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Sunday, April 5, 2020

Award-winning poet visits Western

Inspiring writer and friend reads from her work “Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire”

Michelle Peñaloza reading an excerpt from her book, “Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire,” at Western on Thursday, Feb. 6. // Photo by Ella Banken

By Maddy Redman

“Being a writer and artist is not just about what you produce but also what you consume,” said Michelle Peñaloza, poet and author of “Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire.”

Peñaloza read poetry excerpts from her work, “Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire,” at Western on Thursday, Feb. 6 in Academic West.

Peñaloza majored in secondary education and English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduating, she went on to teach high school English for a period. In her career she has been the recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Oregon, Kundiman, Hugo House and the Key West Literary Seminar. 

“It wasn’t until I read Asian American poets that something happened. The first collection I ever read by an Asian American poet was ‘Rose’ by Li-Young Lee. It gave me the permission I didn’t know I needed, but I did,” Peñaloza said.

Peñaloza said two of her greatest influences have been the death of her father and growing up as a person of color in a very white area.

In adolescence, she kept a notebook of a collection of quotes and language she liked. 

“It wasn’t until college I started writing poems that I showed anyone,” Peñaloza said.

Jane Wong, a close friend of Peñaloza, introduced her at the poetry reading event. Wong has worked at Western for three years and is an assistant professor of creative writing in the English department. She teaches poetry, hybrid form and Asian American literature.

Wong and Peñaloza met through a mutual friend in 2012 when both women were new to the Seattle area and have remained close since. 

“We’ve been poets, friends, co-teachers since so we’ve done a lot of things together over the years,” Wong said. 

Wong said Peñaloza allowed her to be more vulnerable in her writing. 

“It’s okay to write about your feelings, which seems obvious, but it wasn’t really until Michelle that I really allowed myself to do so,” Wong said. 

The two poets have taught each other a lot, and pushed each other to grow as writers. 

“Jane is such a badass. She’s always learning more and reading more. Being her friend is very motivating,” Peñaloza said.

Wong said Peñaloza, as a writer, has grown the most in her writing form. 

“She’s [Peñaloza] taken a lot of risks formally. She weaves in different modes of tonal shifts throughout her work,” Wong said.

Fourth-year student, Dare Santos is an English major with an emphasis in creative writing and a sociology minor. She is one of Wong’s students this quarter. Santos heard Peñaloza speak in Wong’s class on Thursday.

Santos opened the event for Peñaloza by reading two poems she wrote. 

“Like Michelle, I’m also Filipino American and it wasn’t until encountering her poetry that I wanted to start writing more about my heritage and learn more about Filipino culture,” Santos said.

Peñaloza said she thinks of writing as a way of processing. Santos said Peñaloza processes her experiences and the stories her family tells her.

Santos described Peñaloza’s poetry style as humorous and tender with a mythical element. 

“Even if a poem is a bit darker or sad, Michelle always brings in a little light by adding humor,” Santos said.


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