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Alumni Profile

Touching the Hand of God

For this Latin American artist, poetry is a devotional act that should be shared.

Maria Auxiliadora Alvarez

As an assistant professor of poetry, creative writing, and Spanish literature at Miami University in Oxford, OH, Maria Auxiliadora Alvarez (AM '99, PhD '03 Spanish,) wants her students to understand more than the meaning of poems. She wants poems to touch her students on a deep, emotional level so they will find parts of themselves in the words they read and write.

At Miami, she organized an event honoring original voices in Spanish poetry, and she put together a booklet featuring the work of students from her class. "I'm working a lot to help students enjoy and be comfortable in the artistic life," she says on the phone from Oxford.

Although she is regarded today as one of the most important voices in contemporary Latin American poetry and some of the most prestigious journals in the field have published her work, Alvarez wasn't always confident enough to pursue the artistic life. As the single mother of three children, she spent 15 years doing corporate communications.

She ran her own marketing company in Venezuela from 1988 to 1996, supervising a staff of 25 and coordinating successful campaigns for the state oil company. Beyond her children, what happiness she found came in poetry. She wrote at home in the evenings after working 12-hour days. Writing poetry was something she had done since her early teens. Despite having limited time to write, her work garnered a following in Latin America and Spain, especially after the publication in 1985 of her first book of poems, Cuerpo. She has since published four more acclaimed books of poetry. Two more books of her work are in publication.

Michael Palencia-Roth, an LAS professor of comparative and world literatures who advised Alvarez on her thesis, says a measure of the poet's stature is her inclusion in many important anthologies, including one collecting the work of the best poets writing in Spanish in the last 50 years. "She is one of the rising poets of Spanish-American literature," says Palencia-Roth.

In her poetry, Alvarez emulates the work of her father, Oswaldo Alvarez Rojas, a diplomat and renowned mystical poet who wrote about finding God. Maria wrote her dissertation at Illinois on the relationship of contemporary mystical poetry with the tradition that dates back centuries. A devout Catholic, Alvarez considers writing poetry a devotional act she likens to touching the hand of God. "Poetry asks a lot," she says. "It is not something you can do quickly and do well. You need to give your entire energy, everything you have, and you need to live according to that."

Growing up, Alvarez and her seven siblings moved with her parents to diplomatic posts assigned to her father from Brazil to Columbia to Suriname and back to Brazil again. At 21, she married a man from Spain and moved home to Venezuela and had three children (all ended up attending U of I). After a divorce, she entered the world of business and found success enough to support her children, but she yearned for artistic freedom beyond the corporate world.

That yearning bursts through in one of her poems from this period, "My Red Bird." Written in 1990 and later translated from Spanish and published in Columbia University's journal, Translation. The poem begins:

My red bird, is gone,
his fire, his flight,
the melody of his song.

Maria Auxiliadora Alvarez

The poem ends with a hopeful line:

If I warm your winter, my bird,
If dawn shined through once more,
Would you?

Maria Auxiliadora Alvarez

"In that time I wanted to feel again the love for life," Alvarez recalls.

The red bird came for her in 1996, when she decided to sell her company and move her family to the United States after the death of her father, which left her sad and shaken. For a woman who had grown up in many nations, moving to a new country was a welcome method to start a new life.

In Venezuela she had met two American professors who encouraged her to move to the United States to earn a doctorate in Spanish literature. Becoming a professor appealed to the former businesswoman. "It's not a profession to be rich, but it's a profession to be rich inside yourself," Alvarez says.

Appreciating Poetry

For Maria Auxiliadora Alvarez, poetry is a private act that should be shared publicly. In Spain and Latin America, poetry is interwoven with the culture. In Venezuela, poems are read aloud in public venues and poetry is published and discussed regularly in newspapers and popular magazines. Important poets are treated as celebrities. Alvarez says the public interest in poetry comes from Latin American culture. "I think we are very emotional," she says, "and we express what we feel and what we see."

In the United States, Alvarez has observed that poetry is often thought of as an intellectual exercise. "The real approach is not the intellectual approach, but the emotional," she says. "You go through not only with your intelligence but your feelings."

In America, poetry is also looked at as quaint or esoteric. "Poetry is considered something strange, unreal," she says. "But it's just we don't give it the attention or interest it needs."

Poetry needs to be appreciated like any other art form. "If you go into a classical concert, if you have knowledge of music, you will enjoy. But you have to open yourself up to the music," Alvarez says. "It's the same with poetry. You must open yourself up to it and feel it with your spirit."

To appreciate poetry, she advises finding a simple poem that strikes an emotional chord. "If you had the same experience as the poet, you will understand because you will recognize yourself," she says.

Alvarez has found pieces of herself in the work of poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, and the poets of the Beat Generation. Reading those poets is like stepping into the comfortable home of a friend, she says. Good poetry taps into the universal truths for all of humanity. "The philosophy of poetry helps you discover answers to questions you've always had inside yourself."

Encouraged by a family friend who had attended U of I, Alvarez chose to come to the University to earn her doctorate. It was only after arriving that she discovered Illinois had a professor in Spanish literature—Paul Borgeson Jr.— who was also a well-known critic in Latin America. With Borgeson as her advisor, Alvarez found the encouragement and solitude that had escaped her in Venezuela.

After working closely with her mentor for several years, she was dismayed to learn in 1999 that Borgeson was dying of cancer. Alvarez was also surprised when Borgeson began sharing poetry with her because, although he was an esteemed critic, he had never shared his poetry with anyone. She was impressed that Borgeson was writing in Spanish, which was not his native language. Also, the subject of the poems was his own death.

Inspired, Alvarez organized a poetry reading in May 1999 that featured some of Borgeson's poems. Students, faculty, and Borgeson's family gathered by candlelight in the Lucy Ellis Lounge of the Foreign Language Building for several hours to hear poetry being read in 10 languages. It was the first time Borgeson's children had heard his poems. Two weeks later Borgeson died. His poems were collected in a booklet and distributed at the funeral.

"He said to me that when he was in the hospital suffering alone, the only thing that gave him peace was thinking of that poetry reading," Alvarez says.

Since Borgeson's death, LAS's Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese has held an annual poetry reading in his honor. Alvarez is happy the event she started has become a tradition, and she hopes the same will occur with a poetry reading she began at Miami. For Alvarez, encouraging others to appreciate and express themselves through poetry is a way to give back to those such as Borgeson who encouraged her along the way. "I think that we need someone who believes in us," she says.

By Scott Spilky
July 2004