Emma Trelles, Santa Barbara’s Poet Laureate
Miami Native and Daughter of Cuban Immigrants Celebrates Life’s Wild and Concrete Forms
By Charles Donelan | June 3, 2021
The position of poet laureate of Santa Barbara, initiated in 2005 and first held by the late Barry Spacks, offers an opportunity and a challenge. Granted, this city is an unlimited source of inspiration, but how do you improve on paradise? What can a poet give to the city that has everything?
When Emma Trelles became the ninth person to hold the laureateship this spring, the city found an answer. The daughter of Cuban immigrants and a native of Miami, Trelles has been a journalist in South Florida and a professor at Santa Barbara City College. Her book Tropicalia, which received the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize in 2010, overflows with the emotional intelligence and rhetorical clout of a lifelong poet.
In describing how her writing reflects her background, Trelles uses the Cuban Spanish metaphorical verb resolver, which means “to make things work despite obstacles.” In a recent email, she said that her poems “document the bright green fly at the center of a succulent or the experience of walking home at dusk with a bag of street tacos.” Writing about the world she sees and her responses to it gives her a “way of understanding it or at least giving its chaos a recognizable shape.”
“Writing poems is my way of trying to make things work, if only for a little while,” she explains. “My people are hopeful realists, and I think I am too.”
While Trelles initially developed this clear-eyed yet extravagant vision amid the lush landscapes and plural contradictions of Miami, her style suits the nuances of Santa Barbara’s ravishing Spanish-themed dreamscape equally well. Supremely attentive to the natural environment as it bumps into or brushes up against the artifice of urban life, she has found much to admire and even more to consider in the seven-plus years she and her husband have lived in Santa Barbara. From dive bars and noise bands to Tennyson and García Lorca, and from Afro-Cuban Santería to the Brazilian counterculture of Tropicália, Trelles brings an extraordinary range of contexts to bear in her work. In ways both overt and subtle, her voice is one that Santa Barbara needs to hear.
In taking on the responsibilities of the poet laureate, Trelles plans to begin by creating a Latinx poetry chapbook prize in collaboration with Gunpowder Press, the poetry publishing enterprise run by two former Santa Barbara poet laureates, David Starkey and Chryss Yost. “We’d like to open it up to California poets writing in English, Spanish, or both, with special preference given to writers from Santa Barbara and the Central Coast and poets who haven’t yet published a full-length collection,” said Trelles. She curates the Mission Poetry Series — which was founded in 2009 and is cosponsored by the Santa Barbara Public Library — and that program will continue and possibly expand through poetry workshops as she progresses in her term.
Poetry as Thinking
For poetry to work, it needs to be understood as a way of thinking. While poems may not conform to the drab expectations of hypothesis, evidence, and conclusion associated with standard prose argument, good ones can also proceed along discernible paths and move through recognizable phases of thought.
Emma Trelles’s work is no exception. In fact, as a veteran reporter and cultural critic, her methods are often not only discernible but deliciously familiar as near-relatives of adjacent genres, from the news article to the popular song.
For example, when you open her book Tropicalia to the poem “Interstate Song,” you find yourself cruising down the highway with music blasting and wind whipping through the windows. Your companion can imagine herself as a human cannonball, “goggles tight and ears braced for the azure boom into the future.” Elsewhere in the same section of the volume, Trelles moves even closer to the style of what’s on the radio with “Country Dada Song in 4/4 Time,” which begins with the line, “The devil’s in the rearview mirror and he’s closer than he appears.” The ensuing rhyme hits with the comic certainty of a classic country lyric: “He’s smiling at me with his bottlecap teeth and his eyes are filled with beer.”
With these bright images established at one end of her broad spectrum of approaches, Trelles swings to the other side with “Billy Bragg Rescues Us at the FTAA Protest,” a narrative poem about a real experience: the night in 2003 when Trelles and her friends fled from rampaging Miami police. Caught in the chaotic aftermath of labor protests against a meeting of the Free Trade of the Americas Association, Trelles and her crew are sheltered by the British socialist troubadour Billy Bragg and imagine they are in the penthouse suite of a Miami Holiday Inn while plastic bullets and tear gas were turned on protestors in the streets below.
Throughout Tropicalia, Trelles moves between lyrical celebrations of imaginative ingenuity like “Interstate Song” and more specific vignettes that draw on her experiences as a journalist, like “Billy Bragg Rescues Us.” Yet that’s by no means all she can do. Sometimes, she slides into the idiom of worship, as in “Novena Poderosa,” a brief poem that shares the steps necessary to make a powerful offering to the Afro-Cuban Santa Barbara, a k a Changó, the Yoruba orisha of lightning and fire.
In “Letter to the Right,” she adopts yet another rhetorical strategy, that of the open letter. In this poem, the political context suggested by her encounter with Bragg becomes more explicit when the speaker addresses her political opponents with satirical directness. She starts her letter/poem with a hilarious backhanded taunt: “I hope you never read my poems.” In Trelles’s view, poems give pleasure, and the speaker here is not about to share that with those who insist on firing plastic bullets and tear gas into crowds of marching union members.
Poems by Emma Trelles
What follows are two poems that represent the kind of work that Trelles has been doing since moving to Santa Barbara seven years ago. “Novena for Garden Street” and “Sonnet for Mark” have both been published as part of the anthology While You Wait: A Collection by Santa Barbara County Poets, which was edited by Poet Laureate Emeritus Laure-Anne Bosselaar and is available both online and in print from Gunpowder Press.
Everything Looks Better in a Poem
The irony of this impossible withholding — after all, how can you tell someone you hope they never read your poems in one of your poems? — implies something bigger that’s central to everything she writes. The abundant confidence of her work flows from the conviction that poetry can try to make sense of the world.
As “Interstate Song” has it, “everything looks better in a poem” — but only if you put in the effort. You must “hoard the day” like a poet if you want to fly from the cannon’s mouth to “a palace where the cakes are laced with berries and you have arrived, face smooth and tongue without doubt.” This is the palace of poetry, home base of the creative imagination.
For Trelles, the sometimes bleak contradictions of urban America can be redeemed through the focused attention that poems manifest. “Poetry can be a kind of mirror in which we more authentically see ourselves and the particulars of our lives, in all of their beautiful and difficult forms,” she writes, and her poem “Churchill’s Hideaway” bears this observation out. Winston Churchill vacationed in Miami shortly after the end of World War II, and the city bears some unlikely reminders of his visit, including a dive bar called Churchill’s Pub on the fringe of Little Haiti that’s been home to the city’s local band scene since the late 1970s.
The poem describes the place and its sketchy surroundings on a typical Thursday night, featuring “assorted moon men weaving through dumpsters” outside while hipsters drink beer and listen to “Fenders and feedback” within. If, as Trelles asserts, “Poems ask us to slow down, pay attention, and listen to one another,” then “Churchill’s Hideaway” shows what a little moonlight can do to broaden the scope and deepen one’s understanding of a night on the town.
When I asked Trelles about the Brazilian Tropicália movement that gives her collection its title, the conversation turned to the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who lived for many years in Brazil. Trelles said that “Tropicalia [the book] has a lot in common with her sense of place…. She was always trying to find a place where she felt at home, and I think she wrote a lot about it because of her longing to belong somewhere.”
In the short, counterfactual prose poem “What Would Have Happened if I Had Married You,” the speaker pokes fun at an ex who she feels would have forced her to live in the suburbs of South Florida with a cleaning lady and in an unhappy life that would drive her to chain-smoke and plot her escape. At night, when his snoring lets her know that she can escape his “octopus stretch from across the bed,” the speaker flees through a garden ripe with “key lime, mango, sapodilla, and mamey” and climbs a tree where she can “swallow skins” and “save the seeds for later, knowing even the shriveled ones can bear life.”
Mean Streets and Lovers
This subtle strain of abjection from bourgeois convention gives me hope for Trelles as a trenchant chronicler of Santa Barbara’s higher-toned clichés. As the author of a Miami arts column called simply “Street,” she saw enough of how cities gild their lilies.
The archly comic poem “Reporter’s Notebook,” for example, performs a sneaky takedown of Dale Chihuly without ever mentioning his name. Journalist Trelles, assigned to cover the installation of Chihuly’s ubiquitous glass flowers at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, asks the artist how and why he chose the venue. His response — “the acreage is nice” — leads to this deadpan observation: “Fact: no amount of drilling can make a person say something interesting.”
In “If This Were a Restaurant Review,” the poet’s imagination runs further afield with the generic premises inculcated by her newspaper training and juxtaposes the taxis and tattoo needles of Miami’s Collins Avenue with images of New York drawn from her own life and the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver. Throwing typical restaurant review words like “retro” into the mix crosses mundane commercial exaltation with seedy despair. No voyeur, the poet nevertheless refuses to look away from what cities and their boosters so frequently ask us to ignore.
This noirish tendency reaches a crescendo with the spooky tale “For the Woman on the Boulevard.” It’s a litany of hard-luck questions asked of someone whose car has broken down that includes the rather incredible line, “Did you just once over the tow man?”
Yet there’s another strain operating in Trelles’s oeuvre, equally strong and perhaps more authoritative in its drive, that spreads through the second half of Tropicalia and seems to have taken root in the poems that she has written since moving to Santa Barbara: potent, passionate, romantic love. After the sordid scene of the woman on the boulevard and her tow-truck hookup, the very next poem, simply titled “Love,” comes as a stark contrast. I won’t spoil its ecstatic unity by the violence of quotation. Let it suffice to say that the addressee has inspired something immortal.