In Class with Professor Sara Lupita Olivares from New Mexico Highlands University
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Sara Lupita Olivares, Assistant Professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University.
When did you begin to take an interest in creative writing? Who were your early influences/role models?
Sara Lupita Olivares: When I was at Western Michigan University as an undergraduate, I took some poetry classes and I remember having my notions of what poetry was and what it could do redefined. I had really great teachers who introduced me to a lot of contemporary pieces and who created space for the work I was doing. These teachers showed me that it was possible to follow creative writing and they were so essential in me conceptualizing a path as a first-generation college student.
It took me a while to realize that I could pursue creative writing professionally, as everyone in my family before me chose work out of more practicality. My education has been important to me because I saw how my parents wished they had different opportunities in terms of their careers. Early on, I committed to something more out of joy than necessity—which has always felt risky.
Some poets that I remember being mesmerized by early on (and still continue to be) were Jean Valentine, Dorothea Lasky, and Eleni Sikelianos.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
I find myself reiterating to students the importance in protecting their process and creative space. This may mean having a physical space where they can access creativity, or staying honest to their intentions as artists. I think that workshop can be a place where students may focus on fixing and in some circumstances may leave class feeling unseen. I often remind students that workshop can be very subjective and that they will find people who are good readers for their work, and when they do to hold these people close. The fixing that I want for them to learn is more in their personal editing process. I encourage them to develop their internal gauges and standards for when a poem feels right and finished in some way, rather than focusing on external reactions or expectations.
What book of craft/poetry would you recommend to new poets (and why)?
In any creative writing course, I assign Mary Ruefle’s “On Beginnings” from Madness, Rack, and Honey and then Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a Luxury.” Ruefle’s essays show a limitlessness in her approach to the essay form and the necessary expansiveness in thinking about craft. She teaches all that can come into a poem—at its surface or beneath—and the importance in looking out to theory and art outside of just poetry. Lorde’s essay feels so essential in thinking about our responsibilities as writers and in looking at what within us has been inaccessible, in particular for women writers and writers of color.
In terms of books of poems, I do try to take an individualized approach, looking at where the writer is coming from and how I can help illuminate their particular focus, or undo any restrictions. In general, though, I like to recommend Louise Glück to new poets in thinking about where voice emerges from and who it can be that is speaking. Her work is reliant on voice and place, but there is still a distinct distancing that is happening that feels important to observe. Another poet that I love to show to new writers is Morgan Parker, as her voice demystifies poetry and it shows the ways that you can bring in more unromantic details from your life and let them exist within the poem—taking away a fragility that can be associated with poetry.
What poets are you teaching this semester?
Typically I teach full length collections but this semester I organized the class by units and made packets of poems with theory to go along with them. Some poets that I brought into class, and often include, are Diana Khoi Nguyen, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, James Wright, Vievee Francis, Tommy Pico, Anne Spencer, H.D., John Keats, and Charlotte Smith. I try to provide some foundation for movements like Romanticism or Modernism to examine what characteristics may still be present in contemporary work and what sort of roles we have in redefining these terms.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
Each semester I realize the privilege I have in teaching poetry and / or creative writing. I think about previous generations within my family and the work that they did to support me so that I could make a choice about what I wanted to pursue. There has definitely been a blindness to me following poetry, but I’m glad that I have.
Currently I teach at New Mexico Highlands University, which is a Hispanic-serving institution with primarily Hispanic and indigenous first-generation college students. I see a responsibility in being open with my students about also being a first-generation college student and in being supportive in ways that I hope will have an impact for future generations within their families. As a teacher, I love seeing students gain a sense of confidence in their work, especially when they have been in positions where they have had to explain themselves or have had to compromise their voice in some way.
In any context, however, I feel grateful to talk to people about poetry and creative writing and to watch my students make mental, physical, and dream space for their work. If someone takes a creative writing class, there is a sense of bravery and vulnerability that creates a supportive and open environment. I often tell students that there are a lot of things in the world that may redirect us from poetry or that may teach us to turn away, so for us to be there creating and listening together feels revolutionary.
Sara Lupita Olivares is the author of Migratory Sound (The University of Arkansas Press), which was selected as winner of the 2020 CantoMundo Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Field Things (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times, Gulf Coast Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Salt Hill Journal, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. She currently lives in New Mexico where she is an assistant professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University.
Jose Hernandez Diaz
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is from Southern California. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Currently, he is an Associate Editor at Frontier and Guest Editor at Palette Poetry.