“True Grit”–on the Silver City Poet Laureate
Written by Harry Williamson, this fantastic article about Bonnie Buckley Maldonado is reproduced with permission and first appeared in the June 2012 Desert Exposure.
If your idea of a poet creates images of being straight-laced and library-quiet, of gossamery clouds and perfect roses, think again.
Silver City’s new poet laureate — named in April for a two-year term — might be a bit of a shock.
Bonnie Buckley Maldonado is pure grit and hard-wire. Her spirit and mettle are unyielding, even at age 80.
In her four books of poetry Maldonado writes about places she has known and loved, especially those in northern Montana and southwest New Mexico. She writes about people, especially women, who are a lot like she is. People of extraordinary capacity and character and kindness and strength. Her red hair confirms a raw-boned Irish heritage.
“I’m influenced by the cadences of Irish voices, by Western music, by Indian singers and drummers. That was the music I grew up with,” she says.
Raised first in a fine home and then, thanks to a ruthless banker’s shenanigans, in a sheepherder’s wagon in far north Montana, she felt comfortable living in a tent with her two sons while she cooked for hoards of backcountry tourists when she arrived in Grant County 53 years ago.
In a poem called “Self-Study,” Maldonado writes:
Fragile does not
and forget delicate.
At one inch over five,
I am tough and resilient,
bermuda grass thriving
in cracked concrete.
As befitting her square-on approach to life, her favorite birthday gifts include a pearl-handled pistol at 18, and a chainsaw at 80.
Although she taught at Western New Mexico University for 40 years, retiring as a professor and dean emeritus in education and counseling, Maldonado dislikes associating only with other academics.
“I want to be there with everyday people,” she says. “I relate much better to blue-collar workers, ordinary people.”
She recalls a reader who wrote her a letter. “I was driving my pickup down a country road and reading your poems. I was crying so hard I had to stop.”
Another note says, “On reading your poem about the ranch, I thought about my own grandmother’s kitchen. I hadn’t thought about that in years.
“That’s where I want to be,” Maldonado says. “These are wonderful things to me.”
In “Green Hidey-Holes,” she likens chasing a new poem to “pursuing a feral cat/with spiky fur/and wily moves.”
in leafy hidey-holes
preferring the company
of ne’er-do-wells and drunks.
It loves a junkyard
of tangled metal
and rusty objects
It jerks me through
frigid prairie shacks,
and shifty boarding houses,
preferring hazardous places
and unspeakable incidents,
to marshmallow dresses
and nursery rhymes.
Much of what she writes is anecdotal, lyrical poems, often narratives of hardscrabble and hardworking people, her love of animals (especially one black dog, now dead) of landscapes and heartscapes.
“As poet laureate, I’d like people in this area to get into Southwest literature,” she says. “There is a great spirituality in Silver City. It draws people here, and it keeps them here. I think literature and poetry is a big part of that.”
Jim Kelly, at the time a board member of the Southwest Festival of the Written Word (SFWW), came up with the idea to name a poet laureate for this area.
“I had just seen a story about a poet laureate in a little town, and I thought, ‘you know, we’re supposed to be an arts community, and art is more than just hanging it on a wall or setting it on a table.’ The literary arts are also extremely active here,” he says. “After surveying cities large and small about their poet laureate programs, we put together what we’d like to have here in terms of qualification, and duties.”
Kelly says a SFWW selection committee, diversified in age and background, considered several local, published poets before finally deciding on Maldonado.
“She’s a cheerleader for poetry as a living thing in our world today,” Kelly says.
J.J. Wilson, writer-in-residence at Western New Mexico University, who chaired the committee, says the vote was unanimous in selecting Maldonado “because of her strong connection to the community and, of course, her tremendous skill as a poet.”
“Silver City’s first poet laureate should exemplify the idea that ‘this is what a poet does’ — how you live as a poet while trying to juggle a job and family — and Bonnie has clearly done that for a long, long time,” Wilson says. “She has a great deal of experience as a teacher, which we think will be invaluable as she quite literally spreads the word of poetry in Grant County.”
Along with her long teaching experience, Maldonado also has a degree in counseling, with 40 years of community service work in mental health programs. She speaks and writes fluently in Spanish. For all of that, she was also inducted into the New Mexico Woman’s Hall of Fame, the only Grant County woman to be honored thus far.
Maldonado says, as poet laureate, she is planning to go to some of the schools, such as Aldo Leopold High School, and ask if they would like her to sit down with some of their classes. She and other area poets and writers will also be reading at area business and other located as part of SFWW’s Random Acts of Literature. In addition, Maldonado has committed to compose up to four poems a year, at the request of Silver City Town Council and the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, and to keep a log of her activities and experiences as poet laureate.
“Another part of what I want to do is encourage writers who are afraid to show anyone their work,” she says. “I have said that I’m not afraid of anything, but for years I was afraid my writing wasn’t good enough.”
She encourages fledgling writers to find someone they trust to show their work to, which she did by taking a workshop offered by Victoria Tester, author of “Miracles of Sainted Earth” that won the 2003 Willa Literary Award in Poetry.
“I told her I didn’t know if I should throw this stuff in a barrel and burn it or not,” Maldonado recalls. “She was the first person who who said, ‘Take what you have and write it.’ I want to do that for other local poets.”
She adds that she could never have believed where her poetry has taken her.
“So I just want to share that with other people. I do believe that anyone can actualize their dreams,” Maldonado says.
Today, 42 U.S. states have a poet laureate, along with many major cities and a multitude of smaller ones, along with some tiny towns that join together to champion a poet. New Mexico, however, is one of six states that has never had one, the others being Arizona, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio. Although ancient Greece had official poets, the first person to be actually named a poet laureate was Ben Johnson in the United Kingdom in 1617.
At first called a Consultant in Poetry, the U.S. Library of Congress has named a poet laureate since 1937, including such notables as Robert Frost and Robert Penn Warren.
Philip Levine, 84, best known for his poems about working-class Detroit, was named as the current national poet laureate in August 2011. In a New York Times article, Levine compared being named as the nation’s poet laureate to winning the Pulitzer Price, which he did in 1995, after receiving the National Book Award in 1991.
He was quoted in the Times article as saying, “My editor was also thrilled, and my wife jumped for joy. She hasn’t done that in a while.”
Silver City was the second state city to have a poet laureate, following Santa Fe, which created its position, currently held by Joan Logghe, in 2005. Logghe is the author of several books of poetry, and has taught poetry workshops in New Mexico schools and prisons for many years. Albuquerque became the third city, naming Hakim Bellamy, a national and regional Slam Poetry Champion, as its first poet laureate a week or so after Maldonado was selected.
Incidentally, slam poetry refers to competitive events where poems are performed before a live audience, which usually includes randomly selected judges who vote on the performances. Silver City Poetry Bread, organized by Sam Castello, has presented slam poetry competitions at The Wellness Coalition on Bullard Street.
Maldonado agrees with another poet laureate — William Wordsworth — who wrote, “Poetry is made up of emotion recollected in tranquility,” saying that some of her poems start as rants.
For example, she recently visited a friend who had gone into a Veterans Home, and she was devastated.
“Oh my God, all I could see were these images of captivity, and that was the first thoughts I wrote about. I told my poetry group (Thaddeus J. McPherson Society of the Arts) this is terrible poetry, but please just let me read it because I need to say it to somebody,” Maldonado recalls. “Eventually it will become a poem and the rant will be gone.”
She reworks her poems over and over, cutting words like unneeded tree limbs.
“I tend to get down to the essence of something. My poems are revised by the time those in the books were published probably hundreds of times. I just don’t like wordiness,” she says.
She recalls writing what is one of her favorite poems, “Pony Check,” about a Crow Indian woman, whose grandmother had 100 ponies stolen by the U.S. Government at the time of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Maldonado says that the woman, Russie Arrows, continued to prospect all over the mountains of Montana and Wyoming as an elder.
“When her feet were too bad for boots, she wore fuzzy bedroom slippers,” Maldonado recalls.
“I rewrote that poem at least 100 times,” she says, adding that it was one of her earlier ones, done when she was still writing by hand. “I was living in Arizona in an RV on a ranch, and working at two nearby colleges. I spent an entire winter on ‘Pony Check’, but I knew the story had to be told.”
Maldonado says that even with all of the rewriting, she does know when a poem is as good as its going to be.
“I think that’s the eye of a writer. You have to know when to let it go. That discernment, to me, is what makes a writer,” she says.
Maldonado wrote her first poem at age nine (on Abraham Lincoln’s mother) and says she still loves the rhythms of language and how a poem looks.
“I could read before I went to school, and I especially liked the way poetry looked on a page. I just thought it was beautiful to look at,” Maldonado says.
Maldonado writes poems about her family in those early days in Montana, how they were sheepherders and artists and great storytellers. Her great-great-grandfather was a seanchai (spelled seanchaidhe before the Irish spelling reform of 1948), which means a bearer of “old lore.” In the ancient Celtic culture its history and laws were not written down by memorized in long lyric poems by these professional storytellers.
Her brother Pat, still in Montana, continues the family’s great storytelling tradition today.
Maldonado’s days in Montana ended when, as a teenage bride, a “military man, a soldier of fortune,” took her on whirlwind trips to several Pacific islands, and fathered her two boys. The family finally settled for five years as civilians in Guam where she got a divorce, an all-expense scholarship, and a lifelong love for teaching.
Speaking of her first husband, she says it was the only period in her life that she didn’t write.
“Those were painful times. I was so troubled. I couldn’t understand the fact he thought children should be disciplined harshly because that’s not the way I grew up,” she says. “My Irish family may have been a bit crazy, but they were gentle souls.”
Her scholarship gave her three weeks to find a school, and she had already been admitted to Columbia and the University of Colorado when she heard about Silver City and it’s university, known as a “fine school” for training teachers.
“I received a handwritten letter from the dean of students who said, ‘We have housing and we have lab school where you’re children can go.’ It was all very welcoming,” she recalls.
And when she first saw Silver City, it was déjà vu all over again.
“I’ve always known I could take care of myself, because I’ve worked since I was 14 years old, and I’m very much at home in the out-of-doors. When I saw this place I thought I’m back home again in one of those western towns in Montana.”
As she worked on two college degrees, she got a job teaching English at the Santa Rita Mine school, later hired at the Western New Mexico University lab school as supervisor of its seventh and eighth grades. She held this position for 10 years until a new administrator decided to close the lab school, a decision she spoke out against, was fired, fought against it, won, and was rehired.
“I love teaching to this day, and I miss students so much,” she says. “I love the interaction, and being a part of people’s learning process. I love learning with them. I love the fun of seeing someone get something for the first time. It’s all just so exciting for me.”
Since her arrival in 1959 Maldonado has left Silver City only for brief periods for work and education, such as when she started her doctoral degree at Boston University. After her disastrous first marriage, Maldonado believed she would always remain single, but wed Librado Maldonado seven years after meeting him in a workshop. Also an educator, principal of Cobre High School, Lobrado’s family had settled in Grant County in the 1870s.
Bonnie has written about his Apache ancestors, and in one 2003 poem she touches on his ranching background. In the poem “Rancher” she describes seeing an older rancher:
He tips his Stetson
in my direction
and I see clear gray eyes
and worry lines acquired
from watching for rain.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Among the galleries
in quaint Silver City,
he appears as another
may not understand him,
but ranchers from
the past are closer than he knows.
Old Tom Lyons, Dan McMillen,
Steve Villarrel, Pedro Maldonado,
And Angus Campbell, on fine horses,
swoop down Bullard Street.
Dipping and rising like swimmers,
they sweep him into the mystique
of New Mexico legend.
Maldonado says she has written at least a thousand poems over her lifetime, with many contained in her four books: two set in Montana, “From the Marias River to the North Pole,” and “Montana, Too.” Her other two books speak of Southwest New Mexico, “It’s only Raven Laughing: Fifty Years in the Southwest,’ and “Too Personal for Words: The Invisible Path of Aging.”
Her books are available at O’Keefe’s Bookshop at 102 W. Broadway, Silver City, and at other local outlets.
Asked if she would ever stop writing poems, Maldonado says she writes because she has to write.
“Without it, there would be a part of me that would go around crying for a pen and a piece of paper,” she says. “I have to write poems like I have to eat, because I have a hunger for it. I have a need for it.”
She says that as she has aged, her poetry has become freer, less former and stiff. She cites as an example of her newer style, the title poem from her third book, “It’s Only Raven Laughing”.
As she starts reading the poem in nicely pronounced Spanish, her voice is animated, strong and steady:
El cuervo por ser tan negro
relumbra mas que la plata.
Then translates in English.
The raven for being so black
shines brighter than silver.
Slid forward in the chair on the patio of her adobe home near Piños Altos, eyes twinkling, glancing up and down at the book, she recites the poem:
This smart bird is pure fun.
He walks me home,
taunting lesser birds
as he chats about his night
in a moonlit cottonwood.
He hops closer
when I tell him
I prefer ravens
In a fit of joy he flits
among orange poppies,
finds a marble of desert glass,
vanishes with his prize
to glide the thermals,
wrapped in raven laughter.
“I didn’t get to play much for many years, now I’m more playful. I’m letting my humor come out. I’m taking some risks.” she says.
Paraphrasing Robert Frost’s comment that, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat,” Maldonado adds with a chuckle, “It can also begin with laughter in your throat.”
My sense of humor has saved me from getting older.”
As another activity of her term as Silver City’s poet laureate, Maldonado is planning to conduct a four-week class for the Western Institute of Lifelong Learning (WILL), with those attending doing some writing under her expert teaching and guidance.
The proposed title of the course?
“Playing With Poetry With the Poet Laureate.”