Alma Luz Villanueva pleases audience at local reading

February 20, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

I don't know whether Alma Luz Villanueva is a great poet, but she is very sincere and she pleased the audience that turned out Wednesday night to hear the second author in the UC Davis Women's Resources and Research Center's annual winter/spring series.

Villanueva got off to a slow start at the Varsity Theater hampered by microphone problems, by taking what felt like a very long time to set up after her introduction (the whole audience watched her every move as she endlessly unpacked notes, books and a sheaf of poems from her briefcase), and by blasting a few notes on a native flute with I'm not sure what purpose in mind.

Finally, joking about hot flashes and menopause, remarks guaranteed to draw laughter from this audience, she took off her black jacket and got down to the tricky business of selling herself through her work. Tricky because Villanueva's poetry is biographical, emotional and intimate and to be appreciated a connection to the author needs to be made instantly, as she reads her poetry.

Villanueva largely succeeded although she might have a difficult time before a more critical audience.

Villanueva was born in Santa Barbara in 1944 and raised in San Francisco's Mission District by her grandmother, a Yaqui Indian from Sonora, Mexico.

She dropped out of high school in 10th grade to have a child. She later finished college and earned her MFA. She has four grown children and two grandchildren. When she gives a public reading, she has a habit not of stuttering, but of repeating everything she says at least twice, whether due to nerves or for emphasis I couldn't tell.

She read several poems about her early years including "Indian Summer Ritual," "Ancestor," and "They Didn't Get Me." She is the author of six books of poetry. A new book of poetry, "Vida," is due to be published this year.

Her grandmother died when Villanueva was 12 and it's no coincidence that Villanueva then began writing poetry. She had her first child at age 15, and her second at age 17. She lived on welfare in a brutal public housing project in San Francisco married to a violent man.

"So that period of my life was an early drama, quite a challenge to survive, to survive. So I didn't write anything from age 13 to 26 because I was struggling for survival," she said.

"My first marriage lasted for 10 years, then my best friend died of breast cancer at age 27," she said. Later, her late friend's husband and Villanueva bought a farm in Sebastopol and moved there with five kids, three of hers and two of his.

"It was a beautiful farm, a beautiful spot," she said. "There on the farm all the poetry, all the words, all the crying, all the laughter just erupted. Poetry for me is the source, the mother tongue...the sun, moon and stars. Almost daily I will sit down to my poetry first and see what it has to tell me."

After living on the farm for some time, then moving to a cabin in the Plumas National Forest, and after having her fourth child at age 36, Villanueva moved to Santa Cruz where she has lived for the past 14 years. She read "Siren," "Alchemy," "The Balance," "Politics of Paradise" and "California Poppy," the poem that led eventually to her forthcoming novel.

"Some of my long poems take up to a month to write," she said. "Writing to me feels like pregnancy, carrying it and birthing it."

Villanueva also wrote a book of poetry called "Planet," which was awarded the Latin American Institute Poetry Prize in 1994. Her poetry has been chosen for inclusion in "The Best American Poetry 1996" and has been published in many magazines and anthologies.

I would have like to have heard Villanueva read some of her fiction. She is the author of two novels, "Naked Ladies" and "Ultraviolet Sky" (which won an American Book Award in 1989). A new novel, "Luna's California Poppies," is to be published by 2001.

Villanueva paid tribute to her grandmother throughout the evening, thanking her for giving her the gift of poetry. "That's where it came from," she said. "Poetry, love and healing. And of course she's here with us tonight."

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