Newsmaker: Margarita Engle

An inspirational poet for young people

September 1, 2017

Margarita Engle
Young People's Poet Laureate Margarita Engle

The Poetry Foundation has named poet, novelist, and journalist Margarita Engle as the new Young People’s Poet Laureate, a title given biennially in recognition of outstanding achievement in poetry for children. She succeeds author Jacqueline Woodson.

A Cuban-American, Engle is the first person of Latino descent to receive the honor. She was also the first Latina to be awarded a Newbery Honor in 2009 for The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom.

What poets have had an influence on your writing? This is such a challenging question, because I have fallen in love with so many different poetic traditions at various stages of my life. As a small child, I listened to my mother recite Versos sencillos by José Martí, as well as the songlike rhymes of Federico García Lorca and Rubén Darío.

In school, I learned about Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. At the library, I discovered the powerful resonance of classical Japanese forms, especially haiku and tanka. In my 20s, I fell in love with Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges. Later, I became passionate about Antonio Machado and all the poets of Spain’s Generation of ’27, especially Juan Ramón Jiménez. Now I read Dulce María Loynaz over and over.

What is your schedule like as Young People’s Poet Laureate? I’m going to start close to home, by making bilingual videos for teachers and students and doing local readings. In September, I am visiting schools in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Orlando, and Miami, along with Mike Curato, the illustrator of our picture book All the Way to Havana, about a family road trip in an old car. We did this book together as a tribute to the perseverance and ingenuity of poor people everywhere, who fix broken things because they can’t afford new ones. I’ll also be introducing a new middle-grade eco-adventure, a verse novel called Forest World, set in one of the wilderness areas of contemporary Cuba. In October, in Seattle I will speak about those books as well as Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote, a picture book biography I wrote in verse, with beautiful illustrations by Raúl Colón. I’m also scheduled for various book festivals, the California School Library Association conference, and Poetry Foundation events in Chicago.

Are you visiting school and public libraries? Whenever possible, I’ll visit schools and libraries that are usually left out due to lack of resources. Farm worker communities, Native American reservations, and Puerto Rico are possibilities. Since I can’t travel constantly, I’ll do some Skyping, and I’d like to do snail-mail visits by sending letters to schools and libraries and inviting students to write response poems. I hope to focus on various aspects of a general theme of peace. My letters and student poems can be bilingual, if that approach is requested. I wish I could offer other languages other than Spanish, but that will only be possible if poets from various cultural backgrounds join me in this effort.

Do you plan on reading both Spanish and English language poetry to kids? Yes! In August, Aire encantado, a Spanish edition of my memoir Enchanted Air, was published. I can also read from Morning Star Horse / El caballo lucero, a bilingual middle-grade magic realistic verse novel, and from the Spanish editions of Drum Dream Girl, Bravo!, and The Surrender Tree.

Have you done translations of your own books? I translated Bravo!, but I was born and raised in the US, so it was hard work and it needed a ton of grammatical proofreading. I really prefer native-born professional translators, with their specialized skills and brilliant grasp of subtleties. Alexis Romay has done a superb job on all the Spanish and dual-language editions of my verse novels, and Miguel’s Brave Knight is being beautifully translated by Teresa Mlawer and Georgina Lazo.

What is challenging about writing novels for young people in free verse? Children and teenagers aren’t afraid of poetry! They love it instinctively, the same way they enjoy music. The biggest challenges stem from adult attitudes. So many teachers and librarians tell me they “don’t get” poetry. Others inadvertently spoil poetry for students, by forcing them to analyze, as if poems were mathematical formulas.

When I went to the local branch of a chain bookstore and told the person in charge of the children’s section that I had just been named the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, she shrugged and, as usual, refused to carry any of my books. If she doesn’t see much demand for poetry, I suspect that her own negative attitude is responsible. Teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents, and grandparents who love poetry can influence many future generations by helping students discover the joy of poetry now, so that someday they’ll pass it on to their own grandchildren.

One of the things that happens at poetry readings is amazing. Children and teenagers walk up to me afterwards and read their own poems, or recite them from memory. Some of these young poets are refugees or immigrants, and their poems are about missing family members left behind in other countries. They are offering me a gift of their trust, and they often astonish their own teachers. In one case, at the end of a Skype session with a group of reluctant readers, a teenage boy stood up in front of all his classmates and read me his own passionate poem about his broken heart. Later, the teacher-librarian sent me an email saying that she had no idea he knew how to read or write. She thought he was learning disabled. He wasn’t. Poetry is a safe outlet for youthful thoughts and emotions.

Will you be writing more about Cuba now that it’s opened up more to Americans? Sadly, travel and trade restrictions were just partially renewed by executive order. The cruelty and foolishness of reviving hostilities appalls me. Those Cold War policies have failed since 1962; I don’t see how they can achieve any goals now. I already have two books about contemporary Cuba, All the Way to Havana and Forest World. But yes, I might continue with more.

What writing projects are you currently working on? My 2018 verse novel is Jazz Owls: A Story of the Zoot Suit Riots, with stunning illustrations by Rudy Gutiérrez. It will be published in June on the 75th anniversary of a time in Los Angeles when racist sailors on their way to World War II battlefields attacked Mexican-American teenagers simply because they wore cool clothes and jitterbugged at interracial dances.

My spring 2018 picture book is The Flying Girl: How Aída de Acosta Learned to Soar, with lovely illustrations by Sara Palacios. It’s about a Cuban-American teenager who flew a motorized dirigible six months before the Wright Brothers flew their fixed-wing airplane. She has been left out of history, and I hope to help bring her back.

Later in 2018, my first collaborative picture book will be Haku Finds a Home, written together with my daughter and her Nepali husband, and beautifully illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran. It’s about a dog-feeding festival in Kathmandu. This book is really important to me, because without it my half-Nepali grandchildren wouldn’t have any picture books about their father’s culture. For 2019, my projects are a biographical verse novel about Rubén Darío, one of Latin America’s most inspiring poets, and a Rafael López–illustrated picture book about a young pianist.