On Being Bilingual and a Poet


I begin my last year as an MFA student at The University of New Mexico in about two weeks. At the start I came into it with an open mind as to what I would write about for the next 3 years, but was initially attracted to this concept of place: its physical changes over time and how I changed within it. However, as the program progressed, my bilingual background became more vital to my stories and poems. And so, I’m taking on the task of completing my MFA manuscript by exploring the language(s) of storytelling.

I envision my MFA project to be a triptych manuscript. The first section composed of poems written in Spanish, a middle section that alternates between Spanish and English, and finally a section that is completely in English. For me, this structure is similar to the way I speak and write on a daily basis because I find myself quickly drawing from each language to best communicate what is most significant in a piece of writing. More so, the formatting would help keep the voice and language of the poems intact.

But I really want to tackle the reason behind writing these poems in any specific language and why I turn to code switching at times. I’ve been going back to the free writes and drafts of poems to understand what were my processes and why those initial forms felt natural. I also want to explore how voice can change when translated versus when it alternates between two languages. I hope that when the project is done I can see how poetry has helped to shape the way I experience different moments, objects, and emotions through the tangling and untangling of being bilingual. So far this approach has been great for understanding my own writing process.

Typically, in a poem I try to recall the first time I was told a particular story. When those poems come, whether in English, Spanish, or the combination of the two, I have to pay close attention to diction and syntax before writing it. There are also other poems that I write versions of in both English and Spanish to better understand their themes and images. My parents are immigrants from Central America—one is from El Salvador and the other from Guatemala—and they both have different dichos, sayings or expressions, and a large part of my manuscript will encompass poems that explore the stories I’ve inherited about my parents’ childhoods in their native countries, as well as my perspective of our shared memories.

So will this all come through in my final project? Of course I hope it will, but the truth is that I am aware of the fact that my final project will take detours. It will also morph into something completely different than what I expected, and I am okay with that. The important factor is that I remain faithful to revision and attempting different ways to write a poem.


Melisa Garcia is the Managing Editor of Blue Mesa Review