This is my first installment of a series I’m calling Behind the Poems. Let’s start with my first-ever published poem, “Making Mom’s Meatloaf,” posted below.
She teaches me how to make it because I asked her to.
I stare at the stuff that’s going to make this delicious dish
and drop my mouth in horror. “It’s okay,” she says,
“you’ll get used to it.” I take a deep breath and start.
Tense fingers and peel back saran wrap around ground meat.
Let blood ooze out the package and into the sink, a faint swirl
down the drain. Once free of the stretching and struggling
covering, let the ball plop with a squish into the tinted glassware
baking pan. Shove fingers into what looks like a mass of worms.
Close eyes and set face in a grimace. Swallow hard. Hold breath.
Hear loud crack echo like a breaking bone as Mom snaps
the package in two to throw away. Feel her hands rest on my
shoulders and relax the muscles. Pull hands back for a moment
and breathe relief. Let Mom slowly add Sazón, salt, and sofrito.
Watch her mix in bread crumbs and see how bits fall between
her fingers as she takes over some of the kneading.
Plunge fingers back into meat. See it now looks like a brain
but push thought away. Mush, mush, mush ingredients
into the cracks until it all stays together.
Mom says it’s ready to cook. Wash hands and then throw it
into the oven. Bang door closed. Wait one hour. Breathe in
that familiar scent like when Mom makes meatloaf.
This piece was published in 2012 by a digital journal called Dead Beats. The publication is now defunct and the poem is no longer available online, but I never deleted my Word document.
When I wrote this poem, it was my first time infusing my culture into an artform I hadn’t always thought invited it in. Including the details about Sazón and sofrito were specific to highlight my mom’s Puerto Rican roots. It’s a poem about cultural rituals that get passed down from one generation to the next.
What stands out most from my memories with this poem is a reaction to it. I wrote the first drafts of this poem in my poetry workshop my sophomore year of undergrad at UCF. One of my classmates, who happened to be a vegetarian, responded with great discomfort over the imagery.
On the one hand, I was delighted to have elicited such strong disgust. But on the other hand, her reaction hurt a little. I never talked to anyone about that. It wasn’t just her clear disgust over the details about making meatloaf. She had also left a comment on the hard copy with a message about switching to vegeterianism, complete with a smiley face.
Her reaction stung because it felt like she was looking down on my family and our culture. Perhaps it’s because this classmate happened to be a white woman that made it feel that way. And I’ve always given her the benefit of the doubt and tried to say she meant no harm. But at the end of the day, it’s never a good idea to try to push your own beliefs on someone else.
Despite all that, looking back at this poem always brings a smile to my face. Eliciting this reaction taught me how powerful my words could be. There was something oddly satisfying knowing that speaking my truth could get under someone’s skin. It made me hungry to write more like it and keep speaking my stories into a world that would prefer I stayed silent.