When Laurie Ann Guerrero AC ’08 was in middle school in San Antonio, an English teacher introduced her to the poetry of Sylvia Plath ’55. The legendary poet’s words—powerful and raw—awakened something in Guerrero, who felt compelled to get as close as she could to the spirit of the woman whose work moved her so deeply.
It would take several years and a series of ups and downs before Guerrero—by then a married mother of three—would make it to Smith, where Plath’s poetic legacy took shape. But Guerrero’s experiences have proven a rich source of material for her own widely acclaimed poetry. Of her 2013 collection, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, which won the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, one judge said, “These poems make the reader laugh, cry, cringe, lose one’s breath, and almost one’s mind, at times.” In 2014 she was named poet laureate of San Antonio, and this year she assumes the mantle of poet laureate for the state of Texas.
As poet laureate for her hometown, Guerrero saw part of her role as raising awareness of the work of other local poets. Remembering the Smith College Archives, where she had once reveled in holding the same books Sylvia Plath had touched, Guerrero set about creating a San Antonio poetry archive. The archive will be in a public library—not far from the neighborhood where she grew up and now lives—and will house broadsides, collections of poets’ personal papers and an audio archive of poets reading their works and transcripts of oral histories that she initiated. “For me being a poet isn’t just about putting things on the page,” she says. “It’s about telling our stories and sharing our humanity.”
As for her plans as Texas poet laureate, Guerrero is contemplating ways to use poetry to inspire and empower high school students. But a community service project isn’t part of the deal. “That one is more like a crown I get to wear,” she says of her new title.
Part of Guerrero’s reputation as a “badass” poet (as one San Antonio publication recently called her), feminist, teacher and community advocate stems from her time at Smith. The first thing she noticed about women at Smith was their attitude. “I had never been around strong, opinionated, unapologetic women,” she recalls. When she returned home to San Antonio after her first semester, her family chalked up her new attitudes about feminism to her time at the college. But Guerrero soon realized that those ideas had been hers all along, planted in her by her tias and abuelas. The environment at Smith just drew them out. “In subversive ways, the women in my family found their voices, and those voices were always in my head. That spirit—it wasn’t just me,” Guerrero says.
After graduation, the spirit of those voices called her back to the hardscrabble neighborhoods in San Antonio where she was raised. “My family has been here for as far back as you can count,” she says. Now she devotes much of her writing to telling the stories of her ancestors, whose voices were silenced. In her poems, she stitches together with brightly colored thread family lore, personal memory and snippets of nightmare.
In “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” a series of poems that share the same title as her first collection, she writes, “…Wine-heavy, wise, gold-seeking/god, you red-headed Cortez in a circle:/you ask about my babies, ask if they carry/one man’s name. …” And later in the poem: “My grandmother embroidered huipiles/Named me the color of stone, lavender/in the sun. Wore a herd of elephants/on her middle finger, the baby always/almost dead …”
Guerrero’s latest collection, A Crown for Gumecindo, a set of 15 linked sonnets, pays homage to her late grandfather, illiterate and a woodworker, whom she calls her poetic mentor. “He was everything poets try to work out in their poems,” she says. “He was efficient, hardworking, beautiful and complex. He awakened my sense of wonder and curiosity.”
While critics have described her work as gritty, stark, unbearably vivid and uncomfortable, Guerrero herself is an openhearted person who easily tears up and just as easily breaks into laughter. As a child, her mother chided her for wearing her heart on her sleeve, but now Guerrero embraces that openness as a poet’s strength. So much so that when she was installed as San Antonio’s poet laureate, she sewed a red heart onto the sleeve of the black blouse she wore to the ceremony.
“To be recognized by my city and now by my state—it’s huge,” she says. “I believe that when you’re doing what you love, the universe pays you back.”
SAQ, Summer 2016
House: As an Ada Comstock Scholar, she rented a house off campus
Major: English language and literature; a Sophia Smith Scholar
Influential Professors: Annie Boutelle, senior lecturer emerita in English language and literature, and Ginetta Candelario ’90, associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies, whom Guerrero regards as a strong Latina role model
Tzivia Gover is the author of Joy in Every Moment and Learning in Mrs. Towne’s House, a memoir about teaching poetry to teen mothers in an inner-city school.