I had just turned twenty-five and had accepted a spot as an adjunct instructor teaching composition at our local junior college. To say I was terrified is an understatement. I had no training to speak of, and the only experience I had was the dissipating memory of some of my old teachers in the classroom. I didn’t sleep much the night before that first day. To be honest, I didn’t sleep at all, involuntarily practicing my introduction to the course to a mirror deep into the a.m., pantomiming key points on the syllabus with my index finger, and to heighten the experience as all good teachers should, working myself up into a stammering crescendo as I pointed out the responsibility of the students to attend class consistently, if not religiously, for the betterment of their souls. Yeah, that’s right. But that mirror reflected back a young brotha who obviously lacked the confidence to take the reigns of a classroom eager with waiting adults, students who had most likely worked all day and who needed nothing less than a person heading the class as confused as they were. What could I offer them? I tried to remember how my old instructors addressed their classes on the first day, but ended up imagining myself gliding into class in huaraches and tube socks, like my statistics professor did one long and harrowing summer session just before he unleashed a flurry of formulas that twisted my mind up into square knots for months after I’d just squeaked by that course. Just thinking about it made me nauseous. I knew if I ended up falling asleep that night, everything I had ever learned, all of the preparation leading up to the course would somehow ooze out my ear and encrust itself forever across my pillowcase. I had to stay awake.
* * *
I arrived early that first evening, about two hours. I figured I’d battle the nerves by thumbing through a few books at the campus library. I’d spent many hours there over the years, reading at least a hundred books alone as a seventeen and eighteen year old kid, which always seemed to calm me down before a big presentation or exam. Of course at the time, I had no idea that that would eventually lead me to a classroom years later to attempt to share some of that same literary magic with some of my own students. Spencer Library was also a good place to cool off, given that it was a September evening in the Imperial Valley. Temperatures usually peak between 106 and 108 degrees in early September, not to mention the humidity that quickly factors in the moment a person steps out the front door.
As I walked through the stacks, I pulled books randomly from their shelves, revisiting old favorites and recognizing some of the marks I’d left on many of them years before. One still had an old True Romance movie stub I used as a bookmark. I also found the copy of Vicente Huidobro’s Selected Poems that was mildly stained from a Guinness Stout incident in Ensenada. If I remember correctly, I also grabbed Amiri Baraka’s The Dead Lecturer, Frank O’Hara, Hart Crane, Henry Miller, Sylvia Plath, Kenneth Patchen, and several others I can’t quite remember now. Didn’t actually read them, though, just pulled them from their shelves nervously only to tuck them back in line without any real recollection of what I was doing. Lumbering through the stacks, I was a Chicano zombie in Doc Marten’s and a tie that was too tight, trying desperately to eliminate the fact that I was about to teach my first class in a couple of hours.
As I continued, however, I eventually came across a title that demanded my attention for more than its familiarity. Being that it was 108 degrees or so outside, the title alone seemed like the antidote for the heat that had been forking its sweaty teeth into my skin for over four months. The book’s title was The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems. It had a black and blue cover with an interesting photograph that depicted a couple of men in what appeared to be a downtown alleyway, surrounded by signs that read in ominous, exclamatory statements, things like: “Repent! The revolution is at hand!” and “I betrayed like Judas.” I opened it and started to read. Andres Montoya? How come I had never heard of him? On the back cover was his bio—it was his very first book, and sadly, he had already passed away. What? Who was this large, bespectacled dude from Fresno, California, birthplace of my father and grandfather?
After reading a few short lines, I was immediately intoxicated by the speaker’s voice, greedily reciting the poet’s language to myself, as if it meant everything to do so. Montoya’s voice was fearless, one that saw far ahead of itself like an antenna registering signals from some distant level of consciousness, using language that was simple and uninterrupted. And what courage to question the Great Homeboy in the sky! What audacity to emphatically demand answers as if standing bare-chested at the edge of a rooftop, arms stretched, demanding God to “have mercy / on la raza and los pobres!”
That night, in that library, Montoya’s poetry beat a series of tattoos into my flesh. Phrases like “saying prayers, asking for the blessing / of Christ to come down like a jackhammer / breaking us all to pieces,” rose on my skin like yeast. Believe it or not, there are many people out there who still believe that worthy poetry is an academic word game that must always ascertain some level of erudition for a select few, or that verses must speak in enigmatic utterances meant only to be untangled over a cup of hot tea at a hip, city café. Olvídate! Montoya’s work screams. His poetry is real, about real people, beautiful but imperfect, sometimes even broken, questioning their existence while living through circumstances as dark and as turbulent as the Bering Sea. In my hands that night was a poet who wasn’t afraid of emotion.
After reading several poems, I realized I had to get to class. With the nerves finally slain, or at least distracted, I raced across campus fueled by verses I could barely contain, like that rare feeling one experiences after interacting with something wild and alive.
When I finally got to the classroom, there were about eighteen students waiting for me. There were only twelve on my official roster, which meant I was going to have to determine how many were missing and how many were either waitlisted or needed to crash. I should’ve done this immediately, but I couldn’t keep the work to myself much longer. I drew in a long breath, pulled the book out of my bag, opened it and said: “You all gotta hear this.” Then prefacing the poem with something ridiculous and unintelligible, I’m sure, probably even melodramatic, I read “star struck”—it was the first poem I read in the library. “i would step out / into the night / into the alley, where the ants / savored the crushed / anguish of a peach.” Reading this, my mind levitated, as if the rooftop was opening up for us, the stars, the moon, all of us in that room going at it together. When I finished the poem, silence enveloped the room like the long and excruciating pause that comes just before the verdict. But while fumbling through the book to find another poem before I’d be forced to speak, I heard a young guy at the back of the room exhale a long and inspired “damn.” And that’s what did it. Our semester was on its feet and running. Students commented on the geography of the poem: the fields and ditches, the wide, blue sky; basically, how much it resembled our valley. One person commented on the poem’s conclusion that read “I could find the cold love / of earth beneath my back / and God smiling, / making promises / from the sky.” She expressed that it was hopeful, and to her, it meant that God would always take care of the heartache and confusion in due time. Then another student added: “This is exactly how I felt a while back.” The class was enlivened; I couldn’t get them to quiet for the next poem. Many expressed how utterly confusing poetry had always been in school, and how this was somehow different. A voice, many believed, that finally spoke for them.
Eventually, I read “truly,” and after that one, an older man sitting in front of me asked for the title and author again, intensely scribbling the names into his notebook. Needless to say, we spent most of the hour talking about Montoya’s poetry. I even had to review the policy statement and syllabus the following week.
Everyone stayed that evening, not one person was turned away. Luckily I didn’t get into any serious trouble that night, because that’s when we’re supposed to tailor our official rosters based on who shows and who doesn’t, who will be dropped, and exactly how many students will be added to the class in order to satisfy everyone in administration. Inevitably, everything is eventually reduced to numbers; but at that moment, poetry, and more specifically, Andres Montoya, is what broke the ice on that first and fateful night for a young teacher and his students in the Imperial Valley.
This essay was originally published in In The Grove, Spring 2008, Issue 16. For more information about In The Grove, a journal of California poets and writers, visit: http://inthegrove.net/