by Carolyn Martin
When Cindy Williams Gutiérrez says she lives in the hinterlands of Oregon City, she’s not kidding. Her Hattan Road address takes me around a winding back road bordered by farms, nurseries and grazing land up to a hillside home graced with apple trees, rose gardens and a spectacular view of Mt. Hood. It’s “country” at its best as we sit on her back porch to chat about her literary accomplishments in 2014: a new poetry collection, a play in honor of William Stafford’s 100th birthday, and a short story anthologized by Forest Avenue Press.
Cindy tells me, “I grew up in Brownsville, Texas – the land of hurricanes. I believe in lulls – and then comes the storm.” And this year has stirred up a number of creative hurricanes for Cindy, moving past any lulls.
First of all, Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press just released Cindy’s poetry collection, the small claim of bones. Part of the Hispanic Research Center, the press has a mission to promote and preserve Latino/a literature, and Cindy says she is proud that she is now part of that canon.
When I asked about the collection’s title, she introduces me to the word “proem.” “That’s a prologue poem,” Cindy says, and quotes the seminal line: “my past lodges/ in my marrow.”
In the marrow of her past and in the pages of this well-researched, deeply personal book lie her father, mother, Aztec poet-kings and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz – a 17th century poet-nun. Cindy explains that the kings of Mexico (Tenochtitlan) were always poets and Sor Juana, who lived in colonial Mexico (New Spain), was the first feminist of the Americas. Writing 250 years before Virginia Woof ever dreamt of a room of her own, Sor Juana lived and wrote in a convent cell. She entered the religious life precisely because it afforded her an opportunity to write.
Cindy shaped her collection into three sections: “The Gift,” a call/response between Aztec royalty and her father; “The Scattering,” a call/response between Sor Juana and the Mexican matriarchy of her mother’s family; and the “Epilogue” where Cindy’s English poem “If I Were a Nahua Poet” includes Spanish and Nahuatl.
Cindy explains “code switching”: weaving emotionally evocative words from one language with another. “That’s the way people spoke in my Texas hometown which lies on the Mexican border,” she says, so she uses Spanish and Nahuatl words throughout her English poems to enrich them.
Based on Cindy’s MFA thesis at the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine, the small claim of bones will naturally find its place among the prestigious voices of Latina poets. The prayer found in “If I Were a Nahua Poet” is nothing short of prophetic: “Let my voice join the ancients/To swell the sky with a thousand plumes of light.”
Three years ago, Kim Stafford invited her to be part of the committee planning his father’s 100th birthday celebration. At the time, Cindy said, “I had been going to schools teaching the work of Oregon Poets Laureate William Stafford and Lawson Inada because I am passionate that students learn about Oregon’s literary legacy. The question that kept emerging was, ‘What can we learn about this legacy from two men who spent time in camps during World War II: Stafford for what he believed in; Inada for what others believed about him?’”
That question became central to the creation of Words That Burn. Cindy first presented her idea for a play about Stafford and Inada to Los Porteños, Portland’s Latino writers’ collective. At the time, member Frank Delgado was writing about his own father’s wartime experience and told Cindy about a Marine named Guy Gabaldón, a Chicano from East L.A. where Frank and his father grew up.
Gabaldón lived with a Japanese-American family, joined the marines in World War II, and, ironically, served in the Pacific theater. There he became known as the “Pied Piper of Saipan” because he single-handedly captured – and ultimately saved the lives of – 1,500 Japanese soldiers and civilians.
“As a playwright,” Cindy says, “I was mesmerized by such a compelling character. Gabaldón felt it was his duty to serve his country, but he found a different way of doing it.”
Gabaldón’s choice to serve in the war provided tension with Stafford’s pacifism, but his heroic saving of lives added an almost ideological affinity. And then there was the obvious Japanese connection with Lawson Inada.
“What ensues,” Cindy describes, “is the powerful clash of wartime experiences of a 4-year-old Japanese-American internee (Inada), an 18-year-old maverick Marine (Gabaldón), and a 28-year-old pacifist in a Civilian Public Service camp (Stafford).”
Cindy’s co–producer, Joaquin Lopez, played the key role in applying for and receiving numerous grants to support the production. As for a director, Cindy says her first choice was easy: Gemma Whelan, the founding Artistic Director of Corrib Theatre, a Portland company dedicated to presenting the very best in contemporary Irish theater. Since Words That Burn is a blend of poetry and monologues, Cindy thought, “No one is better at storytelling than the Irish.”
When I asked Cindy what was most satisfying experience about this project, she didn’t hesitate: “Building bridges in the community. My intent is to focus on generating community dialogue that span politics, cultures, and generations. It’s not just about the show but also the series of community events surrounding it, as well as the relationships we have built with 20 sponsors and five marketing partners.” Here is a list of performances and free community events.
That’s what I would expect from a woman who grew up in Brownsville, Texas, a town connected to Mexico by bridges; whose father worked on the bridge in Immigration; and who now lives in a city of bridges. Bridges clearly are in her marrow!
From poet and playwright to short story writer
This year Cindy discovered she is also a short story writer. “Tessa’s Drought” just appeared in The Night, and the Rain, and the River, a collection of short stories edited by Liz Prato and published by Laura Stanfill’s Forest Avenue Press. Hers is a tenderly rendered story that’s obviously crafted by a poet. “It’s a beautiful book,” Cindy says, “and I’m thrilled to be in it.”
What’s next for Cindy? Teaching a Delve Seminar in early 2015 called “In Search of Mysticism and Duende: Yeats and Lorca as Poet Dramatists” about her literary guiding lights.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Cindy concedes, laughing her inimitable laugh. And all of us are richer because she has creatively tamed hurricanes and built bridges.
Cindy Williams Gutiérrez is a poet-dramatist who draws inspiration from the silent and silenced voices of history and herstory. Poems and reviews have appeared in many publications including Borderlands, CALYX, Harvard’s Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, UNAM’s Periódico de poesía, Portland Review, Rain Taxi and VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions. She has performed her Aztec-inspired poetry at the AWP conference and at colleges and museums through Humanities Washington. Her verse play A Dialogue of Flower & Song was featured in the 2012 GEMELA Conference. Cindy teaches poetry to adults as well as to K-12 youth through the Portland Art Museum, the Right Brain Initiative, and Writers in the Schools.