From Colombia to Corona, writer, Yessica Martinez shares her journey as a poet and teacher. A dedicated activist, Yessica found an inspirational voice through the arts and has provided youth with creative tools needed to speak out against injustices. Her poems as well as a poem by one of her students, Kimberly Mendez, were featured in issue#12 of Newtown Literary. You can read more of Yessica’s work here.
How did you get introduced to poetry?
My grandmother was actually the person who taught me how to read and write. I think that left a nice impression on me. I remember being really into writing when I was a little girl in Colombia. I moved here when I was ten and the process of adjusting and learning English was really difficult. I went to Francis Lewis High School, which was a better school than the one I would’ve been assigned to.They had a library there and I read the book The Kite Runner. It made a really big impression on me and I just kept reading all throughout high school. When I went to college, I definitely wanted to try creative writing.
I ended up applying to the poetry class and I loved it. It was really cool because I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what poetry was. I remember the first time I wrote something. It was a little short poem, an image about my sister. She’s younger and at the time we didn’t have as strong of a relationship. I didn’t think that she had made these impressions on me, so it was really cool to see the poem and feel surprised. I often look back to those early days of writing poems in college and I wish that could happen again. Because I have all this baggage on top of me now, I think, “What am I trying to do with this poem?” There’s a lot more pressure. But the freedom of it is the best. You should always be surprised when you’re writing.
How has your writing process changed over the years, if at all?
When I started it, I didn’t really have a process. My professor gave us a lot of permission to experiment and was very much like, “Poetry is playful and fun.” He showed us really crazy, wild poems. The one I remember specifically was “Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda. It meant a lot that we read women of color as well.
Then things changed when I decided to do a senior thesis in poetry and write a book of poems about borders and migration. In my junior year, I got this grant to go to the U.S.-Mexico border. It was 2014, right when Central American families started crossing the border in massive numbers. I was volunteering at migrant shelters and taking care of families who were in these very vulnerable situations. We helped arrange for food and also find clothing for the families since they had lost all of their belongings during the journey and detention.
The feeling of responsibility was so much greater and it shifted in a sense. I wasn’t just writing about my own migration story and very personal, familial things. I was writing about other people’s lives and that made it so much more difficult because I was grappling with ethical questions, like, “How can I write about other people’s suffering?” and “What is the power and status of the speaker in the poem?” So then it became real crazy, but I had the support of a great thesis advisor. She was amazing. We met very regularly to work through those questions and the poems. I had to submit these poems and meet with my advisor and I had to finish my thesis, so I was writing constantly, under a lot of pressure, with a really, really heavy subject.
When I graduated, I went to live in Colombia and it took me a while to want to get back into poetry in that intense way. I still respected poetry and really wanted to continue writing, but it just felt like I needed some time to distance myself from that. I was writing poems in Spanish in Colombia, which was good because it probably brought back the playfulness that I needed.
Then I came back to Queens in the summer of 2016, and it took me about six months or so to realize that I actually really wanted to continue doing poetry. So I started waking up early and writing in the mornings and experimenting with stuff. It was really helpful and generative. Because I was working at it every day, out of my own volition, without anyone else or having anyone telling me what to do with it, I was able to go back to some of that earlier magic energy. I was writing poems where the stakes were lower, more minute, personal anecdotes. For a year and a half I was doing that, until I came here to Ithaca.
Being in a community of writers is really good. Having that level of immersion, you end up wanting more and more. The professors are such great writers and my classmates are so amazing. There’s so much to read, there’s so much to learn, you really feel you’re apart of this big tradition.
How did you know you wanted to teach writing and art? And more specifically, to children?
The reason I’m pursuing my own passion in poetry has so much to do with what I think poetry can do in the world. When I graduated college, I built this project to go to Colombia and teach poetry classes and work for community-based arts organizations. I don’t know where the inspiration came from, but there could not have been a better project for me in my life.
Community organizers in the U.S. can be very reactionary and draining, constantly on the defenses. The concern for most people seems to be the politics of it, like how do we pass the Dream Act? Or Congress and immigration reform? The people in Colombia were so interested in their community first and foremost. And that in the future, people were aspiring not only to political change, but spiritual change. I worked for a theater organization, Corporacion Cultural Nuestra Gente, in Santa Cruz, a neighborhood that has been around for 30 years.
Colombia taught me the importance of working alongside your people and falling in love with your neighborhood. A lot of their community-based projects were geared towards getting people to recognize the beauty of all these mini social structures, to develop their sense of identity as rooted in a particular place. Because if you don’t love your neighborhood, if you don’t love your people, you don’t even love yourself, then why would you expect people to take up a political fight to better the neighborhood?
I found this job teaching poetry classes at an elementary school in my neighborhood so perfect. We would do poetry walks around the neighborhood and I asked them to find things in the neighborhood that they found beautiful, some things in the neighborhood that they liked and we’d write little odes about them, so they could learn to see what’s around them as valuable and connect it to themselves.
I learned a lot in Colombia. The educators really felt that children were more connected to ancient and ancestral sources of knowledge and they felt they had a more accessible trigger to the subconscious. As a poet, I prize that, so I respected them a lot and honestly, they blew my mind all the time. I learned so much from them and working with them on poetry inspired me to keep working on my own stuff.
So much of writing poetry has to do with breaking down structures of language like grammar and syntax, in order to access a different part of your brain. And what’s amazing about these kids is that they’re at the beginning stages of starting to understand language as a social thing, so they’ll say things that don’t make sense, but that’s good. They’ll arrive at a different kind of sense or a different kind of meaning because their language is so fluid and so open.
What are some tools or insights you hope to pass down to your students that maybe weren’t available to you growing up?
By the end of the program, I was so amazed because the kids would come up to me and say, “Oh, Miss Yessica, I wrote a poem today,” or “Oh hey Miss Yessica, we were doing poetry in school today,” or “Look at this poet!” I just wanted them to have a tool for which they could explore themselves and I think a lot of them did leave with that kind of spark.
I had one student who out of her own volition, started a poetry journal. She has this now and she can carry that on without me and it was really important that I gave them a space not only to be happy and joyful, but also sad. I would highlight poems that weren’t just funny, but also sad poems. And that was important because sometimes sadness gets shut down. The classroom was a space for them to bring up these things.
Donald Trump's name became so notorious and the kids would bring him up all the time, sometimes in their poems and sometimes they would bring it up just to be funny, but sometimes it would come up in serious ways. I did not shut down anything political, in fact I encouraged it. It’s just another mode of expression and since I speak Spanish and a lot of them are native Spanish speakers and bilingual students, I would also let them write poems in Spanish and encourage them to write poems in Spanglish.
I think education can really suck the life out of writing and it’s the reason why people don’t continue writing or don’t even read. I just wanted them to have at least one good memory with the written word so that hopefully they would go to find it later on in their lives.