by Myra Saturen; photos by Brett Crepella
November 14, 2012
It was an hour animated with people, pensiveness, poetry, amazement, and laughter. With the lightning-quick wit, spontaneous humor and comfortable repartee of a born performer, award-winning poet, novelist and essayist Associate Professor of English Javier Ávila explored mostly serious themes while injecting levity into his comments during "An Hour with Javier Ávila." He read from his verse on November 13 at the Main Campus of Northampton Community College, after having read at the Monroe Campus the day before.
"I am going to be lighthearted," he began, "since some of the poems are sad." The event, which drew an overflow crowd of students, faculty and staff, was part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Northampton Community College Hispanic Caucus.
Ávila is a born writer, who admits that he writes because he can't help it. He is the author of three novels (one made into a movie), four books of poetry and journalistic columns, and the winner of numerous awards.
During his English-Spanish reading, Ávila took his audience "behind the scenes" to glimpse the moments nascent to the poem. These moments ranged from whimsy to wistfulness to grief. One such sad memory was the death of his 84-year-old grandfather, witnessed by the poet as a nine year old and recalled twenty years later. In "To Die Like This," Ávila describes his grandfather as "wearing an old man's skin," as the dying man regrets leaving his life "without having bid farewell to myself." The poet reminds us that his grandfather's universal fate is one
"that awaits me
for having lived."
"I was the youngest child of parents married in their forties," Ávila commented, introducing a verse about leafing through a scrapbook and explaining to a friend that many of the people pictured there have died. The frequent family funerals of older relatives throughout his youth prompted Ávila to note in a poem that "you will also be the dead relative" whom no one can identify any longer.
Grief is expressed through imagery as Ávila sorts through his father's medicine cabinet after long emotional preparation, five years after his death. A toothbrush with dull bristles, a "hunchbacked" safety pin and a yellowed, broken comb evoke the everyday rituals of a vanished life.
In one poem, a man is saved from a self-inflicted bathtub drowning by the appearance of a frog. "Bad plumbing," Ávila concluded, deadpan, as listeners ventured to detect the poem's true nuanced and symbolic meanings.
"Certainties," dedicated to the late Northampton Community College professor and poet, Len Roberts, pondered lost opportunities and the awareness of unexpected tragedy rocking our expectations.
Imagery makes skin crawl as a phrase depicts "an obese drop of sweat" falling from a waiter's forehead into someone's coffee cup.
Some poems say much in few words:
that you are gone."
(translated from Spanish)
Another brief poem reads:
en un futuro
las mismas cosas
que no estoy haciendo
Family and generations run through Ávila's verse. In "Three," he writes of three generations, his father, himself and his young son. His father's legacy returns to Ávila's life as he raises his son.
He spoke about his childhood heart disease, how his parents feared he would die and how this experience made him treasure life and gave him the freedom to be creative.
On the lighter side, Ávila told an anecdote about two childhood school friends who asked him to submit a story for a school literary contest--two in the friends' names. Ironically, all three boys won prizes: the buddies received the first and second prizes and Ávila the third.
During a question-and-answer period, Ávila shared his approach to writing poetry. He believes that poems should offer an emotional experience primarily and an intellectual response later. "Emotion is more powerful," he said. While talent and inspiration are part of writing, Ávila prioritizes discipline, hard work, supportive family, and a rock-strong schedule. He upturned some conventional notions, notably that a title should follow a written piece. "Do what works for you," he told a student, revealing that he starts a work by writing the title first.
When asked when he first realized he had a writer's gift, Ávila mentioned a teacher's recognition. An artist whose passion for teaching matches his love of writing, Ávila said, "Never underestimate a teacher's words."
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