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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  June 2012

The Literary Life

True Grit

New Silver City poet laureate Bonnie Maldonado explores the lyricism of ordinary people.

by Harry Williamson

 

 

If your idea of a poet creates images of being straight-laced and library-quiet, of snow-white clouds and perfect roses, think again.

bonnie maldonado
An avid gardener at her Pinos Altos home, Bonnie Maldonado is joined by Murphy, one of three rescue dogs and two cats owned by Bonnie and her husband Librado. (Photo by Harry Williamson)

Silver City's new poet laureate — named in April for a two-year term — might be a bit of a shock.

Bonnie Buckley Maldonado is pure grit and hard-wire. Her spirit and mettle are unyielding, even at age 80.

In her four books of poetry, Maldonado writes about places she has known and loved, especially those in northern Montana and southwest New Mexico. She writes about people, especially women, who are a lot like she is. People of extraordinary capacity and character and kindness and strength. Her red hair confirms a raw-boned Irish heritage.

"I'm influenced by the cadences of Irish voices, by Western music, by Indian singers and drummers," she says. "That was the music I grew up with."

Raised first in a fine home and then, thanks to a ruthless banker's shenanigans, in a sheepherder's wagon in far northern Montana, she felt comfortable living in a tent with her two sons while she cooked for hoards of backcountry tourists when she arrived in Grant County 53 years ago.

In a poem called "Self-Study," Maldonado writes:

Fragile does not

describe me,

and forget delicate.

At one inch over five,

I am tough and resilient,

bermuda grass thriving

in cracked concrete.

As befitting her square-on approach to life, her favorite birthday gifts include a pearl-handled pistol at 18, and a chainsaw at 80.

Naturally.

 

Although she taught at Western New Mexico University for more than 30 years, retiring as a professor and dean emeritus in education and counseling, Maldonado avoids associating only with other academics.

"I want to be there with everyday people," she says. "I understand blue-collar workers, ordinary people, and they understand me."

She recalls a reader who wrote her a letter: "I was driving my pickup down a country road and reading your poems. I was crying so hard I had to stop."

Another note says, "On reading your poem about the ranch, I thought about my own grandmother's kitchen. I hadn't thought about that in years.

"That's where I want to be," Maldonado says. "These are wonderful things to me."

In "Green Hidey-Holes," she likens chasing a new poem to "pursuing a feral cat/with spiky fur/and wily moves":

It disdains

pretty children

in leafy hidey-holes

preferring the company

of ne'er-do-wells and drunks.

It loves a junkyard

of tangled metal

and rusty objects

without names.

It jerks me through

frigid prairie shacks,

and shifty boarding houses,

preferring hazardous places

and unspeakable incidents,

to marshmallow dresses

and nursery rhymes.

Much of what she writes are anecdotal, lyrical poems, often narratives of hardscrabble and hardworking people, her love of animals (especially one German Shepherd, now dead) of landscapes, spirits and human hearts.

"As poet laureate, I'd like more people in this area to get into Southwest literature," she says. "There is a great spirituality in Silver City. It draws people here, and it keeps them here. I think the literature and poetry of the area reflects that."

 

Jim Kelly, at the time a board member of the Southwest Festival of the Written Word (SFWW), came up with the idea to name a poet laureate for this area.

"I had just seen a story about a poet laureate in a little town, and I thought, ‘You know, we're supposed to be an arts community, and art is more than just hanging it on a wall or setting it on a table.' The literary arts are also extremely active here," he says. "After surveying cities large and small about their poet laureate programs, we put together what we'd like to have here in terms of qualification and duties."

 

The Pony Check

Russie on the Madison, 1960

Waiting for a chinook,

stove lids raddle,

a piece of chinking falls from a log wall.

Russie points to the small piece of paper

nailed between mantel and Henry rifle

"That there," she points, "is a pony check.

A red cowboy hat sits straight on her head

gray braids tied with grocery string,

old eyes sharp as obsidian bird points,

a Lucky Strike arranges ashes on her cooking.

"I never figured it was a check for cashing,

even when my old man went

and shot himself in the barn,

no money to bury him,

and look after Charlie.

Paid out by the US government

for one hundred Indian ponies,

sixty-eight cents per pony,

stolen from my Crow grandmother

near the Bighorn.

The way it was,

you couldn't count the riders

or the tribes

boiling down prairie slopes,

blazing over the blue and gold

of the Horse Soldiers.

In those white man stories of the Bighorn,

it isn't told that eagle feathers

touched clouds that day

and ponies flew."

 

               — Bonnie Buckley Maldonado

Kelly says a SFWW selection committee, diversified in age and background, considered several local, published poets before finally deciding on Maldonado.

"She's a cheerleader for poetry as a living thing in our world today," Kelly says.

J.J. Wilson, writer-in-residence at Western New Mexico University, who chaired the committee, says the vote was unanimous in selecting Maldonado "because of her strong connection to the community and, of course, her tremendous skill as a poet."

Wilson adds, "Silver City's first poet laureate should exemplify the idea that ‘this is what a poet does' — how you live as a poet while trying to juggle a job and family — and Bonnie has clearly done that for a long, long time. She has a great deal of experience as a teacher, which we think will be invaluable as she quite literally spreads the word of poetry in Grant County."

Along with her long teaching experience, Maldonado also has a degree in counseling, with 40 years of community service work in mental health programs. For that she was inducted into the New Mexico Women's Hall of Fame, the only Grant County woman to be honored so far.

 

As poet laureate, Maldonado says, she is planning to go to local schools, such as Aldo Leopold High School, and ask if they would like her to sit down with interested students. She and other area poets and writers will also be reading at area businesses and other locations as part of SFWW's Random Acts of Literature. In addition, Maldonado has committed to compose up to four poems a year, at the request of Silver City Town Council and the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, and to keep a log of her activities and experiences as poet laureate.

"Another part of what I want to do is encourage writers who are afraid to show anyone their work," she says. "I have said that I'm not afraid of anything, but for years I was afraid my writing wasn't good enough."

She encourages fledgling writers to find someone they trust to show their work to, which she did by taking a workshop offered by Victoria Tester, author of Miracles of Sainted Earth, which won the 2003 Willa Literary Award in Poetry.

"I told her I didn't know if I should throw this stuff in a barrel and burn it or not," Maldonado recalls. "She was the first person who said, ‘Take what you have and write it.' I want to do that for other local poets."

She adds that she could never have believed where her poetry has taken her.

"So I just want to share that with other people. I do believe that anyone can actualize their dreams," Maldonado says.

 

Today, 42 US states have a poet laureate, along with many major cities and a multitude of smaller ones, including some tiny towns that join together to champion a poet. New Mexico, however, is one of six states that has never had one, the others being Arizona, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio. Although ancient Greece had official poets, the first person to be actually named a poet laureate was Ben Jonson in England in 1617.

The US Library of Congress has named a poet laureate — at first called a Consultant in Poetry — since 1937, including such notables as Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren.

Philip Levine, 84, best known for his poems about working-class Detroit, was named as the current national poet laureate in August 2011. In a New York Times article, Levine compared being named as the nation's poet laureate to winning the Pulitzer Prize, which he did in 1995, after receiving the National Book Award in 1991.

"My editor was also thrilled, and my wife jumped for joy," Levine added. "She hasn't done that in a while."

Silver City was the second New Mexico city to have a poet laureate, following Santa Fe, which created its position, currently held by Joan Logghe, in 2005. Logghe is the author of several books of poetry, and has taught poetry workshops in New Mexico schools and prisons for many years. Albuquerque became the third city, naming Hakim Bellamy, a national and regional Slam Poetry Champion, as its first poet laureate a week or so after Maldonado was selected.

 

Maldonado agrees with another poet laureate — William Wordsworth — who wrote, "Poetry is made up of emotion recollected in tranquility," saying that some of her poems start as rants.

For example, she recently visited a friend who had gone into a veterans home, and she was devastated. "Oh my God, all I could see were these images of captivity, and that was the first thoughts I wrote about. I told my poetry group (Thaddeus J. McPherson Society of the Arts), ‘This is terrible poetry, but please just let me read it because I need to say it to somebody,'" Maldonado recalls. "Eventually it will become a poem and the rant will be gone."

She reworks her poems over and over, cutting words like unneeded tree limbs. "I tend to get down to the essence of something. My poems are revised by the time those in the books were published probably hundreds of times. I just don't like wordiness."

She recalls writing one of her favorite poems, "Pony Check" (see box), about a Crow Indian woman whose grandmother had 100 ponies stolen by the US government at the time of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Maldonado says the woman, Russie Arrows, continued to prospect all over the mountains of Montana and Wyoming as an elder.

"When her feet were too bad for boots, she wore fuzzy bedroom slippers," Maldonado recalls.

"I rewrote that poem at least 100 times," she says, adding that it was one of her earlier ones, done when she was still writing by hand. "I was living in Arizona in an RV on a ranch, and working at two nearby colleges. I spent an entire winter on ‘Pony Check,' but I knew the story had to be told."

Maldonado says that even with all of the rewriting, she does know when a poem is as good as it's going to be. "I think that's the eye of a writer," she says. "You have to know when to let it go. That discernment, to me, is what makes a writer."

 

Maldonado wrote her first poem at age nine (about Abraham Lincoln's mother) and says she still loves the rhythms of language and how a poem looks. "I could read before I went to school, and I especially liked the way poetry looked on a page. I just thought it was beautiful to look at."

She writes poems about her family in those early days in Montana, how they were sheepherders and artists and great storytellers. Her great-great-grandfather was a seanchai (spelled seanchaidhe before the Irish spelling reform of 1948), which means a bearer of "old lore." In the ancient Celtic culture, history and laws were not written down, but memorized in long lyric poems by these professional storytellers.

Her brother Pat, still in Montana, continues the family's great storytelling tradition today.

Maldonado's days in Montana ended when, as a teenage bride, a "military man, a soldier of fortune," took her on whirlwind trips to several Pacific islands, and fathered her two boys. The family finally settled for five years as civilians in Guam, where she got a divorce, an all-expense scholarship, and a lifelong love for teaching.

Speaking of her first marriage, she says it was the only period in her life when she didn't write.

Her scholarship gave her three weeks to find a school, and she had already been admitted to Columbia and the University of Colorado when she heard about Silver City and its university, known as a "fine school" for training teachers.

"I received a handwritten letter from the dean of students who said, ‘We have housing and we have a lab school where your children can go.' It was all very welcoming, and I was attracted to the remoteness of the area," she recalls.

And when she first saw Silver City, it was déjà vu all over again. "I've always known I could take care of myself, because I've worked since I was 14 years old, and I'm very much at home in the out-of-doors. When I saw this place I thought, I'm back home again in one of those western towns in Montana."

As she worked on two college degrees, she got a job teaching English at the Santa Rita school, then was hired at the WNMU lab school as supervisor of its seventh and eighth grades. She held this position for 10 years until the president decided to close the lab school, a decision she spoke out against; she was fired as a tenured faculty member, fought it, won, and was reinstated.

"I love teaching to this day, and I miss students so much," she says. "I love the interaction, and being a part of people's learning process. I love learning with them. I love the fun of seeing someone get something for the first time. It's all just so exciting for me."

Since her arrival in 1959, Maldonado has left Silver City only for brief periods for work and education, such as when she started her doctoral degree at Boston University. After her difficult first marriage, Maldonado believed she would always remain single, but wed Librado Maldonado seven years after meeting him in a graduate course. Also an educator, principal of Cobre High School, Lobrado's family had settled in Grant County in the 1870s.

Bonnie has written about his Apache ancestors, and in one 2003 poem she touches on his ranching background. In the poem "Rancher" she describes seeing an older rancher:

He tips his Stetson

in my direction

and I see clear gray eyes

and worry lines acquired

from watching for rain.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Among the galleries

in quaint Silver City,

he appears as another

endangered species.

The government

may not understand him,

but ranchers from

the past are closer than he knows.

Old Tom Lyons, Dan McMillen,

Steve Villarrel, Pedro Maldonado,

And Angus Campbell, on fine horses,

swoop down Bullard Street.

Dipping and rising like swimmers,

they sweep him into the mystique

of New Mexico legend.

Maldonado says she has written at least a thousand poems over her lifetime, with many contained in her four books. Two are set in Montana, From the Marias River to the North Pole and Montana, Too. Her other two books speak of Southwest New Mexico: It's Only Raven Laughing: Fifty Years in the Southwest (a Willa Literary Award finalist) and Too Personal for Words: The Invisible Path of Aging. Her work also appears in two anthologies, Geography of the Heart, a Willa Award winner, and in Poetry Squared.

Her books are available at O'Keefe's Bookshop at 102 W. Broadway in Silver City, at the Silver City Museum, and at Amazon.com.

Asked if she would ever stop writing poems, Maldonado says she writes because she has to write. "Without it, there would be a part of me that would go around crying for a pen and a piece of paper," she says. "I have to write poems like I have to eat, because I have a hunger for it. I have a need for it."

She says that as she has aged, her poetry has become freer, less formal and stiff. She cites as an example of her newer style the title poem from her third book, It's Only Raven Laughing. As she starts reading the poem in nicely pronounced Spanish, her voice is animated, strong and steady:

El cuervo por ser tan negro

relumbra mas que la plata.

Then translates in English:

The raven for being so black

shines brighter than silver.

Slid forward in the chair on the patio of her adobe home near Pinos Altos, eyes twinkling, glancing up and down at the book, she recites the poem:

This smart bird is pure fun.

He walks me home,

taunting lesser birds

as he chats about his night

in a moonlit cottonwood.

He hops closer

when I tell him

I prefer ravens

to academics.

In a fit of joy he flits

among orange poppies,

finds a marble of desert glass,

vanishes with his prize

to glide the thermals,

wrapped in raven laughter.

She says, "I didn't get to play much for many years; now I'm more playful. I'm letting my humor come out. I'm taking some risks with my writing."

Paraphrasing Robert Frost's comment, "A poem begins with a lump in the throat," Maldonado adds with a chuckle, "It can also begin with laughter in your throat." She goes on, "My sense of humor has saved me in the process of getting older."

As another activity of her term as Silver City's poet laureate, Maldonado is planning to conduct a fall, four-week class for the Western Institute for Lifelong Learning (WILL), with those attending doing some writing under her expert teaching and guidance.

The proposed title of the course?

"At Play With the Poet Laureate."

Naturally.

 

 

Harry Williamson moved to Grant County more than three years ago after reporting and editing for newspapers in New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas. Feel free to contact him at editorharrydad5@gmail.com or at (575) 534-9321.

 

 

 




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