A Life in Poetry

Writing Poetry Started in 1968

Nina Serrano in Cuba (2011) on the set of "Fusilemos La Noche", a Tina Leisch film on Roque Dalton. Photo by Tina Leisch

Nina Serrano in Cuba (2011) on the set of “Fusilemos La Noche”, a Tina Leisch film on Roque Dalton. Photo by Tina Leisch

I began writing poetry in 1968 at age 36, when I wrote a video drama with Roque Dalton for Cuban TV. Dalton was an exiled Salvadoran writer living in Havana. My concern for his safety inspired my first poem in 1969, as he prepared to join the Salvadoran revolutionaries to liberate his country from the military dictatorship. At the time of the poem’s publication in an alternative SF newspaper, Express, I could only use his initials in the title and refer to El Salvador as “unknown terrain.”

Publication was not enough. Back in San Francisco I linked my poetry with the neighborhood struggle to “Free Los Siete,” referring to seven Salvadoran youth who had been charged with killing a policeman a few blocks from my house. This led to my involvement with an exciting group of activist Latino poets in the San Francisco Bay Area, a literary collective called Editorial Pocho Che.

Alejandro Murgia, Daniel del Solar, Al Robles, Roberto Vargas and Nina Serrano, May Day 2008. Photo by Pam Mendelsohn

Alejandro Murgia, Daniel del Solar, Al Robles, Roberto Vargas and Nina Serrano, May Day 2008. Photo by Pam Mendelsohn

They performed their poetry everywhere in their poetic zeal for their multi-cultural, internationalist, anti imperialist, anti Vietnam War, consciousness-raising efforts. I often read  poems to my brother Philip Serrano’s guitar accompaniment at public readings.

Listening to other poets influenced my work and stretched its boundaries: especially Roberto Vargas, Elias Hruska Cortez, and Alejandro Murguia. Over the years from the late sixties onward I would translate and discuss poetry in my Havana visits with poet Pablo Armando Fernandez and host his California poetry tours. Fernandez’s influence is indelible.

The Pocho Che group published their own work and other US Latino poets including Raul Salinas and other prisoners. Along the way they helped create the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) where they gave poetry readings and workshops. In the early 1970’s, Pocho Che united with other publishing groups to form a literary coalition “Third World Communications,” which published the first poetry and art anthology by Third World women in the US: Third World Women in 1972. They followed it in 1974 with another anthology called Time to Greez for which Maya Angelou wrote the introduction. Working with the other women writers like Janice Mirikitani, Pamela Donovan, Avotcja, and others gave me the validation I needed. In 1973-74 I directed the Poetry-in-the-Schools program in San Francisco.

Victor Hernandez Cruz, Nina Serrano, Roberto Vargas, 1973

Victor Hernandez Cruz, Nina Serrano, Roberto Vargas, 1973

For Pocho Che’s tenth anniversary in 1980, we published three books of poetry and art, including my Heart Songs: the Collected Poems of Nina Serrano (1969–1979).  The cover design is by Alfonso Maciel. The illustrations are by Chilean artist, Rene Castro. The bilingual Spanish/English introduction is written by Chilean writer/scholar/diplomat, Fernando Alegria and the photo is by Kathy Apodaca.

The other two anniversary series books were Un Trip Through the Mind Jail by raúlrsalinas, illustrated by Malaquis Montoya, Jose Montoya, and photo by Kathy Apodaca and Nicaragua, Yo Te Canto Besos, y Suenos de la Libertad by Roberto Vargas with illustrations by Juan Fuentes, and Alfonso Maciel.

Nina and Janice Mirikitani

Nina and Janice Mirikitani

Throughout the 1980’s, I continued to write poetry. But my poetic activities were often subsumed by solidarity work around the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution (1979-1989). The poetry of the next two decades is anthologized in my  book  Heart’s Journey. It is the second of a trilogy (following Heart Songs) called Heart Suite and contains my own drawings from that period. The third volume will be Heart Strong a collection of my 21st century poems.

In the 1990’s living in the San Francisco East Bay, I hosted poetry readings and poetry writing workshops at La Peña in Berkeley with poet Diane Wang for three years. Through Diane, I was exposed to the literature of the world’s great living poets of Africa and Asia, as well as works from antiquity.

Photo from Time to Greez

Photo from Time to Greez

In the 21st century, when US poet Sam Hamill made the call for American poets to speak out against the illegal war in Iraq, I joined the circles of progressive poets in the East Bay, most notably poet-laureate of Alameda, Mary Rudge. I assisted Rudge in the publication of three volumes of peace poetry. I also frequently invited scholar/poet-activist Rafael Jesus Gonzalez to read his moving bilingual poems on the radio. These peace–minded and spiritually oriented poets influenced me.

Through the renewed antiwar movement, I began a long term association with Peruvian poet Adrian Arias, who works at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) in San Francisco and re-connected with the new generation of writers and artists at the MCCLA. I became the official translator for Arias’ literary work and joined in the avant-garde arts activities he initiated at the MCCLA. I translated his two chapbooks entitled: Poema del Día / Book of the Day (2008) and El Libro del Cuerpo / Book of the Body (2009). In 2011 we produced a bilingual chapbook of both our poems, called The Big Questions which also includes Arias’ visual art. The following year, 2012, I translated Arias’ ground breaking short science fiction visual-novel Beautiful Trash: The Lost Library.

Cover of book "The Big Questions" by Nina Serrano and Adrian Arias

Cover of book “The Big Questions” by Nina Serrano and Adrian Arias



Participating in MCCLA activities I also met “artivist” Mamacoatl, poet, musician and healer and together we created and performed two different “Poetic Conversations,” a ritual exchange of poems and movement. These poetic conversations will be made into forthcoming bilingual book; La Luna Blanco y Negro / The Moon in Black and White, written in a theatrical format so it can be performed by others as a “spoken word” theatre piece.

I participated with Mamacoatl in the United Nations mandated November “Days of Action to Eliminate Violence Against Women” for the past seven years (2005-2012). Since bringing this tradition to San Francisco from her native Mexico, Mamacoatl and I have mounted many poetic “artivist” events from the steps of San Francisco City Hall to the barrio.

I produce a literary radio series ”Poet to Poet”, which can be heard On KPFA-fm on “Cover to Cover / Open Book”, the first Friday of the month. This program series, as well as others, can be downloaded online at www.KPFA.org, and from links on this web site.

Stay tuned, where there is life…there are more poems!

Other poetry pages:

About Nina Serrano: Nina is a well-known, international prize-winning inspirational author and poet. With a focus on Latino history and culture, she is also a playwright, filmmaker, KPFA talk show host, a former Alameda County Arts Commissioner, and a co-founder of the San Francisco Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Oakland Magazine’s “best local poet” in 2010, she is a former director of the San Francisco Poetry in the Schools program and the Bay Area’s Storytellers in the Schools program. A Latina activist for social justice, women’s rights, and the arts, Nina Serrano at 82 remains vitally engaged in inspiring change and exploring her abundant creativity. For more information go to ninaserrano.comor contact her publisher at estuarypress.com. For more detailed information about Nina see About Ninaon her website.

About Estuary Press: Estuary Press is the publisher of Nicaragua Way by Nina Serrano and Heart Suite, a trilogy of three books of poetry by Nina Serrano. It is also the home of the Harvey Richards Media Archive, a repository of photography and video documentaries of the social change and political movements during the 1960s and 1970s. Contact Paul Richards (510) 967 5577, paulrichards@estuarypress.com or visit estuarypress.com for more details.

MEDIA – For photos & interviews: Paul Richards (510) 967 5577; paulrichards@estuarypress.com


A Life in Poetry — 6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Poetry Anthologies Containing Nina Serrano's Poetry - Nina Serrano

  2. Dear Nina:

    From decades ago, in the midst of memory, your name appears in today’s NYT obit of Saul Landau; I find myself back in Madison in a complexity of relations among friends.
    Very nice to see you thrive. Every best,


  3. Ann, I hope you are well. Thanks for your message and tracking me down. We are mourning Saul’s passing. He left a legacy of so much good work behind. Warmly, Nina

  4. Dear Nina Serano…I recently heard you talking on KPFA. Someone was interviewing you. At one point you mentioned your grand children and that
    these days, LOVE, is sort of the “All to end All” for you in your life. Then you mentioned that along time ago you shyed away from a local feminist group because they seemed to have so much anger about them. But then, when you accidently knocked over this guy’s motorcycle…and he was a bit of a threat, the feminist group marched down the street and helped you. But the part about disliking their anger and being into love, made me think, “Gee, that’s the kind of feminist for me.” Maybe I feel that way because once at Cal State Hayward, in a class discussion, I said, “Isn’t it different if a husband rapes his wife compared to like if a total stranger rapes her.” I really hadn’t thought deeply about this before I spoke. What I was trying to say was, “Isn’t the rape by the husband a less traumatic event for a women compared with the trauma caused when a total stranger rapes her.” But this girl in class got extremely pissed off at me. As she spoke it seemed as though a cloud of rage and anger was almost superimposed across her face.
    I tried to explain and defend my position. It ended up with about fifteen
    girls yelling at me and in response, me still trying to defend my poorly thought out position. The whole thing really shook me up. Later that evening I realized that if the husband was horribly violent, I mean just terribly vicious, then of course that would be pretty traumatic. I realized I had spoken rather naively. Also, back in the 1970’s the writer Ken Kesey had to fend off a bunch of hostile criticisms from a feminist of that time. I can’t remember what her name was but all of this stuff made me kind of leery of feminists. I feel kind of silly writing all this stuff. I guess my question is, “Is it possible that some feminists are sensible and on target while some others may be overly radical and perhaps less than ideal in their influence upon their female (and male) audience?” You know Nina Serano, I feel stupid bothering you with all this, but for a long time, I’ve wanted to get the opinion of a feminist (who is also a person who knows herself) on this stuff. Write me if you want, if your not to busy.
    Thanks a lot, Mark Alperin

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