ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Carl Sandburg. E.E. Cummings. Emily Dickinson. Each is a giant in the literary world.
Each is also a point of inspiration for Mary Oishi and her lifelong journey in poetry.
“I grew up with people who never went passed the eight grade,” Oishi says. “I would read lots of poets and every chance I got to see poetry, I went to see them. It changed my life.”
On July 1, Oishi began her two-year tenure as the Albuquerque Poet Laureate. She is the fifth person to hold the position.
“Poetry is our human bond deeper than blood. Like the underground root of an aspen grove, it connects us where we all belong to each other. In a time of social distancing and isolation, poetry matters even more,” Oishi says. “I am honored to serve as Albuquerque Poet Laureate, to champion the unifying and healing power of poetry in these extraordinary times and in this amazing city, hometown of my heart.”
Oishi follows in the footsteps of Hakim Bellamy, Jessica Helen Lopez, Manuel González and Michelle Otero – a group she has learned to know very well over the course of two decades in Albuquerque.
Albuquerque is one of many cities – including Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Santa Fe – with poets laureate.
Forty-three states, including New Mexico, have a state-level poet laureate. Oishi will get a $5,000-a-year stipend for the position.
Shelle Sanchez, director of the Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Department, says the poet laureate program is a great example of community organizing partnering with the city. She has known Oishi for years.
“(Mary is) the first poet laureate that’s retired and she’s in a different creative phase of her life,” Sanchez says. “She’s not originally from Albuquerque and I love the way she says Albuquerque is the ‘hometown of her heart.’ She’s a great example of being very involved in the arts and cultural scene.”
“It was very difficult to keep quiet,” she says excitedly. “You want to run out and run down the street and tell everyone. I didn’t call certain friends for fear that it would slip out. I only told my daughter and brothers and they live in California. They wouldn’t say anything about it.”
A scribe’s beginning
Oishi grew up in rural Pennsylvania where she lived with her uncle and his wife, whose parents met in the Ku Klux Klan.
Her elementary school was located in a sundown town, which meant Black people weren’t allowed to stay the night.
Being of mixed heritage – and of Japanese descent – she had a real struggle in that town.
“The bus rides home (from school) were atrocious,” she recalls. “There were 65 kids shoving me around and throwing apples at me. It was nightmarish in elementary school.”
Then she moved to a town nearby and things somewhat got better.
“Teachers were much more open minded,” she says.
At the age of 13, she found poetry. With the urging of a teacher, her confidence grew.
“My ancestors on my mother’s side are Japanese. Ninety-seven percent of the Japanese population wrote poetry,” she says. “When I go back to my roots, even though I was severed from them, I think that we can learn to see the beauty in language and bring it forth to others.”
She found her voice in high school with poetry and was recognized as a stellar student.
Despite education being seen as a tool of the devil by her uncle’s wife, she blossomed.
“I was named the first student of the month they ever named. I won it every single month in high school and they couldn’t give it to me each time,” she recalls. “I won journalism awards with the high school paper. My uncle’s wife didn’t want me to take the SAT because they didn’t want the devil to control my mind. They said they would send me to Bible college.”
After high school, she didn’t immediately attend college.
Four years later, she went to take the SAT. She went to Penn State and got her degree.
Land of Enchantment
Oishi moved to Albuquerque in the late-1990s to work at KUNM and quickly became part of the poetry scene by performing, publishing her works and producing poetry events.
Oishi may be best known as a public radio personality since 1995 and for her 20 years at KUNM-FM Albuquerque where she served as development director and hosted “The Blues Show.” Currently, she’s at KSFR-FM Santa Fe where she hosts a weekly blues show, “Wang Dang Doodle.”
Oishi recalls when she first moved to Albuquerque and began to become part of the poetry scene.
Producing poetry events also gave Oishi purpose.
She’s watched many a slam poet rise from humble beginnings to finding their voice.
“Albuquerque gives you that standing ovation as a symbol of support,” she says. “The audience is patient and helps a young poet in developing their voice. It’s a strong community.”
Oishi’s community and organizational involvement includes serving as lead facilitator for the Common Bond’s U21 Support Group for LGBTQ Youth, as well as an adjunct faculty member at the University of New Mexico, Valencia campus.
Outgoing poet laureate Otero has known Oishi for more than a decade.
Oishi was one of the first poets in Albuquerque to invite Otero to read with her.
“At that reading I was struck by how she created space for so many other poets,” Otero says. “This is what Mary does – as a poet, as a friend, as a member of the community, she creates home for people finding their voice, for LGBTQ youth, for lovers of the blues, for those who work for justice. She is like the light on the Sandias, at once familiar and ever-evolving the more time you spend with her. And her work! There’s a muscular quality to her poetry, not that of a body builder, but of a ballet or flamenco dancer – with intention, patience, and years of practice behind every movement.”
Oishi plans to spend her two years working with Albuquerque libraries.
Her project includes going to the institutions to collaborate with poets who live near each library.
“We’d do a reading and then we’d invite people from the neighborhood to get up and read,” she says. “I want to have events that involves the entire community. Some of these ideas will change due to the pandemic, but we’ll find a way to get them done.”
Sanchez is looking forward to working with Oishi on her libraries project.
“She wants to focus on every area of the city and for us, that’s really exciting,” Sanchez says. “The other thing I love about her project is that she’s investing in the community. She has a different voice in terms of what she writes about. The program is focused on finding poets that want to be ambassadors of poetry.”
Oishi’s writing is a healing process, which also serves as a conduit in building community.
“Being poet laureate at this time, when there is so much division and so much stress and negativity,” she says. “I want to bring people together and give us a glimpse that we’re all part of the human family.”