Jorge Argueta (photo by Teresa Kennett)
September 6th, 2023
Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:
Jorge Argueta, Poet, Author, Educator
DG: Your recent work has concerned itself with people living on the fringes, specifically those living on the street. You have described this endeavor as “writing portraits of life on the street.” Can you speak about the poems that came about as a result of this enterprise, and what you learned during the writing process?
JA: I wrote these poems because I’m a human being and it hurts me to see people in so much pain, and the sad thing is that I don’t see them getting much help. These poems try to raise consciousness a little, so people could have more compassion. One guy I talked to, he had owned a house but he lost it, and he lost his marriage, too, then he had a van and he lost that, everything was taken away, his kids—like in a flash it’s all gone. People see him and they don’t know if he’s crazy or not. You learn people’s lives, and it comes out as poetry.
DG: You’ve written poems in Spanish that have been translated into English. Does the awareness that your poem will be translated affect how you approach a piece, and has there ever been a time where the translation ended up being closer to your vision for a particular poem?
JA: I’m happy to have a friendship with the person who translates my poems. We meet together and talk about things, and the English sounds good. A few lines maybe stronger, just because of the way English works.
DG: You were born in El Salvador and have a Pipil Nahuat heritage. The immigrant experience features heavily in your writing. A country like the US has not always been receptive to bilingualism, much less to immigrants. Can you touch upon some of the challenges you’ve encountered and how poetry has guided you through these difficulties?
JA: I was sitting in a café, other people were there too, at different tables, and a woman comes in with a dog and tells me to watch her dog while she goes shopping. This really happened. She finally was told to leave with her dog, and she was annoyed, she didn’t understand why. Another time I was on my way to a bus stop, and as I passed a playground, a child looked at me with horror and ran to his older sister, crying, like I was some sort of monster. It went to my soul—what had this boy been told at home, to fear someone who looks different? It hurts, too, because kids should enjoy playing, not be filled with fear. Poetry is like medicine, to help me and help others feel proud and honor who we are and what we represent.
DG: The creative scope with which you work is wide. Apart from tackling very serious topics like social injustice and street despair, you’re also a prolific children’s book writer. Is it difficult to work with such a divergent audience, or do you find the creative transition between age groups easy to make?
JA: There’s no real difference. My words are simple words, the way people who maybe don’t read or write often talk about things and it comes out sounding so original, so beautiful. I write humble words to express beautiful things.
DG: Let’s stay with the topic of children’s books. So many of the works deal with the topic of food—arguably the most universal experience, since food is a ritual we must all partake in. More so than poetry, even, it ensures our survival and brings people together. Do you see yourself ever writing a poetry collection revolving around food, culture, and unity for adults?
JA: A tomato is a poem, an onion, a cabbage are poems. Maybe someday I could have a collection like that. We eat poetry.
DG: Let’s return to your birthplace—El Salvador. Though you live and work in San Francisco, the sense of belonging to the place of your birth is ever-present, both in personal and creative terms. They say writers are both a product of their upbringing and environment, but for you, personally, which one is stronger? When writing, do you “think,” as they say, in English or in Spanish?
JA: I mostly think in Spanish, sometimes in Nahuat, and sometimes even in English. Writing brings me back home—by home I mean my birthplace, the place I sometimes wish I had never left. But what’s sad is to realize that the place where once I knew so much love, sadness, anger, happiness is gone, it’s there, but it’s no longer there. I might not be so sad if I felt the decision to leave was really mine, but circumstances forced me and thousands of other Salvadorans to leave. Now, after almost 50 years, that place is still intact in my heart, even though the people I loved and who loved me are all gone. Sometimes I wish I’d never left. I’m happy I can go back when I’m writing—that’s how I go back to that place that still smells like young corn and where a man pushes his cart to sell paletas every afternoon.
DG: For many years, you’ve been visiting classrooms and holding creative writing workshops not only there, but in a multitude of settings, such as children’s hospitals and homeless shelters. How have these activities informed your work, and is there a difference between how people in each setting perceive poetry, or is the experience universal?
JA: I love to do poetry workshops, wherever and whenever. Poetry is a tool, the softest and most powerful tool, the simplest and most sophisticated one. I find it everywhere, every day, it is the spirit of the creator, it is life itself.
DG: From the Gulf of California, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, there is an incredibly rich literary tradition, both in Spanish and in the respective indigenous languages. Who are some of the voices you grew up reading and who influenced you most?
JA: To find your own voice you imitate the sunset, the trees, the wind, the rivers. You’re helped by the voice of people you read. For me, Rosario Castellanos, Claudia Lars, Roque Dalton, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Borges, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and I loved Walt Whitman, Byron …
DG: For someone who’s never tried Salvadoran food, which dish would you recommend?
JA: Chuco (corn soup with beans), and pupusas
DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?
JA: I’m finishing a book called “Mis primeras palabras en Nahaut,” My First Words in Nahuat. It’s in all three languages, Nahuat, Spanish, and English.
About Jorge Argueta
Jorge Argueta, a Pipil Nahua Indian from El Salvador and the 2023 Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, is a prize-winning poet and author of more than twenty children’s picture books. They include Una película en mi almohada / A Movie in My Pillow (Children’s Book Press, 2001) and Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds (Groundwood Books, 2016), which won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and was named to USBBY’s Outstanding International Book List, the ALA Notable Children’s Books and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices. His Madre Tierra / Mother Earth series celebrates the natural world and is made up of four installments: Tierra, Tierrita / Earth, Little Earth (Piñata Books, 2023), winner of the Salinas de Alba Award for Latino Children’s Literature; Viento, Vientito / Wind, Little Wind (Piñata Books, 2022), winner of the Premio Campoy-Ada given by the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española; Fuego, Fueguito / Fire, Little Fire (Piñata Books, 2019); and Agua, Agüita / Water, Little Water (Piñata Books, 2017), winner of the inaugural Campoy-Ada Award in Children’s Poetry. His poetry collection, En carne propia: Memoria poética / Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir (Arte Público Press, 2017), focuses on his experiences with civil war and living in exile. The California Association for Bilingual Education honored him with its Courage to Act Award. In addition, Jorge Argueta is the founder of The International Children’s Poetry Festival Manyula and The Library of Dreams, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy in rural and metropolitan areas of El Salvador. Jorge divides his time between San Francisco, California, and El Salvador. Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, California.