Poetry and Women Mentors: A Conversation Between President Paula A. Johnson and Prof. Marjorie Agosín

Marta Alvarado believe in courage, and in all of us young women who could change the world.
January 27, 2017

President Paula Johnson will join some of the area’s prominent leaders for “An Evening of Inspired Leaders,” Monday, Jan. 30, at the Huntington Theater. At the event, organized by Mass Poetry, each participant will read a poem and talk about what it means to him or her. Other participants will include Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh; Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition; author Anita Diamant; and many others.

Johnson will read “Marta Alvarado, History Professor” by Marjorie Agosín, professor of Spanish at Wellesley. The poem is about a real-life mentor from Agosín’s school days in Chile, where she grew up. Johnson and Agosín recently used the occasion to talk about the power of women’s writing and the ways mentors and educators instill important values in their students. As Agosín says, Marta Alvarado “believed in courage, the necessity of thinking critically, and she believed in all of us young women who could change our world.”

President Paula Johnson: Your poem beautifully honors a history professor, and the poem makes a point to say “…true/history was made by women/the girl-women/and the old women.” You’re linking the generations of women trailblazers through Professor Alvarado. Can you talk about why that was an important message?

Professor Marjorie Agosín: We, as societies all over the world, are deeply connected to one another. And we learn from one another. Knowledge is one of our greatest gifts that must be shared. Without reciprocity and exchange of wisdom and knowledge, we are not able to grow and move forward. Professors have the responsibility, vision, and power to pass their gifts of knowledge to their students. We often teach for an unknown but hopefully better future. We teach to transform the world and instill the values that honor humanism. I believe Marta Alvarado was able to teach us these values, and I have passed them on to my students. 

President Johnson: You bring her to life in the poem. It seems clear she meant a great deal to you.

Prof. Agosín: She was a dedicated history teacher, and she traveled great distances from her rural village to the capital city of Santiago to teach us. She believed in courage, the necessity of thinking critically, and she believed in all of us young women who could change our world. I have been able to share Marta Alvarado’s teaching with my students at Wellesley and continue her legacy of sharing the gifts of knowledge with others.

President Johnson: She sounds like the kind of woman who would fit right in at Wellesley.

Prof. Agosín: Marta Alvarado taught us to be curious and to experience history with the humbleness of the wise. She inspired us to transform the world. She believed that each one of us has the power to lead and to mend our world. As a history teacher, she believed that we can imagine with audacity and that the gift of teaching is also the gift of the imagination. So, yes, I agree she would have felt at home here!

President Johnson: The details about her, in fact, weave a kind of spell on the reader. The speaker says “her magic wand [sings] about Yugoslavia/and Lebanon/Chile and Peru.” Do you believe poets—and professors, for that matter—must bring the whole world into their poems when they can?

Prof. Agosín: I grew up in Chile, a country that looks like a thin string at the end of the world. In spite of this sense of remoteness, we always felt we were a part of the world as we read extraordinary works of literature in translation from Homer’s Iliad to Shakespeare to contemporary world authors. Marta Alvarado also believed that we are part of this vibrant world—and that we must listen to a world of voices and above all try to learn what is unfamiliar to us. Perhaps by reading from other cultural experiences we became free of geographical boundaries, and we rejoice in the world of voices that are part of our humanity.

President Johnson: Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/The world would split open.” The lines are about the silencing of women (it was written in the late ’60s) but also about the earth-shattering power of the truths we have to tell. Do you think we hear these lines differently today?

Prof. Agosín: I have always read the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser. She was a visionary poet and an activist for social change. Women have been silenced throughout history, but at the same time we have made extraordinary achievements in all fields in the arts, in science, and politics.

President Johnson: How can poetry help us face the world today?

Prof. Agosín: We will face extraordinary challenges and great humanitarian crises in this century, especially as emigrants from many parts of the world seek refuge. We cannot forget that from moments of great darkness, hope has emerged. Perhaps darkness is a path toward light. There are forces that deny essential human rights to the most vulnerable and others that continue to seek justice for others. The voice of poetry allows us to understand the complexity of our souls and inspire us to follow the path of truth and empathy. Poetry has the ability to weave the world with beauty in spite of the despair that often surrounds us.

President Johnson: I’ve always felt poetry has a unique ability to inspire and to motivate. Are there some poems, perhaps by women poets especially, that you turn to when you need to be re-energized to fight against inequality and injustice?

Prof. Agosín: Poetry is song and voice, metaphor and rhythm. Women have engaged in the art of poetry since ancient times and taught other women to sing and then to write poetry like the Greek poet Sappho. I believe women write poetry with a sense of intimacy and closeness to the world they create—from the birth of a child to the preparation of foods. Women are always submerged in the world of the everyday and have the ability to transform what is daily into something sacred and beautiful. This is why I read women’s poetry and find a sense of the sublime in the everyday. I love the soul of women expressed in poetry and often find solace and joy in the works of Gabriela Mistral, Emily Dickinson, and Anna Akhmatova. I read them—and I feel I am reading the history of women.