At last month’s First Thursday Santa Barbara, I had the privilege to read poems in Spanish by Gabriela Mistral. Every now and then I get to prove I’m no pocha as I twirl and roll rs in my best Los Angelina accent. I can say this with a wink because my cousins in Chihuahua always made fun of me when I spoke.
Gabriela Mistral changed her name from Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, but I’m sure she never had trouble pronouncing tongue twister words. If Youtube had been invented during Mistral’s lifetime, an energetic Mistral would read her poems in perfect Chilean Spanish. Currently, Youtube has several videos, with thousands of viewings, dedicated to Mistral, the first Latina to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. There’s some fuzzy Youtube footage of Mistral receiving her Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1945. A year later, she bought a house in Santa Barbara at 729 Anapamu Street, across from the High School, where she taught during her stay in town. She wrote several poems about living in Santa Barbara, including “You No Tengo Soledad,” memorialized in a tile at the school’s library. Mistral enjoyed education so much she became a teacher at the tender age of fifteen.
Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Emeritus Barry Spacks read the English translation while I read the original Spanish of Mistral’s “Cancion de la Muerte,” “Dame la Mano,” “Canto Que Amabas.” During his tenure as poet laureate, Barry wrote the poem, “Celebrating Gabriela Mistral,” for the installation of the memorial plaque at Alameda Park in 2005. City Poet Laureates often get stuck writing poems to inaugurate a mayor’s new dog or a long forgotten city building. For those who might be confused because they know the current Santa Barbara Poet Laureate, David Starkey, or the past Poet Laureate, Perie Longo, I’ll simply say that the city of Santa Barbara has had three poet laureates since 2005: Barry, Perie, and David. Too bad David doesn’t rhyme with Perie or Barry.
Poet and sculptor Alison Schaumberg stumbled on the 2005ceremony and slideshow honoring Mistral by accident. Schaumberg one of her angel sculptors in the Reflections on Poverty art show at the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery when she noticed people moving chairs for the event. “It was total serendipity,” she said, “The Ambassador (Andres Bianchi) from Chile brought this special rock and there was a slide show.” Barry Spacks’s poem, “Celebrating Gabriela Mistral,” was later etched onto the volcanic rock from Chile. The ceremony was Alison’s introduction to Mistral. Also, in 2005, a younger audience would also be introduced to Mistral’s work via Monica Brown’s bilingual children’s book, My Name is Gabriela/Me llamo Gabriela: The Life of Gabriela Mistral/la vida de Gabriela Mistral.
The recognition for Mistral’s accomplishments and residency in Santa Barbara was long overdue, given she lived in town during the forties. Last year, I had the opportunity to read poems by Mistral twice, in April during Sojourner Rolle’s Langston Hughes reading, (Hughes translated several of Mistral poems into English and he was a good friend of Mistral’s), and at last month’s First Thursday Santa Barbara, December 6 at Sullivan Goss Gallery.
Support Poets in Los Angeles this weekend. Thelma Reyna reads from her work Saturday, January 8 at the Altadena Main Public Library at 2pm. On Sunday, prepare for some bold poesia by Urayoén Noel and Cristián Flores Garcia at REDCAT Lounge in downtown Los Angeles, sponsored by PALABRA Literary Magazine. Finish your poetic weekend at Beyond Baroque with Nikki Giovanni at 5:30pm.