Poet Laureate Blog

Poetry Connection: Coming Full Circle in Twenty Years of Poetry

*This column originally appeared in the Independent.

Photo by Michael Sedano

The Santa Barbara Writers Conference began last Sunday. The conference has been an important part of my life for the past twenty years. I’ve participated as a volunteer, panelist and workshop leader at the conference. I wrote the poem that launched my writing career those two decades ago, “How Fire Is a Story, Waiting.” That poem that won first place at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2003 became the title poem of my first full length poetry book in 2012, published by Tía Chucha Press.

The poem is about a memory I have of my grandmother playing with the stovetop’s fire. As a child, I watched her cook and she would tell me stories about her life and our family. One day, she showed me how she could catch the fire in her hand without burning herself. I was mesmerized, and smart enough to realize I shouldn’t try her trick. I had already gotten into trouble for playing with matches and showing my young neighbor how to light a match on the side of the matchbox. To this day, my grandmother’s words, falling into the fire, continue to be a source of inspiration.

I remember the day I workshopped the poem in Perie Longo’s class. After the workshop, she asked for a copy of the poem. I thought she was going to mark it up and give me suggestions for improving the poem. I had no idea she would nominate me to win the poetry contest at the weeklong conference. However, I do remember the confidence I received as an added bonus. The win encouraged me to try other genres, short stories and fiction.

Two years later, at the conference, in 2005, I won honorable mention in fiction. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Arizona State University published my novel, Ocotillo Dreams, about the 1997 immigration sweeps in Arizona. Part of the publishing game is showing some sort of track record. In my queries for Ocotillo Dreams, I was able to say I had won first place in poetry at the SBWC and honorable mention in fiction. Every award and publication showed publishers I was serious about my writing career.

I didn’t have the kind of overnight success that draws people to desire a literary career. My poems and book manuscripts have been rejected hundreds of times. It wasn’t until five years after the breakthrough poetry win that my first chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, won a publishing prize. The Fire poem didn’t make it into its own full-length book until nine years later when Tía Chucha Press published How Fire Is a Story, Waiting in 2012.

Fast forward to two weeks ago at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles, I participated in a poetry panel for Tia Chucha Press, the imprint started by former Los Angeles Poet Laureate and author of Always Running, Luis J. Rodriguez. I read from the one copy I have of How Fire Is a Story, Waiting. The book is officially out of print. The good news is Tía Chucha Press is reprinting the book. The title poem is also a song now. I never thought I would add songwriter to my writing resumé but over the pandemic, I became obsessed with learning the guitar and ukulele. Songwriting was a natural next step. I’ve enjoyed incorporating music in some of my poetry readings. In addition to writing new poems, finishing a second novel, my latest project is writing companion songs for some of my poems. I was surprised when I thumbed through my journal, looking for poem ideas and discovered I had a song. After writing the song, I wrote a companion poem for the song.

This week, after a four-year hiatus, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference returns for its 50th anniversary. I will join the faculty and volunteers and I will be a special guest in Perie Longo’s class and celebrate my 20th anniversary as a returning poet and now Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara.


How Fire Is A Story, Waiting

Melinda Palacio

My grandmother caught the flame in her thick hands.

Curled fingers made nimble by kaleidoscope embers.

Fire burns hot and cold if you know where to touch it, she said.

I watched the red glow spit and wiggle as it

snaked down the thin timber, a striptease,

born out of the festive sound of a half-filled matchbox.

Through orange windows framed by obsidian eyes, I saw the child she once was.

A little girl who raised herself because her mother had a coughing disease.

Blood on her mother’s handkerchief didn’t stop her from dreaming.

Maria Victoria was going to be a singer with her deep, cinnamon stick voice.

She watched novelas in the kitchen while waiting for dough to rise.

Her body, heavy with worry for two families and three lifetimes.  She tucked

Mariachi dreams under her girdle. Lullabies escaped on mornings

warmed by her song falling into gas burners turned on high.

The flame on a stove was never the same.  It had a bad hangover,

didn’t remember the many matches lit when its starter broke down.

My grandmother rolled paper into a funnel,

stole fire from the pilot to light the stubborn burner on the right.

Crimson burned blue on the white paper, its folded edges

curled black like a lace ruffle on a skirt.

The finicky flame can’t comment on its magic.

The thousands of tortillas and pancakes cooked over the years.

How I burned myself roasting a hot dog campfire style.

How a melted pencil smudged under my sister’s eyelid makes her beautiful.

My grandmother noticed the time, almost noon.

She needed to make three dozen tortillas to feed her family of thirteen.

The show over, she blew the match into a swirl of gray squiggles,

snuffed before it had a chance to burn hot on her finger.

Funny, how fire is a story, waiting.

June 21, The Botanic Garden, 10:30-11:30 in the courtyard.

Garden Songs: Poetry and Music with Santa Barbara Poet Laureate Melinda Palacio,. I will be reading poems and sharing some original songs on guitar and ukulele.