Valerie Martínez has been a teacher, a playwright, a librettist, a collaborative artist and an arts administrator. “I’ve done a lot of things, but poetry is at the core of who I am,” Martínez said in a phone interview. “My sense of the world as a poet guides all of my work.”
Her recently published sixth book of poetry is titled “Count” and she said, “It really captures who I am … .”
It is a book-length poem organized in couplets. Martínez uses the visual arts word “collage” to describe the style of the poem. Like all of her poetry, she said, this latest is not linear.
“Count” has been percolating for nine years. Martínez began writing it in 2012 when she was teaching in Miami, Florida. Then she moved back to her home state of New Mexico. Born and raised in Santa Fe, she lives in Albuquerque.
“What sparked the book was my deep concern for climate change and bouncing between a place where water is ever-present and traveling back to New Mexico where water is precious and scarce,” Martínez said. Deeper into that concern, the poem expresses a foreboding that climate change is causing.
In Couplet No. 10, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Miami is showing a series of images: “… Florida, Antarctica, a lecture entitled ‘The Frightening Reality/of Sea Level Rise’ for the crush of a standing-room crowd/including the well-heeled and generously-housed residents/of Coral Gables …”
By contrast, Couplet No. 24 recounts the ferocity of three forest fires in the Southwest over two days – the Jemez Fire, the Pecos Fire and the Black Forest Fire. Later in the same couplet, Martínez recalls the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that chased “… 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots into a valley – the worst place, where the only choice/ was to wriggle into their silver, podlike heat bags and pray/as the fire roared through, taking them all. And the one/just a short distance away. All he could do: watch.”
Martínez said “Count” can also be understood as a love poem for flora and fauna “and at the same time a desperate call to change the way we interact with the planet, to work hard to restore balance so that we don’t destroy ourselves and the planet will live in.”
Sprinkled throughout the poem are couplets about flood stories of Indigenous cultures that still instruct readers about the need for balance; those cultures include the Hualapai of Arizona, the Mixtec of Mexico and the Wintun of northern California.
The necessity for balance between humans and the natural world has been a core value for Indigenous peoples.
“We need to be reminded of that. There are so many stories of the deluge and we are still looking for signs of it,” she said. “Right now, in August 2021 those signs are so loud and prominent. So we need to change our ways.” The poem’s title appears in various forms in the text. Here are some: A counting of alligators “half submerged in the slough” in Shark Valley in western Miami-Dade County; the downward countdown into hypnosis; the counting of plastic bags embedded in limestone at Oleta River State Park, North Miami; the 33 young Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins washed up on Gulf St. Vincent’s beaches in Australia; the millions of climate migrants who will flee coastlines and inland flooding in the next 35 years.
Referenced throughout the book are young people, Martínez said, “because they are our legacy, who we are leaving our world to.”
So, yes, the book wanders, intentionally, she said, yet its evocative stories and images comes together at the end with the idea of how to achieve a balance with the natural world and to be responsible to the planet to prevent climate destruction.
Take Martínez’s advice: Given the nature of poetry, Martínez urged the public to reread “Count.”
“I say to people that one thing I love about poetry is it can’t be consumed in one reading. The language of poetry for me is not like the language or ordinary speech,” she said. “We need to go back to things slow and deliberate.”
Martínez has spent most of her life teaching poetry and literature. She has also taught at the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands University, the College of Santa Fe, the Institute of American Indian Arts, the University of Arizona, the University of Miami and Ursinus College.
Martínez recently served as history and literary arts director at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. “Count” is part of the University of Arizona Press’ Camino del Sol Latinx Literary Series. Rigoberto González, the series’ editor, wrote in the book’s foreword that ” ‘Count’ is counting the days to our critical awakening or to our annihilation. ‘Count’ is counting on us to follow the right path.”