Latino/a Poets Roundtable
Latino/a Poets Roundtable, part four: J. Michael Martinez, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Roberto Tejada
It's not difficult to situate conceptual poetry as having achieved a noteworthy but belated redirection of art-historical method into a frame of manufacture for US avant-garde poetry, albeit with a nuance that rivals that of garden tools.
What is important, and we all have spoken about this, is that this work (as complicated as I made it above) is corporeal, it is bloody, it is political, it questions the body by being a body. It fucks, it loves, it shits. It is not conceptual.
—J. Michael Martinez
[W]ithin these three books we're talking about (GF, FF, and H), I see poetry that attempts to enlarge or complicate situated knowledge and culture. In a way we do this because we're doing cultural and/or aesthetic reparation work. At the same time that we can consider our work through the objective lens of craft, we also know that the lens of identity is inescapable.
—Carmen Giménez Smith
The "three books" ("GF, FF, H") Carmen is alluding to are: her own Goodbye, Flicker, Roberto Tejada's Full Foreground, and J. Michael Martinez's Heredities, this latter volume the winner of the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award in 2009, for a first book. I mention this because J. Michael Martinez is only the second Latino poet to win this distinction. Who was the first? Alberto Ríos for Whispering to Fool the Wind—in 1981. In some respects, the three aforementioned titles are emblematic of one of the newer destinations Latino/a poetry has arrived at since the publication of Tito's indelible debut in 1982.
When I curated the slate that became installment 4 of "Latino/a Poetry Now," my proposition was straightforward: Here are three poets whose work undermines- complicates-thwarts the expectations one commonly encounters when the subject is "Latino poetry." Translation: you will not be reading poems like these, nor these poets, in the relatively recent Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, which a number of us lament.
Latino/a Poetry Now (as we round the final curve and start our kick towards the finish line at Notre Dame next October) has been a collaborative project. The Arizona installment was no exception. My gratitude to our colleagues at the PSA: Charif Shanahan, who assisted with the logistics of the reading in Tucson; Brett Fletcher Lauer, who makes these roundtables on the PSA website possible; and of course, Alice Quinn for saying Yes to this partnership in 2010. At the University of Arizona's Poetry Center, the staff were exquisite hosts, arranging meaningful meetings with students. Special thanks to Cybele Knowles for spearheading this hospitality. Joshua Marie Wilkinson, faculty poet at the University of Arizona, delivered a splendid introduction of our three poets. And my thanks to poet John Chavez, who drafted the two questions that unleashed the conversation that follows. This roundtable is being posted late, I know. But I trust that after reading it, slowly and with care, readers will agree that it was worth the wait.
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame
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Questions to Create Dialogue
How does bearing witness play a role in your poetry (witness to one's own life events, familial history, important cultural historical moments)? And how does witnessing and writing about such life experiences/events/points of view re-envision cultural identity?
How do you see your own work and the work of your colleagues here actively participating in contemporary American poetic culture, and how does your work and the work of your colleagues purposefully and productively, if it does, "complicate" or "recast" American poetic culture and culture writ large? I'd really encourage dialogue too, to determine if there is any overlap in influence or inspiration.
Where you can and feel free to, please expand on the idea provided here, comment on each other's work, as a way to generate dialogue.
J. Michael Martinez:
I fundamentally disagree with the category of "witness poetics." Rather, how this subgenre of poetics has been exploited to include any type of "witness." It was employed in the 80's and early 90's as a method to pinpoint certain exclusions occurring in certain historical narratives. "Witness Poetics" was particular and, then, it seemed to get bastardized.The exploitation of the genre seems, to me, a method by which the illegitimate assertions of the 'art for art's sake' ideologies of the late 19th century' may be reasserted; that is to say, the freedom of 'language' or 'art' from the polis out of which it is uttered. For me, this is where you get the work of "Conceptual" poets claiming the work is distinct from ethical and social responsibilities. I would like to further tack onto this notion, that this logic is exactly how the speculative financial market is spoken of: let the "market" decide, the "market" shouldn't be legislated, it should be allowed to operate in a sphere outside of any type of policing i.e. it is ungrounded and outside, while of, the social. The parallel logics between the religious, monetary, and aesthetic ideologies as they operate in the political needs to be drawn together.
Language does not exist as a category above and beyond regulation and ethics; this is the language of neoliberal capitalism and the transnational speculative economy. It generates in, with and through those discourses. I have much to say and endless clarifications and additions, however, I'll stop here.
Carmen Giménez Smith:
Regarding JMM's take on bearing witness, I think about the war photographer and her competing alliances with documentation and with humanity. Recently, I've been looking at cultural production and thinking about how it might be read in fifty years or a hundred years. Even the most banal reality show is a trace of our dreams and anxieties. For this reason, I'm increasingly drawn to art and protest with multiple modalities. Today we are witness to the decline of the American Empire, the rise of American Oligarchy, so more and more I'm realizing that I have to enact more unrest in my work. In a way that means creating a more tangible universe, and, Roberto, Full Foreground seems to me to be just that: a document of witness. Sometimes the book is exuberant with fury, (In fact, I think both JMM and Roberto write with an exuberance.) and it doesn't pull any punches.
For a long time I've felt like an exile in the literary world. I don't know that I could claim any school or that any school would claim me. One reason is the geographical element. Even though the internet is supposed to be an equalizer, I live at the very edge of the country, so I'm not participating in the day-to-day human buzz of constructing a movement. At the same time this distance has allowed me to create my own particular mythos. As a lyric poet, I also think a lot about the terms of subjectivity and how identity informs it, and this thinking is a big part of my work as a poet. In this way, I share an affinity with JMM who I believe writes about the formation of cultural identity through a multivalent aesthetic. In an interview with Craig Santos Perez, JMM states, ""Heredities" directly alluded to my attachment to plural aesthetic veins: a poetic rooted in the historical literary avant-garde and in an aesthetic that has affinities to Romanticism (one might label it "normative" verse)." I feel a similar impulse. I'm a bit of an aesthetic scavenger, so I probably couldn't align myself with any particular tradition.
I'd like to speak to another question, especially since I'm working on the Beyond the Field anthology with John (Chávez) this week and so I'm thinking a lot about the work of my colleagues, my contemporaries. In both J. Michael's work and Roberto's work, I see a really interesting type of ekphrastic and philosophical (I'll clarify that word in a moment) work at play. The idea of authenticity is in flux these days, so I admire the ambitious passion in both of these poets, and there's a type of canon-crashing going on in their work.
I read JMM's work through an Anzalduian lineage. The work is a hybrid of folklore, science.
Carmen, your book Goodbye, Flicker (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) submits its purpose and attitude from the start with the poem entitled "We Shall Now Hear What Happened:" "Once for a moment once upon / once there was / there came one day." And J. Michael, your Heredities (Louisiana State University Press, 2010) ends with a sly two-line leave-taking that echoes even after the concluding notes: "You said, The infinite is the origin you foster./ I said, History gathers in the name we never are." That's a considerable landscape of symbolic action whose processes further convey across the syllables and sequences contained in your respective work. I see your books as efforts of amazement to provide evidence of an alternate myth and archive already redefining contemporary US American poetic culture.
Amazement: I'm reminded of Robert Gluck's bracing conclusion to his novel Margery Kempe: "I want to contain my rambling story in a few words. // exult, exasperate, abandon, amaze." Those strike me, in our context, as reasonable directives. Myth and archive: Roberto González Echevarría described the "economy of gain and loss" and the problems of any "origin unveiled." These models are especially applicable to those of us whose heredities indicate—from the present standpoint of what Carmen rightly names US American Empire-to-Oligarchy; and what J. Michael addresses in lyric relations of lineage—the violent history of our cultural pasts: accounts of conquest, positivist descriptions taken for realism, rhetorics of anthropology that fueled modernism, as well as the record of exile and immigration… exult, exasperate, abandon, amaze.
It seems to me, Carmen, that what you pursue in Goodbye, Flicker is a replacement legacy. In the process you also describe the dilemma many of us currently confront: "I had a forked tongue. / a story to tell with one bit. and the way / to tell it with the other." You turn to literary versions of European folk knowledge—Brothers Grimm, Giambattista Basile, Hans Christian Andersen, among others—to belie human experience as solely composed of verifiable evidence, action, and outcome. The poems, too, are of twin manufacture: even as each poem's perceptible surface appears as an identifiable form, they are containers perforated with "self-holes" that trip up the "one story": call the latter aesthetic determinism. Just as a poem satisfies a sonic or thematic expectation, an unforeseen element emerges—a hardness of semantic plane, the clip-work or overlap that averts a reader's compass—to recall techniques of an earlier modernism (as in certain moods of Mina Loy): "I became a small colony in the world upon request." This absolutely singular world, with its self-self-governing frame and attendant surrogates for a subject (Sliver Poet, Owl), coalesces to re-enchant in counter-narratives that dispute our geographically-inflected "exile in the literary world." Goodbye, Flicker is the password for such cruel ironies as when the alleged democratic leveling of digital space does not uniformly distribute attention: "I hide the bones / but sometimes they win."
This is to say, as in your book, J. Michael, that I think we're unwilling to abandon the cultural grounding of our rhetorical stakes. I side with an uneasiness concerning poetry of "witness" if it devolves finally into hushed affirmations, and to the exclusion of history's unavoidable impact. By contrast, Heredities aims to upend contemporary evocations of the ancestral when deployed in art as a unifying story. An apocryphal record of bones, "Articulations of Quetzacóatl's Spine" and "The Sternum of Our Lady of Guadalupe" are descriptions, surgically written and aligned with ink drawings derived from Gray's Anatomy, as rendered in your hand. They provide a residual view: to the degree that a mechanical process reinforces the idiosyncrasy of the hand-made, so a cultural practice holds the appearance of social relations to light: "I said, The Chicano shapes identity like an icicle fingering down from the roof's edge." These poems disavow ostensible appeals to a mythic past as per one's present imaginative location by foregrounding a forensic archeology. Your poems ask: Do crime scenes of the historical process exasperate or exult the specificity of our present flesh and bone? They reply as well: In the open-ended endeavor that uncovers specters of the past arises a relationship between one's individuated dawning and more recent emergences: a "Third Capilla (fig. 203) whose surfaces "temporally attach[ ]" to the upper and lower "levels of creation."
It's not difficult to situate conceptual poetry as having achieved a noteworthy but belated redirection of art-historical method into a frame of manufacture for US avant-garde poetry, albeit with a nuance that rivals that of garden tools. That's one reason I prefer to avoid reference to ekphrasis, inasmuch as the aim of works evolved from my interaction with living artists has been to underscore an "art object" only insofar as it is contingent and entangled; not detached or in keeping with some puritanical work ethic and its accumulative concept of production. These engagements compel me to unlearn the assumptions of description as anything other than a lawless encounter of subject and object—the dreamwork so external to the self as to render that difference into something rhetorically indistinguishable.
I sense—from the varieties of experience we've shared among ourselves, and with a greater cohort, drawn, like Carmen, "to art and protest with multiple modalities"—a common dissatisfaction. It derives from what appeared to be a horizon of promise and possibility enjoyed by prior generations: that if you had the inclination—a gift—cared deeply enough about the craft, and surrendered yourself to the intellectual labor, then the system that values competency would properly acknowledge work well done with a sustainable readership to confirm not only your configuration of experience in the sphere of art, but to confer as well a visibility to compel you to more expansive wagers; an engagement with a public that so intensified the forecast proper to our task.
Carmen Giménez Smith:
I had to recover a bit from how wonderfully stunned I felt at your reading of GF, Roberto. I appreciate it. You and JMM represent a kind of corporeal excess that I love in poetry. I think of both of your poetries as being inflected with a certain incantatory quality. Daniel Tiffany writes about this in his amazing book, INFIDEL POETICS (Noemi named a poetics series after this book!)
He states, "I want to sketch a literary historical framework for understanding the significance of obscurity as a critical concept. Erich Auerbach, in his magisterial survey of Western literature, Mimesis, divides the European tradition into two styles, one originating with Homer and the other with the prophetic books of the Old Testament: "The two styles, in their opposition, represent two types: on the one hand, fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression. . . . On the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed." Work of the latter type, Auerbach observes, is "dark and incomplete" and hence "mysterious, containing a second, concealed meaning." The dark style, rooted in allegory and characterized above all by discontinuity, gives rise to the modern category of the sublime; while the descriptive mode, Auerbach states, forms the basis of realism." (Tiffany 45)
The material worlds of both of your books (Heredities and Full Foreground) are charged with conjury, but where JMM's work examines and elucidates mongrel tautologies of self, Roberto's work traces the origin of these mongrelizations. In fact, the titles of your books suggest the difference: heredities points to lineage and origin, whereas full foreground suggests to me an impulse for the comprehensive, the general.
I want to pick up a thread that Roberto dropped: within these three books we're talking about (GF, FF, and H), I see poetry that attempts to enlarge or complicate situated knowledge and culture. In a way we do this because we're doing cultural and/or aesthetic reparation work. At the same time that we can consider our work through the objective lens of craft, we also know that the lens of identity is inescapable. Do we get to the book in which we don't have to speak to do this work?
J. Michael Martinez:
To dwell upon/in the distance between the foreground and the subject or, rather, to question the foreground's constitution of the subject.
Foreground: the surface prior to the situating context, that space of invisibility that every canvas or page dwells as and which the ink/paint expands within. I've written elsewhere on your book Carmen and, now, positioning that reading alongside Roberto's work, I see (following your vein of inquiry) even the title THE CITY SHE WAS expressing foregrounds: a metropolis with its filth and beauties as the multiplicity the individual was (past tense); the title erupts the "she" as prior event, as if the multitude is/was rendered invisible behind the pronoun "she." The book renders visible the foregrounding of the pre-noun.
Full foreground as aesthetic maneuver: R, you point to the swerve occurring in Carmen's GOODBYE, FLICKER, how each poem posits a kind of string theory; that is, each work is haunted by alternate timelines; as they structure themselves into a recognizable narrative, that narrative's frame, the spatial-temporal rules governing the work's structure, bleeds outside itself; one might cite Jackson Pollock here and how his paintings question the frame by alluding to the actions exceeding it.
I suppose what I'm attempting to say is, to Miss Quote,
when the cat's urine from the carpet
is about a house in no specific order, the cracked paint
on the ceiling an atrocity in the name of some collective self
a third of the text to paradise
when I one day write the horizon of the plural mind
That is, the multiplicities we write from are less defined
cultural roles, than those
elements of body that exceed the frame in addition to being that which is oft
ignored within the body's housing; or,
limb the deep-reader
diving into a cluster of life
forms and body parts
like barbed wire a witness
to half of what I should
I think I simply mean the foreground: as a vector where subjectivity performs its cyclic and perpetual selfless-potentialing within and as a particularized community. This movement reminds me of Agamben when he examines the root of the "paradigm" or "example:"
That is to say, while induction proceeds from the particular to the universal, and deduction from the universal to the particular, the paradigm is defined by a third and paradoxical movement, which goes from the particular to the particular…it calls into question the dicotomous opposition between the particular and universal which we are used to seeing as inseparable from procedures of knowing, and presents instead a singularity irreducible to any of the dichotomy's two terms[i].
The work you both perform is more than the irreducible singularity; it is the procedure of the procedure; it questions the foreground. By "questions" I not only mean the inquest of the "question" but also the notion of the bodily quest in the asking, seeking of the unknown: intellectually, psychologically, historically, economically, sexually and biologically. It is the re-potentializing of constant self-individuation.
CG AND RT: your works "witness" the human individual not as the event (subject of the painting—an arrived upon moment—the individual); rather, the human is the eventual: ever forthcoming, contingent of/with/through history of/with/through politics of/with/through bodies.
FULL FOREGROUND: where the work questions the surface upon which "procedures of knowing" are established; thus, your work precedes knowing and the procedures that produce knowledge, it foregrounds the foreground in order to be the caesura prior. What is important, and we all have spoken about this, is that this work (as complicated as I made it above) is corporeal, it is bloody, it is political, it questions the body by being a body. It fucks, it loves, it shits. It is not conceptual. "It" is the caesura pre-seeding the foreground.
A Turn: If art-historical methods are to be a frame of manufacture for/of US avant-poetics then, it makes sense to me, those art-historical methods were already an avant-poetic. If so, shouldn't we read that avant-poetic's criticism and archive if we are serious in our game? "Read" Gordon Matta-Clark, analyzing his "building cuts" as grammatical interventions of normative epistemologies. Read Ed Rushca! Read Eduardo Chillida!
Are our shared interests acts of reparation? If they are, they are infidel to diachronic histories; they are infidel to themselves, generating time itself out of their own bodies. They turn from mourning and toward joyous excess—pleasure is re-potentialized: bodies become pleasure sites of violent citations. They are dionysian in that sense, apollonian in regards to their architecture. In our work, the body and, thus, our cultures, become ruined temples the sacred has fled; our reparations do not beseech for the gods return or for legal justice; rather, our poetries occupy the carapace the gods have abandoned. We adorn, not out of worship or to validate law, but out of our need to fully occupy our lives and our histories, good or bad, in excess or insufficiency, with compassion or tyranny but always out of self(less)-revelatory practice.
When Roberto writes,
"I sense—from the varieties of experience we've shared among us, and a greater cohort drawn, like Carmen, "to art and protest with multiple modalities—a common dissatisfaction. It derives from what appeared to be a horizon of promise and possibility: that if you had the inclination—a gift—cared deeply enough about the craft, and surrendered yourself to the intellectual labor, then the system that values competency would properly acknowledge work well done with a sustainable readership to confirm not only your configuration of experience in the sphere of art, but to confer as well a visibility to compel you to more expansive wagers; an engagement with a public that so intensified the forecast proper to our task."
I hear MY task.
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J. Michael Martinez received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Roberto Tejada is author of the poetry collections Mirrors for Gold (Krupskaya, 2006), Exposition Park (Wesleyan, 2010), and Full Foreground (Arizona, 2012). Founder and co-editor of the multi-lingual journal Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas, he has translated work by Latin American poets José Juan Tablada, José Lezama Lima, Juan Luis Martínez, Eduardo Milán, María Baranda, and Alfonso D'Aquino. He is Professor of Art History and Distinguished Endowed Chair in the Rhetorics of Art, Space and Culture program (RASC/a) at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts. Photograph by Cybele Knowles.
Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, four poetry collections— Milk and Filth, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. Formerly a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she teaches in the creative writing program at New Mexico State University, while serving as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press.
[i] Giorgio Agamben. The Signature of All Things (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books 2009): 19.