Hey, Lakeland — City Editor Rilee here. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a true local legend. You’ve likely seen her typewritten words in local storefronts or framed in your friend’s home — keep reading for my conversation with Dr. Diana Álvarez-Hughes of Orange Blossom Poems.
The faint smell of espresso hung in the air when I stepped into Pressed, a coffee shop and bookstore nestled into downtown Lakeland’s historic Studebaker building. I chose a seat near the front and sipped on my order — an iced chai.
Soon after, Dr. Diana Álvarez-Hughes entered the building adorned with her signature wide-brimmed hat and a portable typewriter. Immediately warm, she greeted me with a huge smile before ordering a drink of her own — also chai, hers with added cardamom syrup. I made a mental note to try it next time, then dove in with my first question:
Q: How did you get your start?
A: My PhD is in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies. When I was working on my dissertation, I would often find that academic writing, while rigorous and amazing, felt stifling. Poetry allowed this space to own what I was doing as useful, and even, dare I say it, sometimes powerful.
Q: How do you know what to write for each customer?
A: Sometimes they have something right away. They’ll be like, “My anniversary” or “My son’s birthday is coming up.” Sometimes, they just know they want a poem and they don’t know where they want to go with that. The guiding question I always ask is “What in the past couple of days has brought you the biggest feelings?” Not “happy,” because sometimes big things are happening that aren’t happy but deserve to be on the page. It’s heartbreak, it’s death, it’s dark stuff. If you’re coming to me because you want a poem, I want it to be what you really need.
Q: What’s it like when someone has an emotional reaction to something you wrote?
A: I’m always so humbled. I know it’s not performative, it’s that something I wrote made them feel very seen. I start by telling them I’m grateful. Often the tears come because they are feeling seen and heard. So it really isn’t something I have to get used to, but rather something I chase.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice that someone has given you about writing poetry?
A: One of the best things that I have learned was from a woman named Megan Falley. She says to show people what you’re feeling, not tell them.
Q: What’s your writing routine like?
A: I love the idea of this sexy space with candles and chai teas, but that’s just not my life. I’m writing in the car at pickup, getting my kids from school. I do a lot of poetry writing in the car and in my backyard. I do a lot of it in notes on my phone. It’s not romantic or anything, it’s very utilitarian.
Q: What role do you think social media can play in the world of sharing poetry?
A: Instagram and TikTok allow us to share poetry with more people. Get rid of the idea that it has to be good, get rid of the idea that it has to be published. These social media spaces allow us to say, “Hey, here’s something I created, this is what I feel.” And then folks will be like, “Hey, I feel this too.” Or maybe they won’t, but who cares? This is your space, right? I think in many ways social media is this opportunity for us to express and share more and feel seen and validated.
Q: What do you think is a common misconception about poetry? What would you tell people to help them understand it more fully?
A: Get away from the idea that you have to rhyme. If you can do it, go for it, but if that’s holding you up, let it go. The other thing is the idea that you have to be good. As soon as we tell ourselves we have to be good at something, we are prohibiting ourselves from being real about it. You don’t have to be good to say things that are important.
Q: Do you have a favorite poet?
A: My favorite poets are my friends, because they’re the people who are saying things that are provocative. It is the responsibility of writers to speak to what is happening right now. I know people who are writing now are writing about what we’re all going through. And in many ways, the more personal, the more universal, right? Because we’re all here at the same time. And so if you write something that’s unique to you, it’s going to speak to someone else.
I would also say that Sheleen McElhinney is my favorite right now. She has this amazing collection of poems, “Every Little Vanishing,” which talks about all kinds of things, from the death of her brother to divorce.
Q: You also host community groups. Can you speak to those?
A: In creating the poems, I quickly realized that there was a hunger. People wanted their thoughts mirrored back to them. With my academic background, I knew that small group creative spaces can really open the floodgates to a lot of things we have inside that we haven’t been able to carve space for because we have so much to do in our day-to-day lives. Creating the workshops was an invitation for you to create the space for yourself.
The book club was a continuation of that thinking, that folks want to express themselves in different ways. It’s been really excellent seeing Orange Blossom Poems grow beyond poems, with poetry being what I love coming back to.
Keep up with Orange Blossom Poems
- Poetry Workshop with Orange Blossom Poems | Friday, April 21 | 6-7:30 p.m. | Pressed Lakeland, 213 E. Bay St., Lakeland | $25-$50 sliding scale | Attend this poetry workshop focusing on the subject of spring and blossoming.
- Get Lit with Orange Blossom Poems Book Club | Tuesday, April 25 | 6-7 p.m. | Revival, 119 S. Kentucky Ave., Lakeland | $15-$30 sliding scale | Meet and discuss “Corazón” by Yesika Salgado.
- Four-week virtual poetry workshop | Thursday, May 4-Thursday, May 25 | 7-8:15 p.m. | Virtual | $60-$100 sliding scale | This four-week workshop will focus on the theme of motherhood — send Diana a message on her Instagram for more information.
- Message Diana via her Instagram account for information on upcoming book clubs, workshops, and events.
- Support OBP by subscribing on Patreon for exclusive monthly content.