Poet and alchemist Ambar Past was born in Durham, North Carolina, in 1949, descendent of a wheelwright, Piast, who in 840 became the first king of Poland. Past’s mother was a painter and her father a physician and junk collector. Her grandfather was a hillbilly who claimed to have Cherokee ancestry. Past grew up in Brooklyn, Chattanooga, El Paso, San Francisco, and Oregon. At an early age she became fascinated with books; she began making her own when she was four years old, wrote her first volume of poetry at age seven, and has worked in print shops since she was eleven.
At the age of twenty-three Past immigrated to Mexico and became a Mexican citizen. As an itinerant teacher of natural dyes for the National Indian Institute (INI), she spent years living in mud huts among Native American people in remote areas of Mexico, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. For more than thirty years she has made her home in the highlands of Chiapas, principally in rural hamlets, where she learned to speak Tzotzil Mayan. Ambar Past is the creator of the graphic arts collective Taller Leñateros (The Woodlanders’ Workshop) in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. She also participated in the formation of Sna Jolobil, a weaving cooperative for Mayan artisans, the Mayan writers collective Sna Jtz’ibajom, and is president of Libros Prehispánicos A. C.
Past’s first writings were published in Tzotzil in the collective book Slo’il jchiltaktik (Autobiographies of Tzotzil Women, 1978), and Bon (a manual for Mayans on natural dyes,1980). In Spanish she has published a number of chapbooks of her own poetry, including Yayamé (1982), Mar inclinada (1986), Nocturno para leñateros (1989), The Sea on Its Side, (1992), Caracol de tierra (1994), Dedicatorias (2003), La fe (2003), La Señora de Ur (2004), Cuando era hombre (2004), Caracol de aire (2004), Huracana (2006), and a children’s book, El bosque de colores (1992). For thirty years she has worked in the collecting, recording, and translation of Tzotzil ritual poetry, which appear in two bilingual anthologies published by Taller Leñateros: Conjuros y ebriedade (1998) and Incantations By Mayan Women, and in a music CD-book, Disco de los Conjuros (in press). Her poems and stories have been published in literary magazines in Spanish, English, Italian, German, French, Japanese, Tzotzil Maya, and Serbo-Croatian.
Past has traveled widely in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, where she has worked as a circus perfomer, housewife, amber carver, papermaker, silkscreen printer, soapmaker, Thai chef, and as a reporter for a Chinese-English newspaper. She is the founder and director of the prize-winning journal for art and literature La Jicara, known as “the most beautiful magazine in Mexico.” Past’s work has been shown in book arts exhibitions in the US, Mexico, Austria and Italy. Her book The Lady of Ur received an award for “best use of a serious subject” from the Movable Book Society. Ambar is the mother of artist Tila Rodríquez-Past, and she is currently preparing a collection of her stories, Men I Never Slept With.