Poetry Professor Margarita Pintado Burgos has used poetry as an outlet for navigating emotions and change ever since she first moved from her home, Puerto Rico, to the U.S. in 2006. Simultaneously, this creative endeavor has also become a committed vocation.
This year, her outlet and vocation led her to be recognized for the prestigious Ambroggio Award for her poetry manuscript “Ojo en Celo / Eye in Heat.” She created this series of poetry alongside translations by Alejandra Quintana Arocho. The Ambroggio Award from the Academy of American Poets is awarded to a book-length manuscript of poems originally written in Spanish accompanied by an English translation. She received a $1,000 prize and “Ojo en Celo / Eye in Heat” will be published by the University of Arizona Press in 2024.
As she continues to celebrate this accomplishment, she sat down with The Point to reflect on her poetry journey and what’s ahead.
The Point: How long have you been writing poetry? What led you to poetry?
Margarita Pintado Burgos: My first book, “Ficción de Venado” (Fiction of the Deer), came out in 2012. I started writing poetry probably around 2006.
It coincided with the moment I left Puerto Rico. I’ve always felt that writing was a way of keeping my language at a time when I was going to lose it — not lose it but having to speak English most of the time. It was a way to stay connected to the literary community I started to hang out with when I was a grad student in Puerto Rico.
I was a writer already [but] I kind of made my decision about my vocation as a poet, I think, around 2006. My mother was a teacher. I think of her as a writer also. She had a great influence on me. She has stories about me doing poetry [when I was] very little but I don’t remember those. It was always there, floating around. I was like 26 — a little late.
TP: I read you got your undergrad degree in Puerto Rico and then came to the U.S. for postgrad. Why did you want to study here?
MPB: I was young and at 25, I felt like I needed a big change. In Puerto Rico, it’s not like here culturally. You don’t leave your house when you go to college, when you’re 18. No. You stay until you get married or you have a big fight and have to leave.
I think it was me searching for my space and independence. I wasn’t going to get married back then. I always wanted to continue studying. I started my graduate studies — my master’s degree — in Puerto Rico. It’s just I had a few friends and my boyfriend at the time, he was applying to Princeton. My friends were all doing that and I felt that the island was kind of becoming small for me. I met everybody there already. I had made all the connections I thought I could make so it was time to leave. Also, I was receiving this fellowship that was going to help me a lot to finish my PhD.
It wasn’t planned. It was very impromptu. It was like, one year I thought, “I’m going to do this.”
TP: What brought you to PLNU after completing your studies?
MPB: I came to PLNU because I was in Arkansas before. I always knew Arkansas was going to be just a stage. I was not going to raise my children there. It wasn’t a place I had really any connection to. It was just that I received a good job offer and I took it.
I had my first son, Milo there. We left when he was two. We always wanted to either go back to Puerto Rico or come to California. The situation in Puerto Rico was not hospitable. My husband grew up in Los Angeles, all his family was in California, so we had family in California. His brother lives in San Diego so we also knew San Diego a little bit. [My husband] was the one who saw this job posted, he said let’s try it. Here we are and we love it. We love San Diego. It’s a great city. [My husband] teaches philosophy here. It worked out.
TP: How would you say your teaching experiences have impacted your poetry? And vice versa?
MPB: In very concrete ways. Something I have to say is I write in Spanish, but I started writing in English when I moved to San Diego. Encouraged by all the poetry going on here and all the activities that Katie Manning put together, it was easier than translating my poems. It was easier to just write my poems in English or do renditions [Spanish] poems in English.
I taught a postcolonial literature and theory class two years ago, and I remember we were reading a difficult text about genocide of the indigenous people. After that class, I wrote a poem that was called “Human in Progress.” And, I got to read it at Poetry on Point. A few of my students were there and one of them, Emma McCoy, wrote a response to my poem “Human In Progress.”
We read them in class. We studied them. So, I don’t separate. I let myself be inspired and moved by my students’ questions, concerns and fears. The poem is about that — what I’m telling them about this story and how they’re reacting. I am an educator and I am a poet in the same amount. There’s no division there, especially when I’m teaching literature.
TP: I saw that last year you were also the recipient of the Letras Boricuas Fellowship. What have awards like these enabled you to do?
MPB: It’s incredible. It’s such a big surprise. What was [a] really neat part of the Letras Boricuas Award [was] the only thing I had to do was meet in Puerto Rico for a big party with the other writers who got it. When I was at the airport on my way to Puerto Rico, I got the call from the Academy of American Poets, telling me that I had won that award. So I had thought, “Wow, am I going to die soon?” All these nice things are happening to me.
It was a big surprise because it’s a translation award. I did it with another Puerto Rican native speaker, [Alejandra Quintana Arocho]. We were just kind of being daring to do it ourselves. She’s not a native speaker of English either. But, we worked it out.
She’s 20 years younger than me. It was really cool and interesting to work with her. She just finished her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature in Columbia. She’s going to grad school now. She’s working in Sundial House doing an internship. She’s going to go big places. She’s doing big things.
That fellowship — Letras Boricuas — gave me the confidence to offer this woman money to translate my work. It gave me not only the confidence but the money to do that. I told her that if we won, we would share the prize. If we didn’t win, I would pay for the translation. Since we won, she got part of the award. What these awards do, they’re very empowering. With [Ambroggio Award], my name is now in the catalog of the Academy of American Poets. It’s great. It puts your name out there and gives you visibility. I’m looking forward to seeing what other things it brings.
TP: For your recent award from the Academy of American poets, you were recognized for your poetry collection “Ojo En Celo.” I read online, “This collection is for anyone who has felt the weight of beauty that remains hidden. It is for those who have left behind a mother, a father, a country.” In what ways do your lived experiences inform what you write?
MPB: When I started writing poetry, it had to do with that break that was a big transition for me — switching languages, switching cultures, switching a little bit of who you are because you have to adapt. You have to assimilate. But, it was also the testimony of someone, me, who fails to assimilate completely and how to turn that failure into a success.
It’s not like I’m divided and struggling with all these emotions. No, I’m fine. But, there’s a before and after in my life whenI was Puerto Rican only and now when I’m bicultural. It’s kind of a summary, or account of my progression as a human being, how motherhood also affects all that, how is my relation [to] my memories with my mother and family growing up in Puerto Rico compared to how my children are living here.
There’s a lot of that back and forth and a need for me to express gratitude for where I am and also a resistance and fight I’m putting up against the expectation of fully assimilating. I deal with guilt because I am the only one in my family who left and I’m the youngest. My sister is now there dealing with all the problems of the family that I am escaping.
TP: Tell me about your reaction when you found out you were the recipient of this award?
MPB: It was just wonderful. I have to say though, I know two poets who won this award and they’re both Puerto Rican. And this award is relatively new. It started in 2017. There’s only I think 7-8 recipients. Three are Puetro Rican, which is remarkable. But it speaks about our reality as a U.S. territory.
We can compete because we already have a translation. I’m not going to deny that I entered the contest with confidence. I had gotten the Letras Boricuas award and I was feeling confident.
When I found out who the judge was, though, I got very nervous and I lost hope. She’s great. She’s a fabulous poet, critic and translator, but she deals with issues that I don’t deal with. And that’s fair that someone chooses a work of art that’s more closely related to what they do. She does a lot of gender studies, queer studies and I don’t.
I felt that I was too conventional for her. So, I was so surprised, relieved and happy and just grateful when I found out that she had chosen my book. And when I had read what she wrote about the book and why she gave me the award, it was really an amazing feeling, very affirming.
You never know if you’re doing it right, if people are reading you right. There’s a lot of questions for artists when they’re creating. It’s great to see that the message is received.
TP: I heard that part of the award is that you’ll have your book published in 2024. Do you have plans to sign copies or tour?
MPB: Absolutely, I’m going to present it here in San Diego. I’m sure I’ll do something with Katie Manning. I think I have a little bit of a book tour with the Arizona University Press. I think we’re going to go to Arizona. I’m going to present in San Diego for sure. Maybe once in Point Loma and then somewhere else. I will present it in Puerto Rico in the summer [or] maybe spring break.
TP: What other poetry are you currently working on?
MPB: My mother just asked me. She called and said, “That’s great. I’m so proud of you but what are you writing now?”
I’ve been so busy celebrating but also working on the book because I had to work a lot with them in the summer.
I am a mom and I’m a wife and I’m a full time professor. It’s hard.
You know how absurd it is to say, “I need to go away for like an hour because I need to write a poem when there’s laundry to be done, dishes, [etc.]” It’s an absurd thing that you do and I’m so thankful for my husband for letting me and helping me be absurd.
I am writing. I’m working on poetry. I almost have a book because I want to take this kind of momentum to publish the next one and also because the people from the Arizona University Press told me to let them know when I have another book because they want to publish the next one. So, I want to have it ready. It will be bilingual. I’m writing them in Spanish and English.
To learn more about Pintado Burgos’ upcoming Arizona University Press publication, visit https://uapress.arizona.edu/book/ojo-en-celo-eye-in-heat.