Claiming a complex identity through writing, teaching, and community outreach

by María Luisa Arroyo 

MFA Graduate María Luisa Arroyo is currently Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Coordinator of Multicultural Recruitment at Springfield College. In her community role as teacher, arts advocate, and as the Poet Laureate of her hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, she has embraced both her own complex cultural identity and that of her students, and invited a diverse group of writers to participate in the monthly reading series, “7 Minutes: A Monthly Literary Arts Spotlight.” We asked her to discuss some of the work she has done in her community to encourage fellow writers to write into and through the complex intersections of ethnicity, culture, language, and self-expression.

What brought you to teaching?

The summer I was awarded the 2004 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in poetry, I moved with my son back to Springfield with two goals in mind: to have my only child experience el amor de familia and to identify ways as a multi-lingual Puerto Rican woman poet of color to become involved in my home community. A few years later, I was invited to teach “Introduction to Creative Writing: Poetry” at Springfield Technical Community College. STCC attracts those I most desire to teach, namely, students with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and ages from my hometown community.

How do you invite students to embrace difference and encourage creative risk?

Because I readily model the power of naming my complex identity instead of dismissing it, all participants find themselves in an environment where each of their voices is not only heard and valued by me but also by each other. In all my workshops, for example, my 2012 Split This Rock Poetry workshop, “The Power of Code-Switching: Poems Don't Have to Be ‘English Only,’” I emphasize my role as the facilitator for—not an expert about—an instant community of participants, each of whom brings his/her own linguistic, cultural, and lived experiences to the work.

How did you get involved in local community outreach?

I ran a two-hour community poetry workshop series through the Springfield Public Library in 2007. With open enrollment, the series attracted both a small yet eager core group of regular community members and one-timers. Whether they were poets whom I knew for years or met for the first time, I consistently used the same successful approach. In the first hour, I shared works by published poets, inviting all participants to read aloud and to comment on the work in question. My role was to ensure that everyone had a turn to express himself or herself even if he/she said, “Pass.” The creative synergy became palpable as participants shared similar and differing responses to the same poem. In the second hour, when I turned many of their responses into impromptu generative prompts in the second part of the workshop, participants became more willing to open up to worlds beyond the surface of our public faces. At the same time, I challenged individual poets to share their work at open mics, to submit individual poems for publication, and to self-publish chapbooks.

What has your role been as Poet Laureate?

In September 2014, Councilor Tim Rooke and the inimitable poet Magdalena Gómez advocated for a proclamation to name me as the inaugural Poet Laureate of Springfield. Simply stated, they knew that I would continue my work in the best interest of our community members. With this honorary position, I envisioned “7 Minutes: A Monthly Literary Arts Spotlight” to celebrate not only local and regional poets but also writers in ALL genres (18+). My goal was to foster unity among diverse writing communities, and so far, over sixty featured poets and three hundred plus audience members have joined me in this effort.

Who are some of the mentors you would like to acknowledge? How have they contributed to your creative success and to helping you advance your goals for a more inclusive local and regional writing community?

The poet Crystal Senter Brown, who started the Open Mic at the Springfield Public Library in partnership with librarian Anna Brandenburg..

Beloved STCC professor Margaret Szumowski (1949-2013), who became a friend when we read together as 2004 MCC Poetry Fellows. She invited me to take over the teaching of her poetry class, when she took a medical leave to address an aggressive form of Alzheimer’s.

The poets Francisco X. Alarcón (February 21, 1954-January 15, 2016) —que en paz descanse— and Odilia Galván Rodríguez, who participated in my 2012 Split This Rock workshop.

Poets in my community whom I have mentored: Marian Tombri, Carol Marrone, Narelle Thomas, Ana Meléndez, and Ronald Coolbeth (1932-2013).

All of the artists who have participated in “7 Minutes” as well as past participants of my workshops because, as a practicing poet, I always shared that every time our instant community meets, it feeds my creative spirit.

My Solstice MFA poetry faculty mentors: poets Kathi Aguero, Laure-Ann Bosselaar, Nicole Terez Dutton, Dzvinia Orlowsky, and Iain Haley Pollock. I also value the perspectives and feedback I received from my peers and whose poems inspired me during workshops: poets Taylor Gould, Jason Stocks,Jacquelyn Brown, Jenifer DeBellis,Von Thompson-Wynn, Wren Wynn,Lisa Sullivan, and Colleen DeCourcy.



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