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Poet Raul Sanchez on finding a voice that transcends language and borders

caption: Poet Raul Sanchez at KUOW.
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Poet Raul Sanchez at KUOW.

Each day during the month of April, KUOW is highlighting the work of Seattle-based poets for National Poetry Month. In this series curated by Seattle Civic Poet and Ten Thousand Things host Shin Yu Pai, you'll find a selection of poems for the mind, heart, senses, and soul.

In the 1940s, the Bracero program was an agreement between the United States and Mexico that brought millions of migrant workers the U.S. Many families settled in Central and Eastern Washington during this time, working in fields while U.S. servicemen were drafted abroad. Raul Sanchez's father was one of those workers, and the influence of American culture, tangled with Sanchez's Mexican roots, is a source of inspiration for his poetry.

"His experience here prompted him to have his son — me, the first one — to learn English and speak the way those people did in the north," Sanchez said.

And so Raul learned English. In his teens, he went back and forth between Mexico and the United States, caught between two cultures. His poetry has that same kind of listlessness over the borders of Spanish and English, a formal language and offhand slang.

That variety is something he likens to the flavor of his poetry.

"It's like adding a little more spice to your salad. Who wants to be plain old spinach? It's good but put a little olive oil."

Ode to an Oak Tree

“When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze” - Thomas Carlyle

Acres of aging grand trees on the lower ground
boughs bending, rising and falling with the wind,
randomly sinking and fainting responsive bird songs
dry ground covered with heart shaped leaves and twigs.

At night, the trees on the higher ground cast
their shadow under the clear moonlight
Your branches blown by the east-west wind,
secrets told when the birds can’t sleep.

Full moon filled with countenance, dense,
murky clouds, wreaths of fragrant pines
Oak and Cedar limbs swish with the wind brushed,
your very old mystical greatness stands.

Looking at the stars and the gorgeous clouds
in summertime your sun-drenched splendor
Shelters birds hanging on your moist branches,
crows, blue jays, chickadees and eagle nests.

Nakedly standing in spring your dormant roots
thaw below the frozen ground
Do not say that the roots are weak,
These roots are strong, the very roots of being.

Sanchez developed his poetic voice through workshops with a group called Los Norteños, and his collections feature poems focused on the customs of his native Mexico, such as his grandmother's smoke cleansing ceremonies, to the food and natural splendor of Seattle.

Sanchez works with the Pongo Poetry Project, which helps incarcerated youth express themselves through poetry. He was also the Redmond Poet Laureate, a role in which he thought deeply about the role of poetry in civic life.

"The value of poetry in civic life is that it makes us see what we do not normally hear on the regular media," Sanchez said. "It makes us focus on the essence of the subject and it makes us realize what is important. A lot of poems, they could have all kinds of themes, about animals, about family about love, but death, nature — all of that is important."

Vines and Wind

Wet grass
wind, motors
children running.
I’m back
to the night my father
held my hand
across the park
where we sat.

That cement bench
still there.
draped over the line
my father’s arm
draped over my back.

The wind
his soft voice
his words
distant chimes.

“I love you, your
noble heart”

ripe as pears
his sweetness
waiting to

My father gone.
Late fall
I was twelve
too young
to learn what
he couldn’t teach me,
to plant vines
to drape
like memories
like wind.

Listen to the full interview between Shin Yu Pai and Raul Sanchez by clicking the "play" button above."

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