NEA Literature Fellowships

Michael Torres

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Michael Torres

Photo by Henry Jimenez

(2019 - Poetry)

"From My Classroom Window at the Prison, Before Students Arrive"

Because the blinds stay open, I see birds. I watch
men watch those birds, how they monitor flight paths
and hunger for the crumbs those men shouldn’t’ve pocketed

from chow. The indifferent birds ask for nothing, desire
nothing, except perhaps the sky, which is nothing
to them but magnetic blue wind—their one great war

of journey. I’ve been thinking about mine lately. My own
great war. Once, I met man at a park hours before a storm
and he told me how difficult flight is for birds. He stared

at the humming sky and disappeared. Later that night,
I could not fall asleep. Not with a fact like that. Instead,
I sat at my coffee table and fed my dying Rubber fig tree

filtered water and eggshells I broke apart, calling them
my little countries. I thought of being president. Then I said
to myself, why can’t I be king? When I arrived at the idea

of God, I began to float. When I woke, I understood
my only burden is the simple life of a man gets to go home
and think and care for plants that do not know

he is their father. If I am no one to these leaves, to whom
do I belong? Thus, my great war is with myself. A wingspan
of stirring thoughts that ask what’s next, that wait for my response

like the men beyond this window. Breadcrumbs, tiny questions
for birds. Each man tossing a piece at the air anticipates a swooping
answer, tries not to think of what goes uneaten, of what falls

towards death. Wet and certain. That patch of grass they walk,
its cold blades. It’s late October. Every step stiff and speechless.

(first appeared in Ploughshares)

Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California, where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, the Georgia Review, Water~Stone Review, Southern Indiana Review, and online as the Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week, among others. Torres has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Jerome Foundation, and fellowships from CantoMundo and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently he teaches creative writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato and through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

I found my way into poetry through graffiti. Fifteen years ago, most nights were spent spray-painting my name on walls. Being an artist has been a way to identify, to find myself in proximity to the rest of the world. Even as a teenager, that identity was essential. I struggled as a first-generation Mexican-American. At home and around family, I was often uncomfortable speaking Spanish, worried it wouldn’t come out right. At school, the books assigned were ones where none of the characters looked like me or experienced what I had.

Those nights painting, one of my homies would drive us around and drop us off, but not before telling us to remember to write his name on the wall while he circled the block. It was important to hit each other up, to remember each name. It’s been over a decade since then and yet, in writing my first collection of poems, I’ve found my way back to those homies, the spots we painted. I can’t stop remembering them in my work. And I don’t want to.

Artistry has always seemed—at least in my experience—marked by uncertainty and tenuousness. What this fellowship seems most to offer is something resembling stability. It seems to tell me that the names of the people I write about matter enough to be seen. Mornings after painting, my homies and I would drive back to where we’d placed our names, hoping the city had yet to buff us out with blocks of beige. It was enough to read our names there, even though we knew they might not be there hours later. When I received the call about the fellowship, I felt a tremendous sense of gratitude, honor and especially responsibility—the responsibility to capture and preserve what might otherwise be erased.