An Interview with Michelle Otero

An Interview with Michelle Otero

My second year of my MFA program my advisor, Greg Martin, went on sabbatical and Michelle Otero joined the department as a visiting writer to teach the creative nonfiction workshop. She was super nice but I’d come to New Mexico for a REAL graduate school experience, which in my mind meant tough critique, no kid gloves. Michelle, however, ran her workshop in a kinder, gentler way. She wore kid gloves and offered lots of encouragement and support. I bristled at first but soon found that while Michelle’s approach might not have been what I wanted, it was exactly what I needed. It has been rewarding to maintain a connection to her over the years. She was an inspiring poeta and community-builder long before becoming Albuquerque’s Poet Laureate and we are so honored to share her words. ~Jennifer

Plume: When did you know you were a writer?

Michelle Otero: I first knew when I was living in Mexico, halfway through my MFA. I had taken a year off to pursue a Fulbright project facilitating writing workshops for women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Oaxaca bookended things for me. My time there started with an invitation to submit my work to Momotombo Press and ended shortly after my book release party.

I know and forget and know again. Knowing I’m a writer is like many things for which I strive, reach a milestone, and then am humbled to realize it takes work and practice to keep it up – mental health, speaking Spanish, yoga, traveling alone, making tamales. I know I am a writer when I am writing, and then I forget, and then I write and know again.

P: Where do you get your ideas?

MO: It feels more like the ideas get me. I could spend the rest of my life writing about the place and people I am from – borderlands, New Mexico, fronterizos and all our complicated history, and how we make beauty out of mud.

Though I still identify primarily as someone who writes creative nonfiction, I now more fully embrace my poet and short story and playwright self. The image or line or situation or question usually tells me how it wants to be explored. I know when I’m forcing an essay to be a poem or muscling a monologue into a short story. It really helps when I’m feeling blocked to have another form of exploration.

P: Where do you write?

MO:Usually at the dining room table. Our house is a hacienda style abode with an enclosed courtyard. The south-facing wall is windows and sliding glass doors, so I’m never without natural light, a necessity for me.

I’m still dreaming of an office that is separate from our house, one where I can slip out the back door and be in my own space, blissfully unaware of what’s happening in the house. When kids and spouse are home, my writing desk is a Starbucks in the South or North Valley. (I support local by scheduling most meetings and coffee dates at Zendo or The Brew; but for anonymity, solitude, and guilt-free multi-hour table usage, I go for chains.)

P: Do you have any writing rituals?

MO:  I wrote this incantation in a workshop a few years ago and I call on it when I’m feeling small in relation to the work ahead of me:

May I come to the page unafraid, or if I am afraid, may I come willingly.

And if will is still lying in bed, may I come with acceptance of what emerges, able to say to the unclear image, to the tired noun, Welcome. May I pull out a chair for the same old words that knock at my door day after day, their shoes worn. May I fill their cup with manzanilla, knowing that they are not the only guests, that if only I welcome them to my table, others will surely come.

I usually light a white devotional candle to remind me that I am light, even if what I’m writing is really dark. I’m sure to have my water bottle and a cup of coffee or tea next to me. The earlier in the day I get started, the better, but really, if I’m sitting and writing by 9am, I’m happy.

In terms of rhythm, I’ve taken this from an article that appeared in Poets & Writers several years ago. (I clipped it out and gave it to a friend.) Write for 45 minutes, break for 15. I keep my phone across the room on Do Not Disturb and turn off the Wi-Fi on my laptop. It’s best if I don’t check email or my phone for at least the first three cycles. If I can honor three cycles, then I can write all day. If all I get is three cycles, then I still feel very accomplished.

Finally, if I need to call in community, I’ll do a Google Hangout writing date with my dear friend Anel Flores in San Antonio. Just seeing her on the screen keeps my butt in the chair.

P: How supportive is your local community for writers?

MO: Albuquerque feels like a great place for poets with many places to read and perform one’s work. Long before self-identifying as a poet, I was invited to participate in poetry readings. I’d rework a lyric essay into a poem. It feels good to show up these days with actual poems. There’s a lively slam scene, and though I’m not a slam poet, I’m glad these opportunities exist because they’ve been a doorway for many younger people to read and write poetry.

There are fewer venues for prose. Though I’m not usually able to attend, I’m appreciative of Dime Stories (thank you, Jenn!).

Years ago, my dear friend and fellow poet/writer Mary Oishi opened her home once a month to a group of women writers and poets . We’d read our work – poetry, memoir, essay, blog post – to each other, offer a bit of feedback, and then continue around the circle. It was a delicious way to spend a Sunday afternoon. We kept it going for a year or so, and then as jobs and family and life pulled us in different directions, it got more challenging to meet. I’m happy to report that we’re reviving Sunday Salon, and I challenge those of you in need of community to create your own Sunday Salon. All you need is a space and a group of buena gente to share their work.

P:What are some of your self-care practices?

MO:Meditation

Medication

Sugar-free January

Therapy

Journal

Walking

Salsa dancing

Saying no

Letting myself cry when I need to cry

Sleep

Coaching

Writing

Being outside

P: What is your favorite book about writing?

MO: Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont

Fearless Confessions, Sue William Silverman

P: What are you currently working on?

MO: All kinds of Poet Laureate stuff. I’ve been asked to write and read poems on service, creative people, kitchens, being Hispanic, saying thanks, the body. I’m also working on a collection of bosque poems, centered on the Río Grande bosque, the world’s longest cottonwood forest. It runs right through the middle of Albuquerque and is the heart of our city. As Poet Laureate, I co-host a monthly series of bosque walks with a different local poet, celebrating the work of a poet we love. I’m also working, slowly and steadily, on Vessels, a memoir about borders, the legacy of my grandfather’s experience in World War II, how trauma becomes inheritance, and how we heal.

On June 16, 2018, Michelle Otero became Albuquerque’s fourth Poet Laureate.

She is a writer, facilitator, and coach who utilizes creative expression and storytelling as the basis for organizational development and positive social change. Her process of engaging individuals and communities through the expression of shared story has found a wide range of applications, from helping conservation organizations better understand the priorities of traditional land based communities to helping people heal from trauma.

She is the author of Malinche’s Daughter, an essay collection based on her work with women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Oaxaca, Mexico as a Fulbright Fellow. Her work has appeared on the Modern Love Podcast and in New Mexico MagazineBrevity, and El Malpaís Review. She is a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop and a founding member of the TIASO Artist’s Cooperative and Hembras de Pluma, an indigenous and women of color theatre group.

Originally from Deming, New Mexico, Michelle holds a B.A. in History from Harvard University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. She lives in the South Valley where she works with fellow artists and local farmers to implement the Community Table project, which combines art, local agriculture, and economic development as a platform for neighborhood revitalization.

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