Occasionally, I write poems. On the new podcast episode for UTRGV's Creative Writing Program, graduate student and poet Jay Villanueva surprised me by paraphrasing several poetry lines he remembered me reciting several months ago:
but you write knowing
the people needing this
poem will never read it.
that is the work.
My poem focuses on scenes from the family separation policy of 2018. There was no story to tell other than what I saw and felt during that time period. As I shared in my conversation with Jay, I turn to poetry to wrangle with ideas and emotions that I cannot otherwise transform into stories.
It's through prose that I "get the work done" by creating new ways of envisioning the Texas-Mexico border, and it's through poetry that I often address "the work being done" by forces reshaping the Texas-Mexico border.
In my fiction, I can subvert readers' expectations through plot twists. I can uncover the extraordinary in the ordinary through my characters. I can create new worlds out of familiar settings. But in my poetry, I see my lines shining lights on the untrodden paths in our minds and hearts.
This reflection on my writing recalls Governor Mario Cuomo's famous maxim, "Campaign in poetry. Govern in prose." On the surface level, Governor Cuomo is addressing the all-too-familiar disconnect between the political candidates who campaign on ideals and the elected officials who must transform rhetoric into action.
On a deeper level, I see this distinction between idealization and implementation as a guiding lesson for all of us to consider. As I sit writing this blog in sentences rather than lines, I proffer the following question: In what ways are we campaigning, and in what ways are we governing in our daily lives? In other words, when are we living our lives as the poet or as the prose writer?
Political candidates must campaign in order to become elected officials who govern, after all, suggesting that prose naturally follows poetry. But we often see situations where poetry and prose conflict with one another. In the world of K-12 education, for example, the poetic pull of educating the next generation grinds against the prosaic reality of being a teacher. Educators who believe in the lofty vision of changing society through empowering its youth feel shortchanged by the actual tasks they accomplish day-to-day, from taking on administrative tasks to teaching to the test.
In order to fulfill the visions set forth by these "campaign promises," if you will, many educators go out of their way to align their daily "governing" toward youth empowerment and practical education. We all have heard stories of the teacher who went above and beyond for their students — the teacher is serving as both poet and prose writer, filling in two roles simultaneously in an effort to do "the work."
Of course, such an effort leads to overworking and burnout. Just like I do not consider myself both a poet and a writer, we cannot expect teachers both to administrate and to educate. Extend this metaphor to any profession, and we will see similar conflicts between the ideal visions of the work we aim to do and the practical realities we must face to get any work done.
In my poem "fronterizo," I operate on the assumption that writing a poem is not the end goal of the poet. Doing "the work" is writing the poem despite the "people needing this / poem" likely not reading it. However, the true goal of "the work" is poetry producing action.
With Governor Cuomo's maxim in mind, it becomes clear that "poetry" and "prose" are merely metaphors. How, then, can we equip "the poets of our society" to enact systemic change? How can our "prose writers" make real our idealistic visions? Moreover, what can we do individually in each of our lives to "campaign in poetry" and "govern in prose?"
That, my friends, is "the work."