Latino/a Poetry Now: 2 poets, 3 countries
I could see Duke Ellington as my uncle and Whitman as my grandfather. There was no reason why I should not write about the miners in Potosí. I became more open to whatever captured my imagination, anything that touched me with significance. At this moment, writing became a form of rebirth.
Inadvertently, my grandparents taught me about the extended metaphor as a way to speak honestly. Also, out of desperation to know what was going on, the whereabouts of my parents, and why around me people were visibly but silently breaking down, I became a listener, an absorber of voices.
—Ruth Irupé Sanabria
The practice of poetry gifting us with new members of our extended family.
Our family of origin teaching us how certain modes of language can keep us sane.
And what about when our native country is other than the United States? What might that sensibility yield in American poetry, or, as some might say: the poetry of the Americas?
Installment two of "Latino/a Poetry Now" offers readers a glimpse of how Argentina and El Salvador have left their mark in the work of two young American poets. And yet, in the end, it is the English language that plays a crucial role in these nuanced landscapes, as you'll soon read in the words of William Archila and Ruth Irupé Sanabria..
This is also an occasion to introduce a new moderator. Notre Dame M.F.A. candidate Lauro Vazquez, who has distinguished himself over at Letras Latinas Blog with his incisive author interviews, and who, as a matter of fact, is Mexican-born, does an admirable job below, creating a space for our two poets to discuss their art.
William and Ruth are slated to read at Georgetown University on March 20, 2012. Check out PSA's events listings for more details.
Finally, Letras Latinas would like to once again thank PSA for giving these online roundtable discussions a home.
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame
[A] radio that enters evening
like a boatman standing in the mist,
feeling waves roll underneath, pulling me
through the slow nights of a small war.
I would transform
and nectar loving
birds colored lilac
—Ruth Irupé Sanabria
These excerpts recall for me Juan Gelman's response to Theodor Adorno's famous remark that there could be "no more poetry after Auschwitz:"
"And now I believe there is no after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima or Nagasaki, after the Argentinean genocide, that we inhabit a time of "enduring," that massacres happen over and over again in some forsaken corner of the planet, that there exists a genocide that kills more slowly than the gas chamber but by no means less brutal, a genocide called hunger, that in the just passed century there has not been a single day of peace on this earth."
How does the language of poetry succeed at doing away with the apparent inexpugnability of these times of "enduring"? How does language fail the poet and what—if anything—can fill in this void left by language/poetry? Give specific examples from your own work or from each other's that you felt engaged directly with these issues.
Ruth Irupé Sanabria:
And it is clear that "there has not been a single day of peace on this earth" in over 5 centuries now and that hunger, literal and figurative, inform the American imagination(s) and language(s). Poetry, on occasion, emerges as a simple tool for very real survival and also for the creation of authentic memory in the face of maddening and violent "official stories." Perhaps, poetry is assigned the impossible task of, as you say, "doing away with the apparent inexpugnability of these times of enduring" because, like song, it can be discretely made, disguised, smuggled, and exchanged. And, like song, it doesn't have to be a lasting masterpiece to be good medicine at the time. Poetry, as we have seen throughout all of the Americas, is one of the friendliest arts in times of war or major crisis. My grandmother is a painter. I can't imagine her being able to paint in a concentration camp and sharing it effectively. My mother, a poet, was able to compose and smuggle out her poems from the concentration camp.
Your question also brings to mind a poem written by my mother, Alicia Partnoy, in the 1980's, "Song of Exiled." This poem gave me permission to own and resist through language.
They cut off my voice
So I grew two voices
In two different tongues
My songs I pour
They took away my sun
Two brand new suns
Like resplendent drums, I am playing
Today I am playing
Isolated I was from all my people
My twin songs are returning like an echo
And despite the darkness of this exile
My poem sets fire against a mirror.
I recognize a similar playful rebelliousness, and dark resistance against silence, defeat, and self-censorship in reading William's poem "Immigration Blues, 1980"
Hiding in a cloud of cigarette smoke,
black as a crow, I walk streets,
long and dark, cracked
open like the carcass of a dead cat...
Spanish syllables caught in my throat
words in Englished locked in a dictionary,
a foreigner everywhere I go.
I must add that I appreciate how the English language allows for so much florid transformation and play, for so much depth and creativity to emerge from it. American English is a very giving language
I think poetry and politics is a tricky situation when it comes to language. War or genocide allows us to examine what happens to language, how is language affected by such misfortune. Czeslaw Milosz suggests that everything, including language, returns to a simple function. Language recovers its simplest function which is communication. In this case, language is bound to depict the reality of war. Therefore, poems written before or during war tend to have a documentary feel to them. They become political pamphlets trying to push a particular methodology. At the moment of their birth, poems fulfill a very important function, but they don't always reach a high artistic aesthetic. Thus a notion of urgency is a rather popular tone of these poems. Poets have little time for editing, rewriting or building an iron-like form for their poems that will outlast the very writers themselves and the dead of their subject. Only a few show any familiarity with poetic and artistic craft. I'm thinking of Pablo Neruda's "I'm Explaining a Few Things" and Picasso's "Guernica"—both responses to the fascist regime during the Spanish civil war.
It is only later, after the war, under the pressure of a strong need to find an expression that poetry begins to move away from the stylistic modes of writing common to war. Thus, one can say that although the war becomes an inspiration for poetry, it also diminishes the language.
In this case, I believe politics have a place in poetry because it fulfills an essential function in a time of terror or natural catastrophe. The intentions of the writers are generous and noble. However, after the war or time of a collective despair, the poet needs time to meditate, to shape and bend his or her work into an iron-like form that will out last the experience of the war. The artistic craft needs to break through the chaos of war and reflect the wisdom of poetry. If poetry arises out of the need to embrace humanity, then poets will leave political poetry aside and find a more perfect poetry that can last. I think the first section in Ruth's book of poems The Strange House Testifies reflect these efforts to find a formal shape, one that can be hammered into the text.
I believe the word can influence the reader into social or personal change. I'm not suggesting that poetry will change the world. After all, W. H. Auden already set it straight when he said, "Poetry makes nothing happen." I think he was right in the political sense, but in terms of changing individuals, I believe poetry has that kind of power. It certainly captured and shaped my imagination. Poetry gave me a greater understanding of the world and language. Poetry started a change within me.
In addition, I know there's an opposition to poetry for social change. It is categorized as a limited and restricted way of looking at language. I think this a conservative way of looking at poetry. After all, conservative literature has a reason for being conservative–it cannot afford to denounce that which feeds it. To me the function of poetry is to help this globe become a better place. It's not an art for art's sake, but an art for the betterment of the world. It's about naming the truth. However, I don't think that aesthetics should be completely ignored either. After all, poetry is about constructing a new language, but I do believe there should be a balance between the two. This is what I believe. I don't denounce other types of poetry, even those that prioritize aesthetics. I think the world of poetry is big enough for all modes of writing. On the other hand, I do think there's a danger, when one type of poetry holds the reins of power and dictates over the rest. Poetry should be plural.
Describe an element(s) in your craft that has allowed you to merge your socio-historical consciousness with the creative consciousness of the language? What did this creative process reveal about you as a person, a poet, as an immigrant (in light of the historical context of U.S. –Latin American relations)?
Ruth Irupé Sanabria:
I began to acquire language in a time of profound Orwellian censorship in which reality was constantly revised with wordplay. I recall understanding the danger of a word, a name, or a question. Inadvertently, my grandparents taught me about the extended metaphor as a way to speak honestly. Also, out of desperation to know what was going on, the whereabouts of my parents, and why around me people were visibly but silently breaking down, I became a listener, an absorber of voices . Like songs, I'd catalogue the things people said, and replay them even more when we came to the US as political refugees. The extended metaphor and the play with voices show up as elements of craft in my poems in The Strange House Testifies. When I wrote these poems, I was beginning to explore and reclaim the political lexicon and the metaphors of birds (Operation Condor, doves, planes) and flying (death flights, migrations, escapes). William's poem, "Self-Portait with Crow" resonates with me.. His lines "I'm going to try, even if I fail, to see myself whole/ complete in the cry, in the beak of the crow" speaks to the way, " birds" occupy the playing space between death and survival, hope and despair.
When I first started writing, I found my homeland sweet and I thought my role as a writer was to preserve El Salvador's cultural identity and become some kind of cultural ambassador. I had a lot of assumptions about myself, El Salvador, and the world at large that needed to be critically examined. However, as I began to revise and revise my poems, I let go of these assumptions. When I let go of these certain dogmas, I began to mature as a writer, and instead of holding a particular platform, I began to find strength in the imagery or images of memory. The image is a prominent element in my writing because the visual world began to have more strength than the world of beliefs and dogmas.
I began to see every country and everything in it as native. I could claim the world as my homeland. I could see Duke Ellington as my uncle and Whitman as my grandfather. There was no reason why I should not write about the miners in Potosí. I became more open to whatever captured my imagination, anything that touched me with significance. At this moment, writing became a form of rebirth. It taught me to be more compassionate, more decent, more open, more tolerant and more loving as a human being, even if just a bit more.
From my new writings I can see that I'm revisiting the themes and images of exile again. In El Salvador I feel like a stranger and in the inner cities of the States I'm a foreigner. I used to think of my past in El Salvador as home, and my present in the U.S. as foreign, but the more I write about these two places, the more they both seem like a foreign country. I'm afraid of repeating myself, but it seems like I have no choice. This sense of isolation and displacement is permanent and I'll be struggling with it for a long time. I know there's no homecoming. Home is in the writing, in the imagination. Somehow as an exiled writer, the world is still a foreign land. I really don't know the answers. That's why I write.
I vomited the clouds
above the ocean
between Buenos Aires and New Orleans…
…One stewardess gave me a hard American mint…
…said it was the shock of clouds
that made me sick.
Ruth, in your collection and in the excerpt I've plucked above, the language of poetry is juxtaposed with the language of the "official narrative"—newspaper accounts, excerpts from Nunca Más, etc.—this new language (to borrow a phrase from William) thus reclaims "the political lexicon," rescues the words and images—the birds and clouds, the tissues of the land itself—that have also been made to suffer at the electric-end of the cattle prod.
But your poetry does much more than just reclaim/deconstruct the language of the official narrative—like The Art of Exile—your poetry too summons a language (language as sound-material)/space that is more vast and more beautiful and more enduring than the ugliness of repression. It recalls for me William's first encounter with Coltrane, "the way he [Coltrane] pushed/ a mountain into his saxophone…" and the music hitting him "like a hundred iron wheels."
In these times of recessions and revolutions (and to add to that, the looming threat of environmental degradation), what does the poet do with the ever-present feeling of social urgency? Are there artistic or ideological risks involved when engaging this urgency? In other words, does urgency dilute the poetic process, the way of arriving at this new language?
Considering that when poets write they write for and are read by an audience that consists mainly of other poets and writers (am I wrong?), in light of this how would you define your audience? When considering the same question, Rosa, Aracelis and Eduardo (the poets preceding you in these roundtables) considered the act of writing as an act of "moving toward" a "place where my work will be deeply questioned & considered & lived with." Do you share in the same sentiment? Could both of you respond to some of the thoughts outlined here?
I don't know. It seems to me that at the time of writing I write for no one else but me. I'm writing the poems I want to be reading, the ones I don't see out there. So in that sense I'm trying to satisfy myself. I'm trying to discover something about myself and the world around me. If I don't discover anything, then it's probably a poem not worth sharing. If the emotion I'm building in a poem is honest, then it will resonate with others.
For sometime now, I've been playing with the idea of approaching my work with a more punk sensibility, one that does not need someone else to tell me it's all right to write about this topic now or how to write about this topic, but more about writing this way or that way because it feels right. Like Richard Hugo said, sometimes you have to put down a certain word because it feels right, because it makes a great sound, not because of logic or good sense, but because of the musicality or tonality of the word. This is not to say that craft doesn't matter. It does. It's just that I'm looking for an ethic that focuses more on honesty and emotion, one that reveals the struggles to be human, to fail. It's natural for a human to make mistakes, and not be so perfect and create these factory, machine-made-like poems, where there's no trace of human folly. If the poem comes from a place of honesty, then chances are that I will be able to communicate with others, especially those who realize they have failed at something, but they keep going. They have fallen, but they keep getting up, even if they fail.
I know that some editors and publishers may not agree, but that's not why we write poems. What's important is how you feel about your work, the act of writing, which is probably one of the last sacred things left in this world.
In terms of social urgency, I think solitude and detachment are very important when writing about a time of terror or natural catastrophe. Both have taught me to create a distance between myself and my homeland. This perspective has allowed me to see my birthplace a little more clearly, but it also has given me the prerequisite for freedom in my work. My state of exile has created a kind of isolation that is the nearest thing I know to freedom. So in my case I find it hard to write about the war in El Salvador without any time away from the noise. I need that distance before I know how I truly feel, not to diminish those who write with a social urgency. There's something noble and courageous about that intention.
I'm thinking of Ruth's poem "Ten," one of my favorites in her collection, and I'm wondering how she gets to the moment of writing about the aftermath of 9/11 only a couple of years later. I admire the intense obligation to the opposition of war. I'm wondering, Ruth, if you could speak to this urgency, and the fact that out there in poetry land, there's the discourse that writing about September 11 is a cliché because it is the same material over and over again, falling buildings, terror, airplanes, fire and smoke, screams, tears, etc. How were you able to stay away from such clichés and be able to write a strong poem?
Ruth Irupé Sanabria:
Social urgency, per se, doesn't dilute the poetic process. For many poets the urge to act or respond to one of the many ecological, social, or political violence(s) is unavoidable. It is more damaging to the poet to repress than to confront this inquietude. Self aggrandizement, self indulgence (in pity, fear, rage, voyeurism, political tourism, etc), avoidance of criticism, and the failure to take ideological risks in the creative process damage poetry in general, and, obviously, this type of poetry.
I would like to add that there is one risk, which I've become more aware of as I grow older. This is the risk of being "type-casted" as a poet of political conscience, for lack of a better word. Occasionally, we inadvertently develop a fan base who expect a politic in our poetry all the time. And poets who emerged addressing issues of "social urgency" (to use your words) with great beauty, craft, and power often encounter a type of emotional violence when they move into an exploration of other aspects of their humanity. Of course, this criticism won't destroy the poet but it might depress him/her and shut doors on him/her. Obviously, the poet has to listen to whatever presents itself to him or her, even if it means risking disappointing the audience who loved you so. I've had conversations about this issue with different poets at different stages of their careers. What's worse, is that the ideological criticism of a poet who strays from writing politically astounding, bold, revolutionary work is , sometimes, masked homophobia, racism, elitism, and/or sexism; an intolerance about complexity and range of a human being; a profound shock and dismay that the poet one relied on for their political medicine might withhold it and explore the camellias and orange trees in the back yard instead.
To me, this is the professional risk one takes. The good news is that risk is becoming less threatening as we create more spaces and, like William mentioned, take a punk DIY sensibility to publishing, writings, promoting.
What William says about writing for himself resonates with me. When I've consciously written with poets as my main audience, I've produced very sanitized, and self-aware work that begs for approval (at least in my head); I feel ashamed of that work. I've destroyed it. But I do feel four poets leaning over my shoulder when I'm writing. Am I writing for them? I'm not sure. Beside them stand the people I am mostly writing for, other than myself. This audience is a mixture of all the people that have influenced and/or motivated me to write. I do write with this imagined community in my mind. Going back to the four poets that lean over me, each one has been honest with me and has helped me transform my writing. Phillip Levine is one of them. He has a tremendous understanding of rage. It was a quick 10 minute, life changing conversation, in which he helped me to understand how rage and temper are energies that need to be crafted and disciplined. Tantrums damage the work. Tantrums can mask themselves as important poems, but the fact is, no matter how important the rage is, it still has to be worked and worked to come to the truth, beauty, and full potential of the piece. If one is good at poetic tantrums, it's an easy trick to pull off. Voila, a powerful poem. Not so. It might seem incredibly lazy to a more experienced reader. So I conjure him up from time to time. Is that what it means to write for other poets? I'm not sure.
Thank you, William. I wrote "Ten" in October 2011. In order to avoid the cliches, I had to be acutely aware of the cliches that present themselves in poetry, painting, sculpture, photography and music that confronts war. Music and visual art are part of the writing process for me in general. But in this case, music was essential. I forced myself to enter an altered state through music. I was listening over and over to Ray Barretto's "Carnaval," Violeta Parra, and electric guitar solos to force an artificial distance in order to get a closer look at what I was trying to create. Over and over again, I got rid of most of what I'd written and allowed myself to explore fragmented voices/directions and allow those voices/directions to find themselves back.
William, "Biography of A Country" is one my favorite poems from The Art of Exile. The music of that poem takes my breath away. Also, I can't help but to see a kind of triptych emerge which is equally haunting and intense. A painting of sorts. I was wondering if visual arts played a role in your writing process.
It's refreshing to know that you find music as part of your writing process. I also find music essential to my writing. When I first heard John Coltrane's Lush Life on Prestige Records, I loved the sound. I felt a kind of freedom in the playing of the music. It seemed to transcend history. I didn't know then, but for me, after the war, listening to this type of music was very healing. It was like restoring the world once again. At this time, I didn't realize that the repetitive playing of this music would eventually influence my life and later my work.
I think the improvisational spirit of the music is what captures my imagination. It is this approach jazz artists have toward their music that inspires me. Improvisation requires taking risks, and as a writer I would like to take risks when I revise my work. Where does the poem begin or end? How many ways can I write this poem? Can mistakes work in a poem and show its humanness, its strengths and weaknesses? Sometimes I've allowed myself to let go and follow this musical language. I'm always left with a feeling that I don't know the meaning of what I wrote, but the sound is great.
To answer your question, I've been writing poems on paintings or taking a painting approach to poems lately. I've been looking at Francisco Goya's "Third of May" for a long time. I find this close engagement with another artist's work is in itself a form of creation. It's like looking at a Mayan ruin and finding a meaning that was not there before, but through the process of writing, it has revealed something about the writer or object or a marriage of the two. I think it goes back to the fact that vivid imagery is very important to me. I'm always looking for images that evoke emotion. In terms of craft, I hope for my poems to combine image and sound.
Ultimately, I'm interested in reclaiming in my work that which once was lost, and it seems that the only way to find home is in the language of the poems. This is the reason why my book opens with a quote by Czeslaw Milosz, "Language is the only homeland."
Ruth Irupé Sanabria:
Milosz's quote brings me back to when I first started to write. I wrote "Las AEIOUS De Los Ums Seeking Tongues That Ain't No Way Hiding" in 1996. I'd never felt entitled to the English language. Though I could not articulate it, I felt the Spanish language had disowned me. Spanish was the language of the military, and of broken, cold parents, of all the beloved tios y tias who had and would commit suicide in one way or another, of distance, of mockery, of "parolee," of hatred, doublespeak, and torture. I projected a lot of internalized violence onto my native tongue. The English language was hostile and brutal but ultimately it is where I found home. A language of exile - it was the oppressor's tongue, yes. But also the language of solidarity. The English language is resilient and pliable and defiant. It is also a language of the oppressed rising. Perhaps the Spanish language is too.
I grew up in a border neighborhood of DC...I found homeland in the fusion of English languages spoken by working class African-Americans with deep roots in the South, poor Whites from Mississippi and Tennessee, and immigrants primarily from El Salvador, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. The English(es) were so beautiful, creative, and never what I found in my textbooks.
In 1996, my professor of Poetry of Protest at Rutgers University, the poet and journalist, Rick Kearns, gave us an option to write a paper or a poem as our final. I chose to write a poem because I could never meet his expectations for papers. I didn't consider myself a writer, much less a poet. The assignment was very open. Basically, I could write anything as long as he could establish that I'd taken away something, anything, from having read the anthology Poetry Like Bread and other assigned readings/discussions. The due date passed and I had no poem for him. The grades were in and I had no poem for him. The campus closed for winter break and I had no poem for him. I'd returned to D.C.
It took me weeks to allow the voices in "Las AEIOUS de los ums seeking tongues that ain't no way hiding" to emerge; I had no idea what was happening to me, but I felt absolutely crazy. I felt like all these layers and layers of voices where competing to eat the page and claim their space. I felt overcome by the catharsis. Finally, in the middle of a blizzard, I walked a mile to find an open print shop to fax the poem to his house. Rick Kearns was the first to ever suggest that I was entitled to write poetry in this or in any language.
Almost two decades later, I work with high risk teens who hate English class, who are brilliant, capable, and creative but have so much rage against their own voice. I've had students who literally set fire to the words of the authors that move them, throw the books against walls, turn over their desks, shut down, disengage, self-destruct. For so many of us, our tongues are fragmented, injured, hiding, and performed, in defiance and self-defense, and/or in order to remain functional if not sane. If language is homeland, for many of us it is homeland from which we run away. We'd rather live on the streets, be homeless, be in prison. And this is dangerous. This is why, aside from the inescapable calling, I write and teach. Is "language the only homeland?" I'll ask my students tomorrow.
What differentiates these two poets (William and Ruth) as particularly special—and in consequence this installment of Latino/a Poetry Now—is not only that they are the first poets featured in this national tour, so far, to have been born outside the U.S. but more importantly is that in this new chorus of Latino/a voices they sing like no one else to the countries of their births and the realities of our times. William, born in El Salvador—a country torn by civil war—summons a haunting language of compassion that becomes a constant caress on the mouths, on the memories of the dead. Ruth, born in Argentina to parents imprisoned by the Argentinian military dictatorship, dares to summon a language that reclaims the words and images that were also made to suffer the terrors of the death camp. With words these two poets build a place of belonging that is stronger and more enduring and vaster than all the pain and suffering inflicted upon them; this is poetry as a celebration of life from the exact center of death and violence.
In a world where every 3.6 seconds a person—usually a child under the age of five—dies of starvation, of preventable disease, of poverty, poetry endures firm on her feet against death and sadness. And I mean it both literally and metaphorically. Poetry will not change the world, that much is clear, but as these two poets make it poignantly clear in this roundtable, poetry as language-material is as resilient as is the bark on trees. Like a good song, poetry can be "discretely made, disguised, smuggled and exchanged," just ask Alicia Partnoy—Ruth's mother—who nourished and freed her poems from the very bowels of a death camp. Furthermore Ruth finds in the language of poetry the power to reclaim "the political lexicon," the images and "metaphors of birds, (Operation Condor, doves, planes) and flying (death flights, migrations, escapes)" proving that poetry—written in times of urgency or not—can only but aid in "resisting through language."
William Archila, while acknowledging the place and validity of poems written during moments of deep crisis, as these fulfill "an essential function in time of [political] terror or natural catastrophe," finds empowerment in a language that "will outlast the experience of the war;" a language that taps into the creative and soothing wisdom of poetry and which can help break through the "chaos of war." This is a poetry for the betterment of humanity, a poetry that must be intimately connected to the poet's craft. Like an umbilical cord, this craft nourishes the poem until it is strong enough to move "the reader into social or personal change," to break a fissure in these times of enduring.
Echoes of The Art of Exile's epigraph, a quote by Czeslaw Milosz, "language is the only homeland," kept resonating throughout much of this conversation. And in a surprising and compelling moment in this roundtable, Ruth confesses to finding "home" and solidarity in the English language—the language of the "oppressed rising:" a language that despite its hostility and brutality was unlike the Spanish of the Argentinian dictatorship: the language of broken families, "of mockery, of 'parolee,' of hatred, doublespeak and torture." And this new homeland is made that much more beautiful by the fusion of English(s) spoken by the working class whites, blacks and Latino populations peppering Ruth's ear. The very same people whose children she now teaches and who "have so much rage against their own voice," a homeland from which they constantly "run away from. " These are the very same people whose struggles Archila has in mind when he seeks out a craft that is focused on an ethic of "honesty and emotion, one that reveals the struggles to be human." And it is from this "place of honesty" that the poem can communicate with those who "have failed," but "keep getting up, even if they fail."
Ultimately, for both William and Ruth, home is the hallucinating bird of poetic language—like a comet it shines in the coldest depth of the prison-dungeon only to shoot free and break through the roof of the earth.
Lauro Vazquez (M.F.A. '13)
Writer/Editor, Letras Latinas
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame