Falconer, Melendez, León, Murillo: A Latino Quartet

Hearing Marvin Gaye from a passing car, he understands that the poem won't answer the question of who his father was or right a wrong. The poem, like the song, like a moan, is the response to the "beat-downs" and the "breaks in life," which are what really measure a man. So, I like to think of the poem as this "bone of a question" uttered, the throat temporarily cleared

—Blas Falconer


You gild this slippage and make it something lovely and poignant, at the same time it is lamentable. I'm thinking of your "A Warm Day in Winter," among other examples in The Foundling Wheel. The vibrant iambs that flow against the too-firm dactyl of "sterile and..." in "I fed you through the late hours in a room / sterile and cold" (as the speaker addresses a child who will "not / recall any of this") lovingly preserve the work of infant care for our collective memories.

—Maria Melendez


[I]n the loss of "Catamite," the speaker learns that a friend has been diagnosed with HIV, there is a lightness in the communal; there is also a recognition of strength: "Where do you get the strength to be you?//(...) You told me the slur/ your boss drooled out, a new one/ for you, an old one from The Book.// (...) Oh!  We chuckled." Here, the speaker lives within memory, calling attention to the preciousness of shared experience. It is a poem that beholds loss, holds it right out front for us to witness, but I don't come away with darkness or depression.  

—Raina J. León


When Raina writes of "The Disappearance of Fireflies," what she's really lamenting is the loss of innocence. Nothing "experimental" or snarky in this poem, just pure corazón. And craft. Her lines are well wrought, her imagery vivid.  And the effect is that this poem breaks my heart every time I read it.  And in causing me to feel, it humanizes me. Each and every time.

—John Murillo

 

 

Back in the Fall of 2011, in the preface to the first "Latino/a Poetry Now" (LPN) roundtable, I wrote: "[W]e want the poets, prior to starting the roundtable, to make sure they have read one anothers' work; we want to create a space where they can specifically reference each others' poems... And so we arrange for the poets to receive each others' work…"

For this our fifth and concluding installment, it meant making sure our poets each had: The Foundling Wheel by Blas Falconer, Boogeyman Dawn by Raina J. León, Flexible Bones by Maria Melendez, and Up Jump the Boogie by John Murillo.

This desired and added nuance (getting the poets to talk about each others' art) was brainstormed and forged during a phone conversation I had with Maria Melendez well over two years ago. She had accepted the task of shaping and moderating the first LPN discussion, which featured Rosa Alcalá, Eduardo C. Corral, and Aracelis Girmay. But there's more: it was also Maria Melendez who had previously curated, convened, and moderated what I often refer to as the mega-roundtable that got Letras Latinas and PSA started on this kick—a gesture that included no fewer than eleven poets, and which we called, simply, "Latino/a Poets Roundtable." But that pilot gesture centered around the question of "Latinidad," whereas the five "Latino/a Poetry Now" web conversations that followed have aspired toward something else: poets talking about their work, of course, but also talking about each others'. As I mentioned in a previous preface, we'll leave it to readers to decide for themselves how each of these five roundtables fared on that particular score.

The excerpts I plucked and placed above as epigraphs speak, I think, to how I feel we fared.. Right now, however, it's time to take a deep breath and ponder what we set out to do, have done: offer, over a two-year period, two things: five public poetry events at Harvard, Georgetown, Macalester, U of A, and Notre Dame, respectively. But also: a sampling of the thinking and poetics of fifteen contemporary poets from a newer generation of Latino/a writers. We have in mind exploring the possibility of gathering these conversations into a book, with a selection of poems from each poet, particularly the ones that are referenced in the roundtables themselves.

As with each of these, there are people to thank. First, to Blas, Raina, Maria and John for hitting this roundtable out of the park! Brett Fletcher Lauer, the Deputy Director of the Poetry Society of America (PSA), has been with us from the start offering his web expertise in ushering these five discussions onto the PSA website. Alice Quinn, of course: thank you for saying Yes to this initiative back when Rob and I first conceived of it, oh, in 2009-10 thereabouts. More recently, Charif Shanahan, the PSA's Programs Director, has offered logistical support from New York. And finally: a special thanks to Lauren Espinoza, MFA candidate at Arizona State University who I had the pleasure of befriending in Austin a couple of summers ago. To use another term from baseball: she has proven to be the best "closer" we could have dreamed of—with her beautifully articulated and synthesized questions and follow-up prompts. And since this is our fifth and final roundtable, let me take a moment to mention those moderators who came before Lauren: Maria Melendez (1), Lauro Vazquez (2, 3), and John Chavez (4). It's been a great ride. Gracias.

Francisco Aragón
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame

***

Lauren Espinoza: Having read through each of your collections, I am both surprised and not really surprised to see how your works speak to one another in a profound way.

One striking vein of similarity is the way in which your poems deal with loss of some sort, whether that be loss of a home through change or the actual death of an individual or the loss being metaphorical.  Do you think that loss as an idea is important to engage with; or, is it something that's inescapable? Also, when writing about loss, there seems to be an almost too natural inclination towards oversentimentality.  Your works, though, don't seem to suffer from that.  How do you achieve this sense of loss in your poems without becoming too emotional about it?  Also, when you recognize loss in the work of others do you find yourself with a certain affinity to it, or a cautious stepping away?

As an extension of loss, there is absence.  Within your poems there is a sense of presence in this absence, though.  This takes a particular amount of craft and forethought. Once you have read through a collection that holds up this gaping openness, do you find yourself exhausted or taken care of by the author?  How do you remain attendant of or beholden to this absence either within or throughout your own creative process?  Taken in another sense, your works pursue a question(s) that remains unanswered.  Oftentimes, poems find themselves ending with a door slam, a sort of assuredness of finality; many of your poems refuse to come to an end so easily, the poems themselves do not provide their own answers.  Is there a particular subversion that you enact by remaining present in the face of the unanswerable?  

Blas Falconer: Okay, well, I guess that I'll start. These are great questions, Lauren. When poems of loss become sentimental, often the problem is that the reader hasn't been given enough to fully grasp what has been lost, so the poem seems emotionally affected, the poet self-important. In this case, sometimes, the easiest solution is to describe the circumstances in such a way that makes the response seem appropriate. Raina's poem  "On the football field," for example, powerfully conveys the sense of anguish that the boy feels, that his family feels, not by focusing on sentiment, but by describing in vivid detail the circumstances—a fight at the game—that crush him. We understand the sister and the mother who are powerless to help. I can identify with the way the poem resonates emotionally because I can imagine myself responding similarly in the same situation.

If the conflict or loss seems contrived, then the slightest emotion will probably come across as sentimental. I suspect that Maria was wary of this in "Behind Every Good Soldier." In the poem, the speaker recalls the night when a beloved asked her how her opinion of him would change if he killed someone. The speaker acknowledges that the soldier's question "sounds too scripted," but she assures us that he really did ask her. The speaker becomes even more convincing when she goes on to recreate the scene with specificity (how plants "surged against his little yellow house"). A flatter music, at times, as well as a range in diction ("tropical whatnot") and tone (including humor) work, also, to create a rich, fully realized experience, thereby dispelling any sense of sentimentality or self-importance.

Regarding the issue of loss being an inescapable topic and of unanswered questions in poetry, I had a professor once say that every poem that he's ever written is really somehow about his father, though his father isn't mentioned in most of his work. So maybe it's true that those irreconcilable conflicts, those losses deeply embedded in the psyche, bring many poets to the page, again and again; however, in my experience, very early on in the writing process, the poem becomes the question or the problem that I'm trying to answer or solve through metaphor, line, diction, syntax, and other devices. How does it want to be written? To say it another way, in writing about his father, my former professor may gain some new understanding about their relationship, but the aim isn't to answer a question through the poem. The aim is to articulate the "question" or conflict.

I can't help but think of John's poem "Trouble Man." It begins with "the bone of a question" in the speaker's throat. He has left his lover and is thinking about his father's absence, how his father suffered. Hearing Marvin Gaye from a passing car, he understands that the poem won't answer the question of who his father was or right a wrong. The poem, like the song, like a moan, is the response to the "beat-downs" and the "breaks in life," which are what really measure a man. So, I like to think of the poem as this "bone of a question" uttered, the throat temporarily cleared.

Maria Melendez: Poem as "bone of a question"—I love it! Inspiration can have that physical, jabbing quality—especially if one attempts to dodge the nudgings of one's muse.

Lauren, your question about whether loss is "important to engage with" or "inescapable" as subject matter brings a yes—to both—from me. Loss is one vivid color on the emotional palette. I have a continual anxiety over wanting my writing to reflect an aesthetic balance between loss and light, no and yes. I often worry that I'm too heavy on the "no's" and the losses—and I think this is something that readers, generally, may fear from poetry. At least I do—I'm glad you asked about when/whether we feel an author has "taken care of" the reader, because I do wonder, when opening a book of poetry, if I'm going to be asked to be put through something, to endure something, without enough corresponding sense of healing, hope, or uplift.

For a book-length example of being taken through something and redeemed with just enough hope and beauty, I look to Louise Gluck's Vita Nova, a gem in the poetic sub-genre of "divorce books."

Blas, how kind of you to mention "Behind Every Good Soldier." There is such a churning in my gut when I think of the emotional gunpowder at the point of that poem's ignition, and it is a challenge to modulate that churning into something shapely. When you write about loss, Blas, I'm touched by how you paint the slipping away of childhood memories of parental care. You gild this slippage and make it something lovely and poignant, at the same time it is lamentable. I'm thinking of your "A Warm Day in Winter," among other examples in The Foundling Wheel. The vibrant iambs that flow against the too-firm dactyl of "sterile and..." in "I fed you through the late hours in a room / sterile and cold" (as the speaker addresses a child who will "not / recall any of this") lovingly preserve the work of infant care for our collective memories. However fraught our adult recollections of our experience of being parented may be, there is always this foundation—we were fed—resting as a near-forgotten key to understanding, beneath them.

Raina J. León:  I also have to compliment on the questions (Lauren Espinoza) and acknowledge this opportunity to work with such luminaries as Blas Falconer, Maria Melendez, and John Murillo.  I believe in the divine and the manifestations of the divine in life.  I see that in this opportunity to share with and learn from you all.  

As Maria, I, too, think that loss is inescapable and important to write, but not immediately.  There are poems that I cannot write, because I am still in the moment of loss. My dear nephew, Aidan, passed away last year at 58 days old. I can still hear my other-mother crying out, "Oh, Jesus!"  I can feel his un-weighted body in my arms, the first and last time I held him.  I can still see his hand wrapped around one finger, feel the pressure of him grip and then release in what may have been pain or dream.  There are a thousand poems in that journey with family, a family that pulled together in such an intimate crisis of loss, but I can't write those poems yet.  I am still pacing the yellow-painted halls of a hospital wing. I haven't yet opened the heavy doors and seen them, known them, closed.  The stories that prick, a slice of steel through the heart, are the ones that most resonate and that are most needed, perhaps not for the author, but for someone.  Someday, I will write the poems.  

It does require some distance to write works steeped in loss, though.  As an example, I go to Blas's "Maybe I'm not here at all." It is such a powerfully and resounding poem:  "When I was young, a bus ran into a tree,/ and children flew for the first time,// their hands open and stretched in front of them./ (...) Could this/ be true?  They sawed the driver's head free// from the wheel.  I remember her brown curls./ I loved her."  Here the speaker travels through the curls of memory to a childhood occurrence, connecting innocence in flight of dream to the violent flight of the body. We later have a gruesome sight, the physical extraction of a driver from the wreck, and that image is all tangled in the loss of love, perhaps the first in the speaker's life. It is an extraordinary moment and tension, but I am not lost in the sentimental. I am guided carefully through the lines, the couplets that give me just as much as I can handle before the visual break of white space.  Blas also sustains this tension as well between the loss itself and the careful writing about it.    

John masters this tension, too, in "Flowers for Etheridge." In one passage of the poem, the speaker takes ownership of the ancestral memory, as writer and as descendent of slaves:  "It's a poet's simple duty to make pilgrimage. To lay/ Flowers on the graves of other poets, Levis,/ When in Rome, stopped by to see Keats, his name//(...) Water's/ What brung us here.  Water's what swallowed// The bones sucked by the sharks that followed/ The boats; when pregnant women leapt instead/ Of staying the journey." I love that the speaker in this poem draws out attention to the connection of lineage, the literary and the genealogical.  There is such a strong presence in being a part of memory, claiming that belonging.  

In Maria's work, Flexible Bones, as a reader, I feel supported.  Even in the loss of "Catamite," the speaker learns that a friend has been diagnosed with HIV, there is a lightness in the communal; there is also a recognition of strength: "Where do you get the strength to be you?//(...) You told me the slur/ your boss drooled out, a new one/ for you, an old one from The Book.// (...) Oh!  We chuckled."  Here, the speaker lives within memory, calling attention to the preciousness of shared experience. It is a poem that beholds loss, holds it right out front for us to witness, but I don't come away with darkness or depression.

This is different in my book, Boogeyman Dawn. I often describe it as a dark book. There are very few moments of release, but I did this purposefully. I want to shake the reader up with the hope that this will lead to action. Perhaps this hints at that "presence in the absence."  It is also my way of subverting the status quo. But Lauren, your note about feeling exhausted or taken care of by the author is well taken. There needs to be some catharsis within the poem or the book, an intensity that leads to release. To use another metaphor, I imagine the string of a cello, bowed into song. Pull the string more and more taut, and the sound becomes higher and higher. Eventually, the string breaks, and there is no putting it back together again. I don't want to break my readers, but there are definitely some tough journeys we have to take together if we seek to make any positive change in the world.  

John Murillo: Yeah, I don't know. I really don't think much at all about either exhausting or taking care of my reader.  It's hard enough just to write a poem that doesn't suck.  I write what I'm able, put it out there, and—like Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles said—"let it do what it do."  

Besides, can a poet really take that much responsibility for the emotional well-being of her/his reader?  We can no more anticipate how a reader may respond to our work than we can diagnose whether this response is healthy or un-.  For instance, Raina calls Boogeyman Dawn a dark book.  But maybe that darkness—all that sweet sweet duende in her work—provides the catharsis I need to get me to a better place.  She, therefore, might be said to have done me a greater service than if she had set out to anneal me. Similarly, another poet with a mind to lifting me up might just push me into an inescapable despair.  (Who can bear listening to Bobby McFerrin when what you need is Sade?)  You never know.  And it's too much to worry about.

Nor do I trouble my mind too much about being too emotional.  Seems when so many are trying to be hip, cool, and clever, American poetry could use an injection of emotion.  No, the problem isn't sentimentality, but false sentiment. And like Blas said, it's a matter of craft: If the poet hasn't given the reader enough reason to care, then the poem fails.  It's not that there's too much emotion, just too little technique.  

As for engaging loss, I'm all about that life.  Though I do have a few poets I go to whenever I need uplift, my favorites have always been what some would call elegiac.  Bluesmen and blueswomen.  In my view—though they might disagree with me—Raina, Blas, and Maria move in this tradition.

When Raina writes of "The Disappearance of Fireflies," what she's really lamenting is the loss of innocence.  Nothing "experimental" or snarky in this poem, just pure corazón.  And craft.  Her lines are well wrought, her imagery vivid.  And the effect is that this poem breaks my heart every time I read it.  And in causing me to feel, it humanizes me.  Each and every time.

Likewise, in "Love Song for a War God" (a poem I can't read without thinking of Shango), Maria uses the compression that sonnets demand to both enact and instruct us about suffering.  We learn "that all men's tears are not created equal."  And maybe this is what I love about the elegiac.  How can one not read this and feel that he has been made at least a little more wise?  Maria may disagree with me on this, but I feel it's sometimes enough just to present the suffering, the loss and the heavy "no's" she mentions.  The reader will find his or her own way to the light and the "yeses".

Or else he won't.  Again, all we can do is put it down.

In Blas' ekphrastic poem, "The Annunciation", the artist poured himself into the canvas and sought to convey all the magic and mystery of one of the most important moments in biblical lore.  In the end, though, all the critics remembered were the flaws and the lacks.

We do what we do.  Then, it is what it is.

Lauren Espinoza:  What you've all done here so far is really exciting.  I'm particularly interested in how Blas & Maria both said, to a differing extent, that poems do not function to answer questions.  Rather, the questions that lie beneath the poem become the poem.  Do you all think that these two ideas combine with the "sustained tension" that Raina mentions?  I can see how the tension that lies beneath a poem necessitates, what Raina calls, a "powerful release".  Would you say that poems that don't have this tension or don't provide this release suffer from too little technique, as John says?  Or, is there a larger movement in American poetry to be, as John puts it, "hip, cool, and clever" that navigates away from this?

Blas Falconer: When I read your prompt about a poem's "sustained tension" and "powerful release," Lauren, I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with a fellow poet.

"A poem must have a spring," she said, which I took to mean that it must act like the mechanical device—as opposed to a water spring—wire wound into a cylinder, that can absorb and release energy.

Whether or not a poem needs a spring is debatable, but for our purpose, the analogy is useful, considering how the various poetic elements can press down on the coil, creating more tension. Narrative, for example, can do this by increasing the stakes, but if the timing isn't right, if you go on too long or gloss over something important, the story can lose its power—like a poorly told joke. Imagery, line, syntax, and music might also work together to set the spring. The final turn is what often releases the tension and creates a sense of closure.

In The Foundling Wheel, I tried to set and release the spring in various ways. For example, the title poem uses a series of images to convey the fear, anxiety, sadness, and ultimate joy felt during an adoption for both the birth mother and the adopting parents. "Maybe I'm Not Here at All" relies primarily on two different narratives to set the spring and one direct address to release it. The first narrative imagines a car crash before help has arrived, the two drivers thrown to either side of the street. The second story is from childhood, a school bus accident that caused serious injuries for the children and the driver. The final turn releases the spring by addressing the beloved, who sleeps in the bed beside the speaker. By giving the context of the situation and motivation for the other narratives, the tension is released. "Lighter," the penultimate poem in the book, sets the spring by trying to convey the multiple definitions of the title. After a couple of similes, the speaker tells of a night when he woke up to care for the crying child and found his partner there, first.  In that moment, the speaker sees his partner differently and the burden that he had felt grows lighter because the two parents have come together to comfort their fevered son.

Maria Melendez: I think what Lauren refers to as "sustained tension" is what I call "urgency." That's a sense, in a compelling work, that this poem had to exist, that it elbowed its way into existence against the anti-creative forces arrayed against it. AND, it's the pull a poem exerts on the reader from one line to the next. A poem with urgency is a the verse equivalent of a prose page-turner. Lauren's probing about what imbues a poem with urgency (sustained tension) is the work of many lifetimes, testing and trying things out, as poets do. So far, in my own bag of urgency inducing-tricks, I've identified: the placement of actual unanswered questions within the poem (wink wink, Lauren), the use of enjambment, the process of accessing deep inspiration, the building of rhythms that tug on and jostle each other, the liveliness of variation within sonic or imagistic patterns of repetition, and the deployment of subject matter with high emotional stakes.

Poems and poets have been my teachers in each of these areas, and each area, individually, could offer a lifetime's worth of exploration. For example: I had spent a solid couple of decades focusing on sonic patterning in my composition and revision practice, largely focused on vowel sounds. But guess what I discovered last year? Consonant blends! Some poets are naturally (or craftily) agile with them, but it took me damn near twenty years to awaken to them to the point where I could write a line like "climbing, clinching, clocking" (which appears, by-the-by, as a list of sins I want back from Jesus, who is purported to have taken them away). I know. Alliteration. Duh! But for some reason, I'd only thought to consciously handle individual vowels and individual consonants, one by one....The take home for me is that there can always be areas of writing that invite me to continue learning and growing, when I walk, swim, or cartwheel through new territory. I find the limitless potential for learning to be an utter excitement in the work of writing.

Raina J. León:  I continue to be interested in this idea of "sustained tension", the "spring", the "urgency".  Recently, I went to a reading of MFA graduate students.  Within much of what I heard, there was an urgency.  During readings, I am the poet who is constantly writing.  Part of it is from my own difficulty with attention; I must do three to five things at once to do one well.  Focusing on one task is extremely difficult for me, including listening, so during readings, I am often writing down the lines that touch me most, the ones to which I must respond with a moan, grunt, ululation, or clap.  There was one writer whose work transfixed me so deeply that she caught my whole attention, truly a rare occurrence.  I was caught in the narrative from the first words she uttered until the last.  At the same reading, there was a poet whose work found no hold within me.  There were those who responded with the moans of recognition, but with each poem, I felt nothing.  I had no connection to the words, images, concepts.  I found myself writing in my journal, Where is the urgency?  What is there at stake?  I came away from the experience empty.  Sure, emptiness can be pleasure, bliss, peace, and transformation, particularly as a product of meditation or catharsis, but the emptiness within that moment was blank.  I have no desire for my reader to come away with nothing, but I suppose, as John said, in the end the poem do what it do.  

As for my process in cultivating that "sustained tension", I agree with Maria:  I write the poems that push themselves out into the world, all elbow and knee and fist.  Now, on a dance floor, that might get an elbow back from me, but with the literary presence, I respect the shove into being.  The poems that whisper are harder for me.  They come in the small moments and are insistent in their own ways.  They push me to speak with spirit.  They won't let me sleep in the night, only leave me in the day when the light shines, and they are out on adventures in shadow and light play.  

The sound of my poetry, particularly that with a pronounced sense of urgency, replicates music.  In "Amanecer", the music within the lines is slower, sultry in the shifts, while "Surviving the burn" has movements.  The third section I imagine as clash of cymbal and beat of bass drum, the sound of bones being broken and flesh bruised.  The speaker in that section violates and is violent; he comes within a harsh rhythm, because he has no mercy in his purely selfish designs.  The sound, the music of the line, must support the tension as truly as the image does.    


John Murillo:  I agree with all this.  If a poem has no urgency, I can't be bothered.  (Writing this, I'm reminded of all those books in my library I still have yet to read.  I'm talking good books, important books.  Because I came to poetry so late in life, and because there is so much good stuff out there, it's quite possible that I could die without ever having read even a fraction of the best.  So why waste time laboring through some snarky, deliberately opaque, cerebral-for-cerebrality's sake, B.S.?  Ain't nobody got time for that.)

As to your question, Lauren, whether it's a matter of technique or a conscious movement toward hipness, I'd say it's a bit of both.  Like that dude who goes to a party just to hold up the wall?  He probably would boogie if he knew how.  But he doesn't.  So he stands stiff and calls it cool.  You get enough of these awkward boys taking up space on the dance floor, and after a while, it's the people who are actually dancing, or at least trying to, that become the oddballs.  

So, yes, there's definitely a movement afoot.  Two left.  And too lazy to learn steps.

And one must learn.  Maria says she spent twenty years working on a specific element of her craft.  Twenty years!  That's the kind of dedication required to really learn how to do this well.  But most aren't as interested in writing well as they are in publishing widely.  And early.  

And this is another—different, but related—source of the problem:  Pressure to publish young.  This, too, is a kind of urgency.  But it's one that serves the ego, rather than the work.

I can look at my first book now and see where I rushed.  I can also see where I took my time and still failed.  Having been written in and for workshop, many of the poems are severely underdeveloped.  The best poems are only any good because they're derivative of better poets.  The manuscript as a whole could have used a couple more years, I think.  But I  wanted to publish.  I was approaching my fortieth year and, it seemed, everyone else in my age group was working on second, third, or fourth collections. I felt like I needed to get something out.  And, as a result, the work suffered.

I'm in a different place now.  I've accepted that I'm too old to be a boy wonder.  My Keats years, my Tupac years, are well behind me.  My only hope now is to put in the proper hours and hope to put something down worth reading.  Even if the hours amount to years, and the years decades.  

As for my craft—techniques, strategies, ways to do the damn thing well—I'm still figuring that out, still learning.  Late in life, sure.  But what else is there to do?  

 

 

 

 
 

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