CSUMB poet Diana Garcia gives voice to the voiceless.
Thursday, May 1, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Poetry Of Place: Diana Garcia''s poetry doesn''t stray far from her farmworker roots.
Writers are often told "write what you know." That advice was taken to heart by CSUMB poet and teacher Diana Garcia, one of the featured poets at this Saturday''s Pacific Grove poetry festival.
Born in a migrant farmworker labor camp in the San Joaquin Valley, Garcia grew up knowing first-hand the hardships of the migrant life, hardships she writes about in her poetry:
As a child I walked lightly in the dried fig season
beneath the pale green glow of a hung-low
canopy, its leaves like many-thumbed hands.
Summer winds picked at figs and dirt clods.
Bend, crawl, bend, pick, infinite insult to neck, waist, knees.
--from "An Orchard of Figs in the Fall."
Despite the attention and praise her work has received, including the 2001 American Book Award, Garcia has only been in the writing field for 13 years, after earlier incarnations as a single mother on welfare, a secretary, a personnel manager and a consultant to defense attorneys. A creative writing class turned her life around at the age of 40.
"In many ways, I still consider myself brand new to poetry," she says. "When I first started writing poetry, I knew there was somebody out there named Pablo Neruda, and now I can''t live without him, without his poetry and words."
When Garcia applied to San Diego State''s Masters of Fine Arts program, the head of the poetry division asked how many poems she had written. Eight, she replied. "She said, ''Then you need seven more,''" Garcia recalls. "La Curandera," a tribute to her grandmother, was the only piece from those first 15 to make it into her collection When Living Was a Labor Camp.
She shuffles to the door on faded scuffs.
Her breasts sway beneath the bodice of her muumuu
and the hands that welcome me are warm,
the skin like old paper crumpled then smoothed.
She is la curandera, faith healer, my nana.
--from "La Curandera."
The overriding theme of this volume of poetry deals with the life of farmworker families, which Garcia fears may create a stereotype about what people expect to hear from her. "Many of [my] generation did not remain farmworkers," she says, adding that she is trying to trace three generations in her work, from field to city, to show where she is now as much as where she came from.
Garcia started life as Karen Diane Garcia. Her mother wanted to give her daughter an "American" name because, Garcia says, she knew the hardships heaped on a person of color. But the name didn''t stick; even at home, everyone called her Diana. "I walked away from Karen when I left Merced," she says. "Karen always felt like this white girl out there, and it wasn''t me."
Her goal has always been, she says, "to fight for people who can''t fight for themselves." As a child, she was "the only brown-skinned poor child [bused to] the gifted program on the other side of town." The other kids on her bus were labeled mentally retarded--Spanish-speaking kids the system did not know what to do with and so labeled "retarded." Invoking this painful memory, names of friends drop from her mouth as if for the first time in years. "I have no idea where they went," she says through tears. Garcia harbors an "abiding anger" toward a system that would cast away her smart, funny friends. Worse, she says, "it still happens."
"My reality is serious," she states flatly, as is the reality of her parents, as well as her sons and her grandchildren, and "all those friends who didn''t make it past eighth grade."
Unravel a segment of time
where closed space offers refuge.
A favorite grapevine yields
a cloud of bee dust, its trunk
a perch you share with finch
and sparrow, lives trellised
to an empty lot.
--from "Memorizing the Center of Time."
Teaching within CSUMB''s Creative Writing and Social Action Program allows Garcia to highlight her passion for socially aware writing in a fully developed curriculum. She starts each semester posing the same questions to her students: What are the issues facing us in our community, in our world? Which writers, or laws, or news stories concern or excite you? Prior to joining the faculty at CSUMB, Garcia did community work with California Poets in the Schools and the San Diego-based Border Voice, two programs that send poets into schools to work with kids. She established similar programs on her own in the Connecticut school system and also worked with Poetry in Motion, a project that posts poetry instead of ads on public transportation.
Garcia has two more books in the works: Finest Fruit and Elements of Desire. These new collections will no doubt be a departure from her first book. Garcia challenges herself to explore new styles. She is currently struggling against what was the backbone of her early work, the use of lyricism to bring to light serious social issues. Some of her new poems are short. Very. They "capture a nano-moment," she says.
Garcia says she is "honored and privileged" to take part in this weekend''s poetry festival. Although she arrived at CSUMB with a CV brimming with poetry, she felt "lost, lonely" at first, while she looked around to forge connections. Having the CSU poets be accepted into the larger community is, she says, tre-mendously satisfying. "How can I stress how important this is to me?" she states.
PG Festival of Verse
In these days of massive cutbacks in arts funding, when famous artistic images of war are being literally covered over and teachers are fired for honoring their students'' right to speak out, it''s encouraging that the Monterey Peninsula will, at least for one day, celebrate the freedom that comes from artistic expression.
The first Monterey Bay Poetry Festival, to be held this Saturday in Pacific Grove, is the latest project initiated by PG poet-in-residence Ryan Masters. Masters says he is gratified by the opportunity to bring so many regional poets together in Monterey County. "Santa Cruz has always had a real personality" when it comes to poetry, he says, but until now "this side of the Bay has really never had that."
The day''s lineup of 25 poets offers a hearty variety of verse, reading like a who''s who of local poet/teachers. Among those featured are Ellen Bass, who has honed many a voice in her 30 years of teaching creative writing in Santa Cruz; MPC instructor George Lober, winner of the 1996 Ruth Cable Memorial Prize for Poetry, who has helped to bring to the area big names in poetry such as Robert Bly and, most recently, Philip Levine; Santa Cruz poet and retired teacher Morton Marcus, author of nine published volumes of poetry and one novel, and a familiar voice on KUSP radio Sunday nights with "The Poetry Show;" and Maria Tabor, who teaches at Hartnell College where she also heads the literary journal The Homestead Review.
In addition, CSUMB poets and teachers Frances Payne Adler, Debra Busman and Diana Garcia (see story this page) will lead a panel discussion on writing and social action, following their own readings.
Pacific Grove Middle School kids will offer the syllabic verse of original haiku; teacher and poet Patrice Vecchione will show off her Del Rey Woods Elementary School poets; and award-winning high school students will represent the young voices on stage.
To round out the day, jade sculptor and biologist Don Wobber will display his art, and a memorial reading organized by Monterey Public Library staffers will honor the late Bonnie Gartshore, noted journalist, activist, poet, and lifetime Monterey resident.
Masters has managed all this on a budget of just $1000. Besides the artistic energy needed for the job of poet-in-residence, he says one has "gotta know how to hustle."
The Monterey Bay Poetry Festival will run May 4 from 10:30am to 9pm at Chautauqua Hall, 16th and Central in Pacific Grove. All events are free.