Monday, October 22, 2012

Guest Blog Post: W. M. Rivera on the Writing Life

Thanks to D.C. area poet W. M. Rivera for sharing the path his life and writing has taken, as well as some thoughts on writing. He shares, “I am drawn to poetry because it is direct and feelings and insights can be expressed in a few words.  And when the few words are just right, I find the result volcanic.” His poetry chapbook The Living Clock is forthcoming and available for pre-sale from Finishing Line Press. For a taste, be sure to read the two poems below. 

W. M. Rivera grew up in the Irish Channel of New Orleans, from the mid-1930s until 1950. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1955 with a major in French language and literature.  He subsequently worked for the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and for the Organization of American States (in Mexico).  He was then employed by UNESCO and later the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (in Paris).  He completed a Masters in Economics at American University and later a Ph.D. in Adult Education at Syracuse University. He retired as professor of agricultural extension education from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2009.  He began writing poetry early on and published a book of poems titled “At the End of Legend’s String” (Views Press, 1960, Washington, DC), which was illustrated by Jose Luis Cuevas, Mexico's most prominent contemporary artist.  Although he wrote poems throughout his career, after retirement he returned to writing poetry on a regular basis. He currently resides in College Park, MD.

W. M. Rivera

Until I was 10 or so I didn’t know there was any other occupation than poet, my mother, or educator, my grandmother.  It was only when I went to college that I realized I would have to earn a living as well, which took me on a fascinating journey.

From paying for college on athletic scholarships, swimmer and gymnast as well as short-order cook, agricultural worker, construction and whatever else would pay my food bills, to finding relevant and exciting work at the Library of Congress as a documentalist, art critic in Mexico City, to international civil servant in Paris at UNESCO, as well as university professor and consultant for the World Bank, FAO and other international agencies I have always been involved in critical change among adults through education and personal choice.  This has taken me to over 30 countries from the Middle East, Africa, India, the Soviet Union, Europe, as well as Latin America, which hopefully broadens and deepens my work as a poet.

All the while I was a poet athlete, a poet educator, consultant, husband, father and international citizen. The greatest influence in my life was growing up in New Orleans, a city of oddballs, characters, individuals who refuse to be categorized.  This, combined with my grandmother, an inveterate individualist, who started the first adult education program for immigrants in New Orleans, as well as taught me that all individuals were equal, has formed my ridiculously optimistic outlook that people can change and master their destiny.  However, New Orleanian optimists always have a dark frame to their optimism.

The other influence in my life was knowing my father was Mexican.  An illegal immigrant, he was forced to return to Mexico when I was an infant, but his family continued to send presents and reminders of my Mexican heritage, which further marginalized a southern boy living in the northeast.

I have always written poetry, publishing my first book, The End of Legend’s String (Views Press, 1960) -- brilliantly illustrated by the fabulous Mexican artist, Jose Luis Cuevas, in those days a companion of mine, and organizing poetry readings in Washington, DC which attracted poets such as Richard Eberhart. After that period, I did not submit my work for publication, not until I retired recently as full professor at UMCP, then I began devoting 100% of my time to writing poetry.   My work routine is to get up in the morning, do Tai Chi, perhaps answer correspondence, and then work on my poetry.   As Robert Frost is often quoted as saying, ‘writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration’.  I work from 9 to about 5, taking time out for lunch and, depending on the inspiration, numerous breaks.  When I am not inspired I spend time editing my poems which is a never-ending process.  As Paul Valery said, a poem is never finished. 

Much of my writing is influenced by early events and people in my life, as well as by my different careers and more significantly perhaps by my concern to explore and learn more about the nature of things. You mention my 30 years as an adult and agricultural extension education policy professor; both of these interests have resulted in traveling to as many countries. From Uzbekistan to Trinidad, while I worked to promote adult and agricultural development, I was constantly taking in the world around with some vague plan that at some later date I would process everything into poems. Travel in fact has been a major motivator in my life, influenced as I was by Sir Francis Bacon (16th/17th century English philosopher, statesman, scientist, and author), who said that travel is the best education. 

While I am not a painter,  the visual arts always attracted me and accounted for the connection my books have, through illustrations, book covers, and the poems themselves.  The book cover of my recent book, Buried in the Mind’s Backyard (Brickhouse Books, 2011) is illustrated by Miguel Conde, prominent and superb artist now living in Spain, and one of his sketches will be the cover for my forthcoming book, The Living Clock. 

Since retirement, I have had to start over in a sense.  My poem “Rebooting” is illustrative.


I didn’t expect the beginning when I was clearly
in the middle of things and close
to the ending.  But there I was, asking why
had I stayed away so long?  Everything different
from before, despite my closeted hobby horse,
the urge to ride right off into the race.

I look for analogies: the maple tree outside I cut
and cut again, demanding that it die, but there it is
dropping resin on the roof as if nothing happened
or the ivy I smashed flat and ground into the ground,
meaning to finish it off for good, but there it is as if nothing
made a difference, defiant, new…overnight. 

But these green parallels deceive, have little to do
with perennials, detour decades, corners cut short.

                                                                                    (Published in Gargoyle)

The contemporary world of poetry has changed considerably since the 50s and 60s.  I have had to learn to hold on to tradition while at the same time letting it go loose.  My early poems have tended to mimic the poetry masters of earlier eras. It is exciting to renew exploration of what it means to write a poem. “Latecomer,” I think captures that feeling.


All the good stuff is gone
and my brown bag is full of grease spots
and small,
smells fine but it’s not
petit fours. 

The conversations buzz along.
On edge, not even sticking out, I am
no proverbial sore thumb,
more like the petunia among silver-belles.

And who is that
staring?--some Baudelairian brother?
the host? or someone hanging on
the words of others, unhappy to see
another carpenter bee boring out of the woodwork.

Should I barge over?  
I have come this far with my greasy brown bag.

How refreshing now
to walk back out
into the night air
alone with the ice-sickle Lorca moon I sighted
before sticking my foot in the door, everybody fixed
in place, and I knew
few would be tempted by my grits with jalapeƱo cheese.

In “The Living Clock,” I didn’t consciously think in terms of themes or narrative threads.  In retrospect perhaps three, maybe four themes are noticeable.  There is the impact of personal relationships, which continually demand exploration (my grandmother who raised me, my father in Mexico who I barely knew, and of course my relationship to myself).  Travel accounts for several of the poems: experiences in Paris, Prague, South Africa.  I am also fascinated by the connection and tension between painting and poetry. There is as ever ‘life on the fly’ and time’s ‘winged chariot’ that shapes our view of the world as it passes.

Athletically I was a short-distance sprinter, 50 to -100-yard competition swimmer and in college a nationally recognized gymnastic rope-climber. As a ‘sprinter,’ the novel and other long-distance writing has never appealed to me.  I am drawn to poetry because it is direct and feelings and insights can be expressed in a few words.  And when the few words are just right, I find the result volcanic.

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