Rosemary Catacalos, former Poet Laureate of Texas, dies at 78

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Two months ago, Rosemary Catacalos published what ended up being the last poem she would send out into the world.

“Mr. President Takes Leave” was posted on poets.org in April. It’s the end of a life, but not his. It is a tribute to William Rashall Sinkin, the father of her ex-husband, Lanny Sinkin. In it, the narrator refers to reading Walt Whitman as he lay dying, a yellow dog nearby.

Catacalos, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer more than seven years ago, died on Friday. She was 78 years old.

“He was an intensely private person, but his poetry touched on the most intimate aspects of being,” jazz artist Bett Butler, a close friend, wrote in an email. “His poems are about individual characters in specific places but still manage to be universal. We to know these characters. We have has been at these places.

Catacalos was the first Hispanic person to hold the position of Texas Poet Laureate, a position to which she was named in 2013. “Again for the First Time,” the first comprehensive collection of her work, received poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. award in 1985. His work has also been included in two “Best American Poetry” anthologies and in high school and college literary magazines and textbooks.

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who had known her for 51 years and last saw her on Mother’s Day, said Catacalos was at peace as she neared the end of her journey.

One of his many contributions to the city has been as an arts advocate, Nye said. Among other things, she expanded programs that bring artists into schools during her 10 years as executive director of the literary nonprofit Gemini Ink.

“I think she was the soul of our city,” Nye said. “She’s a most amazing poet and she did so much work for the community, and I think that’s something she really wanted to show. She was dedicated to the community, and let the art belong to everyone, and believed in the voice of little children, even when we had to convince their school districts to give us more time with them.

Anthony “The Poet” Flores said Catacalos was always kind and supportive of him and other slam poets.

“Rosemary Catacalos was the first major literary figure in San Antonio to open institutional doors and create opportunities for slam poets and spoken word artists, and so she helped pave the way for new poetry in our city,” Flores said. .

Catacalos was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, and moved to the East Side of San Antonio with her parents when she was 3 years old. Her father’s parents were Greek and Mexican, and her mother was Mexican, and her poetry reflected her heritage.

After a stint in the newspapers, which included time as an arts columnist for the now defunct San Antonio Light, she spent much of her career in arts administration. She directed the literature program at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center from 1986 to 1989, was executive director of the poetry center at San Francisco State University from 1991 to 1996, and served as executive director of Gemini Ink for nearly 10 years. a decade from 2003.

Alexandra van de Kamp, the current executive director of Gemini Ink and also a poet, said the impact of Catacalos is still being felt.

“I am forever grateful to Rosemary for her dedication to our mission and her belief in the power of the arts of writing to change lives,” van de Kamp said. “I inherit and still benefit today, in myriad ways, from his transformative work with young people and his eye for smart, forward-thinking public programming.”

Jon Hinojosa, who was executive director of the SAY Sí youth arts program when Catacalos ran Gemini Ink, said they became friends as they sympathized with the challenges of running nonprofit arts organizations.

“While we spent time sharing and being a sounding board, we also spent time chiseling and talking about people and having a good time and laughing,” Hinojosa said. “She was so funny and prickly and she called things how she saw them. And for someone who works with people, that takes a lot of courage and a lot of common sense, and that was what she was.

Due to her focus on arts administration, she was ‘happily surprised’ to learn that she had been named the state’s Poet Laureate, she said in an interview with the Express-News. in 2013.

“I was shocked, actually, because I’ve been a very hardworking arts administrator,” she said. “Back when I started doing arts administration, there weren’t a lot of people of color doing that kind of work, so opening doors was really important to me. …my own job wasn’t as important to me as opening those doors.

She continued to write after her cancer diagnosis and was working on a new collection when she died. A few weeks ago, she learned that the cancer had spread to her brain. As her health began to decline and she could no longer talk on the phone, Butler and Betsy Schultz, another close friend, created a page for her on CaringBridgea site designed to provide updates and coordinate help for sick people.

Butler and Schultz also invited people to write notes to him there. Some posted memories and others cited his work. Schultz, who helped take care of Catacalos, read the messages to him daily until the end.

“She was able to smile, wave her finger, and appreciate what people were saying,” Schultz said. “She loved hearing that people knew about her work and could include their own story of how she could influence them. She was very warmed up by it all.

Butler said she learned a lot from the poet.

“She always talked about literature as a safe space to explore difficult questions,” she said. “She insisted that we tell the story clearly and succinctly because no one has time to read words that just take up space. She insisted that we tell the truth, avoid hyperbole, don’t make claims we can’t back up. She insisted that it was about story — not the storyteller. And she said, mostly, ‘Be careful. Always pay attention.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

[email protected] | Twitter: @DeborahMartinFR


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