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A Life in Poetry

Writing Poetry Started in 1968

Nina Serrano in Cuba (2011) on the set of "Fusilemos La Noche", a Tina Leisch film on Roque Dalton. Photo by Tina Leisch
Nina Serrano in Cuba (2011) on the set of “Fusilemos La Noche”, a Tina Leisch film on Roque Dalton. Photo by Tina Leisch

I began a life in poetry in 1968 at age 36, when I wrote a video drama with Roque Dalton for Cuban TV. Dalton was an exiled Salvadoran writer living in Havana. My concern for his safety inspired my first poem in 1969, as he prepared to join the Salvadoran revolutionaries to liberate his country from the military dictatorship. At the time of the poem’s publication in an alternative SF newspaper, Express, I could only use his initials in the title and refer to El Salvador as “unknown terrain.”

Publication was not enough. Back in San Francisco I linked my poetry with the neighborhood struggle to “Free Los Siete,” referring to seven Salvadoran youth who had been charged with killing a policeman a few blocks from my house. This led to my involvement with an exciting group of activist Latino poets in the San Francisco Bay Area, a literary collective called Editorial Pocho Che.

Alejandro Murgia, Daniel del Solar, Al Robles, Roberto Vargas and Nina Serrano, May Day 2008. Photo by Pam Mendelsohn
Alejandro Murgia, Daniel del Solar, Al Robles, Roberto Vargas and Nina Serrano, May Day 2008. Photo by Pam Mendelsohn

They performed their poetry everywhere in their poetic zeal for their multi-cultural, internationalist, anti imperialist, anti Vietnam War, consciousness-raising efforts. I often read  poems to my brother Philip Serrano’s guitar accompaniment at public readings.

A Life in Poetry Listening to other poets

Listening to other poets influenced my work and stretched its boundaries: especially Roberto Vargas, Elias Hruska Cortez, and Alejandro Murguia. Over the years from the late sixties onward I would translate and discuss poetry in my Havana visits with poet Pablo Armando Fernandez and host his California poetry tours. Fernandez’s influence is indelible.

The Pocho Che group published their own work and other US Latino poets including Raul Salinas and other prisoners. Along the way they helped create the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) where they gave poetry readings and workshops. In the early 1970’s, Pocho Che united with other publishing groups to form a literary coalition “Third World Communications,” which published the first poetry and art anthology by Third World women in the US: Third World Women in 1972. They followed it in 1974 with another anthology called Time to Greez for which Maya Angelou wrote the introduction. Working with the other women writers like Janice Mirikitani, Pamela Donovan, Avotcja, and others gave me the validation I needed. In 1973-74 I directed the Poetry-in-the-Schools program in San Francisco.

Victor Hernandez Cruz, Nina Serrano, Roberto Vargas, 1973
Victor Hernandez Cruz, Nina Serrano, Roberto Vargas, 1973

For Pocho Che’s tenth anniversary in 1980, we published three books of poetry and art, including my Heart Songs: the Collected Poems of Nina Serrano (1969–1979).  The cover design is by Alfonso Maciel. The illustrations are by Chilean artist, Rene Castro. The bilingual Spanish/English introduction is written by Chilean writer/scholar/diplomat, Fernando Alegria and the photo is by Kathy Apodaca.

The other two anniversary series books were Un Trip Through the Mind Jail by raúlrsalinas, illustrated by Malaquis Montoya, Jose Montoya, and photo by Kathy Apodaca and Nicaragua, Yo Te Canto Besos, y Suenos de la Libertad by Roberto Vargas with illustrations by Juan Fuentes, and Alfonso Maciel.

Nina and Janice Mirikitani
Nina and Janice Mirikitani

Throughout the 1980’s, I continued to write poetry. But my poetic activities were often subsumed by solidarity work around the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution (1979-1989). The poetry of the next two decades is anthologized in my  book  Heart’s Journey. It is the second of a trilogy (following Heart Songs) called Heart Suite and contains my own drawings from that period. The third volume will be Heart Strong a collection of my 21st century poems.

In the 1990’s living in the San Francisco East Bay, I hosted poetry readings and poetry writing workshops at La Peña in Berkeley with poet Diane Wang for three years. Through Diane, I was exposed to the literature of the world’s great living poets of Africa and Asia, as well as works from antiquity.

Photo from Time to Greez
Photo from Time to Greez

In the 21st century, when US poet Sam Hamill made the call for American poets to speak out against the illegal war in Iraq, I joined the circles of progressive poets in the East Bay, most notably poet-laureate of Alameda, Mary Rudge. I assisted Rudge in the publication of three volumes of peace poetry. I also frequently invited scholar/poet-activist Rafael Jesus Gonzalez to read his moving bilingual poems on the radio. These peace–minded and spiritually oriented poets influenced me.

Through the renewed antiwar movement, I began a long term association with Peruvian poet Adrian Arias, who works at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) in San Francisco and re-connected with the new generation of writers and artists at the MCCLA. I became the official translator for Arias’ literary work and joined in the avant-garde arts activities he initiated at the MCCLA. I translated his two chapbooks entitled: Poema del Día / Book of the Day (2008) and El Libro del Cuerpo / Book of the Body (2009). In 2011 we produced a bilingual chapbook of both our poems, called The Big Questions which also includes Arias’ visual art. The following year, 2012, I translated Arias’ ground breaking short science fiction visual-novel Beautiful Trash: The Lost Library.

Cover of book "The Big Questions" by Nina Serrano and Adrian Arias
Cover of book “The Big Questions” by Nina Serrano and Adrian Arias

Participating in MCCLA activities I also met “artivist” Mamacoatl, poet, musician and healer and together we created and performed two different “Poetic Conversations,” a ritual exchange of poems and movement. These poetic conversations will be made into forthcoming bilingual book; La Luna Blanco y Negro / The Moon in Black and White, written in a theatrical format so it can be performed by others as a “spoken word” theatre piece.

I participated with Mamacoatl in the United Nations mandated November “Days of Action to Eliminate Violence Against Women” for the past seven years (2005-2012). Since bringing this tradition to San Francisco from her native Mexico, Mamacoatl and I have mounted many poetic “artivist” events from the steps of San Francisco City Hall to the barrio.

I produce a literary radio series ”Poet to Poet”, which can be heard On KPFA-fm on “Cover to Cover / Open Book”, the first Friday of the month.

Stay tuned, where there is life…there are more poems!

MEDIA – For photos & interviews: Paul Richards (510) 967 5577; paulrichards@estuarypress.com

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