Poetry Workshop At the Youth Detention Home #2

Poetry Workshop Hands


#5  Joachin

Picks locks with his pencil.

Praises “the beautiful blessing world.”

Asks forgiveness “for the sins I have did.”


#6  Luis

Asks if stress is a feeling. Can it taste bitter like jail food,

sound like a sobbing mother, feel like a broken

bone? He reads his poem aloud–the son

of a Guatemalan refugee–his breathing

slowing down for the first

time all week.


#7  Yolanda

Stares at the cracked mirror of the page,

brown skin translucent from not using,

the proud face of the pediatrician she wants

to be if she makes it to eighteen.



Demetria  Martinez


Poetry Workshop at the Youth Detention Home

At the Youth Detention Home

At the Youth Detention Home







Brown fingers push pencils
against the howling whiteness.

Brown words glow like luminarias
as night rises.


#2 Angelina

Escapes between the lines
of the page, leaves behind
a poem dyed purple
like her hair.

#3 Jared
Drills a hole with his pencil into the white
ice, tunnels to Espanola, a wooden
rosary around his neck to give
his abuelo for Christmas.

#4 Brittany
Rolls her eyes. The judge who sentenced
her to five months signed a paper white as
this one. Poetry? She scrawls FUCK YOU,
initials it, looks up, asks what now?

Romancing the Muse

Tis the season to romance the muse. My dream date: We’re on a loveseat nursing cups of blue corn atole with cinnamon. Logs blaze in the fireplace. A bargain-bin journal rests on my lap. Stamped on its cover: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” I open it up and run my fingers across the first page. I recall the woodsy scent of our Big Chief Tablets in elementary school, and the fat #2 pencils that stubby fingers could grip. What should I write?

I look at my muse, La Llorona, her long black hair spilling down her purple huipil. She smiles. Her smoky red lipstick makes me think of the fruit from a friend’s tree I have on my windowsill. I jot down, “A cracked-open pomegranate/seeds slither in my mouth.” Ah. Now that feels good. Fall, friendship, food and family: my pomegranate conjures so much. I’ve come to my senses, the source of my power and I’m primed to write more.

But then a voice inside demands: How do you know this pomegranate will be of any use–in a poem, novel, blog or play? It’s the voice of the anti-muse that would sever pleasure from writing. I must fend it off, this diablito, or it will extinguish the mood I’ve worked so hard to create. The fire will die, the atole will go cold. Llorona will make for the door. I answer: Every image I’ve ever recorded in my journal has emerged somewhere. A symbol that breathes life into a text—always a surprise, always a gift. I rest into that thought as the flames flare and crackle.

On the coffee table rests a book of short stories, Nirvana on 9th Street, by poet Susan Sherman. The slender volume is a stunning evocation of counter-cultural life in the East Village during the 1960s, in the heat of the American War in Vietnam and the sexual revolution. Avant- garde poetry, music and art were everywhere.  In Sherman’s work the East Village is a character (see her blog: http://thestoryprize.blogspot.com/2014/12/susan-sherman-on-significance-of-place.html). And the writing sings; it is, in many ways, a long poem.

So I open the book and read some pages to La Llorona. Then she takes the book and reads to me. She knows that great writing will keep my creative spirit strong. We read through the night.

Tis the season to romance the muse. Many of my clients tell me that “things are too crazy” to write during the holidays.  I don’t use that phrase anymore. Or else I believe it and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; life moves faster and faster and solitude becomes impossible.

Build a fire or light a candle. Then write, if only for a short while—or the center will not hold.


PS Meanwhile, give yourself the gift of Nirvana!



For Ferguson, etc.

What You Won’t See On TV


Black men’s tears

like strings

of pearls.



Black women wipe

away their tears, gather kindling

for  the fire next  time.


Demetria Martinez, December 1, 2014

A Beautiful Bipolar Brain

Me with dream Journal. John Samora

Me with dream Journal. John Samora

Bed time, med time. Two gulps of water – from a blue thermos with Mother Mary’s image and the words, “Holy Water”—delivers the goods. All you out there with bipolar disorder know the score. Seven pills, ranging from anticonvulsants to atypical-antipsychotics, tame the bipolar brain. These night feedings have gone on for 24 years. My cerebral matter, all three pounds of it, purrs.

Was it the alchemists who held that the subtle rules the strong? Imagine the day when three drops of Bach’s Rescue Remedy—taken nightly under the tongue—cures us of our malady. Or maybe a black bean, planted in the hypothalamus, will forever end the brain’s chemical storms. I believe potential cures are everywhere, common as mold on cheese, precursors to a penicillin for the bipolar brain. Science just isn’t there yet. So until that day comes, the strong rules, the seven meds that keep 100 billion neurons conversing across a galaxy of grey matter.

Meanwhile, a sort of spiritual quest for wellness, if not a cure, keeps us going: yoga, yerbas ayerveda, acupuncture, therapy, mantras, meditation on the words of the great mystics, you name it. Any stress-reduction technique helps prevent or weather a bipolar episode. I wish meditation worked for me. I have written drafts of great novels while observing my breathing for ten minute sittings (just kidding). No, mostly I’ve forgotten to breathe, thought of recipes I’d like to try, or carried on imaginary arguments with President Obama, the Great Deporter.

One time a curandera wrapped me in a rebozo and had me lay down on the floor. She placed crystals on my palms then prayed. I rested. Candles flickered nearby on a grand altar holding Christian santos, and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe and of Mesoamerican gods. We ended our time together as we had started it, with a platica, Chicana talk therapy. By evening the inner maniacal voices of self-loathing had fallen silent.

I am drawn to the esoteric. But a good doc will tell you that the magic is in the mundane. A routine; careful scheduling, ordered surroundings; healthy meals/snacks timed to steady blood sugar levels; exercise for a natural high, and above all sleep hygiene: all are pillars of sanity—for everyone, not just bipolar patients.

Add to this the secret of joy: Quiet Time. That is, silence dosed strategically throughout the day to bring one back to center. One morning I lingered over “The Splendor of Being” by Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos. I found a startling image: “En la mano del dia/resplandece un anillo de esponsales,” “a wedding ring gleams/on the day’s hand.” The fruit of my quiet time was to be startled by beauty, a powerful remedio in the quest for stability.

Today’s recipe for mental health? I’m baking my first pumpkin pie of the season!

Berlitz-Tape Chicana No More

(Dear Friends, I’m still learning! This was published yesterday, with edits pending. Here’ the final copy. Enjoy! And pass on. DM)

A day later a package arrives: flash cards for Latinos who grew up hearing the {Spanish} language but not speaking it; the tongue-tied who ace classes but can’t ask for directions to the nearest Laundromat; the guilt-ridden for whom Spanish is a preexisting condition that flares up when ordering food at a Mexican restaurant, then recedes when the margaritas wear off.

–from my novella, The Block Captain’s Daughter

July 31, 2014. Dateline, Havana. White garments drip on clotheslines. A black mannequin, her hair in pink rollers, models a flowery dress, circa early 1960s. A yellow cardboard ’57 Chevy sparkles on a grassy patch. A  living room boasts two black and white T.V.’s, a sunken couch, a small table and one lamp. Elsewhere a tiered altar seems to tower over the city. Black and white Marys don white gowns and carnival beads; wicks wilt on dozens of white candles sheathed in glass; beer bottles bristle with money;  African deities  in European garb pose as Christian saints; and sprinkled everywhere are  photos of the well and the ill, the living and the dead. I can’t imagine leaving this country, this exhibit, a creation of Cuban artists on the backstage of  Santa Fe’s  Museo Cultural. I must see more. One way or another I’ll make a trip to the real Cuba. Despite my Spanish.

Next stop,  the main exhibit hall where Museo director Maria Martinez asks guests to join her at a table. Besides myself there are  Myrna and Mario of Chihuahua, and my buddy Mara from the Coalition for Prisoners Rights. I eye a photograph of a Brooklyn train track and listen to the sweet patter of Spanish. My grasp of the language plateaued some years ago. But the military industrial complex has everyone talking and I’m angry enough to get what is being said. It’s the war on drugs that galls me the most. Cops target poor neighborhoods. Latinos and blacks are disproportionately represented behind bars–even though whites commit crimes at roughly the same rate. I’m about to say this in Spanish. But the words melt in my mouth. The old voice won’t let up. Be quiet. You’re not as good as the others.

Around age fifty I made a decision. My my life is moving at hundreds of miles per hour. I don’t have time to stop and pick up conversational Spanish.  But there is something about a good night’s sleep that makes me susceptible to epiphanies.  The day after my trip to the Museo I drove to Mara’s house. The tiny adobe is anchored to the earth by a table teeming with Coalition newsletters that go out everyday to prisoners around the country. Mara and I exchange abrazos and sit down. I deliver the verdict: Enough is enough. I must learn to speak Spanish. Then, without a word of warning, Mara switches over. El espanol ya está adentro de tí. Tienes que practicar, no mas. The language is already inside me. I just have to practice. We talk for 45 minutes. Words I didn’t know I knew ping-pong across the table.The winner? Passion. Outscoring shame a million to one.

That was August 1st. Since then my brain circuitry has been lighting up like an exploding star.  Spanish words buried for years surface as I ask friends to speak to me in Spanish. Everything unlocks my memory: reading Los Santitos by Nicaraguan novelist Maria Amparo; listening to an interview about microcredit for Honduran women; chuckling at slang (nel for no) in  Spanish Lingo for the Savvy Gringo by Elizabeth Reid; and feeling my mouth water while chatting with a Guatemalan shop owner about móle, and tamales swathed in banana leaves. Then  the unfathomable happened. For a split second I blanked on the English word for the plums I placed on the kitchen windowsill beside a St. Jude candle.Then I snapped. Ciruelas! That’s it. St. Jude has taken on my once hopeless cause of fluency. Plums.

On August 10, my Dad, Ted Martinez relaxed in a chair in his Albuquerque home as my friend, Jim Morrison, set up lights and cameras. We wanted to know about my grandpa, Luis Martinez, a court-interpreter and composer of corridos. The ballads, Dad explained, eulogized men who died in World War II and lionized candidates running for office. In the early 1950s, New Mexico Senator and  civil rights champion Denis Chavez asked grandpa to write a second corrido, this time for his re-election campaign.   Grandpa took dad (his first train trip) to Los Angeles  where  the acclaimed Mexican musician Tito Aguizar performed “Corrido de Denis Chavez”  in a recording studio.

Dad recited the refrain, his eyes cast down as if reading the words.

Chavez, Chavez, Chavez/ Otra vez de senador./En noviembre votarémos/Y otra vez lo llevarémos/ Al senado triunfador.

Then he retold grandpa’s story in Spanish. Each word rose and bobbed like colored balloons; I grasped every one of them.   Y sus impresiones de Los Angeles? I ask. Our eyes lock. There is so much more to say. It’s at the tip of my tongue. I am a corrido, remembering itself, singing itself. I’m fifty-four. And it’s still early.


Me with dream Journal. John Samora

This, Too, Can Be Your Story

Me with dream Journal. John Samora

Me with dream Journal. John Samora

One evening in 1992, Sandra Cisneros was reading from Woman Hollering Creek at the Mexican Fine Arts Center in Chicago. Seated toward the back of the dark auditorium, I was spellbound–until another voice, this one in my head, stole my attention.  His nation chewed him up and spat him out like pinon shell and when he emerged from an airplane one late afternoon I knew I would one day make love with him.  A line for a poem, I thought.  Poetry was all I wrote at the time. But within minutes I knew. This sentence belonged to a larger story.

Joy gathered in my gut like a quickening until I got hold of myself: Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow you’ll have come to your senses. But when I got up the next morning,  I was still very much out of my mind. Ecstatic, I wrote out what I’d heard on  hotel stationary.  I continued to write for about nine months while working full-time for the National Catholic Reporter in Kansas City, Missouri.  I’d never taken a fiction workshop. But I had an overpowering sense that the story, about a Chicana and her Salvadoran lover, was done, afloat in the universe. All I had to do was to take it down.

I set my oven timer and wrote fifty minutes Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, longer  on weekends. I was often interrupted by a question. Where the hell is this going?  I wanted  an outline–as if  characters’ lives, human lives, actually unfold according to a plan. But no plot presented itself to me.  So, instead, I relaxed and listened to that “voice.” I quit numbering pages.  I crafted the 250-500 words that emerged each session as if it were a prose poem. Paragraphs were separated by white space. I thought of them as “blocks” of writing. When the oven timer rang I printed the pages out and popped them in a folder.  Toss all the pages in the air; whatever order they land in they should read well.  This idea liberated me.

Meanwhile, books fell from heaven, examples of non-linear novels that I turned to each day: Milan Kundera’s An Unbearable Lightness of Being; Marguerite Duras’s The Lover;  Ana Castillo’s The Mixquihuala Letters; Micheal Ondaate’s Coming Through Slaughter.  I read poetry voraciously. With disciplined work habits came inspiration from odd sources, including a toaster oven.  A friend, Mark Rudd, had flown in for a visit, bringing with him a bag of Hatch, N.M. green chile.  After he left I  popped one in the  toaster oven and watched it brown. When it released its aroma I was back home in Albuquerque,  taking notes on my characters’ goings-on in the city where they were working out their destinies.

About nine months after that fateful Chicago night,  I spread my blocks out on the floor, arranged and rearranged them, trying to discern the shape of the story.  I can’t remember how many days this took but I managed, finally, to order the pages. Mother Tongue was done, a quilt almost ready for public display.

Why do I say this story can be yours too? Because you needn’t know where it’s going: your poem or novel, much less your life. If you want to write, pick up pen and paper and set your oven timer for fifty minutes every other day. Read what you write on the off days. Inspiration will be yours  but only if you show up first, oven timer set. Don’t fret. I once heard the great short story writer Grace Paley say, “If I’d known what I was doing, I never would have done it.”

I’ll have more to say in future Thursday blogs. (Next topic: Activism) Enjoy the weekend. Find something to celebrate.


P.S. Thanks to Stewart Warren for his technical help and artistic eye (www.heartlink.com); and to writer Susan Sherman for blog editorial suggestions (susansherman.com). And to Frank Zoretich, editor extraordinaire, for going over Mother Tongue with a red pen.



Me with dream Journal. John Samora