Centennial Poet Levi Romero

LEVI ROMERO WITH CARMELLA PADILLA

“In northern New Mexico, we don’t have time for a short story,” says Levi Romero, with a wry smile. Perhaps that’s why he chose poetry as his storytelling path. Or, closer to the truth, perhaps it was “an act of survival.” In the isolated funnel of the Embudo Valley, where Romero was raised, it’s all the same. Just like the long, meandering stories the viejitos spin in the sunny glory of the village resolana, Romero’s poetry is crafted to outlast the day, until its final rush of warmth and light calls everyone home for dinner.

At fifty, Romero is an award-winning poet, teacher, scholar, and architect specializing in adobe building and design. In all roles, he is a cultural guardian fluent in the language and landscape of the old ones, articulating his nativo vision in verse and in earth. But it was a hard ride in a black ’72 Grand Prix lowrider from the valley to the validation of academia and professional success. Romero negotiated the bumpy road of rejection with mind and heart fixed on the poet’s path. Today, he is known for a bilingual poetry of time, place, memory, and spirit that celebrated author Sandra Cisneros has praised as “holy and heartfelt” and Rudolfo Anaya, the acclaimed godfather of modern Chicano literature, christened “a blessing on our heads.”

Romero’s words see near and far, as close as an intimate conversation around a woodstove, as distant as a cruise along the high road. His designation as the New Mexico Centennial Poet not only honors his profound poetic oeuvre but also his commitment to preserving the personal and communal histories and contemporary stories of northern New Mexico. As a scholar, Romero combines poetry, oral history, photography, video, and other narrative techniques to document the cultural landscape and corazón of communities where the past is ever-present. His work with young norteño poets helps ensure their home-grown hearts don’t stray too far.

Romero has been published throughout the United States, Mexico, Spain, and Cuba. His first collection of poetry, In the Gathering of Silence (West End Press, 1996) was followed by A Poetry of Remembrance: New and Rejected Works (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). In addition to his architecture practice, Tierra Sagrada Design, Romero is a research scholar in Chicano/Hispano/Mexicano studies at the University of New Mexico. He is currently at work on an oral history and cultural landscapes project, Stories along the High Road y Mas Allá: A Narrative Cruise through the Manito Homeland. He is also collaborating on a cultural landscapes documentary, Sagrado: A Photopoetics across the Chicano Homeland, coming this fall from the University of New Mexico Press.

I visited with Romero in his favorite, far-corner booth at Mannie’s on Central in Albuquerque. We spent the afternoon platicando, as the old ones do, considering everything from lowriders to Morrell manteca to the hard, wonderful life of writing. The sun was shining, and Romero’s stories were flowing. Even in the bold urban sprawl of ’Burque, the Embudo Valley poet was home.

Padilla: When did you start writing?

Romero: I started off as a visual artist. I had drawing skills from an early age. All these guys were cruising the village, and I could draw their cars. But at that time, it wasn’t like they said, “Ah, here we have a gifted child.” Teachers punished me because I drew too much.

Padilla: So how did the writing happen?

Romero: My cousin Ray was this young Chicano beatnik with a guitar. Ray wrote folk songs, so I started writing. Poetry didn’t exist in our vocabulary. I was writing song lyrics, rhyming and whatever, and I found out you’d get your ass kicked quick writing poems. One of the first times I shared something with anybody was with one of my best friends in junior high. He grabbed it and went running across the schoolyard saying, “Levi wrote a poem! Levi wrote a poem!” It was very traumatic. After that, I didn’t share my work with anybody.

Padilla: What was wrong with writing poems?

Romero: Anything you did that evoked sensitivity, you were  opening yourself up for getting slapped in the head. We rode the bus from Dixon to Española. That’s a long way, and a lot of bullying happens. I used to hitchhike instead of enduring the chingas on the bus. Spiritually and mentally, I was nomadic. So what was beautiful about hitchhiking was people would give you a ride and tell you their stories.

Padilla: When did you first identify with yourself as a poet?

Romero: I started coming to Menaul High School in Albuquerque and found my first audience, Mrs. Sharon Rhutasel, in high school English. Even then, I wouldn’t share my poetry with anybody. Somehow, others started to find out, primarily girls, pretty girls. I was clinically shy. When they started to take notice, I was like, “This is pretty cool.” So Mrs. Rhutasel encouraged me, and I got a scholarship to attend any college or university in New Mexico. But I wanted to go to Berkeley, so I passed on a scholarship and went back to Dixon to wear my hair long and live off the land.

Padilla: How did you make your way to architecture school?

Romero: Reality set in. I couldn’t live off the land, and I wasn’t a trust fund baby. I got hired by this house designer in Dixon and got my introduction to architecture. Then I wound up in Albuquerque. I brought my lowrider because that’s the only car I had, but Albuquerque was different than Española. It was sirens, and pull over, and you’re a young Chicano, and it’s racial profiling, and I got caught in the revolving door. Every time you’re on the street you get ticketed, and in two weeks, you’ve got a fine and can’t pay it. Now you’re going to jail and it’s a $500 fine.

I got nine months in jail. I’m thinking, “Man, you’re going to spend five years in a state institution just for being a lowrider. So I said, “I think I prefer to choose which institution. UNM, here I come.” I talked my way out of jail and got into UNM. I started living in the dorms and didn’t leave until the cops weren’t looking at me anymore. Things changed, and it was safe for me to enter the society that condemned me.

Padilla: Did you get a creative writing degree?

Romero: I got into the architecture program and was thinking of taking a creative writing class. I didn’t want a Chicano instructor because I didn’t want to be directed that way. My primo Tomás Atencio, a sociology professor, told me to take it with Lucy Tapahonso, so I signed up. I would treat myself with a writing class every other semester. It was really nurturing, people looking at what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and you’re writing about it. It was unlike the experience I was having in architecture, which was rigorous and brutal.

This was about the mid-eighties, and Jimmy Santiago Baca had already come on the scene. Jimmy was the guy who made it safe for you to be a young Chicano male and write poetry. He made it an occasion; people were going out to poetry readings! He created the conditions in which somebody like me could thrive. So I just kept writing and writing. Once I published In the Gathering of Silence, I started doing workshops and presentations, then I started teaching in the creative writing program at UNM. All that is what kept me alive inside.

Padilla: It must have been natural to write about how you grew up.

Romero: Part of my growing up was being around stories. That was a big influence. Then [in high school] I came across the work of José Montoya and Raul Salinas, and the themes were pachuco, the language was pachuco. I didn’t know I could write the way me and my friends talk, so it was a liberation and an empowerment. When I started taking classes with Lucy and listening to her work, it was like, there’s a template that I can follow.

Padilla: How do you balance literature and architecture?

Romero: I no longer separate the two. I teach about the merging between literature and architecture, how cultural architecture, or the cultural landscape, is involved with stories.

For example, historic preservation is great, but it’s there to preserve buildings. In architecture school, they teach you to read a building from a distance, from an outsider’s perspective, without talking to anybody. So how do you make that building? Well, this is the material, and that’s the style, and here’s a building methodology. Why don’t you talk to the person that lived there when it was built, or the person that lives there now? That’s the issue I have with academics. They give you a language to learn things without having to engage.

Padilla: How can poetry engage in cultural preservation?

Romero: Look at the young slam poets. They’re taking on cultural themes, celebrating their cultura, empowering themselves and others. Until recently, slam poetry wasn’t acknowledged the same way as published work, but those events are filled with real passion. In the beginning was the word, and the word is alive, the cultura is alive, in a scene like that.

Padilla: So much of your poetry is about remembrance. Do you fear that your culture is disappearing, and is it your obligation to help preserve it?

Romero: I’ve never had that fear. The minute I’m on the road north of Pojoaque, I find my world is still there. It may not be the world that existed thirty years ago or ninety years ago, but the corazón and the spirit are very much alive. Others will never feel what I feel, never know what I know. That’s part of that spirituality we have as ’manitos from this place. It’s sacred, and as poets, we’re guardians of it. Those of us empowered with the ability to open up something that others can’t see should share that beauty because it’s healing, and the world needs healing.

Padilla: How did your family respond to you being a poet?

Romero: Like any family with a poet in it does! They’re very proud, but on the other hand, they’re like, “Do you really want to share that with the world?”

Padilla: How do you feel today about being the Centennial Poet?

Romero: It’s a terrific honor. I’ve been blessed with this gift. It’s taken a long time to be comfortable with who I am, to openly say, “I’m a poet.” But where I’m at now, what else can I be?

Padilla: What vision do you have for New Mexico in 100 years?

Romero: I envision us to be receptive to what the problems are and to acknowledge all those around us. At the writing table, we’re all equal. So poetry, if it can be a vehicle for anything, it’s to open the doors for others to come through. And not just in one direction. But so that others can come through and we can cross over and meet them on the other side.

Carmella Padilla is a native Santa Fean who writes extensively about Hispano art and culture in New Mexico. In 2009 she was awarded the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in Literary Arts. Her most recent book is El Rancho de Las Golondrinas: Living History in New Mexico’s La Ciénega Valley(Museum of New Mexico Press, 2009).

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