Writer in Residence

On Shooting Stars and Poetry as Fuel

By Martha Bátiz

To live at all is to grieve;
but, once, to have it all at once
is to see a shooting star: shooting star
shooting star.

Arthur Sze (From Shooting Star)


Open Book_Martha WIR shooting star

I read a poem every morning. Not because I have a pile of poetry books by my night table, but because a while ago I joined Robin Myers’ Poem Per Diem mailing list and she generously delivers a gem, written in either English or Spanish, to my inbox each day. The moment I notice it has arrived, I pause whatever I’m doing and focus on the words at hand. I let myself be carried away by the poem’s rhythm, its musicality and imagery. I am not a poet nor will I ever be, but poetry does nourish both my soul and my writing. In my mind, language is a fragrance. And like perfumes, it comes in different, very distinct concentrations. A novel is an eau de toilette, a short-story is a perfume, and poetry is the essential oil, the distilled extract that retains the natural scent of its source. I was fifteen when I first learned what an essence looked, smelled, and felt like —so smooth, rich, altogether powerful— and I remember being transfixed by it. A few years later, as I sought refuge in poetry after my first failed romance, I realized that the words I was reading had that exact same density. Perhaps this was another reason why I ended up becoming a writer. My nose has always been a wise guide.        

          I never thought I would be a writer, however, and I can’t help feeling a bit envious whenever I hear others say they always knew that they were —or that they’d become— one. I was an avid reader as a child, but my earliest ambition was to be an actress. Because my parents were both on the artistic stage (my mother was a concert pianist, my father a symphony orchestra conductor), my dream received their immediate support, and straight from high-school I enrolled in Mexico City’s most reputable acting school at the time, the Núcleo de Estudios Teatrales (NET). The two intense years I spent in completing my degree changed my life. On stage, I learned to read people’s bodies and voice. Off stage, in that sweaty classroom where we danced ballet, tango, and danzón, and where we improvised and rehearsed our scenes, I discovered who I truly was.

          We had a literature class, you see. And I loved it. I devoured all the books the teacher —Mexican theatre critic and playwright Gonzalo Valdés Medellín— made us read. When he said we had to write a short story, I happily complied. After scribbling several pages in my notebook, I spent the entire night blissfully torturing my typewriter, ending up with a 12-page-mammoth in my hands. Because my story was the longest produced for the class, I was the last one to read. My fellow students were tired and not particularly looking forward to listening to me but, as I read on, their silence turned into a slow, tight hug. When I was done, they erupted in enthusiastic applause. The teacher looked at me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing in drama school wanting to be an actress. You’re clearly a writer.”

I will forever be grateful to Gonzalo for pointing my wandering, multi-tasking, showbusiness-loving nose in the right direction. Theatre will always be my first love, but fiction is my lifelong partner —it migrated with me from Mexico to Canada, and has been flexible and benevolent enough that here I am, quite incredulous at the honour, wielding my metaphorical pen as September’s Writer-in-Residence at Open Book. Gratitude seems too undersized a word to fit the emotion inside me right now.

          The road that has brought me here has been long and winding (and, more often than not, lacking the Beatles’ harmony), but at the present moment, after the publication of my most recent short-story collection, No Stars in the Sky, I’m living a dream. And having access to a space like this, in the footsteps of so many accomplished writers, is a “shooting star moment” for sure.

I hope that this journey at Open Book allows me to connect with fellow writers, readers, and lovers of literature, as I humbly share a few of the discoveries about writing that I have made along the way. So let’s begin. Reading poetry every morning is my fuel. It nurtures both my imagination and my brain cells but, most importantly, it awakens my creativity while bringing me immense joy. I don’t read poetry looking for epiphanies, however. I have been writing long enough to know that much reading is required in order to find that single image, that golden nugget that might inspire me to write prose. But a new poem is a treasure chest. It might not hold the crown jewels, but it will make me linguistically richer, and that’s enough for me.

What’s your fuel? Do reach out to me and let me know. I would love to have this space become a source of dialogue, a fiesta where everyone feels welcome. Here’s to September being a memorable thirty days for each and every one of us. ¡Bienvenidos!  

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Martha Bátiz is an award-winning writer, translator, and professor of Spanish language in literature. She is the author of four books, including the story collection Plaza Requiem, winner of an International Latino Book Award, and the novella The Wolf’s Mouth, winner of the Casa de Teatro Prize. Her most recent publication is the story collection No Stars in the Sky (House of Anansi). Born and raised in Mexico City, she lives in Toronto.