At my age, mid 80s, I often get asked about my writing life: how I chose to become a writer, how I managed it as a young woman and then as a mother of four children, what my motivations and influences were. Because the world is teetering on the threshold of neofascism and life is so precarious now, it gets harder and harder to answer these questions.
First, I will say that I didn’t choose to be a writer so much as writing chose me. Throughout my public school years, I hadn’t warmed to poetry much; it was so badly taught and the emphasis was on memorization rather than how it related to my experience. In 1956 I was at a party here in Albuquerque, New Mexico and someone read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” out loud from beginning to end. I was mesmerized. For the first time I felt a poet’s words, thrilled to them really. I knew I wanted to be a poet. Later I would discover women poets whose work hit even closer to home.
I was born in New York City, but my family moved us to New Mexico when I was ten. The high desert is a landscape I love, and it has an important presence in my work. But I grew up as a provincial young girl in the 1940s and ’50s, a time particularly stifling for women. Following World War II, females were forced back into the home to make room for men returning to take the jobs and reoccupy center stage in public life. The McCarthy witch hunts also silenced those with a progressive point of view; writers were discouraged from writing about anything with social content. Still young, I moved back to New York where I lived for a few years among the Abstract Expressionist painters and Beat poets and began to hone my craft. I learned discipline there, and also to take risks.
In 1961, a single mother with an infant son, I moved to Mexico City. It was a fortunate move for me. There I discovered that poets in other countries didn’t have the burden of restrictions I had felt at home; they wrote about everything. And I met and married a Mexican poet, Sergio Mondragón. Together we launched a bilingual literary quarterly, El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn, that appeared punctually for eight years and published more than 700 writers from 30 countries. El Corno made some of the best work of the era available around the world and is still a reference.
I had also become increasingly political, and in 1968 took part in the Mexican student movement. The government’s brutal repression of that movement put an end to the journal and forced me underground. By this time Sergio and I had separated. I was living with a North American poet and had four young children. We took refuge in Cuba, where a young revolution was showing the world that change is possible. I lived in Cuba for the next eleven years, a country where culture is valued and prioritized.
By this time writing was my life. But social change was also important to me. I continued to struggle to write consistently as I mothered four children, worked at a full-time job, participated in the revolutionary movement and faced the obstacles women endure even in socialist countries. I had published some 30 books by then—poetry, essay, and oral history—yet found time to write only between eleven at night and three in the morning, when everyone else was asleep. I often think back to those years and wonder how much better my work might have been had I had the freedom to write and support most men enjoy.
After Cuba, I lived in Nicaragua during the first four years of the Sandinista revolution and then returned to the US at the beginning of 1984, only to face deportation by the government because of opinions expressed in some of my books. My struggle to regain citizenship and be allowed to live in the country of my birth lasted almost five years. I won my case in 1989.
Several years after my return to the US, I recognized my lesbian identity. I have had the immense good fortune to have found a wonderful life partner in Barbara Byers, a fine visual artist. We have been together for 34 years now, finally having been able to marry in 2013 when marriage equality became legal here. Life with Barbara supports my writing and has helped lift it to new levels. We appreciate one another’s work and making time for creativity is a large part of our relationship.
These lines are necessarily a very condensed version of my life. My recent memoir, I Never Left Home: Poet, Feminist, Revolutionary (published by Duke University press in March 2020) gives a much more detailed autobiography.
Now that I am retired, I feel I am in the best creative period of my life. I get up and begin to work every morning around 4 or 5. Age can be hard on the body but freeing for the mind. We are living in a painfully difficult period of human history—with global warming, legions of displaced persons, unending wars, the glorification of violence and rising fascism, at least here in the US. I can no longer be on the front lines of struggle, but I can still write. And I do. We all have our jobs to do to help right this suffering world.