Between the Sheets

Demetria Martínez' greatest love affair is with language.

Writer Demetria Martínez keeps her living-room furniture sparse and close to the wall. That gives her plenty of open space to practice kung fu, a martial art whose moves are like her words: fluid, precise, delivering a sure impact.

The University of Arizona Press has just issued Martínez' latest book of poetry, The Devil's Workshop. That workshop is idleness, according to the proverb, but Martínez doesn't let time cake on her hands. She does a bit of teaching, she produces a monthly column for the National Catholic Reporter, she works on human and civil rights issues through such organizations as Derechos Humanos and the Southern Arizona People's Law Center, and, always, she writes.

"Starting in junior high I used to keep a journal and write my way out of depression," she said last week. Then, stating it for publication for the first time, she said, "I have bipolar disorder, and writing poetry is how my spirit keeps watch over my mind and keeps it close by."

Of course, pharmaceuticals keep it under control, too. But as Leonard Cohen sings, there ain't no cure for love, and Martínez also manages that most common of disorders with poetry. "I must've listened to too much bad '70s rock," she said. "I'm always writing love poems and breakup poems."

When a poet writes the words "I" and "you," readers tend to assume that the poem is autobiographical. Doesn't Martínez feel vulnerable to literary voyeurs in her first-person poems about love and its aftermath?

"No," she said firmly, while jazz trumpeter Chet Baker keened softly from the CD player. "Poetry makes [readers] peer more deeply into themselves. It's a communal experience. In my experience of poetry, which is mostly Latin American, it's a universal--once a poem comes into being, it's no longer about the poet; it's about whoever reads it and says, 'Aha! I've been there!' That's why poetry builds community. It's a window into the collective soul. When I go back and read my poems, I can't remember who wrote them. That's either a sign of insanity or a sign that the poem did its job.

"If it were just catharsis, that wouldn't be sufficient. We owe the world more than a personal catharsis; there are too many people suffering."

Martínez keeps two altars in her living room. One, at floor level, is a traditional little assemblage of candles and rosary beads and other objects, dominated by a statue of St. Anthony, the ascetic who spent his life fighting visions of the devil, and a photo of the Dalai Lama, the unofficial patron saint of noble but possibly lost spiritual and political causes.

Against the opposite wall is a second altar: a bookshelf filled with slim volumes of poetry. "Other poets have saved my life," said Martínez. On the top shelf of literary life preservers are New Mexico poets; below them are Native Americans, Chicanos, feminists and, finally, "the cool men writers. Like Ginsberg. He came out and did a fundraiser for me on his own nickel."

That was in 1987, when Martínez was under federal indictment for smuggling refugees into the United States; she was acquitted on First Amendment grounds, since she was covering the underground railroad as a journalist.

"Whenever I start to wonder, in the midst of so much pain and suffering, how do you find the strength to make a contribution, all I have to do is look at that bookshelf for strength and energy," she said. "Poetry should heal, and lift the spirit, and rally us."

With its peculiar forms and heightened language, poetry forms its own genre; yet it can also incorporate elements of fiction and even journalism. Martínez describes her political poems--pieces about a Kosovo refugee woman, or Amadou Diallo (shot 41 times by New York City cops as he reached for his wallet), or a writer detained by the Border Patrol--as "reporting," but it's not a kind of reporting that can stand apart from matters of soul.

"When you're writing a poem," she said, "spirit, emotion and intellect are all working together. The great thing about being a reporter is you tune in to what's going on out there. I'm a news junkie, and the political world turns into fodder for the poems. Reporting keeps you looking, and the great thing about poetry is it keeps you honest--you can't be authentic if you deny what you're feeling.

"Poetry is like a ship in a bottle in terms of the amount of emotion you're pushing into a few lines. Then you toss the bottle out into the sea, to be found by other people."

Albuquerque-born Martínez comes by her inclination to mix the political with the poetic naturally. "My grandpa, Luis Martínez, was a writer of corridos, and a lot of what corridos do is tell the news in poetry," she said. Demetria Martínez initially thought to approach news and politics through more official channels, obtaining a B.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. But diploma in hand, she decided that she really needed to be a poet. "That's all I know how to do," she claimed. "I'm a metaphor machine.

"Writing poetry is a combination of this constant, ecstatic wash of images, and then the tedious, everyday necessity of getting down to write. Sometimes I want all the ecstasy without the shitwork, but you have to embrace both."

Martínez' altars are metaphors for her work. Struggling on the page and in the street with the question of how we can achieve social justice when we so often lack justice between lovers, Martínez is a modern Saint Anthony, fending off the devil on earth, and the devil in her heart.