“The words we use should be used to praise people, to enlighten, commend, even glorify people.”
“It’s not proper to present that which is not true.”
“To be courteous does not take away manhood.”
The three examples above of mature counsel were all expressed by Seattle poet Raúl Sánchez over the course of a long, captivating interview. Sánchez, 64, doesn’t carry moral virtue around like a scepter, and (at least while on the phone) doesn’t radiate gleaming charisma.
But you can tell he says what he means and he means what he says, albeit with a low-key, modest confidence rooted, in part, in his faith in words. If you have that faith, Sánchez demonstrates, you don’t need a posture of rectitude and you don’t have to glow. Simple words, spoken with humility, get the job done.
At day’s end we try to remain bright
Speak colorfully, for words
Are like the clothes we wear —
We wear them on our tongues
The poem above, Sánchez’s “Breath,” is among his best-known from his 2012 collection, “All Our Brown-Skinned Angels,” published by MoonPath Press.
Nominated for a Washington State Book Award, “All Our Brown-Skinned Angels” also includes two stunning poems that have become part of the basis for an upcoming project. The latter is a unique collaboration between Sánchez; innovative, local music organizations Early Music Seattle and Orquesta Northwest; Héctor Armienta, a celebrated Mexican American composer and conductor of opera; and Ensemble Caprice, an esteemed Montreal-based orchestra just entering its fourth decade.
“The Other Conquest,” a free event at Broadway Performance Hall on Feb. 8, presents two opposing views of the 500-year-old fateful meeting between Aztec emperor Montezuma and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in what is now Mexico. Three centuries of Spanish hegemony over that part of the world followed.
Marking last year’s quincentennial anniversary of the meeting and conquest of the Aztec empire, Ensemble Caprice pieced together a partially lost score by Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi: a 1733 opera called “Motezuma” (the spelling conforms to that used by “Motezuma’s” librettist, Luigi Giusti).
Ensemble Caprice is bringing its concert version (with story recitation) of “Motezuma” to Seattle for a complete Early Music Seattle concert on Feb. 9 at Town Hall. The evening before, at the “The Other Conquest,” Caprice will perform excerpts from “Motezuma” followed by the world premiere of “La Conquista,” with a score by Armienta and libretto by Sánchez.
The Ballard Civic Orchestra, one of three ongoing projects under the umbrella of Orquesta Northwest, is dedicated to Latin American classical music. Music director Paula Madrigal conceived of a musical response to Vivaldi’s depiction of Cortés as a hero. She asked Sánchez to write the libretto — a first for him.
“I watched a video recording of the Vivaldi,” says Sánchez. “A response to it was necessary. Vivaldi treats Montezuma as an inept person not capable of being an emperor, and who does funny things. The story is set in a more modern environment than it really was. It’s more mockery than of historical value.”
Sánchez took two poems from “All Our Brown-Skinned Angels,” the powerful “Mestizo,” which invokes ancient demigods and the will to fight oppression nonviolently; and the haunting “Sánchez,” in which he examines his own name and mixed blood (Indian and Spanish) as a legacy of the Spanish rape of indigenous women.
Sánchez has added some other poems to those and formed the narrative foundation of “La Conquista.” He gave the result, in English, to Armienta, who requested it be translated into Spanish. English subtitles will be on screens at the concert.
With a chuckle, Sánchez points out that poets don’t make a lot of money. He couldn’t survive as a starving artist while raising three sons with his first wife, and so he worked for several large companies in California and Florida. (He has a 16-year-old daughter from his current marriage.) He moved here in 1995, and worked as a field service engineer for Kuhlman Technologies and as a bio-technician for Bio-Rad Laboratories.
Upon retiring a couple of years ago, he was accepted as a mentor in Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program, and took another school residency via the Jack Straw Cultural Center.
“Students surprise me,” says Sánchez. “They understand how to use metaphors and similes. I tell them, you can get crazy with writing. Write about anything. There’s no structure, just do whatever. Then we’ll help you extract the juice from it to write a poem.”
Sánchez is also a volunteer mentor for Pongo Teen Writing, regularly visiting with boys and girls locked in detention at Youth Services Center.
“We talk with them with an open heart and open mind. We bring sympathy and empathy. No criticism. Sometimes they just need somebody they can talk to. If they want to write, there are templates to use, and they can pick up a theme and go with it. They might write about drug addiction or family or who they love or who they miss. It does them some good, writing from life experience.”
Then there’s Sánchez’s job as the city of Redmond’s poet laureate. No honorary title, this role keeps him busy bringing a lyrical bent to multiple civic events and collaborating with artists from other disciplines.
Sánchez was born in Mexico City. His father, who died when Raúl was 12, had been a laborer in the U.S. during World War II, laying railroad tracks from Texas to Mississippi.
After the war, the elder Sánchez opened a restaurant in Mexico City, where the preteen Raúl experienced some of the foundation of his interest in poetry.
“One of my father’s customers was Renato Leduc, a political writer, poet, fiction writer, storyteller and essayist. Every now and then, he would stand up in the middle of the restaurant and recite one of his poems. The customers knew who he was, and would pay attention and then clap.”
There was also the sound of police batons beating on the restaurant doors during 1968 protests in Mexico City, in which hundreds were massacred by police and military troops. Sánchez saw some of the mayhem and the “murdered students in a local square.”
“That made me think about justice, and the injustices that are witnessed everyday, everywhere. I started writing about that.”
What did he learn from his father?
“Hard work. Perseverance. Always be truthful. Keep going. We’re all going to fall sooner or later. Get up, shake it off and keep going. That’s what I tell students.”
“The Other Conquest,” 7:30 p.m. (preconcert talk at 6:30 p.m.) Saturday, Feb. 8, Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle; free, but RSVP email@example.com; orquestanw.org
Ensemble Caprice: Vivaldi’s “Motezuma” (1733), 2:30 p.m. (preconcert talk at 1:30 p.m.) Sunday, Feb. 9, Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $20-$45; 206-652-4255, townhallseattle.org