Elizabeth: [00:00:00] Welcome to Creativists in Dialogue, a podcast embracing the creative life. I’m Elizabeth Bruce.
Michael: And I’m Michael Oliver.
Elizabeth: Our guest is our very good friend, Naomi Ayala, a poet, a translator, an essayist, an educator, a community activist, et cetera, et cetera.
Michael: So, welcome, Naomi.
Naomi: Thank you for having me.
Michael: We’ll be talking about the role creativity plays in your life. We have a couple of questions that we like to start each of our dialogues with. And the first one is, in what aspects of your life do you think creativity play the most important role?
Naomi: I think creativity saved me as a learner. When I look at how I first started to feel the creative impulse and I was noticing my environment, really paying attention to [00:01:00] music a lot and to lyrics. I spent many hours in between chores and copying down lyrics to songs I heard. Back then you could purchase like lyrics that were published in pan–pamphlet form, but you’d have to go into town, into the city to do that, and you needed resources to do that. So, it was easier to listen to since I would listen to the songs a hundred times anyway, to copy them down.
So, there were chores, there was school life and home life, and then that was it. I think as a learner it helped me observe… yeah, it helped me pay attention. So, for me, it was a lot about my sensual experience of my environment. And I was present sensually with my environment already. But [00:02:00] this question, this, an awareness, there are like, what is this summation of all this? So what do you do with it? So, there you are, right? I am here, so what’s the next thing?
Michael: So, there’s an intimate connection between learning and creativity.
Naomi: For me, yes. And in terms of before you get to synthesis and for me what that means is, understanding the individual components or aspects or parts of one thing may come to be, in a compartmentalized way. But then it’s a creative thinking and problem solving that’ll allow me to connect those components or those parts to make a whole where I’ll synthesize that and be able to apply it to something else. So, for me, this was like vital at that age and this is when I started to write poetry. But I was also, throwing pots on the wheel, cutting glass painting, and I love science.
And I didn’t look at science and art as separate things, it was a way for me of [00:03:00] understanding where I was. So, it gave me a context of like space and time. And, and that’s how I looked at science and the arts and even English and Spanish. It’s so, oh, how to understand where I am and how I figure in all this. It’s just a different lens.
Elizabeth: And how old were you, Naomi, when you began to write poetry and made the, made these, to make these connections?
Naomi: I was around 12.
Elizabeth: 12. Okay. Interesting. So, it laid a foundation for the rest of your life, it sounds like.
Naomi: Yeah, I mean it’s something that I could keep returning to. And that I still do. I mean, I think that that approach of being able to step back and contemplate something and zero in on a component of something, and I have to remind myself like, don’t forget that you’re not getting the whole picture about this new thing that you’re learning now.
What is the thing that you do get? And I think, obviously this also influenced [00:04:00] me a lot as a teacher, ‘cause I’m always thinking about how individuals learn. And everybody’s unique and comes to the table with all these different life experiences that also influence how they best learn. And, and how they best learn in a group setting versus how they best learn individually. So, there’s all these myriad considerations. But I think it’s also impacted a lot, for the same reason, who I am as a teacher.
Elizabeth: So, there are—as you and I have discussed over time, and the three of us have discussed—there are many definitions of creativity. You’ve talked a bit about how you personally view creativity in the creative act, but I’d love to hear more about that business of looking at things from new perspectives, different perspectives.
Naomi: So, I immediately, I think of questions and so I think of the scientific process also. [00:05:00] You need to be asking questions. So, what if I mix in just a tad of this burnt sienna into this pink, what would happen? But what if I add this? But what if I change the whole? What if I just water it down?
So for me, I think that, you could just, you could just do things automatically without consideration. I’m sure there are many things I do like that. But for me to be present with the whole process of inquiry is important to my own creativity. And the times when I have strayed far from that, like in my writing, is when things deaden. They become less alive.
So, for me, I’ve been writing poetry for so long that I’ve experienced that at different times in my development as a poet. And one of the reasons I like poetry and the arts though in general as far as learning is concerned, ‘cause you can practice them for your entire life and never get—it’s not the destination that [00:06:00] counts and I, I wouldn’t go so far saying it’s, the cliche, “it’s the journey that counts.” The journey can be freaking torturous, but, but it’s more, more about, how wide it is. The breadth of it. Like how much you can grow and expand in whatever area you want to expand in.
So, for me, that, that’s what feels to me, that’s what fulfills me. That’s what gives me a sense of accomplishment. That I have grown in some way. That I’ve expanded my ability in some way. That I’ve done something that I couldn’t do before, or that I, it was only my tortured imagination I could see, but I couldn’t do.
Michael: I, I like that definition that it begins with a question.
Michael: And begins with questioning. And that sort of feeds into my next question, which is really—and you mentioned it about, the relation between creativity and learning. Obviously, a lot of learning starts with questioning. I’ve seen you in, like, a poetry [00:07:00] workshops, running your poetry workshops and then there Poetry Out Loud experience when I worked with you with that one particular student and his presentation of a poem.
So, when you think about creativity and those sort of learning situations, educational situations, or maybe even in community situations, can you give some examples of how that process of starting with a question and of encountering a subject, and how creativity might manifest itself in those educational situations?
Naomi: Yeah. Absolutely. How does this feel? Do you wanna take this a step further? Is there something that you’ve left unsaid? Can you say more? Can somebody else contribute how so-and-so may be able to approach this topic or this subject? What is the lived experience that you bring into this? Are you repeating something somebody said? Or is this everything that you want it to be? How can [00:08:00] you make it more yourself? When you’re alone in the dark, is this something that you would say to yourself that would be true? I could just go on and on.
It’s the process of, like, engagement. And, Elizabeth, with your own work, I’ve also watched you at work with young kiddos in this way that, it’s a conversation. It’s a dialogue. And I think that the process of engagement, engaging others is in this trusted process of inquiry.
For me, the creative process in a teaching setting and understanding always that the creative process is sacred and that, for me, it is the most sacred thing that there is besides life. So to honor it, when somebody’s creating and they’re sharing that they could be their absolute most vulnerable and that you can pull them along the way and sometimes a gentle question can help somebody open up in a way that they needed to and couldn’t do before.
Michael: So, it sounds like you’re saying ultimately there’s like the creation of knowledge. Each student [00:09:00] creates their own understanding of a subject. ‘Cause I think at one point you mentioned, are you repeating something that someone told you?
Naomi: Yeah, because—
Michael: Which would be, oh, it sounds to me like you’re saying that might be like even an obstacle to—
Naomi: What should this be? What is a poem? ‘Cause I get this, I get students. I started teaching also very early in life. And I’ve heard this from my first days teaching writing. I’ve gotten students who try to write what they think they should write, of all age groups. And so we are in many ways, like a product of our educational background, the educational, the experiences that we’ve had and whatever educational system we’ve been a part of. And it shows. So if we’ve, we have things drilled into us about writing very early, from our penmanship to what is proper and improper to say, to how you should use grammar or, if you can’t write a complete sentence, you shouldn’t bother [00:10:00] writing at all.
And so these are, when I take this on in a classroom, people are bringing all of these notions into it. And it, for some of them there’s shame involved. There’s a not-enough-ness, there’s, “I’ll never be able to write a sentence and I just hide out.” “I try to stay away from all educational things because I don’t think I can express myself and people may misunderstand me.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Michael: Right. And when–do you change your creative approach and then educational situation depending upon the age of the students?
Michael: And the culture? So it’s really just a—
Naomi: No, it’s always been the same. It’s always been the same.
Naomi: And people think it’s very magical. I don’t think so. It’s just very human.
Naomi: And it’s always been the same. The youngest students I’ve taught I’ve had to take their poems by dictation, were four years old. I still keep some of these poems cause they were so incredible to me. Before [00:11:00] their minds could be made to have prejudices about what writing should be or the act of composition should be.
So there were these pure—there could be no perf–more perfect poems. Lines that were one, two, and three words long, so succinct that you—
Michael: Yeah, so other than—
Naomi: As an adult, we would have to try so hard and rewrite again and again to get to that point of distillation. And yet that was like the pristine open mind there already.
Michael: So other than of some of the superficial things like taking dictation if they can’t write yet, your approach sounds like you’re always trying to get the, get to the individual and get to their own sensibility and it doesn’t make any difference if they’re seven years old or 70 years old.
Naomi: Yeah. But also, who are we as a group? That’s been randomly thrown together in a temporary community, what does that mean? Communities that are randomly put together, that come together for one session, one time, for one hour [00:12:00] or two hours or half a day, or those that repeatedly need for a period of time, like six months, what is that? Or one year.
And so I think that you can achieve the same things as a group. It’s a very different experience altogether, but it’s the same thing about how can we have that same kind of respect and integrity for the process together as we co-create in a community.
Elizabeth: Speaking of that integrity, and I know you as a kind of kid whisperer-er, if you will, an intergenerational whisperer-er. I’ve seen you work with families, with children and obviously with adults. And trust me people, Naomi is a writer-whisperer-er-er if I can say that correctly.
But talk to me about one of your superpowers, which is your fluent bilingual-ness. You are a native Spanish speaker, and I think I have seen a sea change in settings where the [00:13:00] individuals in the group are able to communicate and engage in their native Spanish. And I want to hear what you have to say about what that is like in terms of just the creative process, the sense of flow, the sense of freedom that entails.
Naomi: Oh, thank you for that question. I think that we can’t divorce language from culture and cultural identity. And, so, I think when you have access to an experience in somebody’s language, you, you are validating them culturally and in so many other ways. But I think that’s, for me, like a key thing.
And I see this in other communities when we’re able to provide learning experiences in, in somebody’s native language, it’s just the most incredibly validating thing. It’s making of the new environment that you’re operating in, whether you’re a newcomer or second generation, [00:14:00] sometimes even that it’s making of this other environment, a home. Because you’re able to bring a part of home, who you are as a whole, to this environment. And so whether that happens in Spanish or Amharic or any other language, it’s a welcome thing.
And I enjoy—I don’t have that many opportunities to be able to teach in Spanish, so I always welcome it. And to be able to for me to continue to write in Spanish, even when I didn’t have audiences reading or hearing my work in Spanish for years, was one of the things I’m proudest of having done because it just takes a lot of, like, discipline to be—commitment maybe—commitment to be able to not lose your language. Your home language.
Many immigrants eventually to strive to develop their skills in English and to do better at work end up losing their [00:15:00] language or compromising it in some way. And I knew that from the get-go, so it was something that was important for me to hold on to.
Michael: And I think of communication. I think it’s probably one of the most challenging things we humans do is actually communicate—
Naomi: Agree, totally.
Michael: —with other people. And this is just that, “here’s what I want you to do,” or “can we meet then,” just basic stuff. But then when you’re dealing across—you mentioned the language and culture are wedded together—but then when you’re talking across culture, across languages, that only compounds the difficulty of effective communication. But you have experience working in, as a translator, but also working with Spanish populations, translating English sort of
Naomi: And with English language learners who are from countries whose languages—I can do romance languages in general and get by for a few survivalist things—in Amharic I can’t. Not at all. Or Arabic.
Michael: Are there some creative [00:16:00] sort of solutions to the challenges of those cross-cultural, cross–language communication channels?
Naomi: I think making sure that people feel that validated culturally in other ways and that they feel safe. And, so, feeling safe is—and for many people feeling safe and feeling culturally validated and okay, it’s the same thing. They go hand in hand. They’re not too disparate things. So, understanding that you’re not being judged, that there are not gonna be any consequences for you not knowing something or your inability to be able to share, that it may not be your language barrier, that it may be the fact that you are like shy and reserved, that in your country, women are not allowed to express this particular front, express themselves in this particular front, and that you are trying [00:17:00] to, but you’re navigating that, that area culturally right now at your life and you don’t want anybody to mess with it.
It’s being aware of all of these things that come into play, but validating people and, I’ve done it. It’s possible. If I have done it, other people can do it. And I know that they have. So how do we create so you don’t have to have anything. You can have what you brought with you through the door and that’s it. Whatever it is. If all you can say is, hello, we can figure out a way to creatively come up with a poem on the page, just using the word hello. And you’ll feel good about this. And then, you may wanna write another poem and learn another word because you have this experience and you wanna do more with it. And so you’re gonna go develop your language skills because you have things to say that you are not sure what they are yet, but you’re gonna find out. So you’re gonna ask, what can I learn so that I can come back here and take this another step further?
Michael: And then, ‘cause [00:18:00] you also do, like, we’ve had conversations about your community work in Adams—and the gentrification process going on around you and Adams Morgan. And I’m assuming that there are different cultural groups in Adams Morgan that understand what’s going on differently than obviously the developers’ understanding. And so, have you been, had an opportunity work through some of those differences in understanding about what’s really going on in Adams Morgan? Just to speak specifically about that.
Naomi: I think, I think that we all operate in this pockets of reality that parallel each other, and that, at the end of the day, in today’s world, with the kind of fast space that we’re all expected to lead no matter where we are, that we’re trying to function within those pockets. Now I’m talking about people, I’m referring to people here at the community level and not greedy developers. [00:19:00] But at some point, I’m still like all these many years later asking the same questions.
The—it’s the wheeling and dealing of culture that we’re talking about in the end, if you think about it. To me, I’m open to, you know, finding out about something else. But to me, from my perspective, it’s the wheeling and dealing of culture that we keep coming back to. Culture as a product. So, if a place is attractive because of its culture, which means it has a certain dynamic and it’s alive and vibrant in some way, and magnetic and attracting others, people wanna appropriate that and bank them and say, okay, this is successful because it’s attracting people and we wanna push something.
Great. Fine. People have done that from the beginning of time. But to what degree do we do that and then displace communities and killed the very thing that gave birth to that possibility? So that culture ends up dead or non-existent [00:20:00] and people are gravitating to something that is only a shadow self is what really—
Michael: So the real challenge is under–understanding. people in a different pocket of culture and this cross-pockets, if you will. Am I understanding you correctly? The, I mean if there are all these different pockets of culture then the question is, what culture are we moving towards? Or how should these different pockets of culture interact? Then it’s a matter of communicating across pockets.
Naomi: I think there should be a place for all of them. And right now, where I see this individual pockets, DC has always been very interesting to me in this way since I got here because I noticed that when I moved here in 1997. And the same thing seems to hold true for me, that those pockets—and I appreciate so much all the organizations in the city who give opportunities for those groups to come together. But there are not many [00:21:00] opportunities—there are not many opportunities like that.
So, in my particular neighborhood, I see the whole thing about Truist Plaza as canceling out of our need for a common space that was supposed to have belonged to the people, in a place where there was an exchange of farmer’s market, food, music, a place where people came together that was a common area. Whereas the park across the street from the Line Hotel where that’s happening now, it doesn’t happen in the same way. And, so, it’s itself has reminded us as a community that this is a line that divides us all. And it comes back to this property.
So, if you think about it, there’s been a lot of research done about this. I took a seminar at Yale many years ago. The subject of which was, gathering places. How community centers were established from the beginning of time a–around the world. And [00:22:00] people come together for, first and foremost because of the marketplace and to exchange goods and buy and purchase goods and food and all that.
So, if you think about it, it makes sense that a plaza, a community gathering place will bring out all of this. Many neighbors feel that without it we’re just this place that’s just become condo after condo development. And whoever can afford to stay and buy a house or be in a building stays and whoever doesn’t, it’s too bad for you.
Elizabeth: Speaking of organizations something else you’ve done in your life is, you’ve led organizations, you’ve been founding director of organizations, you’ve anchored a number of community initiatives both here in DC as well as in Connecticut. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit about some of the creative problem solving that you as an organizational leader have been able to tap into and use for the furtherance of the goals of the [00:23:00] organizations.
Naomi: I think, people are people wherever they are. I think that, for me, the most challenging of all has been community outreach. And it still is. I still do community outreach and it’s, ah, is the kind of thing that will drive you crazy and also make you feel wonderful at the end of, at the end of the day. And it requires that kind of like relationship building and obstinacy about, how things should be done, when they should be done, and trying again and again until you get the job done and asking questions about, did we check out the program in the church basement, in this neighborhood? Did we forget about them? Why did we not check there? And it’s a very similar process. Yeah. It is for me.
Elizabeth: Yeah. To digress a bit and talk, go back to some of your writing. You talked a lot about the teaching of poetry and the teaching of [00:24:00] writing and the teaching of, of the sort of creative space, the leading of the creative space. But can you talk a little bit about what your process is as an essayist, as a translator, as a poet? I, I know a little bit about what your secret sauce is in terms of your process, but I’m wondering both what your process is and how it might change depending on the kind of writing that you’re doing.
Naomi: Like for example, the difference between my creative process writing a poem and an essay?
Elizabeth: I know, for example, and maybe you could speak about the essay that you worked so hard on, about your former teacher and your former mentor, and it took many months of hard work, as well as your poems of course. And then translation is a creative process unto itself. I know you have schedules, and you have rituals, and you have a kind of very disciplined process, and I wondered if you could just share some of that with us.
Naomi: I think. Wow. Yes. [00:25:00] Sorry. It’s a tortured process. This is my response.
Michael: You have a rack.
Naomi: This is why I sound like this, and I just I saw it all in my head like this garble of the web of, like, nest and things with feathers poking out. And it’s a lot. Yeah. It’s a lot. I was thinking today this morning I thought, oh, I’m, I might have a chance to work on something this evening. And I thought why couldn’t I just want to do one thing? Why couldn’t it just be the one thing just essay, just poetry, just the one thing? Because each one is challenging unto themselves.
I think poetry has always been the most torturous for me. ‘Cause I, in English it’s a different experience and in Spanish it’s a different experience. And I never have enough time to do both as completely as I would like to. So, I’ll hear a line in my head or a [00:26:00] stanza or sometimes a full poem, and I’ll write it down in whichever language it is. Then I’ll wait. I call it the sexy stage. And the sexy stage lasts for 24 hours, if I’m lucky. Now that I’m old. It used to last 72 hours or week. Now it’s—
Elizabeth: Getting older.
Naomi: Yeah, getting old, it’s like 24 hours. Tomorrow I might decide it’s a horrible thing I wrote. And, and then it’s one thing to decide it’s horrible. Another thing is to decide it’s horrible but look at the first line. That’s not too bad. Can you take that somewhere? Does it need to go somewhere else? Instead of where it’s going? How can it be tweaked? And so that whole process of inquiry starts. And let’s look at the closing is that, nah, you can live with a bad closing for a while till you develop the body, but it’s this, where is this going? Or—and the worst, which is, I’ll look [00:27:00] at it later. It’s too horrible. I don’t know if this, there’s anything worthwhile in here. I’ll wait a week and then the week turns into a month and it’s probably gonna be a reject.
And so, in whether in English or Spanish, the process is the same. But when I’m writing regularly, it becomes this fluid thing and it’s as if the poems, whatever the language they’re in conversation with one another. And I’ve continued to say or explore something and then I pick it up in a different place in another poem. And that in and of itself becomes more successful.
I think poetry in general, most people would agree it’s the most challenging because it’s just a moment in time and that’s what it is. It’s what makes it so great I think of all the writing genres, but also the most challenging because it’s one moment in time that you’re trying to sculpt. Even when it’s longer, it’s just a freaking moment in time. Did you have a follow up question, Elizabeth?
Elizabeth: No, I, Michael, I think can speak [00:28:00] more about the poetic process as a fellow poet.
Michael: So, it sounds you’re saying it is torture to write poetry. If you were to write a chapter or a book on the poetic process—
Naomi: I would rather do anything else. Give me, gimme the job. I would do it, and I would skip this one altogether. Yeah. I wouldn’t do it. Yeah.
Michael: But then you have, the whole, the, you have to, the poet has to sort of, enjoy the sexy period, but know that it’s gonna end—
Naomi: It’s gonna end.
Michael: And that’s when the real work starts.
Naomi: And that’s when the real work starts. And then that reaching, some poems I wrote it’s just, it’s horrible, that I wrote 15 or 20 years ago. Every once in a while, poke their head. It’s, ah, the poem I couldn’t crack. There you are! Just to spite me, just to remind me. The poem I still cannot crack. I didn’t see a version of it in another poem, I wasn’t able to rewrite it, I wasn’t as, just, I couldn’t figure out that puzzle.
And, but [00:29:00] equally there are poems—there’s a young woman who, who was making a short film about my work recently. And she asked me to read some poems and I just thought, oh God, how do I choose the most current thing? The thing I think she would like or other people would like? And then it got to the near the end and she asked me for a poem in my last book and I thought, oh sure, of course I’ll read it for you. And then I read, I thought, oh, I’d forgotten about you, there you’re, this was a successful poem. I like this poem. To this day, I still like this poem. And then that kind of, oh, I got to say what I needed to say in the form that it needed to come in. And it sounds how I wanted it to sound. So, I consider that complete. I still feel good about it. So there are moments like that. And that’s worth all the torture crap that you go through [00:30:00] for, yeah, it is. Yeah.
Michael: It’s ‘cause I think different people have different appreciations of poetry. Some people think poetry is easy, that you have a feeling, you sit down, you open your diary, and you write your poem, and they’re like, you’re, they’re always in the sexy stage. And then maybe they just don’t read it again. But they feel like it’s just an emotional response to something. A lot of people start writing poetry that way.
Then in the classical mea–definition, it’s, you’re visited by a muse and it’s just okay, just keep talking to me, muse, and I’ll write it down. But it’s ultimately this extremely mysterious process.
And then, I think really good poetry frequently, a lot of people just don’t understand it. They read it and they’re just—
Naomi: True. True.
Michael: Even something like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” for me, it’s like utterly comprehensible. But most people, like, what is he talking about? And so, I think it was the poet Saint-John Perse in his Nobel Prize speech, he was talking about that [00:31:00] poetry is not purposely ambiguous or purposely vague or mysterious, but it’s, because it explores the depths of one’s encounter with the world, frequently the result is mysterious.
Naomi: It’s in, in terms of what we’ve been talking about. We have our own language. It’s our own language. And, so, everybody gets to write poetry in the way that they want, and the way that they were meant to.
It—metaphorical language is—just, consider metaphors. I have been teaching metaphors for a very long time and it remains, there’s not an exact science to it, whatever. It brings talk about creativity, associative thinking into play. And everybody has their own metaphorical language ‘cause they have these associations that, you know, between the world of form and the world [00:32:00] of feelings that they have. That the sum of their lives has let them to create. So, they have their own metaphorical language.
Michael: If you were to write a letter to a young, a young poet. Is there, and in terms of like, when is a poem finished? When is it ready to go out into the world? Is it, are there clues for you that tell you that the poem has reached its—
Naomi: I think it’s—
Naomi: I’ll have to say for anybody who’s listening, that is the thing that we all have to learn as poets. And I think one of those has some—I was talking before about, did anybody tell you should say this or do this? It’s s closure, closings are another thing. Like the poem closes when I think poems all different kinds of poems close in and open in all kinds of different ways.
So, for you, you might start experimenting at first with very hard stops, with very concrete, clear [00:33:00] closings to see how that feels and then take it where you wanna take it. I think closings in general are hard. As far as opening, you can open pretty much anywhere, but to close, that’s, just, it might be that summative closing might come easier for you in the beginning. And then you start to do that until you feel what closings are gonna be like for you. And I think it’s a process that you grow into. And it’s such a—it depends on the poet, it depends on the person, it depends on their writing and what they’re trying to take on with their writing.
So, it’s a very conditional response. And I know this almost sounds abstract, but I think every poet needs to try on, begin by trying very obvious hard stop closings till they find their own way to close, which is also gonna continue to change and evolve. That’s my best response!
Michael: Yesterday, I knew how to close. [00:34:00] Today, it’s something different.
Naomi: It’s something different! This is why I say it’s a torturous thing.
Michael: It is torturous.
Naomi: And, and to this day, I don’t know this better than I did 40 years ago. I don’t think I do. I’m still learning.
Elizabeth: Speaking of 40 years ago. And to bring us back to the, as the non-poet, I want to bring us back to the concrete. I wanna ask you about your early experiences.
You were raised in Puerto Rico. In the countryside, as I understand it. And I’m just really interested in your experiences of leaving your native Puerto Rico and coming to the mainland US and how that journey influenced your creativity, how your creativity influenced that journey. Just take us back, I don’t know how many years ago it was, I dunno that it was—
Naomi: A long time ago.
Elizabeth: —40 years ago, but just take us back to that process of leaving the place you were born and raised and coming to a very different place.
Naomi: It was traumatic for me. But one thing I have to be grateful for is that I don’t think I would’ve really [00:35:00] learned English otherwise.
We took English classes at school, it was part of the required curriculum, but it was mostly vocabulary building. So I wasn’t able to carry on a conversation or anything when I came here. I think, I had, I’m grateful that I had already been writing poetry and that was well anchored in me before, excuse me, I had to learn—crash into learning a new language as a teenager, while I was going through all the identity and hormonal stuff any a teenagers going through at that age.
But having that tool, like, my teachers took advantage of the fact that they knew I wrote poetry and would stay with me after school and try to help me write poetry in English, which I thought was ridiculous, but I tried.
What is I look back at that now and there was more than one of them. How brave, what a courageous thing to do. ‘Cause I, I’m not sure that I would like to just try to teach somebody who’s just recently [00:36:00] arrived how to write poetry in English, like their first month here. That’s hard.
So learning English for me was a positive thing and glad that, I’m glad I’m a different poet in English, and I’ve been able to write about things that I really care about, about, the experiences of Latinos in the US and in my corner of the world, and I’m really grateful for that.
Elizabeth: Speaking of your corner of the world, you’re an unusual person in the sense that you are connected to a rural setting, to the countryside, but you live in an urban setting and there’s a lot of fluidity, I think, as I read your poetry between that embrace of the natural world, the countryside, and the more built environment of the city.
And I’m interested in your journey from, not just from Puerto Rico, but from a rural setting to an urban setting, which seems to be one of the biggest divides in this [00:37:00] country, right. Between, rural and small-town folk and big city folk. So, I’m wondering what your journey was like and what insights your creative process might bring to that.
Naomi: That was most definitely part of my trauma and coming from a small town and with few people in it and knowing who lived there for like miles around to having people right next door to you who needed to know everything about your business was an interesting experience for me to say the least. It was disturbing.
The, one of the greatest wounds that I would have to heal in my serve–in myself as a person has to do with that. And I always felt that separation from the earth, which to me is the most, like, I would accept anything than that.
Was in the year 2000, I decided to go on a walkabout to walk the Appalachian Trail. [00:38:00] And I had already been living in DC for three years and I loved the job I was working at the time for a national organization that was doing great civil rights work and was also doing some community work, and I was so incredibly unhappy. I just felt this, like, gap in me growing and growing. And I thought I’m just gonna go on a walkabout and see what happens. And I’ll go, I had never walked more than three miles anywhere. And I decided I was going to leave my job and pack everything up and go hike the Appalachian Trail. And the deal was that if I lasted a day or a week or whatever it was, that I was just gonna be brave and take it, but that I was gonna try ‘cause I didn’t wanna think about it.
And so I did. And I finally got it experientially that, you know, this notion that I I had a [00:39:00] home that’s over there and this place that I migrated to over here, that it was all the same earth and that this was my mother. And that no matter how far I ventured, if I could remember that I was just generally where I wanted to be, that this was okay.
And so this seems like such an obvious thing when I think about it, but in my mind, it was the trauma of that separation, not just from home, but from homeland and what land that is home meant, what it should look like. ‘Cause I also, I came from a tropical place to New England winters. It, I came here in 1978. People still remember the blizzard of 1978, which was the winter I arrived here, and it was awful. So that, that was like, a trauma and a dramatic difference. And so, something that, that simple—not super simple, but simple [00:40:00] enough—to like, be outside and let myself be outdoors in the woods for as long as I wanted to and sleep out there and be out there with the vermin and the animals that were hanging out did it that I just, oh, I never really left. This is, all of this is home.
Elizabeth: And you did this by yourself, right?
Elizabeth: You were on the trail for weeks?
Naomi: I, months.
Elizabeth: Beggars theimagination.
Naomi: It was good, it was a good experience. It’s one of the experiences I’m the most grateful for in my life. That something possessed me like that, which, I just kept thinking, this is insane. This is insane. This is what I need to do. That, those moments, like, where we need to trust our inklings of something that ends up becoming a lifeboat, and it didn’t look sane in the beginning.
Elizabeth: So, for listeners who don’t know, the Appalachian Trail in the US, it’s it takes about six months to walk the hole of it. It starts either in mid Georgia and—
Naomi: Some people have done it in—
Elizabeth: —all the way through Maine.
Naomi: —three and a half months.
Elizabeth: Three and a [00:41:00] half, yeah. Wow.
Naomi: Yeah. And some in four, I think some in two and a half. It just, it depends on the person
Elizabeth: I don’t know how many miles it is, but—
Naomi: It’s, it’s over 2000.
Elizabeth: 2000 miles.
Naomi: I’ll have to, I haven’t looked it up recently. Runs—
Elizabeth: Through all kinds of terrain.
Naomi: —from Georgia to New York, to, I went from Georgia to New York. The trail goes to Maine.
Michael: So, when you returned from your walk, did your approach to life change fundamentally?
Naomi: The lens, my lens did. I had trouble sleeping on my bed for a long time. I had to sleep on the floor for a while. After I came back, things like this that were fundamentally weird to me, but that also helped me realize like, wow, how quick the adaptation process was the other way. And not so easy on the way back.
But that’s what I kept going back to, that this idea, my fundamental idea of what home [00:42:00] is had changed. As an immigrant, I felt like I never really adapted. And trauma can do this to us, whatever the trauma is, all kinds of trauma do this to us. But, so, I had never adapted. And adaptation also means many different things. So, I had never adapted and maybe, like, gotten used to it in a healthy way or what may have been a good, healthy, positive way. And this did it.
Michael: You had mentioned that you were working for a national organization, they were doing all this good work, but that you were unhappy. But then you went on your walk when you came back, did you—
Naomi: Yeah, so—
Michael: —did you work again at the same organization?
Naomi: No, a different organization. I was doing, I was a part of doing some like great work, having to do with education and on a national level. And I missed community. I just missed working at the community level. It’s not the same thing.
And I think, I wonder if you had ever had this [00:43:00] experiences yourself, Elizabeth. But people who are community outreach people, it’s very hard. You get displaced if, to do the work like that at a scale, it’s just not, you can’t keep your nose close to the ground as well and so then you feel that difference.
Elizabeth: Yeah, no. Working at the community level is extremely different. It’s like the difference between DC and Washington. I live in, we live in DC which is the local community.
Michael: And so, when you returned, then you basically started working more locally and started reconnecting.
Naomi: Not for too long. I did, then I got recruited by a friend from the National Science Foundation to work on a science festivals project. But, on a national scale, but one, one of the points, one of the festivals was based in DC. So, I got to also work in the DC community. Not just in other [00:44:00] states. So that was helpful. So, I did that for a while and then eventually I ended up back in community. This has always been a struggle for me. This has always been a challenge. I appreciate I have, the mind, the strategy and the creativity to do work at great scale, but where my heart is…
Naomi: At the ground level. So—
Michael: I think a lot of people, that tension,
Naomi: It’s a tension. Yeah. Yeah. It’s a tension. It’s also in who we find to make sure that people on the ground are represented. Right now, I’ll use as an example, our local state arts agency. I think about these guys, and I think, oh, the things they must go through to be able to support us in our work, really, truly. And to make sure that the DC arts community is being represented. So that’s just one example. One of the many communities in here. Not so [00:45:00] easy, and not so easy to get people to, to notice and to pay attention. This person’s left out, that group is left out, it’s not well represented here, et cetera.
Elizabeth: So I wanna sort of segue into one of the very Naomi, into a Naomi-ism that I know about.
Naomi: Oh, God. I wonder what that is.
Elizabeth: There are many Naomi-ism in the world, one of which is the tagline on your personal email account, which anyone who knows you, has seen.
Elizabeth: It’s a Buddhist phrase, quote, “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”
Naomi: That’s, it’s a quote by the Buddha. And that’s pretty much how I feel about life. Yeah.
Elizabeth: So that’s talk some more about this.
Naomi: That sums it up pretty well. That’s why it’s there.
Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t—I love it, but I don’t [00:46:00] presume to necessarily get it in the same way.
Anyway, can you talk a little bit, to segue a bit into this spiritual journey that you have been on toward the teachings of the Buddha, toward Buddhism and, just, what has, what that has been and how it segues into your creative life. It’s a big part of your life, or has been, I know.
Naomi: Yeah. Thank you for asking. It does have a big influence in my life. I think being present and my efforts to try to be present are everything to me, and that’s what Buddhism represents to me. It means different things to different people, but at the end of the day, no matter the school, we all agree that it’s about being right here, right now and the best that you can and being mindful of others.
And poetry is a moment in time and so it remains my best Buddhist teacher because [00:47:00] I have to always remember, it’s like looking in a mirror. I can’t hide from anything. Anything I may be trying to hide from will stare at me in the face.
And, so, my meditation practice helps me. I practice at a local community center that allows me to be in community with other people like me. But also, my meditation practice. It keeps me, it’s, for me, I grew up, I did not grow up in a Buddhist environment.
Elizabeth: Countryside in Puerto Rico, you weren’t practicing Buddhism?
Naomi: I did not. Both sets of my grandparents were, like, hardcore old school Pentecostals, and then my mother was Catholic, and then my dad was a hardcore atheist till he died. And, and for me, the whole religion thing, and I could choose—kudos to them—we were allowed to choose whatever religion we wanted to, but it was, I, being the oldest, [00:48:00] it was my job to take everybody around to different churches and figure out what they wanted to do. And it was horrible. It was horrible. The whole, people would show films about hell and show people with worms coming out of their eyes and that was your, “Save yourself now, convert!” And to me I thought it was so extreme. Like. everything about the churches that I experienced was so extreme.
In the end, my mother said I would have to choose something for everybody and take them to church. So, the Catholic church was the easiest. So, I did that, but I just was, I just would not consider myself anything for, I didn’t practice anything. I didn’t really believe in anything. But was familiar with the Bible because I would read it to my grandfather who, who couldn’t read or write through–throughout my childhood. And Buddhism is something—I’m a practice person, and so I believe in the aspect of the practice a lot.
Michael: And that brings us to [00:49:00] our, one of our final questions, our final question, and this is how we hope to end all of our discussions.
And this sort of goes to the question of creativity and identity. And this was inspired, recently, I met this woman who had been in the corporate world for most of her adult life.
Michael: And had risen up in the corporate world. But then I guess in her early sixties, she said, I just had to, I had to get out of that world ‘cause it had basically taken over my identity. So she currently was in the process of recreating who she was. And so she was redefining herself, or she was altering her identity. And it made me think of just how much we need creativity in the shaping of who we are.
And then I recently reread Rollo May’s The Courage to Create, which I read when I was an undergraduate and I [00:50:00] realized how much of an impact it had on me. And he talks about artists, but he ultimately talks about how the creation of who we are is the fundamental force of creativity. That we are constantly in the process of becoming who we are as long as we are nurturing and following our creative impulse. And he uses the word encounter, we use the word presence, that is at the center of creativity, the intimate encounter with the world people, et cetera.
So, could you talk briefly about the role creativity has played in the creation of who you are?
Naomi: For me I can’t think of it just as a product. I think That I’m creative when I cook and I love to cook. And so I’m constantly inventing and switching up and considering and comparing and synthesizing and thinking, no, I’ll Puerto Rican-ize [00:51:00] this dish or, no, I’ll India-fy it.
And for me, I think that looking after my creative self creates balance in my life. When I deny it, I’m unhappy and I feel unstable. And I don’t think that this is unique to me. It’s this other, it’s maybe spills over into the physical, into the spiritual, into the emotional, into the psychological, into the intellectual, even.
For me it’s a necessary part of life, it’s part of problem solving, it’s part of the process of inquiry, it’s part of who we are. Creativity is tied into everything about my identity. I don’t see it as a separate thing. I hope that I’m able to share that with others. That we don’t have to cage it to an art form or a product. Like, I’m an artist and I create—we should all be able to do anything, whatever the hell we wanna do.
I’m not an artist, but I’ve been, [00:52:00] earnestly trying to draw because I didn’t learn at any other time in my life. And I’ve always dabbled in painting, but I don’t know how to draw very well. So, I’ve dedicated some spare time to doing that. And every once in a while, I wake up and I’ll dash something off and look at this thing that took 30 seconds. It’s probably only good because I made 50 horrible drawings, but it wasn’t about drawing something, but allowing myself the luxury of 15 minutes every day for a while to be able to pursue this and learn to look through this lens. Learn to see the world through a line to a gesture, which is also like a poem thing. Like, how do you look at the world through a poet, in one line, and I would guess that about drawing and a gesture, like that’s gesture line, that’s a summative thing, that’s so freaking succinct.
So, yeah, so for me it’s taught me how to look in [00:53:00] different ways. Yeah, creativity has made that possible for me to not get stuck in one way of looking at everything or my life or why we’re here or why we do what we do. It’s given me breath.
Michael: Oh, there you go there.
Naomi: DT. Both, right?
Michael: No, it’s great.
Naomi: DT breath. Yeah.
Elizabeth: Oh, Naomi, this has been so wonderful to talk to you through. Thank you so much for all your—
Naomi: Thank you for having me.
Elizabeth: —thoughts and time. I wanna give you a chance to tell us about current projects. I know you have a new book coming out. Is there anything you want to tell us specifically about? And we will have a bit of info and links and such on the, the digital platform that we’re on, but do you tell us about…
Naomi: Thank you. I have a new book coming out from FlowerSong Press. It’s called Peces que se escapan / Escaping Fish. And it’s a bilingual manuscript, poems that I originally wrote in Spanish over a period of time that I’ve translated [00:54:00] into English myself.
Michael: “Escaping fish.”
Naomi: “Escaping fish.” It’s from a quote. “Islands are like escaping fish.”
Elizabeth: Oh, how poetic.
Michael: That’s wonderfully ambiguous, too. Escaping fish or fish escaping.
Naomi: It’s very interesting ‘cause if you look at the Caribbean from an airplane, as you look down when you’re flying over the Caribbean, you think this is the thing that’s such a big reality, big deal about. And you see all of the tiny islands and they’re so close together and you don’t get the same idea from looking at it in a map. And if you are from one of these island countries, you’re like “Puerto Rico, yeah, it’s everything! The Dominican Republic, the DR! Yeah! Everything! Haiti, yeah!” And you look down and you think these are like little spurts of land. And they do look like that. They look like fish that are swimming off.
Elizabeth: Swimming off from the—
Elizabeth: —big [00:55:00] mothership. Yeah.
Elizabeth: Oh, thank you so much. This has been,
Naomi: Thank you for having me.
Elizabeth: Naomi Ayala, extraordinary human being, poet, translator, essayist, teacher, leader, community activist, and very close friend. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
Naomi: Thank you for having me.
Elizabeth: For more information about Creativists in Dialogue or our other projects, please visit elizabethbrucedc.com or rmichaeloliver.com. This project was supported by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
 Double-Triggered breathing is a frequent type of patient-ventilator asynchrony.