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Celebrating D.C. Baltimore Metropolitan youth poetry and Gabriela Mistral with the Gabriela Mistral Youth Poetry Competition

(The following guest blog interview was submitted to the Hispanic Division by patrons Anna Deeny Morales and Nelcy Denice Ávila. It offers context on The Gabriela Mistral Youth Poetry Competition as a legacy to this Chilean poet, who was the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945.)

Gabriela Mistral was a public school teacher, prolific poet, and essayist, as well as an architect of public education in Latin America, who defended the rights of women, minorities, indigenous populations, and children. The Gabriela Mistral Youth Poetry Competition celebrates Mistral’s legacy by honoring the poetry of young people. The competition invites students (ages 11-19) in the D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan regions to submit poems on any topic in English, Spanish, Portuguese, any Indigenous language of the Americas, and/or any combination of these languages.

Top left: Chilean Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral. Top right: [Chile – Aconcagua Valley] Carpenter, Frank G. (Frank George), 1855-1924, published between 1890 and 1930. Bottom: [Copy of three pages of handwritten text for poem “Miedo” by Gabriela Mistral] created / published 199-. (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Interview of Anna Deeny Morales by Nelcy Avila

NELCY: You’re on the board of the IN Series and chair the Gabriela Mistral Youth Poetry Competition that is now in its eleventh year. Could you tell us about this competition?

ANNA: Carla Hübner, the Emerita Founding Artistic Director of the IN Series, and her son, Mattías Kraemer, started the Gabriela Mistral Youth Poetry Competition in 2009. It enabled Carla and Mattías to honor their Chilean origins and Chilean poetic traditions. Chile is known for its particular cultivation of great poets that include Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. In 1945, Mistral was the first Latin American to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. She was an internationally recognized poet, public intellectual and prolific essayist. At the same time, Mistral was a public school teacher, designing public primary and secondary education in Latin America, and an advocate for children’s rights. The goal of the competition was to honor Mistral’s legacy by encouraging thriving Latinx communities and bilingual, Spanish speaking youth in DC, Maryland, and Virginia to write poetry. My own family is part of that Latinx community.

For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to chair the competition, first under Carla Hübner, and now under our new artistic director, Timothy Nelson. In these years, we have extended the linguistic range of the competition to include Portuguese and any indigenous language of the Americas to account for migrants who are from Central America, for example, but whose primary language is Indigenous. We have received thousands of poems over these years, and we are always impressed by their quality and thematic breadth. We are very fortunate to receive support for the competition from the Celtino Foundation; and the Chilean Embassy, which hosts our awards ceremony. Now we are happy to report that the Hispanic Division at the Library of Congress has agreed to collaborate with us. We hope this partnership with the division will help us include a workshop for any young person who has submitted a poem.

NELCY: Your dedication to Gabriela Mistral emanates from your work as a translator of poetry. You recently received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship to translate Mistral’s 1938 volume, Tala. How do children’s voices in poetry dialogue with your work in translation?

ANNA: That is such an interesting question, Nelcy, because it never occurred to me to think about that relationship or the bridge you are suggesting we build. First, what does it mean to read the poetry that these children have sent to us? I think there is a free play in the imaginations of 11-13-year-old poets, which is not as present in the older groups. The younger poets are generally less concerned with what the poem is supposed to sound like, what they are supposed to say, feel, think, and/or mean. They use similar techniques of rhyme and rhythm, but their range of vocabulary and theme is more unexpected. So maybe we can say that the younger poets are more genuine. We could talk about what happens, as they, or as we, get older. In school, in life, people learn to ascertain the expectations of teachers or tests assuming we should respond with the “best” rather than what we actually think feel. This is part of the large-scale standardization of youth; and poetry does not live in this structure. Standardization in education is a pathway to citizenship, yes, but I can also be a road to certain forms of power that exclude some participants. Poetry has the capacity to live elsewhere, before citizenship, before nation, before religion. It has the capacity to recall and imagine a humanity that is not standardized or directed by such things as institutions. Younger children are closer to this before.

Now we get to the second part of your question regarding the bridge between reading poetry by young people and my work in translation. It is helpful to define how I think of reading and listening. When I say “read or listen to,” I mean anything from that medical form or insurance document you filled out and the sounds and actions of someone who just shouted at you to Neruda and poetry by young people. I am always listening to as much of a range of languages and registers and forms of music and sound as possible. What the competition does is give me an idea, image, or glimpse into what some young people are feeling and thinking about as they write. This work is unedited and uncoached. It gives me an opportunity to listen and hear a wider range of languages for the poem as it is translated. Think of a painter finding more colors, textures, brush sizes, shades of light, and materials for their craft.

In terms of my translation of Gabriela Mistral, there is no doubt for me that her human ground zero, that is, the defining factor for her concept of humanity, is our treatment of children. The choice to parent, whether that child is biologically related to you or not, and the choice to safeguard the health of the maternal relationship to a child, is a choice that is central to humanity for Mistral. Also, for Mistral, peoples, not just individuals, peoples are defined, by their attention to the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of children. Because this relationship is so intimately bound to the health of mothers in particular, her poetics often cluster around the image of mother and child that seems conventional to many readers. What is radical, however, about her representation of this image is that, again, she did not necessarily intend for the relationship with children to be biologically determined. She extends the health of women and their children, peoples and their children—biological and non-biological—to the health of their ecosystems. So we can consider Mistral’s work as an example of ecofeminism or ecopoetics. Her focus on children’s rights was so fundamental that she believed the child determines relationships within our communities or with our adult contemporaries, rather than the other way around. For example, in her poem “Pan” / “Bread” from Tala, Mistral presents Sarah, the older mother, who has a son Isaac, which means “laughter” in Hebrew. Sarah says that the other women will know who she is by the way her child, Isaac, makes her laugh. What could be more extraordinary and radical than that concept when extended to civil law? A child determines how people interact with me, as well as my status and how I am recognized among my peers rather than the other way around. Let me explain what “the other way around means.” In the mid-19th century, Chile adopted Napoleonic laws regarding the rights of a father to recognize or not recognize a biological son or daughter. That meant a father who did not want to divide an inheritance with and “illegitimate” son who was quite possibly racially mixed could avoid the relationship. This kept power within the hands of political, economic, and, of course, racial hegemonies. To suggest, on the other hand, that children determine our relationship with our peers as adults, was for Mistral a suggestion that untied the very center of centuries-old familial and political relationships and even the idea of “illegitimate” under the law. In other words, our treatment of our children as peoples comes before the concept of law.

NELCY: So how does Mistral infuse these moral, political, and legal concepts in her poetry?

ANNA: She grounds her language, which characterized by a coarse beauty, and always recalling her home in the Elqui Valley of Chile, and in her poetry in rhyme and rhythm techniques used by mothers when they teach their infants and children language. For Mistral, these techniques area matter of principle because they continuously recall the beginning of what is human, the beginning of poetry. So, to ignore these techniques in the translation would ignore the ethical and moral beliefs of Mistral herself. Since I share these beliefs with Mistral, my translations and work with young poets aims to uphold them in some small way through the competition that Carla Hübner and her son Mattías Kraemer began.

* * * * * *

Nelcy Denice Ávila is a second year M.A. student in the Latin American Studies program at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She recently graduated from Salisbury University with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Secondary Education and International Relations. Nelcy completed a Spanish teaching internship in Wicomico County Public Schools and she is currently an intern with IN Series, a non-profit theater company dedicated to the Hispanic/Latinx community in D.C. and Baltimore area.

Anna Deeny Morales is a translator of poetry, dramatist, and literary critic. An NEA fellow for the translation of Tala by Gabriela Mistral, she has translated works by Raúl Zurita, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Mercedes Roffé, among others. Her new work in opera, ¡ZAVALA-ZAVALA!, commissioned by UNC-Charlotte, composer Brian Arreola, will debut in 2022; and La Paloma at the Wall, commissioned by the IN Series, debuted at Gala Hispanic Theater in 2019.

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