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Conversations with distinguished writers

Mills College Weekly

Dr. Arturo Davila-Sanchez never stops working. As a poet, life
experiences often provide him with sudden inspiration. Sometimes
something as simple as waiting for an overdue date to show up will
stimulate him. Other times it is politics that provoke a poetic
response from him. He describes many of his poems as “satires
against power.”

While these satirical works make up most of his better-known
poems, he has been working on new material which entails rhythmic
repetition of sounds and syllables.

“Some of the new material, it’s very experimental poetry,”
Davila explained. “If it isn’t read aloud, and the reader doesn’t
have that ear, they might miss it and think it’s chaotic.”

After listening as Davila read two of his more recent works
aloud at the recent Parallel Lines prose reading held on campus, it
is clear that Davila, who is also a musician, is capable of making
poetry the music of his voice.

For a poet such as Davila, writing has never been a job but a

“I think I’m very lucky in that I’ve been successful,” said
Davila. “Many poets are not so lucky.” In poetry, luck has its
place but so does hard work and dedication to one’s craft.

His first book, “La Ciudad Dormida” (“The Sleeping City”),
published in 1995, was a compilation of poems he had composed over
about 15 years.

“I put it all together and I sent it in and it won a prize,”
Davila said.

The prize was Mexico’s Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz National Poetry

After 15 years of not having published a book, Davila was
wondering whether his work was worth it.

“You can write and if you don’t get published, eventually you
keep it for yourself and you forget about it,” he said.

He added, “I’ve been very lucky because the three prizes I’ve
received have been for my three books.” The other two prizes to
which he refers are the Antonio Machado Poetry Prize (Spain)
awarded to him for “Catulinarias” in 1998 and the Juan Ramon
Jimenez Hispano American Poetry Prize for his last book titled
“Poemas para ser leidos en el Metro” (“Poems to Be Read in the
Metro”) in 2003.

While writing poems, the poet laureate earned a B.A. in
journalism and cinema, a M.A. from the University of Michigan and a
Ph.D. in romance languages and literature from the University of
California, Berkeley.

Davila has also found inspiration in role models such as his
mother and father, who are both very artistic; his grandfather, who
was a painter; and several teachers and colleagues. Davila
mentioned that a couple of university professors he knew “were so
passionate for truth, justice and life that they have inspired

Literature is another source of inspiration for Davila. For
Davila, “poetry is the chanting of the species.” He explained, “I
think poetry was the first form of expression for human beings
because of the need for a concentration of words to say as much as

Davila believes poetry is the opposite of journalism or

“Publicity tries to be witty to sell you something,” he said.
“Poetry tricks you to sell you pleasure – its purpose is not
monetary gain.”

“Journalism is closed; it is telling you something specific,
while poetry is an open language – the meaning is open,” Davila

According to Davila, “one of the advantages of poetry is that
with one great poem you can become part of the history of

Davila said the issue is quality, not quantity. “If Picasso had
put out only ten paintings instead of 3,000 he would still have
been Picasso.”

“Poetry, for me, makes me feel like a medium, that a voice comes
out of me for a couple of months and that creates a book or a dozen
or two dozen poems and then I’m silent for 3 years,” said

“I think real poetry is something that’s given, that the
greatest poets have a gift of ear, and it comes out.”

He advises aspiring writers to avoid confessional writing and to
be more universal.

“I think a lot of the writing today is about the ‘I’ and ‘my’
and ‘mine,'” said Davila. “You can get a great first novel, but
three novels of ‘I’ gets old-try to write about others.”

With a demanding writing and teaching career, Davila finds
balance in recreational activities such as reading, music, and
playing his guitar.

“I also like to hike and I took a class here in video because
that has always been an interest of mine,” he said.

Davila has been a resident of the United States for the past 23
years and has spent the last seven years at Mills teaching
Chicana/Chicano literature, Spanish and comparative literature.





Conversations with distinguished writers

Mills College Weekly

Victor La Valle’s students rarely suspect that their works of
fiction provide bathroom reading material for the soft-spoken
instructor from New York. The Weekly recently caught up with La
Valle, who teaches the craft of fiction and a fiction workshop, for
a Q&A session that revealed some rather unique responses.

Where do you feel most creative?

In the bathroom. I like to sit on the floor and edit stuff. I
also write stuff in there too. It may sound strange, but it works
for me because it’s uncluttered, and I like to be in the smallest,
neatest place when I work.

What inspires you – music, art, literature, or

Music and racism inspire me. But, not in a sense like I want to
battle racism. It’s nice and many people are doing a good job of
it… I think I’m fascinated with it as it’s one of the few places
where people are almost always original is in their hatred, in
their prejudices. People are prejudiced about the weirdest

It’s an interesting window into people because the things they
become obsessed with particularly the things they hate are
unfiltered, and also just so strange and I like writing about
people when they’re being strange. It’s an easy window into knowing
people’s strangeness. Of course, it’s not nice and nobody wants it

What led you to Mills?

A friend of mine was working out here in the Bay Area and
invited me to come out for a year. I applied to teach at Mills and
they hired me. Sadly, my friend passed away so, it has been a
bittersweet adventure.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I like critiquing people’s papers, critiquing the stories and
giving suggestions and ideas about what might work better or
differently and then talking about them with the group. It’s a very
nice 2 1/2 hour social occasion.

If not this career, what else would you be doing?

I’d be making horror movies. The path I’m taking is trying to be
a really serious literary writer and teach at really incredible
schools like Mills and Columbia and that will hopefully end up
positioning me to make the 40th installment of Friday the 13th.
I’ll be a real success then.

The interesting premise, deep down, of all horror movies is that
there are some things in your life that you can’t control. I’m from
a family where mental illness runs through the family quite a

When I was a kid I couldn’t articulate that, but horror movies
sort of did, in that you had people living and then a meteor
crashes and a monster comes out and kills everybody.

And unlike crime movies or other genres, there’s never a
satisfying reason why bad things just happen.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Particularly for Americans,
that’s not the way we like to think. We tend to think
moralistically: that bad things happen to bad people and good
things happen to good people – and that’s not true.