Mary Elizabeth "Bettie" Perez has writing in her blood. She's the granddaughter of a newspaper founder and the mother of two newspapermen (one who works for the Tampa Bay Times). Now, at age 89, she celebrates her first nationally published book of poetry. Perez spoke with Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston about the importance of listening, the concept of fresh and the changing tides in Ybor City.
How did you start writing poetry?
Well, my heritage is Spanish. I'm a mixed-breed, I guess. My father was a strawberry farmer, a Florida Cracker. My mother was a writer and a musician. And my grandfather was the founder of a newspaper in Ybor City. So I have a strong Ybor City connection with music and writing and just the arts in Ybor City. So I guess it's in my blood.
The writing was always there but not serious. . . . I used to write poetry in high school. I never studied poetry in college. In fact, I don't have a degree at all. But USF had a senior program at that time. I went back to USF for three years and took every poetry class they had.
What was it like to be in school at that age?
Oh, it was so much fun because the professors, of course, were older and they appreciated having somebody who wasn't just taking poetry to get through, but that just loved it.
I won an emerging poet award at USF. And then one of my teachers said, "You ought to submit to the Hillsborough County Arts Council's emerging artist award." And I won that, which was, I can't remember the amount of money, but it was enough for me to go to the Iowa summer writing program. I was there for about two weeks and that just blew me away.
What effect did that conference have?
For the first time, I met two very well-known professional poets. William Stafford had a great influence on me because when he asked for questions, I said, "You know, it's hard for me because I don't have a great vocabulary and I don't have a degree of any kind." And he just laughed at me and he said, "Would you just listen to yourself?" I'll never forget that quote. "Would you just listen?"
He was an older man and he did not believe much in finding your voice. He said, "You don't have to find it. You have a voice."
Poetry is mostly listening. You pick up on what other people say. You make notes. You're always eavesdropping.
It's amazing the type of influence a professional can have, even if it's a short interaction like that. Did it set you on a track or give you confidence?
It did. I went up to him after class and said, "You have encouraged me." And he pulled a little tiny book out of his pocket. . . . It was just like 10 pages of encouragement for beginners. And he just picked it up and handed it to me. And I said, "Oh, thank you, Mr. Stafford," and he said, "Don't worry about it. You just keep writing."
How did you come up with the title of your book, How Old Is Fresh?
I was out with the young poet crowd. And of course they look at me as their kind of grandmother or great-grandmother. After we had lunch and we had ordered some wine, somebody said something about, "Don't worry about being late. We've been here awhile waiting for fresh drinks." And I said, "How old is fresh?"
And I came home and I wrote it down and I said, you know, that applies to everything. And I think I said it to Sylvia (a young poet friend), and Sylvia said, "Well, I got fresh tomatoes growing." And I said, "Yes, but how old are the seeds?" Nobody knows how old fresh is. So I thought, "Well, that's my next book."
Where do you get your ideas from?
I read a lot. All poets steal everything. There's nothing original under the sun. There really isn't. One poetry professor I had at USF said, "Don't be afraid to steal, especially if the guy is dead. He won't care."
But I listen to the things that people say. I'll think, "Oh, that's a great line." I write lines. I don't write poetry until I've got a bunch of lines.
It sounds like you collect moments.
I do. I'll write things down I hear or I read or I see in the newspaper. I may switch it around and say it another way. I'll make it a little more musical. But the thought is there.
Do you have a book you keep them in or is it more scraps of paper?
It's backs of envelopes and whatever I can find nearby. But I have a million notebooks. And folders full of things I think are going be a poem someday. But the poem doesn't come until I get something sent to me — I call it inspiration — right out of the air. Maybe I'll have a lot of lines and then I'll hear something that brings it all together.
It's wonderful that after you created your home and family that you now can take this time and pursue a lifelong passion.
Right. That is true. I tell all the young people I meet — oh, they think 50 is old — I tell them, "Listen, I was 49 when I opened a gift shop." I don't know, when your hormones stop working or start working at 50, something happens to you. I tell young people, please don't think 50 is the end of the line. Look, I'm 89.
I'm curious what your thoughts are on Ybor now. Do you still feel that strong attachment?
The thing is, when we grew up, Ybor was a community. Everybody knew everybody else there . . . the Spanish and the Italian and the Cubans and even the black community were all one group . . . You had the Jewish bakery, the Italian bakery, the Spanish bakery. I know probably parts of New York, California, San Francisco are like that, but they didn't lose it. Ybor lost it.
And when they began to bring it back, when they finally realized Ybor had a wonderful, wonderful history, they built too many bars. People became afraid of Ybor.
Do you still spend a lot of time there?
We did when my husband was alive. We were members of the Centro Asturiano, that big club there. They used to have dances. Oh, we loved to dance. They used to have what we call indoor picnics. The Columbia would make food and send it up to the ballroom. My husband played dominoes there. But I think that is kind of declining because it's the old people that were supporting it. And young people aren't involved in that. I wish your age had what we had.
There's still a couple little pockets like that in Ybor. Swing dancing. Coffee shops. Art places.
But the worst problem with Ybor now is they got a young crowd in there of drinkers and gangs. Too many bars and not enough of the other things. They had some great art studios down there that moved away. I think Ybor is going to come back, but it's going to take a while.