Reclaiming the Narrative: A Conversation with Mateo Acuña

Reclaiming the Narrative: A Conversation with Mateo Acuña


By Brandy Ingram

Brandy Ingram is a member of Pongo’s Marketing Committee.

Happy Pride! This month, we celebrate growth and authenticity—the joy of embracing each facet of ourselves with an unruly amount of love. I sat down with Mateo Acuña, Seattle Youth Poet Laureate (2023-2024) and Auburn’s Poet Laureate (2024-2026), to discuss writing and reclaiming his narrative as acts of healing and self-love.

First of all, your bio mentions you write operas. How does a poet get into writing operas?

Seattle Opera has a program called the Seattle Opera Creation Lab for adults under 30. My music composition teacher told me about it. I actually didn’t get in at first but someone dropped out and they called me up! Then I also fell in love with poetry.

I’m what’s called a librettist, so I just do the words, the story. A composer is the one who sets my words to music, to space and time. I got into writing opera in a roundabout way. Originally, I was in college for music composition before I took a poetry class and pivoted to creative writing. My music composition teacher told me about the Seattle Opera Creation Lab and suggested I apply! He meant as a composer, but my portfolio of creative writing was larger, so I applied as a librettist. I didn’t get in the first time I applied but I tried again the next time, and here I am! I’ve really taken to writing libretti and will definitely continue.

Ah, and poetry became your bible…

Poetry is definitely my religion, hah! People have many different uses for poetry. The Romantic poets I first read described poetry as a muse or a living being, something ephemeral that cannot be trapped. They created and uplifted a sort of Platonic ideal of their subjects—a pale, nubile woman, snow on a forested cottage, the moon, etc. It’s a very lofty, ambiguous, sophisticated idea that plenty of people still hold today. My poetry is quite the opposite. Rather than putting certain subjects or narratives on a pedestal, I use poetry to deconstruct ideals and assumptions: why we think the way we do, the problem with certain assumptions, and a counterbalance. I get really into analyzing why we—communities, society, people—think about things the way we do, our beliefs, and revealing the history behind everyday places and people we may be familiar strangers to… 

Speaking of language and history, in her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre Lorde writes, “We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition… it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” So, what are you breaking?

The titular poem of my forthcoming book, Dear Spanish goes: “Hello old friend. Have you stopped hiding from me? Have you stopped pretending that you’re listening just around the corner, is that why you touch me with silence?”  That line is the breaking of silence. It’s a letter addressed to a language I can’t speak—not fluently—and when I can’t, there’s a literal silence. This poem is the heart of the book and why the title is on the cover. It goes on to draw connections between language, culture, and family. Those are all constructs that I break and examine, too, especially with idealism and perfectionism in families. It’s how I take ownership of the narrative of my life.

Hello old friend. Have you stopped hiding from me? Have you stopped pretending that you’re listening just around the corner, is that why you touch me with silence?

Excerpt from "Dear Spanish" by Mateo Acuña
I love this line: “But the difference is that even though I try to be your friend, you are the reason why I will always be an exile from my second home.” What does exile mean to you?

Not being allowed to return and go back. And/or even going back but not belonging. What I like about that line is that the “second home” could be the U.S. or Peru. Just by the way that I look and having another culture I don’t fit into the “all-American” stereotype, an ideal that thrives despite, or perhaps because of, the other ideal that America is a melting pot.

Anything you want to share about writing in general?

When you write about something difficult, or even traumatic, some people think it’s permission to talk to you about it, but it’s okay not to engage. Just because you put a piece of writing into the world doesn’t mean you owe anyone a conversation about it.

It can be hard opening yourself up. When writing about a difficult situation or memory, you don’t want to retrigger yourself. Know when to push, and when to back off. Retaking your narrative is really powerful, but, you know, put yourself first.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m definitely looking forward to my next chapbook. It’s very different than Dear Spanish, so it’s refreshing, and the writing pushes me in different ways. It’s not about my life at all, or at least not directly: it’s about the history of Auburn, my hometown, and where I’m the current poet laureate. The project incorporates archival photographs and blackout poems of old poems, obituaries, documents, etcetera. I’ve been making caption poems, too, where the poem acts as a caption to a historical photograph.

I’m also looking forward to leaning more into visual art—I actually made the cover art for Dear Spanish.

Yes! It’s on your Instagram! Finally, what are three books you recommend?

American Sonnets by Terrance Hayes, The Tradition by Jericho Brown, and Freedom House by KB Brookins.

Order your copy of Mateo’s debut chapbook, Dear Spanish, via our friends at Poetry Northwest and Seattle Arts & Lectures.

About Brandy

Brandyce (Brandy) Ingram is an educator, jazz-lover, and writer in Seattle. Her poems have been published by Wild Roof Journal, Willowdown Books, Beyond Queer Words, and others. Additionally, her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in The Bangalore Review, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, and The Austin Chronicle. She’s currently crafting a work of historical fiction regarding early 20th-century “lunatic” asylums.

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