IF YOU'RE NOT familiar with the Tucson Botanical Gardens, a great time to visit and expand into that world is this Sunday night. At 6 p.m., the third event of the PIG (Poetry in the Garden) reading series gets underway with the double star billing of Demetria Martinez and Luci Tapahanso.
The PIG series, brainchild of local poet and series director Jim Sullivan, began in the fall of 1999. The Botanical Gardens' outdoor auditorium provides a lovely place to listen to poetry against the background of birdsong. Come early, as the $5 ticket price includes admission to the gardens. Food and drinks, provided by Kingfisher and Rincon Market, are free.
Poet and novelist Demetria Martinez doesn't remember a time when she lacked political involvement. "I grew up passing out political cards on the street corners," she explains. Her large family and extended family have been part of the political and social scene in Albuquerque for the past five generations. In the last stanza of a poem titled "Troublemaker," Martinez gives this warning:
there's no passing the cup,
I'm going to be a troublemaker
when I grow up.
She isn't just kidding.
In 1987 Martinez and a Lutheran minister were indicted on charges including conspiracy against the U.S. government, which carried a 25-year prison sentence. The legal battle lasted seven months during which Martinez, also a religious correspondent, saw her activist poetry used against her. The poem written for two Salvadoran refugees due to give birth in December ("Nativity: For Two Salvadoran Women, 1986-1987"), contains these lines:
In my country we sing of a baby in a manger,
finance death squads,
how to write of this shame
of the children you chose to save?
Martinez was acquitted on First Amendment grounds, and the minister acquitted only because the women crossed in New Mexico after it had been declared a sanctuary state by its governor, Toney Anaya.
After the rigors of the trial and fears of reprisal, Martinez says, "Freedom of expression was more of an abstraction for me than a reality. I felt as if someone had cut out my tongue." The writing of the novel Mother Tongue, winner of the 1994 Western States Book Award for fiction, first published in 1994 and reissued in 1996, freed up her voice; she was able to articulate the deep love of activists involved in the Sanctuary movement.
Mother Tongue is the story of two survivors: José Luis, a political refugee from El Salvador, and Mary, the woman who aids and abets him. José Luis, carrying the scars of torture from "a country named after Christ," shapes Mary's life by the power of his suffering. He renames Mary Maria. When she explains that "Maria is the Spanish for Mary," her tells her no. "Mary is the English for Maria." This forever changes her stance.
"Survivors," says Martinez, "are people that have to go through the dark night of the soul." Surviving tragedy provides room for complex changes in the aftermath. "People either get pissed off with life or fall in love with the world more deeply." Because we are human, she says, "we do a bit of both."
Martinez finds a correlation between political activism and spirituality. In both realms, "We have to enjoy the mystery, and be willing to live in the mystery of life itself."
Martinez, rightly called "first and foremost a poet" by Luis Urrea, is the author of work published in the Chicana poetry anthology Three Times a Woman, and her own poetry collection, Breathing Between the Lines. She is currently at work on a book of essays, Just What Exactly Is Olive Skin, and Other New World Conundrums, while always remaining active in politics.
Luci Tapahanso, professor of American Indian studies and English at the University of Arizona, was born and raised in Shiprock, N.M. She is by her own description "as Navajo as Navajo can be." Since she was a teenager she's loved "reading and writing and playing with words," and views poetry as an extension of how she grew up. She says her poems and stories demonstrate a particular concern with "wordplay in the Navajo sense" and "moving between languages." Last year, the World Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers named her Storyteller of the Year. Reading her works explains this honor.
She's the author of five books of poetry and three children's books. In her latest book of poetry and stories, Blue Horses Rush In, Tapahanso speaks of the transition between traditional oral storytelling and writing: "Obvious advantages of oral storytelling are the expressions of the teller, the responses of the participants, and the gestures as well as the inflections of the voices." She relates the difficulty her readers face in interpreting the "I" of the story.
The story "All the Colors of Sunset" provides a perfect example of this dilemma. A woman's 5-month-old granddaughter dies unexpectedly. The devastated grandmother keeps the dead baby for hours, "not in keeping with the Dine way," thereby violating tradition.
"I held her close and nuzzled her soft neck, I sang ... the little songs that I always sang ... I unwrapped her and touched slowly, slowly every part of her little smooth body ... and said aloud each name like I had always done ... I put a bit [of corn pollen] into her mouth as I would have done when her first tooth came in. I put a pinch ... on her head as I would have done when she first left for kindergarten ... a pinch ... in her little hand as I would have done when she was given her first lamb ... her first colt.
The power and intensely personal suffering drawn here demonstrate the storyteller's mastery and makes the scene difficult to separate as a story. A unique blend of spiritual honesty and narrative emerge.
Tapahanso readily admits that life in Shiprock varies greatly from that in the rest of the country and has changed little over the years. Linear time in the traditional way of life doesn't matter. There, "Sacred elements are part of daily life and of cycles within the time of day." Life in this respect becomes a process. The concerns of the family are "eating and sitting down with company, laughing and always, telling stories."
Demetria Martinez and Luci Tapahanso will read as part of the Poetry in the Garden series Sunday, November 12 at 6 p.m. in the Tucson Botanical Gardens, 2150 N. Alvernon Way. Tickets are $5 and are available at Antigone Books, Bentley's House of Coffee and The Book Stop.