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By Myra Saturen
August 18, 2009
Dr. Javier Avila, associate professor of English at NCC, has won an international award, the most prestigious in Puerto Rico and among the most acclaimed in Latin America. Submitted anonymously, Avila's book of poetry, El papel de difunto (The Dead Man's Position), is the culmination of three years work and contains 60 poems in Spanish. The award, given by the Puerto Rico Institute of Culture, the Puertorriquena Poetry Award, includes publication of the book and a monetary prize. Avila's book was one of 59 submissions from all over the world.
At 34, Avila is the youngest person to receive this prize. "This is the most important award of my career," he says.
"The Dead Man's Position stood out because of its sustained poetic prowess on many levels," says Carmen Perez Marin, Jose Marmol, and Vanessa Droz, judges of the competition. "The book provides the reader with precise, mature and polished poetry written by an author whose mastery of the poetic craft displays his ability to construct poems that are moving in the strictest sense of the term."
A passionate writer since the age of seven, Avila has won honors for each of his four poetry collections. La simetria del tiempo (The Symmetry of Time) garnered the Puerto Rico PEN Club Book of the Year Award in 2006, as did the Criatura del olvido (Creature of Oblivion) in 2008. The Olga Nolla Poetry Award went to Vidrios ocultos en la alfombra (Broken Glass under the Carpet) in 2003. Two years later, Avila became the only writer to ever receive a second Olga Nolla Poetry Award, this time for La Simetria del tiempo.
Avila is also the author of two novels, Different, published in 2001 and reprinted in 2006 by Wiley, and The Professor in Ruins, published by Wiley in 2006. Both have achieved popular success and critical acclaim. Different, about an alienated young man in urban Puerto Rico, is on required reading lists at many Puerto Rican universities.
In 2008, Avila was recognized by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education with the Outstanding Latino Cultural Arts and Publications Award.
Avila's work has been widely anthologized.
In addition to his book publications, Avila has been a satirical columnist and literary critic at Puerto Rico's leading newspaper, El Neuvo Dia since 2005. He has also been a textbook writer and an editor for Ediciones Santillana and La Editorial UPR.
Avila joined the NCC faculty in 2006. He has a Ph.D. from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Avila began his most recent and most highly awarded work, El papel de difunto, on the tenth anniversary of his father's death. His father, Alfonso Avila, died in 1996, at the age of 65. His son began to transform his pain into verse, finishing the 60-poem volume three years later. Translated into English, "papel" means position in the sense of a role assumed. Told from the perspective of the dead, the poems inform the reader about the urgency of life and the importance of valuing what we have.
A core poem, "The Report" speaks directly to Avila's deceased father, narrating what has happened in his family in the ten years after his death, including the demise of Alfonso's mother at the age of 103 in 2001. Avila imagines what his father's life would be like now, had he lived. The poem refers to "every mirror shattered except for the two that lie behind my eyes." The mirrors are images of Avila's father that persist in dreams.
In a poem about a wake, the narrator, a guest, juxtaposes his own role with that of the dead person; the observer sees death as a coveted role in some ways and wishes the deceased were still alive.
Another poem depicts a would-be suicide averted by the sudden appearance of a frog. The section "Erasures" has multifaceted elegies to people and ideas. "I write honestly, about the good and the bad," Avila says. "Not all elegies are only about the positive sides of a person."
Themes in the "Erasures" section include realities rendered invisible by their familiarity and the experience of love.
Avila comes from a family that loves language. Alfonso Avila, Javier's father, wrote articles for a local newspaper in San Juan. After attending New York University and practicing accounting for two years, he became a mailman, an occupation he continued for 33 years.
Javier Avila's mother was a teacher. Both parents loved to read, and encouraged Avila's avidity for the written word as well as his choice of books. Avila had wide tastes, and at the age of twelve, he was delving into Dostoyevsky.
Avila's only sibling, a brother, is a well-known baseball coach in Puerto Rico. He excels at doing crossword puzzles without using a dictionary.
Javier attended a high school that was Spanish/English bilingual and spoke Spanish at home.
Alfonso Avila's death deeply wounded the poet, who subsequently wrote 500 poems, in part, to express his pain.
The poet's acute awareness of time and mortality, however, long preceded his father's death. Open heart surgery at the age of eight impressed Avila with a sense of urgency, of life happening now, and the need to do what one values in the present.
As he approached thirty, however, he grew to see life differently. As a younger person, he believed he would die young. Eventually, he foresaw a longer life for himself. He let the urgency relax some and began to take time to enjoy things more; he savors the process of writing and relationships with people with a new zest. He lingers longer on his poems now.
"All that I write will be the best possible piece I can craft," he says. "I want to have written ten poems I am really proud of."
In El papel de difunto (The Dead Man's Position), Avila believes he has written his most mature book, one that embraces life and death in a new way. Although it is fundamentally a sad book, Avila says, it grows more uplifting and even funny as it goes along.
Despite the sadnesses in his life, Avila feels fortunate now. "I love to teach and write," he says. "I consider myself lucky in life." He feels he is living a good life now.
Avila hopes that his poetry will help people gain understanding in times of grief. "The poems are models to show how we grieve and experience pain," Avila says.
Read a sampling of Avila's poems in English and Spanish.