Melinda Palacio's writing touches on issues of cultural identity and history

“Black cormorants on bare branches spread their wings as if in
A sunny day in Summerland and the tree, visible only from the
hides its penitent perch from cars racing by too fast.”

The stark visual contrasts in Melinda Palacio’s poem, “The Praying Tree,” show just how skilled she is at creating a mood that alludes to something deeper and often darker behind the grace of our natural world.

click to enlarge Melinda Palacio's writing touches on issues of cultural identity and history
POETRY TAKES FLIGHT: Melinda Palacio, poet and novelist, will read selections from her writing at CORE Winery on Feb. 9, including work from her poetry collection, Bird Forgiveness.

Palacio, an acclaimed poet and novelist whose work touches on issues of racial identity, nature, and the fragile circle of life and death, is one of the featured poets at CORE Winery’s monthly poetry series on Feb. 9. Her novel Ocotillo Dreams won the Mariposa Award for Best First Book in the 2012 International Latino Book Awards as well as a PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature for that same year. Her first book of poetry, How Fire is a Story, Waiting was a finalist for the Binghamton University Milt Kessler Award and the Patterson Poetry Prize in 2013. The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day Program featured her work in 2015.

Poetry wasn’t always the plan for the former journalist. She spent years carrying around journals where she would write ideas (that she would eventually turn into poetry) from time to time but never focused on creative writing as a career. Palacio said it was a move to Santa Barbara several years ago that had a profound impact on her work.

“I really attribute Santa Barbara to bringing out more creative writing in me,” she said. “I started writing poetry and started attending the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I became more interested in poetry and fiction.”

At one of the conferences she attended, she won a prize for a poem she had written, which immediately helped launch her career as a poet. Shortly thereafter she wrote a short story about the fractured relationship between a young girl and her father, which was also published.

The story, like much of Palacio’s work, was deeply personal and reflective of her own life. She has spent much of her creative career exposing that vulnerability and examining it through the lens of her art.

“I didn’t grow up with my father,” she said. “We were estranged. Years later, I visited him in Folsom Prison, and I ended up writing a bunch of poems about it, and that manuscript won a contest.”

The resulting chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, won the Kulupi Press’ 2009 Sense of Place Chapbook Award. The collection is a haunting exploration of violence and incarceration, touching on how the impact reaches beyond prison walls and into the lives of those left in the wake.

Palacio’s work also touches heavily on themes of immigration and fear. Her novel Ocotillo Dreams is set in Arizona during the infamous 1997 immigration sweeps. Like her main character in that book, Palacio also lost her mother at a young age, one of the many ways she identified with her own characters.

“It was an easy idea for me to take some of the ideas in my notebook and turn them into poetry,” she said. “With the novel, I had lived in Chandler, Arizona, during the immigration sweep. It really wasn’t that far-fetched for me to imagine myself, as a Mexican-American, being caught up in an immigration sweep and being mistaken for an undocumented person.”

She’s currently working on a second novel that deals with many similar issues. The book follows a young Mexican-American girl, Violet, who desperately wants to get out of East Los Angeles so she can go to college. But she’s hampered by an abusive father and overbearing brothers who don’t want her to leave. Palacio said the story is about what Violet experiences as she travels across the U.S, witnessing racial discrimination and tension.

“The new novel goes back a little further but touches on the same themes,” she explained. “It’s a coming of age story.”

Recent current events involving deportations and the imprisonment of migrant children and families at the Mexican border have raised concerns and stirred a lot of emotions within the poet. She was recently asked to contribute a poem for an anthology about immigration.

“Writing about the situation at the border, the words just came,” she said. “It’s so easy to write about the hurt and the injustice that’s happening in our lifetime, today. Even though I’ve written about it as historical fiction, this is happening now. As a poet, my way of contributing and resisting is through my writing.”

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose loves road trips. Contact her at [email protected].

What the Birds Know (from Bird Forgiveness by Melinda Palacio)

The birds know not to complain
about the sad state of their cage,
neglected waste and green water.

My grandmother lies paralyzed in her bed.
I knock on her door, tell her that one of her birds
is losing its crown of feathers.

They always fight, she says. Her half-
closed eyelids indicate she is tired
of talking about her caged birds, tired
of her distasteful life. She murmurs:

        Even the water tastes wrong.
        If only, I could eat chile verde.
        Why aren’t you bringing me dinner?
        Donde esta la comida?

Her birds must think the same thing,

        Donde esta la comida?
        Why does the water taste wrong?
        This place depresses me.
        When can I go?

I roll up the cage’s rotten stench,
scrub away fluorescent algae,
fill plastic holders with seed,
but her birds remain angry.

The blue parakeet continues to give
her green companion a haircut.
She pecks and pecks at his balding head.

The two live like an old married couple,
waiting for calloused hands to feed them,
a grandmother to whistle and talk to them.
Who wouldn’t go mad cooped up in a cage?

When my grandmother’s spirit, a wavy mist, leaves
her mouth like a genie escaping an open bottle,
I say good-bye, open all the doors and windows in the house,
tiptoe to her bird cage and let them all fly free.

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