Alvarez professes the power of poetry

Urges ninth graders to write from the soul and "become the channel that feeds the souls of others."

Patrick Garrity
September 24, 2020

Award-winning poet Julia Alvarez met via webinar with Exeter ninth-graders who are studying her collection of poems The Woman I Kept to Myself.

Julia Alvarez writes to understand, to make meaning of her own life; a very personal coping mechanism whose magnificent byproduct she generously shares with the rest of us.

The award-winning poet returned to Exeter — this time virtually — on Wednesday to talk about writing and the roles it plays in her life and in society. Alvarez’s online discussion with Academy ninth graders studying her collection The Woman I Kept to Myself offered an hour of inspiration and connection for 200 teenagers learning remotely around the globe.

“Poetry and stories have always been about being together apart,” Alvarez said. “A poem written in the 14th century can touch you in more intimate and profound ways than maybe even someone you’re really close to.”

Alvarez was last on campus in 2018 for a reading as part of the Class of 1945 Library’s Lamont Poetry Series. Speaking this time via webinar from her Vermont home gave her “pangs” of regret, she said, but she encouraged her listeners to fill the solitude caused by the pandemic by writing.

“We’re living in a deeply mythic moment right now, don’t let it be lost on you,” she said. “Even if it’s a simple journal, keep tabs of what’s going on.

“A poem you write can reveal more about your soul than you would even dare to share with somebody or that, sometimes, you didn’t even know you felt that way, until you write it down.”

Before diving into some of the 75 poems that comprise The Woman I Kept to Myself, Alvarez read her latest work, a poem she wrote for the anthology Together in a Sudden Strangeness; American Poets Respond to the Pandemic. “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry” leads the 200-plus page collection.

“Will the lines be six feet apart?/Will these hexameters be heroic, like Homer’s?/Will each word have to be masked?/ … Will poems be the only safe spaces where we can be together?”

Alvarez said she trusts the power of poetry to overcome. “Something in literature, in stories, in poetry will be our protection, will be our vaccine,” she said. “Poems connect us in deeply profound ways as a human family and remind us of the things we mustn’t forget.”

Alvarez recited several poems from the collection the ninth graders are studying in English this term. She calls The Woman I Kept to Myself a memoir, of sorts, looking at her life not necessarily as a chronology or a narrative but rather like what Wordsworth called “little spots of time.” Alvarez’s work is shaped by the language and influences of two cultures: those of the Dominican Republic of her youth and the America of her teenage years and adulthood. Those dueling influences often collide in poems with titles like “Spic” and “All-American Girl.”

“The poems are often about these little quandaries or questions — in Spanish we have a beautiful word: inquietudes,” she said. “I call them a pebble in my shoe. Something that I keep going over and over, musing about, something that hurts or worries me, a little knot that the poem tries to untie. Not through resolution or answers, but through understanding the question.”

The students then posed questions about her poems and her process. One girl asked for advice for young writers trying to write about and represent their Latina culture. Alvarez recalled an English teacher of hers who declared that one would never be able to write good poetry in their second language.

“I thought I will never belong on the shelf of American literature,” she said. “I have seen in my own lifetime the boundaries be crossed and the borders be crossed. Those of us from ethnic cultures, writers of color, are infusing American literature with new energy, new stories. Expanding the canon — in fact, exploding the canon.”

Alvarez urged the students to “write of the things that are true to you, that feed your soul, and you become the channel that feeds the souls of others. If you try to build somewhere else, the well won’t go deep where the water is.”

Stay true to yourself, she said, and the poetry will flow.

“You don’t have to try. It’s like trying to make your fingerprint your fingerprint; it will be only you. … This is who you are, it’s that deep well, that person you keep to yourself that you put down on paper. And that will enrich us all, because only you can tell that story.”