La Chavas Poet in Residence Rebecca Watkins (left) with Iva Ticic
A conversation with Rebecca Watkins
Inaugural La Chavas Poet in Residence at Our Little Roses Ministries
© Iva Ticic
Rebecca Watkins has an MFA in Poetry from the City College of New York and has taught poetry, writing and English as a Second Language at the college level for five years. She has been published in The Promethean, The Red Mesa Review, Poetry and Performance, and the SNReview among other literary journals. She created a women’s writing project called Writing Our Path, which supports women in writing about their tragedies, joy, and healing. Besides teaching, Rebecca is a certified Hatha Yoga instructor, has lived and volunteered on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, and worked on two organic farms.
I met with Rebecca at café Mogador in the Lower East Side of New York City. We sat there having brunch and swapping experiences -- her future trip and my past one intertwining. Honduras on our minds, hearts and tongues, she opened up to me about her plans and hopes for the residency to follow this December. --Iva Ticic
Iva: To start off, tell me a little bit about how you learned about this project. What initially attracted you to Honduras and Our Little Roses?
Rebecca: I learned about the project through Spencer [Reece] and sitting next to Spencer at a dinner party for a baptism. Actually, I was told about Spencer for a year and a half by my boyfriend who wanted me to meet him. And then it felt like fate, because we sat down next to each other and we didn’t stop talking for the whole dinner. We had so much in common and I’d told him about some of my past experiences – I’d lived and volunteered at the Navajo reservation, I’ve taught ESL, I’m a poet who has taught poetry. I was just really sharing from the heart and he starting talking about his experience in Honduras and I was so completely moved – I just started crying. And I think that maybe my crying… he said that he felt that it was a God thing, he just knew that he needed to get me there.
Iva: That sounds so powerful. Also, I’m sure you are aware that Spencer originally spent a year with the girls. How are you hoping to follow his mission in the Home and how are you going to try and make it your own project?
Rebecca: I’m hoping it can be a mix. I feel that – because he was there for a year – all of this is a continuation of what he started. And I would hope that it wouldn’t feel separate, it would feel like a continuing thread. The way Spencer explained it to me was that the girls’ poetry was moving; it’s about where they’re from. He also talked about their emotions about being at an orphanage. And so I was hoping that the writing would really just be about them and about Honduras, which comes up a lot in their poetry too. My role as a teacher – as a poetry teacher, writing teacher – is always to have the student access his or her own voice. That is my goal. Because, we are all rich with experiences and many people don’t even realize that they already have a voice and that they can put this on paper. The most sparse poetry, if it’s coming from the heart, can move people to change things. So my goal is to help them realize that they have a voice and that people do want to read what they are writing. So in that way I do think that it’s a continuation. The part that I would like to bring that might be a little bit of a new thing is – if they aren’t already aware of some female poets – I would like to do some introductions there. Maya Angelou is one that comes to mind.
Iva: Of course, this is the thing that you are bringing in that Spencer could not, if just for your gender. Can you talk a little more about the things you think are most relevant to you in regards to working with young people, and in this case with these girls?
Rebecca: You know, I don’t have children and there’s a good chance I’m not going to have children at this point in my life. And I have so much experience, love and stability -- emotional stability -- that I can offer to others, that it would be such a blessing to even be in a situation where I could give some of that and have it be accepted. I feel a little weird about admitting this but it comes from a pretty emotional level for me. There is a longing, even if you decide not to have children, you still have the longing… It’s emotional, it’s biological, it’s spiritual. It’s not wrong and it’s not right – it doesn’t matter what you decide, but even being logical about the decision doesn’t take away that I have feelings. So I feel like I understand a part of the longing that these children feel on their end, although I’m sure my longing doesn’t even compare to their longing.
Iva: So I hear you saying there will be an exchange of longings. With this in mind, what are some of the themes you are hoping to look into while teaching the girls and in your own writing related to the fellowship month?
Rebecca: Hard question, but let’s start with the themes for the girls. Sometimes in beginning writing classes I don’t really push themes too much … I think creativity is a space and entity of its own so we don’t know what will happen. However, what I’ll bring and hope they can grab hold of are themes about finding their voice, probably about strength – inner strength, redeeming our circumstances through the transformation that happens when you begin to write about a difficult circumstance. At least in my experience, or some of the experiences I’ve seen of others, you write about this painful thing you’ve been through and in the writing of it, it is like you own it more and it becomes more of yours. And then suddenly you change from being a victim of that circumstance into being the owner of that circumstance and then from that comes strength. And that can happen through writing – it’s an ownership of what happened to me, what happened to them and being able to stand it. Virtually, it is: “If I can write about my story and face my story, I can own my story.”
Iva: Are these the themes you want to explore in your writing while there too?
Rebecca: You know, if that comes up in my work, that’s fine. I am not really there in my life right now, because so much of my earlier writing was about my past and the things I had gone through. It’s really hard to say what I’ll explore now… I’m in my forties and everything is very different for me now, the world feels like a different place. So for me, I’m assuming it will be something about the next phase of my life, what it means for me to be more of a woman than I’ve ever been. And what does that mean in my work? I’m definitely shifting and coming into a different phase, and I haven’t really written a lot in this new phase because it’s very new. So I’m excited! I really have no idea.
Iva: As a writer, what do you expect to gain from this experience? And on the other side of that coin – as a teacher – what are you hoping to offer the girls?
Rebecca: The first part about being a writer, I can’t predict that at all. I feel like creativity is an entity of its own. It’s a world you step into where anything can happen… I can tell you that in my experience, my poems have been very rooted in place. By that I mean that when I’m volunteering somewhere or living somewhere – the people, the experiences, the land, everything is in my poetry; lots of imagery and description. So I can only guess, just because of my style, that Honduras and the girls and somehow their stories will end up intermingling with my story and my experience while I’m there.
As for the second part of the question, I think there are many gifted teachers in the world. There are so many and I don’t think I’m necessarily any different but one thing I know that I can bring to the table is that I’m passionate about self-expression, I am involved with poetry so that I will hope and try to show and instill that in them. If I can show them what poetry can do in their lives, this could be an opening. And you never know what’s going to “stick”, but you can always hope that somebody could walk away from that experience saying “Wow, I can write poetry and I didn’t even know that I could.” So that’s my hope.
Iva: To go back to your experience in the Navajo Reservation – how do you think this experience will be similar or different from that one? What do you expect from the immersion into Honduran culture?
Rebecca: Well, the first difference is going to be the language barrier. In the Navajo reservation, a lot of the natives spoke Navajo and English. The young people I encountered there were all speaking English and, unfortunately, leaving their language behind. So the language barrier will be different, although I do teach ESL so I understand some Spanish and I studied a lot of Spanish when I was younger. The other difference would be it being a different country, of course. Whatever preconceived notions we all have about each other and each other’s countries coming in. I had to deal with that in the Navajo reservation even more so, because of the history there. There were a lot of times that I heard derogatory things about my Caucasian race and what we did… but I didn’t take that personally.
Iva: I would imagine this was possibly even harder than what you might encounter in Honduras in regards to resistance.
Rebecca: Yes, I hope so. But let’s talk about the positive. I think the challenges that come with it – I mean you know this, you’ve moved to another country –when you put yourself in a situation where you’re the minority and you need to learn about someone else’s culture and respect the culture and be very aware that you are the outsider coming in; it’s just such a creative experience of everyday life that it shifts something in you.
Iva: Oh yes, the positive far outweighs the negative. As poets and writers we are called to bridge that void, it’s why we’re here talking today! I have just one more question for you. As a young woman who has also recently gone to Our Little Roses, I have to ask you: What are the reactions of your friends and family to do with this trip you are venturing on?
Rebecca: Ha, everyone has been very supportive. I think my family thinks I’m a little crazy, but they’ve always thought that, so it’s okay. And my boyfriend, I think it does worry him, but he also knows that I will be very cautious and safe. My family and my boyfriend know, too, that when I make up my mind, I’m not gonna change it. And of course I’ll be safe and smart.
Iva: The best of luck to you, Rebecca, and I will make sure to check in with you once you are back!
Editor’s Note: Rebecca Watkins is the inaugural La Chavas Poet in Residence at Our Little Roses Ministries. Our Little Roses Ministries is a non-governmental organization (NGO) in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, dedicated to rescuing the girl child of Honduras from situations of risk.