Much of my work has to do with the self and the conflicts with the external world. I was never just at war with myself—I was at war with the world I live in, and that was my true subject. But it wasn’t just a war—it was also a love affair. Perhaps, it is more accurate to say, that one of my obsessions is my struggle to be connected to the world that invented me.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Notes from the City in Which I Live: Poetry and the Political Imagination
Benjamin Alire Sáenz grew up on a cotton farm in New Mexico speaking only Spanish until he started elementary school. While pursuing his education took him many new places, he has since lived for years in the border region between the US and Mexico — an area that remains central to his writing. In Sáenz’s poetry, borders are not “merely metaphor” or “literary trope” but they do seem uniquely able to speak to the borderlands that exist between an individual and the world, as well as those within a single person, negotiating his or her identity (or identities). Sáenz draws on his Mexican, American and Catholic influences when he writes, and it is the conversation that comes from crossing back and forth between the borders of these identities that make his poems so compelling. They speak across differences and seem to bring disconnected worlds closer.
In the same essay quoted above, Sáenz writes passionately about the need to be connected:
To live only as an individual is to live outside of a community. To live only as an individual is to live outside of history. To live only as an individual is to live in a state of permanent exiles.
We must imagine a world without exile.
Sáenz’s poetry—capable of genuine empathy and lacerating wit—almost always enacts the imaginative capacity he calls for in the above quote. However, to put this quotation in perspective, it is important to understand that Sáenz’s notions of community and of history are not romantic, utopian fantasies. In fact, according to Sáenz’s work, to enter into these arenas—of history, of community, of citizenship—is to enter into very real compromise. Turning away from exile means engaging with the challenges and pleasures of being a part of a community, it means reckoning with the complicated history of a country or religious faith. Addressing the role of faith in his own life, Sáenz has written: “I remain a good Catholic in this one sense: I find it a holy and moving thing that a God would become a human being. This is what it means to be political—to care enough to become a part of the world. To embrace the world.”
This decision embrace of the world is evident in many of Saenz’s poems. For one example, watch Benjamin Alire Sáenz as he reads “The Boy Falls in Love with Beginnings”
While the poem is not framed explicitly as political, a reader can observe the boy’s movement towards life, toward his family and his classmates, and the larger communities that influence him as a turning away from a life lived only for the self. And although that concept sounds sobering, the poem itself is exuberant. As any reader of Sáenz will find, this is no surprise. These are poems that affirm that life without exile may not be an easy path to set oneself to, but there is much to be found there, including great joy.
We are sure that students and teachers alike will be drawn to Sáenz’s poetry and we look forward to welcoming him to the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival.
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For more information on the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org