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Rosemary Catacalos, a former Texas poet laureate, dies at 78

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

“Mr. Chairman Takes His Leave” was posted to poets.org in April. It is about the end of a life, though not her own. It is a tribute to William Rashall Sinkin, the father of her ex-husband, Lanny Sinkin. In it, the narrator references reading Walt Whitman to him as he was dying, a yellow dog nearby.

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

“She was an intensely private person, but her poetry touched on the most intimate aspects of being,” jazz artist Bett Butler, a close friend, wrote in an email. “Her poems by her tell of individual characters in specific locations but still manage to be universal. We know those characters. We’ve been to those places.”

Catacalos was the first Hispanic person to serve as the Texas Poet Laureate, a post to which she was named in 2013. “Again for the First Time,” the first full-length collection of her work, received the Texas Institute of Letters’ poetry prize in 1985. Her work also was included in two “Best American Poetry” anthologies and in literary magazines and high school and college textbooks.

Fellow poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who knew her for 51 years and last saw her on Mother’s Day, said Catacalos was at peace that she was nearing the end of her journey.

One of her many contributions to the city was 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. “Ella She’s the most astonishing poet and ella did so much work for community, and I think that’s something she would really want to have emphasized. She was devoted to community, and letting art belong to everyone, and believing in the voices of little kids, even when we had to convince their school districts to give us more time with them.”

Anthony “The Poet” Flores said that 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 the institutional doors and help create opportunities for slam poets and spoken-word artists, and so she was instrumental in bridging the way for the new poetry in our city,” Flores said .

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

After a stint in 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 ran 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 the executive director of Gemini Ink for almost a decade starting in 2003.

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

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

Jon Hinojosa, who was executive director of the youth arts program SAY Sí when Catacalos headed Gemini Ink, said they became friends as they commiserated over the challenges of running arts nonprofits.

“While we spent time sharing and being a sounding board, we also spent time doing gossip and talking about folks and having a good time and laughing,” Hinojosa said. “Ella She was just so wickedly funny and prickly and she called things as ella she saw them. And for someone who works with people, she that she takes a lot of courage and a lot of gumption, and that was who she was.

Because of her focus on arts administration, she was “happily surprised” to learn 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 hard-working arts administrator,” she said. “At the time I started doing arts administration, there weren’t that many people of color doing that kind of work, so it was very important for me to open doors. … my own work was not quite as important to me as opening those doors.”

She kept writing 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 from her. As her health de ella began to decline and she was no longer able to talk on the phone, Butler and Betsy Schultz, another close friend of ella, set up a page for her de ella on CaringBridge, a site designed to provide updates and coordinate help for people who are ill.

Butler and Schultz also invited people to write notes to her there. Some posted memories of her, and some quoted from her work of her. Schultz, who helped care for Catacalos, read her posts to her daily right up to the end.

“She was able to smile, wave her finger and enjoy what people said,” Schultz said. “Ella She enjoyed hearing that people knew her work de ella, and that they were able to include their own story of how she was able to impact them. She was very well-warmed by all of that.”

Butler said she learned a lot from the poet.

“She always spoke of literature as a safe space to explore the hard 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, shun hyperbole, not make claims we couldn’t back up. She insisted that it’s about the story — not the storyteller. And she said, most importantly, ‘Pay attention. Always pay attention.’”

Plans for a memorial service are pending.

dlmartin@express-news.net | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

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