Roundtable pt 2
Maria Melendez: Dear poets, thanks for the roaring start! We've brought in music, cultural syncretism, visual arts, magic and actual lines from OPP (Other Peoples' Poetry). Wonderful! Thank you for diving in, and thank you especially for so thoughtfully and energetically responding to/riffing off each other. Keep it up! This next batch of questions, below, is meant to provoke. Here goes:
1. As a Chicana poet who writes in English and operates from my God-given position of need for affirmation and insecurity in the face of the ever-present possibility of invisibility, I have to say: so far, only one US Latina with a book of poetry in English has been evoked, by name, as important (Judith Ortiz Cofer, in Blas' response). Pat Mora, anyone? Valerie Martinez? (To name two such women whose work is absolutely essential to the development of my own.) Tell me I'm fretting for nothing! Tell me it is an accident that we've called to mind a Martín Espada, an Alberto Rios, a Juan Felipe Herrera, numerous Spanish-language guys, (and 1-2 Spanish-language gals), but that my obsessive, insecure counting means nothing and we're really all completely well versed in the work of US Latina poets writing in English! Tell me I'm wrong, or if I'm right to worry, throw out some Action Items/homework/to-dos/vows for all of us—as poetry presenters/promoters/culture makers, we can work to re-set an essential balance. Si o no?!
2. Both Mark and Hope very poignantly expressed a sense of regret at not coming to connect sooner with the work of US-born Latinos writing in English. What internal expectations or external barriers prevented this earlier connection? And let me put it more broadly, so the pressure's not just on Mark and Hope: what did each of you think "US Latino poetry" was, before you read it/were exposed to it? Several of you have spoken of encountering strands of such that didn't speak to you . . . this is the opposite of Mark and Hope's recent reactions . . . so, what did that lack of identification feel like? Was it a let down, a call to action to forge ahead in a kind of isolation, or did you have a sense that if you just kept reading, you'd find a US Latino poet out there for you? Did you ever, in the midst of such mis-identification, think, "Oh, I guess this means I'm not a real Latino/a?"
3. If you're tired of questions egging you on about being Latino/a, I do care that "A Tree Grows in Nürnberg," and I do want to hear about it! So: tell me about that, Raina and everyone—be it the ineffable, the spiritual, finding a suitable rhyme for "orange" (granja . . . zanja . . .), etc. Let any/all current curiosities in your poetry out to breathe in this good company.
4. Lastly, a follow-up for Roberto, who wrote, "The work of Latino writers that most excites me is that which resists the oft-celebrated formal plurality of the current US American poetry scene." Which current scene, defined how, and defined by whom? Who/what exemplifies, for you, "formal plurality," which exciting Latino writers do you see resisting it, and why does it need to be resisted? I understood more clearly your urging against a claim to "neutrality," but I'm not sure, yet, what you mean by a "plurality" that merits resisting.
Juan Morales: Raina, we are definitely on the same page with this notion of the layers found within the dualities you listed. From the sound of it, great connections to the world of childhood are definitely unfolding in your second manuscript—this links to our superstitious tendencies and coping mechanisms. Our powers/spirits keep us humble and connected to our folklore and lineages. Just like Emma, I also read a lot of the same fairytales (Irish and Scottish), pre-teen ghost stories, and other supernatural types of phenomenon, and these works shaped my fascination as well and guided me toward making them fearful and fantastic for my adult self too. Sometimes we are working on mystifying these things further, especially working in poetry.
On the other hand, it seems like magic is getting lost in our daily lives, with all the new bells and whistles of technology. Perhaps it's because our technology is the new magic and we're living it? In my second manuscript, I'm exploring similar themes to you but within a specific historical time period—I want readers to experience the same notions we're describing when they re-experience the past and commentaries on them. I think it's connecting toward the "sense of smallness" Emma also mentions with the way we can be dwarfed by time, place, history, magic, etc. As I continue this investigation I've been looking at several writers to guide me, like the chroniclers El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Guaman Poma. The intangibles offer me a challenge to reach out to the rest of the community even if my subject matter, the Inca and Spanish conquistadors, are not their primary points of interest. The challenge can be quite exhilarating, no?
Raina Leon: I do think that Latina poets are definitely not getting the literary radio play that Latino poets receive. That is a common occurrence in all aspects of the world. The need for critical analysis of the systems and changes to them is still very needed. So what are some solutions to the problem? Perhaps one is a conference presentation at the next AWP on Latina poets and poetics. Interested?
As for not feeling like a real Latina, I have to say that I feel what many others have said. To list all the ethnicities that I am through the gift of my parents' love would take up the space generally reserved for a paragraph. Let's just say that checking a box back when you could only check one was extremely difficult. In high school, my race on the official records was different every year according to the quota needs of the school. No joke. In OCHO, I submitted a poem, "A (Second) to Consider (Generations)," which speaks to my constant dance with identity.
Even my name is wrong sometimes, with its Americanized spelling of the first name so that others would be able to pronounce it (though in elementary school I was often still Ra-EE-na or Re-NAY and DAY Lay own or LEE on). Yes, there are poets that I love and whose poems speak to me, but in the end, I'm the only Latina poet that is for me. I'm the only one who knows my story, who lives my story. I am the only one who can write the way I see the world. I really dig what I write . . . maybe 40% of the time. I just love poetry. At the same time, sharing with others, learning from others, supporting and being supported by others who have similar experiences, is just priceless.
I'm really interested in building community. I co-founded The Acentos Review with Eliel Lucero in 2008 to foster the work of Latin@ poets, writers, artists. Rich Villar and I are now working on the editing. I enjoy participating in conversations with authors about their work. There's the reading series in the Bronx and the writing workshops, all under the Acentos umbrella. It's such a welcoming space and community that has existed, going on eight years. I would like to do some work to make this work international. Considering I now live in Germany and have plans to continue to work overseas, I would love to facilitate the meeting of poets from all over the world. I am working on introducing my work to an international audience through journals, but I see this as a step towards workshops and reading series with contemporary, multicultural poets from the States. There are never enough opportunities to dialogue with one another and to grow as artists. I'm working hard on getting a yearly reading and workshop series going in the schools and communities where I work. I work with military dependents, and every year that I've been overseas a poet friend has done a reading or workshop. Now, I'm trying to get them paid for their efforts—almost there. I'm still imagining, though, how an international meeting could look and how it could tie into Acentos, but most importantly how to fund it.
Speaking of The Acentos Review, though, another way to support the reading of work by Latin@ authors is to do reviews.
Hope Maxwell Snyder: I'm familiar with Valerie Martinez's work. I like it a great deal. I guess I did not mention her because I unfortunately "discovered" her quite recently. I think you make an excellent point, Maria, and, unfortunately, I think you are right to fret.
Concerning your question about internal expectations or external barriers that prevented an earlier connection with US born Latino writers: For me, I think some of the external barriers were created by the fact that I was not born in the US but spent a year here at age twelve and then moved at fifteen with my mother and my brother. My mother had a Colombian friend who helped her out during that period, but her friend's husband was American, as were her children. They did not speak Spanish at all. Therefore, we never connected to a Latino community per se, but just had the odd friend in school from El Salvador or Argentina. Many of the international students in our high school were children of diplomats (we were living in Rockville, Maryland) and therefore did not remain in the US permanently. They had no need to develop a sense of belonging in this country. From that time on, I worked hard to fit in this culture, in the part that dominated. When I majored in English as an undergraduate, no Latino writers, male or female, were included in the anthologies we read. At least, I can't remember any. I turned to Spanish and Latin American lit only in graduate school. Even then, I was studying and reading Spanish and Latin American writers, not US-born Latino writers. My graduate work focused on Europe during the Middle Ages, so no Latinos there. I really did not start to become curious about US-born Latino writers until I started honoring the poet in me and trying to figure out where that poet belongs in this American world. A well-known American poet once commented about one of my poems that it was the Spanish that made it sound different. The poem was written in English, but I think he meant that I was thinking in Spanish. That is ironic for me because, even though Spanish was my first language, all my university papers were written in English, including my Ph.D. dissertation.
As the organizer of a poetry festival in West Virginia, for the past seven years I have invited poets to come to Shepherdstown to read and teach workshops. My criteria for selection has not been defined by heritage or nationality. I've chosen poets whose work I admire, poets that I would like the local community to become better acquainted with. Even though we are engaging in conversation about Latino poets and we all seem to be in agreement about the fact that Latino and Latina poets need more forums and more opportunities to share their work, I believe that to some extent all poetry needs nurturing in America and in the world today. One of the missions of the Sotto Voce Poetry Festival is to bring people together to celebrate poets and poetry. Some of the poets I have featured include Richard Garcia (I should have mentioned him earlier on as someone whose work I admire), Terrance Hayes, Gerald Stern, Grace Cavalieri, Natasha Trethewey, Michael Collier, Steve Orlen, Andrea Hollander Budy, Alice Friman, Rick Campbell, Rob Carney. I have also invited poets at different stages in their careers. This year I offered a reading, "Women's Voices" and featured poets Deborah Ager, Terri Witek, and Amy Holman. I also invited Edward Hirsch. He gave a great lecture on poetry. One of the poems he selected for his lecture is a Neruda poem. So Neruda was not born here and neither were Vallejo, nor Mistral, nor . . . and I could go on and on. Is the US-born Latino poet such a recent phenomenon, and is this why we know so little about each other?
In 2005 I met Grace Cavalieri, when I invited her to participate in Sotto Voce. Ever since we met, Grace expressed support for me and for my work. She saw potential in me that I had not even understood yet. That year Grace decided to feature me in her program for the Library of Congress, "The Poet and the Poem." Later on the same year she featured me in a television program. Grace's support came at a crucial time for me, and it was very important. She is a fantastic supporter of poetry. Grace has told me many times that she feels this is a magic moment for Latino and Latina poets. Perhaps she's right. After all, here we are, communicating with each other thanks to The Poetry Society of America.
A few years back I created and directed a music and reading series at a museum in Hagerstown, Maryland. I invited Mark Smith-Soto to read there. It was great, and I was so glad he came. I met Mark at the Latino Writers' Conference in Albuquerque, and he invited me to submit poems for the Hispanic/Latino issue of to the International Poetry Review. Here is an example of a Latino poet who supports other Latino poets and their work. Bravo, Mark. Maria is another fabulous example of generosity, support, and encouragement. If it weren't for you, Maria, we would not have found each other and would certainly not be thinking about our deepest fears and insecurities as Latino poets. Thank you.
This brings me to my own fears as a Latina poet. I have spent years trying to prove my worth as an intellectual, a woman, a poet, and a Latina. Did I leave anything out? Just look at my curriculum. Mark and I already talked about that. I had to prove I was smart, and so on. Choosing to focus on creative writing was certainly a risk for me. But, what have I done since then? I've attended the most prestigious writers' conferences in the country, always trying to be accepted by the poetry rulers, the demigods of poetry, the bosses (you get it). That is not to say that I have not learned a great deal at these conferences.
I also run a small publishing house called Somondoco Press. I've only published a few writers, most of them poets. This is a labor of love, and a great deal of work.
Here is one of my greatest dilemmas:
How can I continue to support and to promote other writers while still nurturing the poet in me? For the past seven years I have raised the money for the poetry festival, I have donated my time, and my own resources, I have begged poets like Ed Hirsch and Natasha Trethewey to come to the festival even though I cannot offer them much except a tiny honorarium. The festival has been successful and people want to see it continue, but I confess I'm burned out. I have a poetry manuscript waiting in a drawer.
Juan Morales: Allow me to implicate myself a little more. Growing up, I fell into a group of kids who assumed we only studied dead writers—I never even thought about living writers, working in the present. Like Roberto and Albino, I learned a lot about writing and aesthetics from punk rock, but I would also add ska to the mix too. The rebellious, "fuck you" attitude allowed me to also discover rhythm and other ways to cultivate the written word. It also showed me writing can lead to questions and resistance. However, I did not have exposure to Latino punks, with the only band jumping to mind being the Voodoo Glow Skulls. Perhaps this ties into the questions about barriers to finding US-born Latino writers. For me, I identified with working class writings and forms of art, but I'm not sure I felt isolation since I didn't know I should be looking. I kept writing and finding my voice, but looking back I can recall creative writing workshop moments when most classmates replied by telling me, "This is beautiful, but I don't get it." I'm sure many of you have been there too. Maybe I can blame the cultural context or maybe I wasn't doing enough showing, but it still shaped my identity as a Latino writer. Regardless, it did not leave me harboring negative feelings and instead challenged me to work more on accessibility.
As my education went on, Latin@ writers never really entered the discourse and it wasn't until grad school and in my current teaching/writing networking days that I was exposed to other Latin@ writers. Some Latina poets/collections that come to mind are Diana García's When Living Was a Labor Camp, the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, Bernice Zamora, and Lisa Chávez's two poetry collections. I entered a world where the pool of diverse writers continued to grow, and I found some supportive people that helped me learn the ropes of getting the book out there. I still remember two writers (that many of you know) taking my book when I didn't know anyone and finding a venue to review it. Months later, it opened other doors. Getting back to Maria's question on Latina writers, I know they are out there, but I didn't have the avenues of finding them until recently. A lot of younger writers find themselves in similar situations where they are still finding Latin@ poets writing in English. It is an insecurity of mine, just like my lack of mastery in the Spanish language.
This obviously points to some other issues and factors within the Latin@ poetry community. For the most part, poetry is a niche group with the larger paradox being that the people reading contemporary poets are other contemporary poets. We are the ones supporting our colleagues and subscribing to lit mags and reading online mags. No matter how much we talk it all up, we still struggle to infiltrate the lives of every day readers. A lot of writers, including myself, say they write to connect to the people or for the people, but the people don't usually take notice beyond the proud family members and the friends who generously buy your book. I'm always left wondering if we can do more, but I share Hope's concerns about burnout and neglecting our own work.
CSU-Pueblo is a small school with about 5,000 students, and it is a Hispanic Serving Institute, meaning at least 25% of the student population is Hispanic/Latino. I have my role as a teacher here, but it is also my alma mater where I was a first-generation college student majoring in English. Flashing forward, this helps me relate to my students, and directing the Creative Writing Program here has lead to some small but productive ways of exposing these students to creative writing and the fact that there is a culturally diverse world of writers out there. Being the Faculty Sponsor for the student literary magazine, Tempered Steel, and my regular teaching practices exposes students to the literary magazine, which in turn debunks the myth that we should only be reading dead writers. Advising creative writing students allows me to recommend works that speak to them. The Southern Colorado Reading Series is another effort put forward, where we bring four to six readers to the campus. I always strive to have at least one Latin@ writer take part each year along with other diverse readers. Organizing our readings, I strive to bring a balanced and diverse group of people here to Pueblo to ensure as many different voices are represented as possible. Last week we had 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner Gary Jackson read for us. It's been going on for ten years now, and it's fantastic for students to meet a poet, have a book signed, and in some cases go to their first reading. Next semester we have more readers coming, including fiction writer Sylvia Torti, up-and-coming poet Melody Gee, and Denver Poet Laureate Chris Ransick. I love Hope's idea of having theme-based readings too, and the series continues to evolve in so many ways.
In the classroom, I teach anthologies as well as poetry collections from writers who read from the series. I have a fond memory of last year, when my students read Maria's book, Flexible Bones. My students and I read the book, discussed it, and then we were fortunate to have her visit the class and discuss manuscripts and process. In my students' faces, I could see the awe of meeting a published writer and the surprise of having that writer dedicate a healthy chunk of time to speak with them.
Last week in my class, I asked my students how many of them have read a full-length collection of poetry. Out of 21, only three or four raised their hands. This didn't surprise me. I think that's how teaching can obviously lead to outreach and more exposure to poetry and creative writing as a whole. It's one of the best forms of grassroots promotion of writers and ideas. Teaching and writing does not offer a lot of money or resources, but I think time and the conscious effort to promote our fellow writers and poets can help win hearts and minds, even if it is one at a time. I feel lucky every day to be a part of this cause.
Roberto Tejada: I'll begin here by reiterating the nimble words of elena minor: "I am not apart from who I am." Therefore, in defiance also of any "narrowly defined paradigm" for representation, I seek writing that provides poetic pleasures—cadences at once familiar and unexpected within the field of critical inquiry—so as to alter our "scripts of belonging." elena minor, founder and editor of the fine journal PALABRA (yet another source for evocative Latino writing), is a case in point. Her cultural perception is informed by a lifelong commitment to wide-ranging practices—political activism, urban policy, higher education—and so her methodology grounds aesthetic advancement to public action.
The image today of a formal pluralism in US American poetry has been suggested in different print settings, even as the resultant blind spots are symptomatic of an over investment in agreement. In the shifting borders of energies and attitude, as per the structures that arbitrate our institutions of taste, a pluralist aesthetics too often consigns social constituency to the backdrop. In the climate of conciliatory formal pragmatism, cultural stakes relative to difference are treated often as though merely a problem of style—the most notorious example in recent news being Norton's American Hybrid anthology. Those interested can read the important critiques by Craig Santos Perez ("Whitewashing American Hybrid Aesthetics," at Poetry Foundation's online blog Harriet), and by J. Michael Martinez and Jordan Windholz ("A Poetics of Suspicion: Chicana/o Poetry and the New," published in the newly invigorated Puerto del Sol under the editorial helm of Carmen Giménez Smith).
These responses are crucial to counter what Sesshu Foster on his website (East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines) calls the "resolutely typical ideological and aesthetic limitations and blinders by [a] white `avant-garde'" establishment. To the extent that the so-called dissolution of aesthetic difference has led to a diplomatic coexistence, in the mechanics of increased cultural reproduction, where experimental gestures can readily affix to principles of self-expression, and search-engine sculpting can prompt personas of bald sentiment, it has also given way to its own form of homogeneity.
My desires are contradictory. Despite what elite protocol would recommend, certain sites of an identifiable US American vanguard are not especially brimming with noblesse oblige—inasmuch as modernist admissions are fraught with the anxieties of aspiration and the longing for specialness. All the same, my commitments remain rooted in the critical culture of the avant-garde. In the 1990s, while there may have been evidence that Latino writing of complexity was under construction, mavericks like Harry Gamboa Jr. could only exert an influence, for example, after the 1998 publication of his collected writings in Urban Exile, edited by Chon Noriega (University of Minnesota Press).
To further complicate, in the mid-1990s I published a few unkind pages on the politics and practices by which Latino poetry was anthologized at the time; an article commissioned by the Village Voice, killed by its editors, and later published in Sulfur magazine. I still stand by what I argued: that university presses and other publishers were creating a space for Latino/a visibility, but only so long as it conformed to scripted realms of selfhood and accepted notions of rhetorical conduct. Unfortunately, fifteen years later, institutional commitments that arbitrate access and status for Latino/a artistic challenges to the existing categories have notably rescinded, even as the aesthetic spectrum has become increasingly intrepid and complex.
To speak only of writers with whom I've had the opportunity to engage, I'd mention Rosa Alcalá, Francisco Aragón, Daniel Borzutzky, Danielle Cadena Deulen, Brenda Cárdenas, John Chávez, Ramón García, Carmen Giménez-Smith, Gabe Gómez, Jorge Guitart, Roberto Harrison, Gabriela Jáuregui, J. Michael Martínez, Valerie Martínez, Maria Melendez, elena minor, Urayoán Noel, Deborah Paredez, Emmy Pérez, Paul Martínez Pompa, Peter Ramos, Barbara Jane Reyes, John-Michael Rivera, Juan Manuel Sánchez, Craig Santos Pérez, Mónica de la Torre, Rodrigo Toscano, and Edwin Torres, among others involved in overlapping projects. This could also extend to Tijuana's art scenes and literary communities like the Laboratorio Fronterizo de Escritores that was for a period of a few years the undertaking of Cristina Rivera-Garza with a view to cross-cultural and experimental writing.
To address Maria's justifiable concern with the pitfalls of potential invisibility, I'd recall as well, among Latina writers who serve as models, the writing of Caridad Svich, poet of the stage. Svich is an active cultural promoter, editor, and translator, and playwright whose poetics I admire for its scale of speech and uncompromising vision. In her theatrical works, Svich expands what speaking bodies can activate in relation to movement, space, and selfhood, both in real time and as historical citation.
In various ways, these poets resist the neutral position of an unworried pluralism. They seek tonal ranges that speak to a social imaginary in arguments that apply pressure to images and cadence alike. These poets strive for unpredictable phrasing; performances of sound values that defy cultural assumptions. With sensuousness and precision, some look to capture the delirious nature of American entertainment culture or media sphere in the larger flow of trans-global dislocations. Some find critical engagement with American and international literary archives by which to forge an origin story for present-day practice. Still others explore the potential for visionary discourse, whereby internal psychic strife is commensurate with historical struggle.
As a body, the work of these poets shares a common purpose to re-enchant what constitutes a relevant poetic claim: how lyric statement conceives its audience, and how storytelling and architecture work together to fashion public space through language that cares enough to matter. Many have written accounts that serve as the conceptual framework for their practice, or essay-poems linked to what Renee Gladman has aptly called the "thinking text." These poets submit a dynamic understanding of sexed selfhood, public address, ethnicity, and cultural lineage by activating lyric tension with critical timing. These writers are excited by poetry that is not merely idealist bookkeeping in the saturated culture of self-expression; they are suspicious of realisms that limit our experience and ability to alter the order of things. At best, they deploy selfhood to question the national project, so brazen on the global stage as to provisionally override our social and aesthetic identities.
These poets, I should quickly add, form part of a much thicker field we seek to map with each issue of Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas—edited by Kristin Dykstra, Gabriel Bernal Granados, myself, and a diverse advisory board. Kristin Dykstra, who has deep commitments to Latino literature in the expanded field, writes in a forthcoming review of The Norton Anthology of US Latino Literature that, "US Latino/a writers and literatures seem to have a double presence in our culture today: invisible in some quarters, highly visible in others. To move from a suggestive invisibility over to the happier evidence of visibility, there's no shortage of Latino/a writers, past or present, who have produced compelling work with broad significance for American culture and society."
The position I seek as well takes a form of double vision. Because I want generosity at once with cultural rigor, it remains unclear to me how the kind of writing I've described above can fit comfortably in debates grounded exclusively on identitarian certainty or aesthetic allegiance. How to conceive the point further when individual structures of possibility are so often made to appear exhausted? What kinds of visibilities do we want and how do we negotiate those we make, or those made for us, once they materialize?
elena minor: I started writing before there was any collective or conscious notion of US Latin@ poetic aesthetics. Immersed as I was in the Chicano Movement, it felt natural that poetry should march with art, music, and politics in natural progression. Why not? But it wasn't until I found Lorna Dee Cervantes that I understood the power of a Chicana voice. She said what I wanted to say but mucho más mejor. She kicked ass then and still does now, and although there are several Latin@s whose work I greatly admire, it was a while before I found the 'next big thing': la que se llama María Meléndez. (You asked, you got, mija.)
Sometimes I think our dilemma as Latin@ poets/writers is that we want at one and the same time to be unique and to be accepted as peers by the Academy. In large part, however, the Academy doesn't read US Latin@ literature—at least, not any more. We were the literary flavor of the decade in the '80s after Time magazine declared it the decade of the Latino (again). After the initial flush of identity-based work that 'introduced' Latin@ literature to the Academy, it moved on to the next untasted flavor, assuming that what it had read of Latin@ lit was as far as it was going to go. And for a while it was. It's only been in the last decade or so that we've rolled into new territory, both in poetry and prose. But we still face the Academy's 20th century mindset. Subconsciously it thinks of us as those who must be taught to write English rather than those who write literature. We've come a long ways in 50 or so years. It's taken English language literature more than 900 years to get where it is.
As the editor of PALABRA I see a lot of work that addresses the Academy as its audience. I call it 'woe is me' writing. It fits the Academox nicely, but it doesn't sing or stomp or fly. It saddens me to read so many voices still crying for acceptance, still holding to that standard rather than letting their own voices ferment and rise up on their own terms. I started the lit mag in part as a vehicle for exercising our word/language muscles in ways that are organic and natural for us—expressions of Latin@ that cross all borders (even the ones we create) and take no prisoners.
I recently had the privilege of a weeklong residency with seven other Latin@ poet/editors, several of whom have won awards for their work. It was a luxurious experience: we wrote, ate, talked, took walks, made plans. What struck me after I returned home and had the opportunity to reflect on those seven days was that we never as a group discussed our own work. I don't know why and I'm not going to ask. But perhaps we didn't need to; perhaps our comfort with what and how we write didn't need explication or examination. Perhaps not.
Mark Smith-Soto: Maria, your probing questions and the impressive responses posted so far have sparked so many thoughts/reactions in my mind that I hardly know where to start to enter the conversation. The themes of visibility /invisibility I find particularly engaging . . . as an undergraduate English major in the late '60s I was completely unaware that William Carlos Williams' third book, published at his own expense, was called Al Que Quiere and contained several poems with titles in Spanish, including the often anthologized "El hombre" It would have meant much to me to know that this great poet who profoundly influenced the course of twentieth century English-language poetry had experimented with the use of Spanish words in his poems; that he had, like myself, a Hispanic (in his case, Puerto Rican) mother and a gringo father; and again like me, was passionately liberal in his politics but loath to use poetry as a soapbox. While Williams was extremely visible to me as an "American poet" he was equally invisible as a "latino poet" . . . which is too bad, really, because he would have been an important role model as I was wandering around inside my self trying to figure out how I with my pronounced Spanish accent and bicultural/bilingual formation might fit into this world of English literature I so loved and admired. As it was, for a long time, in my ignorance, I associated the label Latino mainly with voices from the agricultural fields of the Southwest, the life of street gangs in Chicago or Los Angeles, or the realities of the Nuyorican experience, powerful voices I very much appreciated but never identified with. Only in recent years have I begun to consider just how richly varied the Latino reality is and how impossible to reduce to any simple formulation. Ultimately I have come to feel quite satisfied to be seen as a Latino writer, contributing my personal accent to the rich chorus of voices so defined, while endeavoring always to become doubly visible, to be perceived both as a Latino and (in William Carlos Williams' words) as a poet fully "In the American Grain."
Emma Trelles: There is so much to respond to here that, like Mark, I'm finding it difficult to decide where to jump in. But I'll just hold my breath and leap, as I've done with a lot of the personal and professional choices I've made. In order to create freely, a writer or any artist must acquire negative capability, and I find it invigorating to read these posts and not know which direction they're taking or how I will respond to them. "I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination," Keats wrote, and I think about that kind of truth as I learn about why elena minor launched PALABRA or how Roberto Tejada found/finds solace and inspiration in the West Coast punk bands of yore (note to Roberto: there is a Raymond Pettibon retrospective in town that is on my list of must-sees!). I too am a fan of this so-called outsider music—bands like Baby Robots, Silver Jews or Yo La Tengo receive little to no FM radio play or mainstream acclaim, but like contemporary poets, they continue to make art for themselves and for those who are drawn to songs that speak to the beautiful minutiae of our lives.
Hope, your statement that a well-known poet said the Spanish in your poems made them sound different, though the poems were written in English, and that you think he meant you were thinking in Spanish, resonated with me. This idea of how our Spanish language thinking somehow alchemizes with English language syntax is something I've also been considering, especially because, like you, Spanish was my first tongue. Although now it places second in terms of writing and conversation, I still see it floating into my English hybrid diches or grammar, such as when I wrote a recent line in a poem where I imagined my uncle as a young man in Cuba, writing letters to me in the US. The lines read, "at night I dream with all of us / together, table set, gardenias and wine / my sisters in white dresses / the front door unlocked." I am loathe to quote my own poem, but it was the line that immediately came to mind when I read Hope's post about the melding of idioms. In English, the grammatically accurate choice for the pronoun after "dream" would have been "about," yet in Spanish the word would have been "con" or "with." I kept the literal Spanish translation, even though I am typically a badge-wearing officer of the grammar police (a consequence of tutoring university students in writing). But there were reasons I wanted to keep the error in place: it felt truer to what my uncle's English might have sounded like while he was still learning and practicing. There was also the matter of music: the "with" had a one-note downbeat that I preferred to the clunky "about." And, finally, I like the connotations of "with," the implied inclusion and how it intimated an experience shared instead of observed. If a strictly English-speaking reader were to come across these lines, she might imagine my uncle and his sisters slumbering in a dark house, all of them night traveling to a place where they were not afraid but peaceful while visited by guitars and moonlight.
I must give credit for all this parsing to Brenda Cárdenas, who first introduced me to the idea that Spanish speakers have "tropicalized" English. I interviewed her recently for a story I wrote about contemporary Latino poetry for The Miami Herald. During our conversation, Brenda reflected how, even for Latinos whose Spanish has become secondary in terms of direct communication, the language still infuses our sentences, re-arranging intent and words in ways that unexpectedly texture meaning. In her poem "Sound Waves," from her collection Boomerang, Brenda considers the notion that the sonic presence held by letters and punctuation directly correlates to their very essence. In other words, their songs dictate what they are. The poem opens, aptly, with a quote by Victor Hernandez Cruz: "The river on the other side / of English is carrying the message."
Here is a sequence from "Sound Waves," by Brenda Cárdenas, where she considers the many guises of the Spanish ñ and, perhaps, how our own identities as Latinos and as writers continually expand and contract into fresh geometries.
El campesino rolls
his shoulder blades as he turns
from the furrows toward
the road's curve home,
Otro año, otro dia, otra estación;
el ha añejado con su añojal.
~ Ñ, the yawn in the mañana ~
La araña weaves her web of music,
tuning its strings while she sings
de sus compañeras obrando
en las cabañas, labrando
en los campos de caña.
She holds the high notes,
pulling filaments taut.
And when a fly's wing touches one fiber,
~ la añagaza del balance ~
A cat's arch and curled spine
stretches into the long afternoon.
Sueña con alimañas
espiando de las montañas;
sueña con carne,
the wiry tension
of spring and pounce
on the small-boned
and the broken-winged.
~ the sneer of engaño ~
Deep heat of day rises
like a serpent from its cool tomb
entrañado beneath the sand,
leaves its tilde trace, la señal,
that loosens and fades,
one moment sliding
into centuries of terrain.
~ el diseño antiguo del futuro ~