The poetic voice of Staten Island
It goes by many names. The Forgotten Borough. Shaolin. Staten Island.
Last summer, lifelong Staten Island resident Marguerite María Rivas, an associate professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was named Staten Island’s Poet Laureate by Borough President James Oddo. In her four-year term, she will represent Staten Island at literary events and promote poetry for young people in the borough.
She is the first person to officially hold the title.
She was a natural choice for the job. A graduate of the College of Staten Island, Rivas has often said her poetry has been inspired by the working people and the natural beauty of the borough (she is quick to point out that Staten Island is one of the most ecologically varied of any NYC borough).
The borough president’s office said of the laureate, “Her poetry has been widely published in journals, anthologies and in a best-selling college textbook. She is also the author of two full-length collections of poems. In her book, Tell No One: Poems of Witness, her poems reflect the kinship and the resiliency of Staten Islanders in the aftermath of September 11. A poem from this collection, ‘Witness,’ is included in the National September 11 Museum’s online collection, along with two others.”
Rivas hopes that she can bring attention to “Staten Island authors and poets who have been forgotten, specifically women who have paved the way for modern poetry,” the Staten Island Advance reported.
Rivas spoke to Clarion for our on-going “five questions” series.
You’ve been the Staten Island Poet Laureate for a few months now. How has your new title helped you promote poetry in the borough?
I did a reading and an interview for two Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend events on Staten Island and will be reading at an interborough series, NYC Voices, representing Staten Island. I have worked with Staten Island nonprofits, including the National Lighthouse Museum and the Staten Island Museum, on programs highlighting their collections. For the former, I wrote my first occasional poem as Staten Island Poet Laureate, a poem about famed lighthouse keeper Kate Walker. For the Staten Island Museum, I’ll be doing an interactive public poetry program, which dovetails with a major exhibit celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage. For National Poetry Month, I will also be working on an initiative to prompt students in grades 6, 7, and 8 to write poems about their Staten Island communities. I am also planning projects marrying poetry and other art forms in public venues and will be working with branch libraries on Staten Island to promote literacy through poetry.
Much of your writing has been inspired by your life on Staten Island. What makes the borough unique as a literary inspiration?
I feel a kinship with Staten Islanders that is tied to our geography and to our history. Staten Island has both natural and urban areas and is beautiful in its human and natural diversity. One of my areas of scholarly interest is recovering women’s literary production, which has led me to do historical research leading to the recovery of Staten Island’s literary history. Staten Island has long been home to artists and writers who have found inspiration here, from Henry David Thoreau to the Wu-Tang Clan.
We live in a time of changing media, where the internet looms large and there are fewer bookstores to buy poetry or host readings. Is it harder or easier for young people to get access to poetry these days?
Younger people have found ways to create community around poetry, especially spoken word poetry. They are creating zines and publishing magazines and chapbooks. It is an exciting time for poetry and poetry lovers. Staten Islanders have found creative places to bring poetry to Staten Islanders of all ages – community centers, a book café, a clothing store, to name a few.
One of your books focuses on Staten Islanders’ resiliency after 9/11. Two decades later, how does that event affect the population still?
Staten Islanders are still living 9/11 and dying from it. Every year there is a solemn ceremony at Postcards, our 9/11 memorial, honoring 275 Staten Islanders killed that day. There is now an additional memorial at the site, marble panels inscribed with the names of first responders who have died from 9/11-related illnesses since. At last year’s ceremony 10 new names were read. There are 83 names on those memorial panels, women and men who worked in the aftermath of the attack, either in the recovery or cleanup processes. There are many more still suffering from the effects of that day and its aftermath. For many Staten Islanders, the specter of 9/11 still looms large.
You are a College of Staten Island graduate and you teach at BMCC. Have you ever thought about writing a poem about the need to invest in urban higher education?
Although I haven’t thought about writing poetry that speaks directly to the need to invest in urban higher education, my poems are inhabited by people who have been served by it, who continue studies despite challenges. Hopefully, my poetry illuminates struggles faced by those who have been single-parent students, have worked three jobs while going to school, have survived domestic abuse, have lived with housing insecurity, but have prevailed.
In many ways, their stories are mine.
Bement Avenue Nocturne
By MARGUERITE MARÍA RIVAS
Daughters, when you lie awake wishing for sleep,
do you hear the scuff of the wash bucket,
slap of mop, drip of gray water
and know that when she scrubs the kitchen floor
your mother sees your future, our futures
beyond this worn linoleum?
She blesses herself with hands, cracked and bleached,
kneels and murmurs a benediction over your narrow beds,
then places her calloused palms upon your backs
feels for an adagio of your breathing
rising with the pulsing of her hopeful heart.
Note: Professor Rivas read this poem at the “CUNY Writers Against Austerity” reading at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in March of 2016.