October 01, 2021
Putting the Pieces Together
CMU alumna crosses borders and language barriers to bring poetry to the masses
By Kristy Locklin
The pandemic may have renewed people’s interest in puzzles, but for Carnegie Mellon University alumna Paloma Sierra, a writer, translator and educator, piecing together stories has been a nearly lifelong obsession.
“I was first introduced to poetry in school when I was 8 years old,” she says. “It’s like a puzzle; you have to find certain words that fit.”
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she is using her wordsmithing skills and experience to represent her homeland through plays, screenplays, musicals and operas.
Paloma is penning a segment of Hero Theatre and Hero Multimedia’s “Nuestro Planeta,” a decade-long, multimedia new works initiative that focuses on educating Latinx film and theater audiences about environmental justice within the Americas.
Over the next two years, she’s tasked with taking subjects such as global warming and sustainability and molding them into a form of entertainment that educates.
Paloma earned a Bachelor of Humanities and Arts in creative writing and drama in 2019 and a master’s degree in dramatic writing in 2021 from the College of Fine Arts by blazing her own trail at Carnegie Mellon. Her student-defined, multidisciplinary programs allowed her to explore the humanities and sciences — mixing writing, Hispanic studies, drama and scenic design.
While participating in the School of Drama’s annual Playground: A Festival of Independent Student Work, she realized words don’t have to be confined to a page of a book. They could come to life on a stage.
Paloma's choreopoem, “Your English Is So Good,” which was presented as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards at CMU in 2020.
Although she prefers to work behind the scenes, she revels in seeing her words in action through dance, song and highly emotive spoken word performances.
As the 2020-2021 Emerging Poet Laureate of Allegheny County, Paloma curated a virtual workshop series with City of Asylum, an institution on Pittsburgh’s North Side that provides sanctuary to endangered literary writers from around the world.
Through the project, Between Poetry and Performance, writers of all experience levels were invited to attend free workshops that reimagined poetry through the mediums of theater, film and animation.
In addition to engaging community members, City of Asylum’s Poet Laureate program — which was inspired by the Laureate Fellowships at the Academy of American Poets — allowed her to connect with established writers she’s admired for years. Writing can often be a solitary endeavor, especially with COVID-19 limiting group activities, but Paloma says she thrives on collaboration, even if it’s online.
“When I have a chance to hear somebody perform my words, it’s a learning experience,” she says. “Hearing other people’s opinions about the work is important as a playwright.”
For her next adventure, Paloma, one of eight CMU alumni awarded 2021-2022 Fulbright Scholarships, will study theater translation at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the program aims to improve cultural diplomacy while giving scholars different perspectives as they hone their crafts.
Paloma says theater translation brings a lot of challenges, but it also allows her to learn things about the original work and draws the audience in. In that respect, art is a universal language, one that can both connect people and set them free.
“The stories I’m attracted to are happy stories that make me feel good inside,” she says. “It’s an escape. That’s not to say I avoid challenging topics, but it’s important to show the positive or the funny or the romantic side of things. In the future, if not now, I’ll be diving more into those types of stories.”