I was nine years old when I met the poet who would later influence my work, mi hermana Marilyn Velasquez. I didn’t always name her when people would ask me about who my influences were. I would instead listen to the question as an invitation for me to name people whose work was already widely known in the world. I would name writers who I admired such as Sandra Cisneros, whose book House On Mango Street was required reading in my 9th grade class where I was introduced to names and stories that gave semblance to a familiar place.
Still, it was my sister Marilyn’s diary where I first saw Puerto Rican’s on a page. I was sure I was violating some sisterly code of trust by sneaking her diary from underneath the bed, but it was the book I most looked forward to reading every night. I was 9 years old and had only ever been exposed to literature that highlighted white people, or people of color who lived in some utopian paradise I was unfamiliar with. I surely had never met the people I had been reading about. In fact, I wondered why the people who I was surrounded by every day in Bushwick, Brooklyn, why their stories were missing from libraries.
My sister’s diary was the first place the bodega made a literary feature. She complained about Mami who often went over her monthly-allotted store credit (fiao) and would make my sister plead the bodegero to make exception on how much she could borrow knowing the bodegero would never say no to a hungry child. In her diary, Marilyn’s writing combed through our unrefined truths. Marilyn named our struggles; she put our block on a kind of literary map. She highlighted the people I knew, Papo, Ramon, Carmen and she named me, Elisabet. This was the first time I saw my name in a book. Marilyn was documenting her life despite the fact that her words would perhaps never end up in a library. She challenged my idea that I would never be able to see my own personal narrative in a book. I could in fact exist in a book of my own.
One day Marilyn decided to read an excerpt from her diary to me. She thumbed her fingers through the same pages my own thumbs were familiar with and landed on a diary entry about a boy. I of course, my sister’s biggest fan, was familiar with the entry. Still, when she read it out loud, it took on a different kind of life. Her tone was melodic, a song almost, rhythmic definitely. There was hypnotism in her melancholy. Growing up Pentecostal, I recognized her biblical inspiration; she is singing a Psalm I thought.
“What is that?”“What is what?”“What you just did. With what you wrote.”“You mean the poem?”“Poem. That’s what that’s called?”
Just like that. I knew I wanted to write poems too. I knew I wanted to write about the boys that I crushed on and write about Bushwick and the people I knew in Bushwick and above all I wanted to write like Marilyn, I wanted to possess a musicality in my poems. The same musicality Marilyn possessed.
Marilyn eventually found out that I was reading her diary and found a new hiding spot that I never figured out again. Though by that time I had begun documenting my own experiences in my very own diary.These days whenever I perform a poem, I think of Marilyn. I demand myself to find the music in it. These days whenever I write a poem, I dare myself to be as vulnerable as song.
Elisabet Velasquez is a Puerto Rican writer from Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her work has been nominated for Best Of The Net. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications including NBC, Huffington Post, Muzzle, Latina, Now This and Vibe Magazine among others. She is a 2017 Poets House Fellow VONA alum and the author of the chapbook PTSD. You can find her online at ElisabetVelasquez.com