As a Mexican-American teen growing up in suburban Texas, the poems I read in school—all wildflowers in wooded forests and elegies to centuries’ gone battles—bore no resemblance to the Chihuahuan desert where I was born, the Mexican border town where my abuelos lived, or the curlicue highways of my hometown. And they certainly made no mention of what it was like to live a life eternally in translation.
If you had asked me then, I would have said I had no time for poetry. But if you had asked me if I loved language, even surly teenage me would have told you yes, without hesitation.
This was largely due to my mother, who spent summer afternoons teaching me Spanish. Our workbooks were filled with activities my mother wrote and illustrated with pictures cut from magazines and pasted onto construction paper. This was only the first shift for Mom, who spent her evenings teaching night classes at the community college.
Her main route of engagement was rhymes and word play. Even now, when I get rattled, one runs through my head: “erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril, rápido corren los carros en el ferrocarril.” Not only did it teach me to roll my rs, but it still serves as a calming charm for me. (The phrase is a nonsense tongue-twister, literally meaning: “rr with rr cigar, rr with rr barrel, the cars go fast on the rail line.” I always liked the way it clattered across my tongue like a railroad car.)
I will admit that my siblings and I only learned Spanish to decipher my bilingual parents’ private conversations, but Mom gave us a gift I only now fully appreciate: Spanish was a gateway. In Latin American literature seminars at university, I discovered Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, who provided a bridge to Whitman and others writing in English. From there I discovered the ways experience can overlap, even if cultural context differs.
I’m thinking of Mom’s lessons today, as I type at my kitchen table. My kids are in fits of giggles in the adjoining living room, “Mummy kicking” to Joe Wicks’s PE lesson on YouTube. I’ve tried to channel my mother’s playful spirit, as I struggle to learn the new methods of teaching math or to identify the best of the thousand teaching links I’ve been sent by their schools during the corona-crisis.
I’m far more privileged than my mom. There’s a wealth of materials available online, but I also recognize the value of her subject expertise: there’s so much to wade through and it’s hard to know what’s best.
This makes me reflect again on what teachers face, especially when it comes to a generation of teachers (and parents like me), who might bear a certain hesitation toward poetry.
This is why I fervently believe in National Poetry Day’s Trade Campaign. It aims to highlight the diverse forms and ranges of poetry books published in the UK. Through our lists of recommended books for teens and children, we make it easier for teachers and parents—and students themselves—to read inspiring new work. We get a wider range of voices into schools and libraries.
We have recommendations for reading groups, too, and a general Best New Poetry list, which last year featured books by two of my favourite poets: Jericho Brown’s The Tradition and Ada Limón’s The Carrying.
How can you help? (I’m sure, you ask!) The 2020 lists will be published soon on the NPD website, and it would be a great help if you could share them widely through your networks.
If you’re a publisher, please consider submitting titles for next year. The NPD team spends a considerable amount of time chasing titles down, and we’d love to see an even wider range of poets represented.
And it’s still not too late to help curate for 1st October 2020: we also feature poems on the theme of Vision on the National Poetry Day website. If you have any recommendations for out-of-copyright or permission-cleared poems on that theme, please e-mail them to me.
Mónica Parle is National Poetry Day Manager for The Forward Arts Foundation.