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San Antonio's Poet Laureate visits OLLU

The words spilled onto a blank page in a small journal. They were observations, raw and unfiltered, of a world seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl. Details were sharp, descriptions vivid.

The writer did not know she would wow with words, that she would be published and applauded and win critical acclaim. Her musings were private, intended for an audience of one, until a class assignment exposed her gift. A sixth grade teacher entered student poems in a local contest. Laurie Ann Guerrero won first place.

A quarter century later, Guerrero is San Antonio’s Poet Laureate, a visiting writer at Our Lady of the Lake University and a headliner at OLLU’s 2014 Literary Festival, which continues through Saturday, April 12. On Friday, April 11 at 9:30 a.m. in Thiry Auditorium, Guerrero will read from her prize-winning collection of poems, “A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying.”

“Tongue” received the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize in 2012. One judge described the collection thusly: “This is the poetry of both saints and sinners (and even murderers). … These poems make the reader laugh, cry, cringe, lose one’s breath, and almost one’s mind, at times.”

It is impossible to read Guerrero and not be moved. Consider the following from “Preparing The Tongue”:

Its cry reaches me from some heap of butchered heads as I hack
away like an axe murderer. I choke down the stink of its heated
moo, make carnage of my own mouth, add garlic.

There were no early poetic influences for Guerrero. She did not read Dickinson or Frost. She grew up on San Antonio’s Southside in a home with few books. The poetry she knew is what she put on paper. “I was documenting what was going on in my life,” she says. Her parents divorced. A brother played baseball. She grew close to a friend. “I didn’t know how else to write.”

Winning the poetry contest was a revelation. Guerrero could write. Reading “The House on Mango Street” was magical.  At 11, Guerrero knew what she could become. “When I turned the book over and saw that the author lived in San Antonio,” Guerrero says of Sandra Cisneros, “that was it for me. ‘Oh, I can do this.’ I will never forget that moment.”

Between then and now, Guerrero, 36, has crafted a compelling life narrative. She had her first child at 19. She entered Smith College as a wife and mother of three and received the Academy of American Poets Prize before graduating with a degree in English Language and Literature. An MFA in poetry from Drew University followed as did more poems and prizes.

Her view and voice are distinct, if not unique. From “Las Lenguas”:

Once, a man told me
to hear the voice of God
one must be able to speak in tongues.

Years later, another man
told me speaking in tongues
was the kind of sin
you couldn’t hide. 

Who knows what the priest
told my mother when, with a quivering
chin, she pleaded, ‘Por favor, padre,
necesito ir al bano,’ squeezing
her tiny six-year-old thighs
together in the best English
she could muster.

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