Prose and poetry from Margarita Engle at Spencer Shaw Lecture

Friday, October 20, 2017

Author and poet Margarita Engle shared her thoughts on writing and her memories of Cuba during the iSchool’s annual Spencer G. Shaw Endowed Lecture on Thursday, Oct. 19, at the University of Washington HUB.

Engle’s best-known works, including the Newbery Honor-winning “The Surrender Tree,” are written in verse. She noted how many great verse novels are produced by people from marginalized communities.

“I believe this is because we are at a point in history where there is so much pain that we need to soften the blow of reality with musical language as we explore our own voices, thoughts and feelings,” she said.

Engle, who was raised in Los Angeles by her American-born father and Cuban-born mother, recalled how she would visit her mother’s hometown as a child. Before she reached adulthood, the town, like the rest of Cuba, was off-limits to Americans.

“By the time I was a teenager, it was easier for a U.S. citizen to walk on the moon than to visit relatives on the island,” she told the audience.

The political split had a great influence on Engle’s writing, as she felt part of two cultures but couldn’t participate in one of them. The dichotomy fueled much of her writing, including her verse memoir, “Enchanted Air.”

Engle explained why she favors verse over prose: “I used to try to come up with complicated scientific explanations,” she said, noting that poetry offers several creative advantages, “but my real answer is simple and not scientific. Poetry makes me happy.”

Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latina to receive that honor. She is the author of many verse novels, including "The Surrender Tree" and "The Lightning Dreamer," a PEN USA Award recipient. "Enchanted Air" received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award. "Drum Dream Girl" received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

The Spencer G. Shaw Endowed Lecture Series spotlights award-winning authors and illustrators. Held annually since 1986, it honors beloved UW Information School Professor Emeritus Spencer Shaw, who was an internationally known librarian, storyteller and teacher. Famed authors and illustrators such as Tom Feelings, Maurice Sendak, Grace Lin, M.T. Anderson and Kadir Nelson have participated. 

Margarita Engle
Margarita Engle speaks to the audience at the Spencer Shaw Lecture on Oct. 19.