By STEVE SALDIVAR
The black ink is still fresh on the lease for the small room right above Precita Eyes.
Not a poster or photo frame disturbs the whiteness of the walls. A large wooden desk and black chair occupy the room. The only sign of life is a blue coffee mug. And then Mission District poet Lorna Dee Cervantes tugs at the curtains to reveal 24th Street.
“All the world,” says Cervantes of the Mission and the view from her new office.
After 19 years away, Cervantes, the author of two popular books of poetry, has returned to the Mission District. From her perch on 24th Street, the 53-year-old award-winning poet plans to live, write and continue her work promoting and developing Chicano writers.
At present she’s finishing her first novel The Best in the World, a work of fiction for young adults. There’s no better place to finish the work than right at home, she says.
“You can’t write about a place until you’ve left,” says Cervantes, who holds place and politics dear. Three weeks after the presidential elections she still has her red “I Voted” sticker fixed to her sweater. And when asked what part of Mexico she’s from, she answers “California” unapologetically. Her politics, says the poet who’s just an inch over five feet, “comes out of being Chicana and a woman, and being poor, and short to boot.”
“Language is political. There’s history in our words. There’s no poem written by me that’s not. Poetry politicized me.”
Already, the view from her window has inspired her work, she says, and recounts her election-night poem.
“I sat outside and looked out the window. The images came flowing by and as soon as I sat down the first line came to me: ‘They are coming home in the Mission.’”[audio:http://www.missionlocal.org/wp-content/uploads/LornaDee_Poem.mp3]
“It feels good to be back,” Cervantes says. “It feels right.”
Cervantes grew up in San Jose and remembers hypocrisy as the first big word she learned. It was reflected in everything from being raised Catholic to being told she was too dark to swim in a public pool in San Jose to being accused of plagiarism in grade school for her first poem. Cervantes hasn’t stopped saying the word since.
Regardless, she survived community college in San Jose and went on to San Jose State University for her B.A. and then to UC Santa Cruz for a graduate degree. She left California in 1988 to teach creative writing for 19 years at the University of Colorado in Boulder. In 2008 she was ready to come home, and in November she signed the lease on 24th Street.
“You don’t go away from a place because it’s dangerous, or because you don’t like it, or because it’s ugly. You work to make that place better. We have a responsibility to bring light into our community.
“I’ve come back for guys like Jorge Hurtado,” she says, referring to the 18-year-old poet who was gunned down four months ago.
To help the community heal, she will host weekly writing workshops. “This is what poetry is for,” says Cervantes. “What art is for, what the music and dance and stories are for.
“Those guys have no empathy,” she says of the murders. “I need to be her
“I’ve been feeling guilty for being gone for so long.”
In addition to her work in Colorado, and publishing two books of poetry including Drive (which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2006), she’s been an active reader and promoter of other Chicano poets. She hopes to continue to inspire new poets in the same way she felt as a fresh high school graduate in 1972 when she attended a marathon reading by Robert Hass, a San Francisco native who teaches at UC Berkeley and was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to 1997.
“He was reading a long poem,” says Cervantes. “It was about a California woman. It blew my mind so much I got up in the middle of the reading, which I never do because it’s rude. I went into the bathroom and I wrote a poem in a frenzy.”
Those scribbles became “Poema Para los Californios Muertos” in Emplumada, her first book published in 1981.
“It was better than any M.F.A. program,” she says, referring to the reading.
As Cervantes talks of her plans in the Mission District, the exhaust of the 48 Muni and the laughter of school children interrupt the otherwise quiet office. Pigeons gather outside her window, reminding the poet of the heavy bird imagery often found in her works. This is the Mission District insisting itself, says Cervantes.
“The noise doesn’t bother me at all. The pigeons come home to roost.”