Poetry Centered

Peggy Robles-Alvarado: Whistle, Hum, and Heartbeat When Negotiating Identity

April 07, 2021 Season 3 Episode 3
Poetry Centered
Peggy Robles-Alvarado: Whistle, Hum, and Heartbeat When Negotiating Identity
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Peggy Robles-Alvarado introduces poems that embody complex identities with honesty, exuberance, and strength. She shares Toi Derricotte’s frank look at the experience of shifting from woman to mother (“Delivery”), Judith Ortiz Cofer’s reckoning with leaving childhood behind (“Quinceañera”), and Ada Limón’s celebration of self-worth and self-pride (“How to Triumph Like a Girl”). Robles-Alvarado concludes with her own poem “Stunting,” a piece sparked by exploring the archive and reflecting on the restorative power of poetry.

Listen to the full recordings of Derricotte, Ortiz Cofer, and Limón reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Toi Derricotte (1992)
Judith Ortiz Cofer (1991)
Ada Limón (2018) 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.52] Welcome to another episode of Poetry Centered, the show that brings you recorded poetry readings curated and introduced by contemporary poets. These recordings come to you from Voca, the audiovisual archive at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson here to welcome you to our show. Today were hosted by Peggy Robles-Alvarado, an award winning poet, performer, and educator. She's a three time International Latino Book Award winner, including for her most recent collection Homage to the Warrior Women as well as for her anthology, The Abuela Stories Project. 

[00:00:41.29] In today's episode, Peggy introduces work by Toi Derricotte, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Ada Limón selecting poems that offer honest, fierce, celebratory reflections on shifting identities. Peggy then reads a brand new poem of her own written in response to the experience of listening to the archive. Welcome Peggy and thank you for hosting us today. 

Peggy Robles-Alvarado:
[00:01:06.81] This is Peggy Robles-Alvarado coming to you from the Bronx in New York City. The first poem I selected was Delivery by Toi Derricotte from her collection Natural Birth published by the Crossing Press in 1983, and the reading is dated February 19 1992. I selected this poem because it details the shift in identity from woman to mother when giving birth to what Derricotte calls an awesome stranger. 

[00:01:41.19] You can hear the poet struggling to be heard as male doctors try to force her to receive an epidural, to numb the pain as she holds her belly in her hands. Not only is her identity quickly shifting, but her voice is muffled, caught, and then growing in what she calls her black woman throat. When her son is finally born she says, it was beautiful, huge, electric, fleshy, a gesture both helpless and urgent. The shock of her new identity is repeated when she says, he is not I, I I'm not him, he is not I, the stranger. 

[00:02:27.46] Derricotte delight surprise and sorrow is all wrapped up in this honest moment where she realizes that the world expects her to sing praises for this birth, but she's just not ready, a mother is still foreign to her. And this poem reminds me of birthing my first child when I was 15 years old. How I didn't fully understand what had happened, how I struggled between childhood, girl, and woman, and how poetry saved me and simultaneously added to my evolving identity. It gave me a medium to develop the language that I needed when addressing my ever changing body, my place in the world, and my identity. 

[00:03:20.04] At the end of the reading, Derricotte is startled to hear someone whistle, as the rest of the audience clapped. She says, "I have never heard anyone whistle at a reading before, I will never forget that." In this moment I visualize her broad smile and I think, why not whistle, why not whistle? Why not celebrate all our identities in a new loud radical way? And all the loud and radical ways that say yes, here is delivery by Toi Derricotte. 

Toi Derricotte:
[00:04:03.94] I'm going to read from my second book Natural Birth. I'm going to read the birth section. So you've missed pregnancy, you've missed labor, what can I tell you lucky ducks? You get to the birth, the good part. In the 60s, you could read a book called Thank you Dr. Lamaze and you could read a book called Natural Birth, and they told you how you could now have a baby without pain or drugs. Do you remember that? 

[00:04:43.27] And I thought, what a great thing? My mother told me many times how she almost died. And all the women had almost died. And I thought, well they only died because they were afraid, they didn't do all this breathing techniques and whatever. So I did my breathing and my exercises and it hurt like hell. But it'll probably be great for you, if you haven't done it yet, no problem, no problem. 

[00:05:23.72] But anyway, delivery-- it really happened for me that in delivery I did have a painless delivery. OK, I don't know why. But anyway this is the delivery section. I was in the delivery room, put your feet up in the stirrups. I put them up obedient, still humble though the spirit was growing larger in me. That black woman was in my throat, her thin song high pitched like a lark and all the muscles were starting to constrict around her, I tried to push just a little it didn't hurt, I tried a little more, roll-up Gazzo said, he wanted to give me a spinal. 

[00:06:07.33] No, I don't want a spinal, same doctor as axe handle up my butt same as shaft of split wood, Dr. Spike driving the head home, where my soft animal curled and prayed, and cried for his mother. Or was the baby part of this whole damn conspiracy. In on it with Gazzo, the two of them wanting to shoot the wood up me for nothing, for playing music to him in the dark, for singing to my round class belly, for filling up with pizza on a cold night door warm. Maybe he wanted out was saying, give her a needle and let me the hell out of here, who cares what she wants, put her to sleep. 

[00:06:55.13] My baby pushing off with his black feet from the dark shore, heading out not knowing which way and trusting or listen I was so hopeless it didn't matter. No, not my baby this loved thing, in and of myself. So I balled up and let him try to stick it in, maybe something was wrong. Roll up he said, roll up. But I don't want it, roll up, roll up. But it doesn't hurt, we all stood nurses around the white light hands hanging empty at our side, rolled up in a ball all of us not knowing how or if in such a world without false promises we could say anything but yes, yes come take it and be quick. 

[00:07:44.81] I put my belly in my hand, gave him that thin side of my back. The bones intruding on the ear and little knobs and joints he might crack down my spine, his knuckles rapped each twisted symmetry, put me on the rack, each nerve bright and stretched like Canvas, he couldn't get it in. Three times he tried, roll up he cried, roll up. Three times he couldn't get it in, Doctor why? 

[00:08:13.04] The head obstetrician came in. What are you doing Gazzo? I thought she wanted natural to me. Do you what a shot? No, well put your legs up girl and push. And suddenly the light went out, the nurses left, and nothing mattered in this 10:00 AM sunshiny morning. We were well, the nurses and the doctors cheering that girl combing hair all in one direction shining bright as water. I grew deep in me like fist and I grew deep in me like death, and I grew deep in me like hiding in the sea, and I was over me like sun, and I was under me like sky, and I could look into myself like one dark I. 

[00:09:04.97] I was her, and she was me and we were scattered round like light, nurses, doctors, cheering, such waves my face contorted, never wore such mask, so rigid and so dark. So bright uncompromising brave, no turning back, no no's. I was so beautiful, I could look up in the light and see my hugeness arc electric, heavy, fleshy living light. No wonder they praised me, a gesture one makes helpless and urgent praising what goes on without our praise. 

[00:09:47.72] When there was nowhere I could go, when I was so deep in myself so large, I had to let it out they said, drop back. I drop back on the table panting, they moved the head, swiveled it correctly, but I was losing her something a head coming through the door name please, please name. Whose head? I don't know, some disconnection. Name please and I am not ready. 

[00:10:19.78] The sudden visibility, his body, his curly wet hair, his arms abandoned in the air, his skin must be so cold, but there is nothing I can do to warm him, his body clutches in a wretched way. They expect me to sing joy, joy, a son is born, child is given, my tongue curled in my head, my tears, cheeks, stringy, with damp here this lump of flesh, lump of steamy viscera. Who is this child? 

[00:11:00.09] A child never having been seen before without credentials, credit cards, without employee reference or high school grades or anything to make him human, make him mine, but skin of pain to chop off at the navel. While they could, they held him down and chopped him, held him up, my little fish, my blueness swallowed in the ear turned pink and wailed, no more enough. I looked, I lay there speechless looking for something to say to myself. 

[00:11:45.08] After you have touched the brain that squirmy lost of maggots, after you have pumped the heart, that fief, that comic. They throw you in the trash and the little one in the case of glass, he is not I, am not him, he is not I, the stranger, blue air protects us from each other. Here is the note he brings it says, mother but I do not even know this man. 

[00:12:54.95] That's wonderful, I have never heard anybody whistle at a reading in my life. I will never forget that, I don't know who did it. I will never forget it. Thank you. Really appreciate that. I feel like I should do it, I guess poetry can be beautiful in that way, the body of poetry, oh, thank you. 

Peggy Robles-Alvarado:
[00:13:40.34] The second poem I selected was Quinceañera by Judith Ortiz Cofer from her collection Silent Dancing, a partial remembrance of a Puerto Rican childhood published in 1990 by Arte Publico Press. The reading is dated September 25 1991. Ortiz Cofer was an award winning writer, he who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. Before reading she explains that the poem was written about her mother's generation, when a quinceañera meant that girls who turned 15 were ready for marriage and in turn had to sacrifice their childhood identity, their dreams, and desires. 

[00:14:26.62] She talks about her mother, who had to give up her love of volleyball to prepare for a life as a caregiver and a homemaker. Ortiz Cofer says, she didn't understand this herself until much later in life. Judith Ortiz Cofer was one of the first Puerto Rican poets I learned about in college, as part of a newly developed black and Puerto Rican studies program at Hunter College where I took classes to earn a bachelor's degree in English with my toddler in tow, I had to take my daughter everywhere. 

[00:15:02.84] Reading the work of Judith Ortiz Cofer was the first of many, many steps in finding my path to poetry and listening to the low key hum of possibility that grew in my chest every time I learned of Puerto Rican writers, poets that published work full of imagery, sound, and traditions that resonated with my Latin upbringing. Poets that performed and effortlessly included Spanish into English storytelling with attention to place and purpose. 

[00:15:38.95] Yes, representation matters because it breeds possibility. When I heard Ortiz Cofer reading in the Voca archive, I was moved to tears, because it reminded me of the first time I held her book and read essays and poems about women similar to the ones I was raised by, but also her work allowed me to dream that this could be possible for me as well, that my poems about growing up in a Puerto Rican and Dominican family could be celebrated as part of a literary canon, like many writers then and now. I made poet part of my identity, first as a whisper and then a roar. Here is Judith Ortiz Cofer reading Quinceañera. 

Judith Ortiz Cofer:
[00:16:42.38] And now I would like to turn to poetry. And someone gave me what she called a last minute request I love from the Poetry Center and I'm going to read that poem for her because I don't have it on my list and I definitely don't want to forget it. She asked me to read Quinceañera. Terms of Survival is a dictionary for myself. I wrote this book because I was losing my Spanish and I was misplacing words, I could no longer talk intimately about concepts that should have been very important to me. 

[00:17:15.18] And so I went back to Puerto Rico and begged my mother to tell me about things, listen to her gossiping, which is a great way to get back to the language because especially in the Latino cultures when women talk, I don't know about men. But when women talk, they have all this nonverbal stuff going on, in codes. And so you learn a lot about what words really mean from watching them talk, not just listening. And so I made a list of words I wanted to write about and then I wrote a book in which most of the titles are in Spanish and that the poem that follows is my own definition. 

[00:17:53.55] But it's not really a definition, sometimes it's a dramatization. And I call the Terms of Survival because they were the terms that were important to my survival and it was an interesting thing because the publisher chose to put a glossary for non-native Spanish speakers in the back, which I like because it fits with my idea of this book being a lexicon of terms. So Quinceañera was a term I wanted to write about. 

[00:18:21.39] And I don't need to explain it too much to you because you live in a society where you've heard this. In the Latin cultures, there is coming out for girls called the Quinceañera. Most people think that it's a day be you, or like the sweet 16, and it may have turned into that now but in my mother's generation, it actually meant an announcement to the world that this girl was now ready for marriage. When my mother turned 15 they gave her the party, but she also had to stop wearing children's clothes, she had to give up her beloved volleyball, because that was not ladylike. 

[00:18:59.90] She had to come in the house and learn how to cook and take care of children and she hated it. And I kept saying when I turned 15, how I get no respect? How come I'm not treated like unmarriageable? And all that. And she says, you don't know what you're asking for, if you want that, what that means is you give up everything that is fun and start getting ready for what you're going to do the rest of your life. 

[00:19:24.54] And once I understood that, I didn't understand that until I was like 35, but I wrote this poem in the voice of a girl of my mother's generation putting away her childhood, it's called Quinceañera. My dolls have been put away like dead children, in a chest I will carry with me when I marry. I reach under my skirt to feel a certain slip but for this day, it is soft as the inside of my thighs. 

[00:19:58.22] My hair has been nailed back with my mother's black hair pins to my skull, her hands stretched my eyes open as she twisted braids into a tight circle at the nape of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes and sheets from this day on, as if the fluids of my body were poisoned, as if the little trickle of blood I believe travels from my heart to the world were shameful. 

[00:20:24.77] Is not the blood of saints and men in battle beautiful, did Christ’s hands not bleed into your eyes from his cross. At night I hear myself growing and wake to find my hands drifting of their own will to soothe skin stretched tight over my bones. I am wound like the guts of a clock, waiting for each hour to release me. 

Peggy Robles-Alvarado:
[00:21:00.30] The next poem I selected from the archive was How to Triumph Like a Girl by Ada Limón. And the reading is dated April 5 2018. In this poem, Limón focuses on the eight pound heart of a female horse, as a symbol of her own passionate, complex identity, that she knows quote "is going to come in first." The heart itself is synonymous with bravery, intellect, understanding, and it is deeply tied to the soul. 

[00:21:36.12] Limón details the function of a horse's essential muscular organ and ties it to her own chest as a gesture of strength and will. The power and purpose in her identity as a girl, a woman, and the winner becomes all encompassing and not just possible, but attainable and certain. Limón expresses a sense of self-worth and pride with a dangerous swagger, we should all include as part of our own identities as poets. This poem asks me to be just as brave, strong, strong willed, and identify myself as a winner. Here is Ada Limón reading, How to Triumph Like a Girl. 

Ada Limón:
[00:22:28.45] I'm going to begin with the first poem of Bright Dead Things. This poem was written for the day before the Kentucky Derby which is the Kentucky Oaks day which is when all the female horses race for the Phillies race. How to Triumph Like a Girl, I like the lady horses best, how they make it all look easy like running 40 miles per hour is as fun as taking a nap or grass. I like their lady horse swagger after winning, ears up girls ears up. 

[00:23:04.33] But mainly let's be honest, I like that they're ladies. As if this big dangerous animal is also a part of me, that's somewhere inside the delicate skin of my body their pumps an eight pound female horse heart, giant with power, heavy with blood. Don't you want to believe it? Don't you want to lift my shirt and see the huge beating genius machine that thinks, no it knows, it's going to come in first? 

Peggy Robles-Alvarado:
[00:23:49.84] The last poem I will leave you with is my own poem written after diving headfirst into this beautiful Voca archive and balancing the memories of reading Judith Ortiz Cofer shortly after becoming a teen mother and Toi Derricotte's poem titled Delivery and how much of my identity was shifted, mended, and eventually molded by and through poetry. This poem is after Ada Lemon's poem How to Triumph Like a Girl and like many of my poems tied to identity, it was inspired by my daughter who much like Lemon, this place are relentless and resilient spirit that was born to win. 

[00:24:34.00] She doesn't have a horse, but she has a blue nose pit bull named sky. A breed of dog that is often misrepresented and maligned. In New York pitbulls are symbolic of strength and protection, their presence is feared or respected depending upon who the viewer is. I wanted to write to that presence, the strong will that homes in the heart, that dangerous seduction that forges new identities and asks we celebrate with a bite, a whistle, and our own roar. Here is my poem titled Stunting. 

[00:25:17.08] I like the blue nosed pitbull best, how she flexes muscle and jawline when walking down Broadway like a bad bitch, flaunting a hulking chest, broad faced and sleek, and bracing the killer myth's neighborhood via he does tell, as they cross the street to avoid her, knowing a pink leash is just an accessory to her swagger. If taunted by the tigeres on the corner, boys playing at manhood smelling of Newport's and Colt 45, she will clap back with 300 pounds of pressure, vibrating across 42 teeth poised for the what's good or the you good, or the we good. 

[00:26:05.56] Somewhere inside the most tender spaces in my mouth, lives a bite with the tongue still smelling of a wolf, grip tightening, head shaking, unsure of whose blood be on the sidewalk, ready to stunt on all the stories whispered about her, knowing she was bred to win. 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:26:39.30] Peggy thank you for engaging with these recordings so deeply and sharing your insights. We're grateful for your time and your presence. Listeners, thank you for being with us. Have you checked out Voca at voca.arizona.edu? You can find over 1,000 recordings of poets reading their work there, free and open wherever you are. We hope you'll find something that will move you. Two weeks from now, we'll be back again with a new episode of Poetry Center hosted by Bojan Louis. Thanks again for joining us. 

Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:27:13.71] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson with support from

Sarah Gzemski:
Sarah Gzemski. 

Diana Marie Delgado:
Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive online at voca.arizona.edu. 

Toi Derricotte's "Delivery"
Judith Ortiz Cofer's "Quinceañera"
Ada Limón’s "How to Triumph Like a Girl"
Peggy Robles-Alvarado reads "Stunting"