Award-winning poet Joaquín Zihuatanejo shared stories and a collection of poems from his latest book, “Arsonist” on April 4th for the annual Len Roberts Poetry Day in Lipkin Theatre.
English Professor Javier Ávila chose this year’s inspiring poet. Like 20 percent of NCC’s student body, Zihuatanejo is Hispanic, a demographic underrepresented in the faculty. In an environment where the educators don’t look like their students, it is important to include ancillary voices.
“He covers material that students can connect with and relate to,” Ávila said.
Zihuatanejo’s words struck like flint and ignited the air, captivating and transforming the audience like fire.
Fire is an archetype recognized throughout the world. Its symbolic nature transcends space and time. It is universally understood to represent life, enlightenment, and passion, as well as danger and destruction.
From the embers of a difficult childhood, Zihuantanejo rose into a prize-winning teacher and poet, turning the pain of abandonment and his struggle with identity into written works of art.
He was born in the barrio of East Dallas, Texas and raised by his mother after his father abandoned them. Growing up, he struggled with his racial identity as a Mexican American, often feeling too light to be accepted as Chicano and too dark to be considered white.
The barrio was a dangerous place to grow up, surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence. He credits his grandfather for keeping him out of harm’s way despite “the absence of his father and the silence of his mother.” His grandfather provided refuge for him in the form of books, encouraging him to read every day.
“Everything that I know about life, hard work, and the importance of education – everything that I am, everything that I have become, I owe to my grandfather,” he said.
He performed a sequence of poems called, “Causes of Degradation,” articulating how the loss of his father hurt him. His use of imagery and inflection made the words spark and come to life.
“In the darkest part of the forest moss grows so deep that walking makes no sound, this is how you slipped away…,” he read.
“I don’t always like all of my poems. I love them all, but I don’t always like them. Some are too close, too painful,” he said before reading his poem, “Final Exam for My Father.” It is a poem written in the form of a test, inspired by his work as an English professor and directed to his absent father. In the poem he asks his father heart-wrenching questions about his departure.
“1) True or False, the night you walked out on me and my mother you hesitated before grabbing the door knob,” he read.
After his performance he greeted students and faculty as he signed copies of his book. He then headed to the Monroe campus to present a different set of poems.
Zihuantanejo is the 2008 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion as well as the 2009 World Cup of Poetry Slam Champion. His latest book, “Arsonist,” won the Anhinga-Robert Dana Prize in 2017. The Anhinga Press is a nonprofit dedicated to poetry education and publication.