poetry in the first place?
That's a huge question because I started writing when I was about 13 and I had had some trauma. I started writing, in part, because I needed a safe place to be and to express myself. For me, early on, poetry really did save my life, literally.***image1***
Why does Santa Fe have a poet laureate?
Well, from my point of view, Santa Fe is really well known for visual arts, all kinds of visual arts. But we have a thriving literary community, too. Maybe [the City of Santa Fe's Art Commission] wanted a little bit more attention to the idea of poetry in the city.
Any specific goals you have for your laureateship?
I guess I'm most excited about the community project. I'm going to bring together three generations of 15 Santa Fe families. Each family creates a work. It can be very in-the-box or out-of-the-box. It could be a piece of pottery, a rug. It could a meal. It could be a short film. It could be anything that the 15 families want to do. And then I work with each family to create a poem to accompany whatever work they have. We can write the poem collaboratively or I can write the poem for the family depending on what they want.
You have said you're both proud of your culture but also horrified by it. What do you mean?
In order to identify or belong to this place, you have to take ownership of a lot of contradictory or complex things…The idea that my ancestors came from Spain is something that's wonderful. [But] it's also, you know, a colonizer and it's been marked by incredible violence against other people, even genocide. So you have kind of a split psychology if you're Hispanic because you're both the colonized and the colonizers and that's a difficult place to be in sometimes.
Many of your poems seem to take place in imagined landscapes. Do you have a favorite imagined landscape?
Well, there are many. [Long pause] My favorite landscape is what I call this boundary between the visible and invisible worlds. I'm very interested in the parameters in absent space, the transition between life and death.
Do you think poetry is a dying art form?
Well, in the last few weeks we've been hearing those statistics of how few people read. That's devastating for poetry. I think that poetry may be dying in that way or when poetry is considered an elite thing that isn't accessible to most people. At the same time, we have a thriving poetry community in spoken word and slam and we have many, many young people, particularly young people of color, who are coming to poetry because of those movements.
Do you consider yourself a politically engaged poet? Does that show up in your work?
It does sometimes. It doesn't always show up, but it does show up sometimes. For example, in my second book, I have a poem that's written from the point of view of one of those maidens that suicide bombers believe they are going to meet in the next world. The poem is speaking from her point of view. That poem, which is called 'September 2001,' is basically saying to this new arrival that that's not what's waiting for him in the next world.
You made a reference to childhood trauma you suffered earlier in your life. What happened?
It was a trauma by somebody outside my family, a stranger. I was a creative kid before that. I was 7. I was very young when it happened. It's painful for me to talk about it. I was molested by a stranger when I was 7. It was a man who was driving a car and asked me for directions and I went up to that and, you know, so I was molested. And I was 7. I didn't realize how young 7 was until I had nieces and nephews who were 7. And so, I survived it. I survived and was taken care of by my family as best they could and it just went under, it went deep down. That's when I started writing.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Well, I mean, there are so many. I translated the poems of Delmira Agustini, the Uruguayan poet. I still read her. She wrote at the turn of the century and she was writing sort of erotic poetry when nobody else had written it. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Thoreau. And I love Emily Dickinson. She's a lasting influence on my work. She was so unique and so quirky and so strange. She also is very interested in that territory that I'm interested in: that moment before death or the moment right after death, those transitional worlds.
Any advice for aspiring poets?
Oh, yeah. You have to write a lot, you have to read a lot and then you have to live very deeply…Everybody laughs, but I always say that on my tombstone I want to have that quote from the Cars song. I don't even remember which song it is, but it says, 'It doesn't matter where you've been as long as it was deep.' [Laughs] And I really believe that! I think that you've got to read and write. You have to read everyone and imitate people and then you have to write constantly. Beyond that, you have to be exposed to the world.
Madason Gray contributed to this article.