Latino/a Poets Roundtable
Latino/a Poetry Now: Rosa Alcalá, Eduardo C. Corral, and Aracelis Girmay discuss their art
[T]he poems document yet another tension that perhaps isn't explicit, and that is the body of the poem itself is something we seek out and tend to when the real bodies become too much. As if this textual body were more stable, more willing to do what we want it to.
Language is queen, not subject matter. Yet I continue to write in the autobiographical mode because the mode became elastic and new when I freed myself from any obligation to the truth, to memory. I'm constructing, bone by bone, a body of work full of lies and hearsay.
—Eduardo C. Corral
I feel very aware of an impulse (in myself) to want the narrative to be resolved, to usher (even in my imagination) all things towards safety…but I also feel loyal to learning, & so safety becomes impossible.
What I especially like about these gems I've plucked from the roundtable your're about to read is this: if you were to suppress the poets' names above, you'd be hard-pressed to say that they were obviously Latin@ poets.
The last time I prefaced one of these, I included this as an epigraph: At its core, Latino literature is about the tension between double attachments to place, to language, and to identity.
Rosa, Eduardo, and Aracelis seem to be saying: Not so fast, Ilan (Stavans).
Double attachment to these elements? Mmm. Maybe, maybe not.
After reading Latino/a Poetry Now's inaugural roundtable, I'd venture to say: mostly not.
But please don't take my word for it. Read on. Disagree with me.
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Credit where credit is due: months ago, sitting in a restaurant on Capitol Hill with Rob Casper (after he'd just left PSA), we're going back and forth about what the content on PSA's website could be for "Latino/a Poetry Now." We finally settle on this: unlike the Latino/a Poets Roundtable (the previous Letras Latinas/PSA collaboration), where we placed latinidad on a pedestal, this time around it would be the poetry, the poem—the poetics behind the poem would assume center stage. We'll ask our participants to talk to one another about their art.
Shortly thereafter, in a phone conversation with Maria Melendez, who'd once again graciously agreed to implement, moderate, crucially shape this gesture, we add another layer: we 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 in the course of the roundtable. And so we arrange for the poets to receive each others' work—either in the form of a book, or a manuscript (in Eduardo's case).
You, gentle reader, can decide for yourself how things went on that score. Ideally, I'd love this roundtable to spur further conversation on the web, opinions, even some tension—let's call it fruitful tension—surrounding the project at hand.
And what is that project? Our aim is to provide a sampling or extended snapshot, if you will, of the thematically and aesthetically diverse work being produced by a newer generation of Latino and Latina poets. We're also interested in deepening the conversation surrounding this poetry—on the web.
With that in mind, I've come to view the body of discourse that will be created in these roundtables as equally important, less ephemeral and longer lasting—something to look back on and say…? Well, maybe readers can help fill in that gap.
In addition to Rob Casper (who's now doing great things at the Library of Congress) and Maria Melendez, Letras Latinas would also like to thank the good folks at PSA, starting with Managing Director Brett Fletcher Lauer, who helped us shape the final product you see here, and also did the work of putting it up on the web; new Programs Director Darrel Alejandro Holnes, who will be representing the PSA at Harvard in a few weeks and who has been working on logistics with our poets; and, of course, the person at the helm: Alice Quinn, for her steady and unwavering support. A special thanks to Christina Davis, of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, who has been working with us as the third partner as we near our launch. And finally, our most heartfelt thanks to Aracelis, Rosa and Eduardo for saying Yes.
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame
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What do you do with the adrenaline-charged feeling of poetic risk? Give an example of 1-2 poems from your recent (or forthcoming) books that you felt were especially risky for you to have written or published. Was the risk aesthetic, ideological, emotional, interpersonal, or...?
Describe a reading or listening experience that has really opened an artistic door for you in the last year. Was this a re-encounter with something you'd seen/heard earlier, or a fresh exposure? What did this encounter reveal to you that's now crucial to you as a poet?
Recently, my mother's aging has felt a risky topic to write about, and so have breastfeeding, becoming a mother, and female desire. These things happened and are happening simultaneously, and there's something about the centrality of the body in desire, aging, mothering (being a daughter), and nursing that strike me as both circular and as part of a continuum. What makes each of these experiences and writing about them difficult is that while they are interconnected, each body is attempting to displace the other (Kristeva's notion of abjection has been useful to me in thinking about these things). The poems I'm working on now attempt to document the tensions inherent in wanting to (and sometimes not wanting to) attend to more than one body—one's own, the body of the person who gave birth to you, and the one you gave birth to.
And I also think that these recent poems document yet another tension that perhaps isn't explicit, and that is the body of the poem itself as something we seek out and tend to when the real bodies become too much. As if this textual body were more stable, more willing to do what we want it to. (Of course that's a lie, but something perhaps I tell myself when my own body is being pulled in so many directions, and I want to just shut the door to my office and get to the poems.) These topics feel risky because there's an unspoken code—even in poetry—of what's acceptable or not acceptable to talk about. Fear/disinterest/dislike of some of the issues surrounding these topics is also connected, I think, by a general suspicion of (or disregard for) the female experience, of the female body. The greater risk for me, then, would be to ignore these issues/experiences altogether.
I wrote my first book review, many years ago, on Rodrigo Toscano's The Disparities, after seeing him perform at SUNY-Buffalo. I knew then that his work would move towards performance more fully. There was something about the way he read that was the missing puzzle to the text. Although he was already using Spanish in his work, I also knew that his work was going to become more bilingual, that he was going to combine Spanish and English in more and interesting ways. When I saw him perform from Collapsible Poetics Theatre, his book of poetry plays, at UTEP, it was like seeing everything that was possible in his work converge in this one moment. He had used every dimension—linguistic, kinetic, bodily—to tap the full potential of his vision as a poet. And the impact of having the various voices and bodies on the stage furthered his already standing argument for multiplicity and difference, versus capitalist/nationalist homogeneity and standardization. Toscano and I are very different writers, but seeing this made me realize that a new approach to my work is latent in what I've already done; it is already there, at the core of what I do. I don't have to look elsewhere.
Thank you, Rosa. I'm especially dizzied & struck by your naming of a "...general suspicion of (or disregard for) the female experience, of the female body."
A leap (kind of): For years, when asked, my favorite bird was the crow. To an extent, I tended to love what I wasn't supposed to love. That has changed over time but... my totems have been/were/are: crows, hyenas, Medusa, purple thread, blood. I have always been interested, since I was a kid, really, in discarded information, people, places, animals, things. Scraps, first drafts. Though I didn't know, until I grew older, that I was discarding my body... mourning my periods, feeling ashamed of the blooming self, denying it any kind of celebration. But, going back: crows, hyenas, Medusa... Probably a lot of poets have this in common: a commitment to what the cultures have taught us (me) not to love or think of as beautiful. I often move toward what has been monstered—the anomaly, the stranger, the one standing on the cusp of things. & so, often, suspicion of difference or disregard for that which is different, sets off alarms in me. I want to explore what has been discarded... when I am conscious of it... but, god, as I've mentioned above, how often I'm not conscious.
The process of writing a poem can make me more aware of my own relationship with taboo, wonder, my mine fields. In my anxiety over a word or a turn in a poem, I realize what I've been afraid to say or what I've been shying away from. Usually, I move (with great time) towards an engagement with the discarded or quieted thing. But the poems I'm writing, lately, are steeped in an engagement with loss, home, family, the absent or changing or disappearing body of a person, a place—which moves me into the land of personal history—&, eventually, questions of privacy... which may or may not be the same as questions of silence. (What do you think?)
I want to cull & box with (though this is sometimes so frightening) memory, experience, belief in poems. But what happens when I'm writing about what we've been asked to think of as private? So often, the poems I'm compelled to write are rooted in a desire to ask questions, to meditate on a question or worry or mystery—& not for answers, necessarily, but for a complexity of vision. Out of a desire to see differently, to grow.
The risky poems for me, lately, have been poems that seek to grow in my understanding of home, family, body—& to do so with great attention, surprise, & rigor—but it's VERY risky because the stories, the life is not only my own. When so many of the poems are steeped in the history of real people & places, it is difficult to know how to cull & grow while being respectful of other people's stories, lives, bodies. Hard, hard, hard for me to know how to prioritize meaning & work & loyalties sometimes. So there is that tension, that friction— totally unresolved. I feel more & more aware of not only poem-making as a powerful process for the writer, but as an actual text or body that has actual consequences... an ability to affect people. In the serious vein of June Jordan, I am, as I write, asking who or what I think I'm loving in my poems. But if I ask this, then I've also got to ask myself (lately) who or what I may be harming—even if nobody else ever reads the poem—& this feels especially risky when trying to write poems with personally high-stake (often times unanswerable) investigations that are steeped in home, people. It feels both terrifying & honest to stand in the middle-land of irresolution—especially with my hands full of everything I love.
I feel very aware of an impulse (in myself) to want the narrative to be resolved, to usher (even in my imagination) all things toward safety... but I also feel loyal to learning, & so safety becomes impossible. & that feels risky, to allow the poems to be driven by the same strange laws & mysteries of the universe... though, as the writer, I have the capacity to do otherwise.
Eduardo C. Corral:
A body of work. The bodies of our families, friends, lovers. The breath of the line. Oxygen swirling in the lungs. Confession: Recently, while going through an older version of my manuscript, I noticed all the poems that made me wince with embarrassment were autobiographical poems. These poems handled the bodies of my loved ones with kid gloves, viewed them through rose-colored glasses. These poems stayed too close to the truth, didn't stray. They read like captions to photographs. They lacked what I now value in my work: an astringent spine, a funny bone, a fictitious marrow, a brutal skin. This is my greatest risk. My greatest need. To write poems that read like personal confessions, but are in fact (no pun intended!) written in language that both repels and attracts, culled from hearsay, shaped and refined by imagination. Yet, I still want these poems to have an emotional pulse, to remain true to the sentiment that inspired them. Once I thought I had to place these emotion-sparks within dwellings that reconstructed, brick by brick, a scene, a conversation, a memory.
Let me stop: Does this matter? Some of the best poems in my forthcoming book read like autobiography. But I don't write autobiographical poems. I know many readers will read them like memoir: the speaker is the poet, the events unfolded as depicted. Honestly, I don't care or even mind. I don't read poetry to relive memories or to learn about the specific background of the poet. I ask myself all the time: Why continue to write poems that read like autobiography? Why not just stick to surreal parables or fantasy? It all comes down to heart, to emotion. I want my poems to move the reader somehow. (Yes, the surreal and the fantastic can be infused with heart. I don't have the skills to write those poems yet.) When I let my imagination wander, I come up with situations and details that resonate with me emotionally, that surprise me. I agree with Aracelis: our culture teaches us to love certain things. I would add this: The poetry world teaches writers of color to love certain things. One of those things is family lore, no? How many of us have been in the offices of our MFA teachers and have been told to write from our specific perch in the world? I was told this again and again. The poetry world expects, for the most part, certain poems from poets of color. I wrote those poems. And they sucked. They didn't thrill me emotionally or linguistically. But let me repeat: Some of the best poems in my forthcoming book read like autobiography. The reader will never know what's true (usually a tidbit) or made up. And it shouldn't matter to the reader. Language is queen, not subject matter. Yet, I continue to write in the autobiographical mode because the mode became elastic and new when I freed myself from any obligation to the truth, to memory. I'm constructing, bone by bone, a body of work full of lies and hearsay.
I wanted to double-back a moment to what you've written, Rosa, about the risky topic. I'm somehow carrying your words about risk & pushing my hand toward your poem "Mimicry"—particularly that second stanza:
What mirror reflects as whole
a slip of truth. And the business
of breaking it into lines,
I am thinking of the work a world pushes a body through. Time pushes us through various conjugations of womanhood, ages, inheritance... sometimes motherhood. This poem seems to speak to, for starters, the body of a speaker, a woman, a girl, a poem—none of them quite distinguishable or indistinguishable from each other. A poem that seems to nod to science, evolutionary biology, education, pop culture—all. & that second stanza that I keep coming back to—the move to call our attention to a suggestion of wholeness that is, only, a slip of world or body or truth. In thinking of you writing about the mother's aging body, which perhaps is & isn't the body of the self, is there a way that this idea of mimicry is part of the conversation—or even a concern at all? & how might mimicry, at all, relate to your poems or truth or privilege? What do these nouns mean in the context of mimicry?
Part of what fuels this question is that I'm interested in the ways people, writers, poets write about or toward some scene or life or site that is the poem... signaling to the self (perhaps) or the reader to remember that there is a gap between what is being said & the whole of what IS & what has been. This poem, among other things, seems to do just that. It elbows me, quite clearly, into the realm of irresolution. & so I am engaged with the reality of the poem—as a world—but also reminded that this isn't the "all" of it... & that that land of mimicry or partiality is an important land to recognize, in & of itself.
Too, are there craft elements that feel particularly helpful or brave when writing the poems that feel, to you, more risky?
Thank you, Aracelis, for this wonderful reading of my poem and for the thought-provoking questions. This poem encapsulates many of the issues found in Undocumentaries—in particular, issues of class and identity, and the slipperiness of representation (in poems and in general). And I think this loops back to Eduardo's resistance to writing autobiographically—as well as being read autobiographically. This poem—and the book—questions how the poem constructs or performs that which we think we know or have lived. One can "put a bow" in these experiences or memories, aesthetically, pretty it up, or one can negotiate it in various ways, as the father in this poem does when selling his Chevy to the Elvis impersonator (this person actually did live down the street from us). In the end, however, it's still all a performance of sorts, there is no singular truth, although there can be "slips" of it in the poem.
My poems often reference different conceptual art practices, as a nod to that intervention that is the poem. I find that your poem "Science," Aracelis, is also trying to negotiate the space between writing and "home" (of our origins, self, etc.). Poetry itself, you seem to be saying, is like evolution, in that it produces plurality, diversity in nature. When Eduardo says, "Language is queen," I think of Spivak's "Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries." I've been inserting this quote into almost every conversation I can because it's so powerful to me. Like Eduardo says, the language of poetry is queen, not because it reproduces reality, but because it pushes against all those boundaries/limitations.
I'd like to change the subject (or maybe it's related to what we've been talking about) by asking Eduardo about his ekphrastic poems, his engagement with art. Also, I find that so many of your poems are engaged with other writers, as a sort of dialogue or homage. Can you talk about this?
Eduardo C. Corral:
I'm always flipping through art books. Googling artists and art movements. One day I want to write a whole book of ekphrastic poems. Ross Bleckner. Martin Puryear. Bridget Riley. Arturo Herrera. David Salle. John Grade. Oscar Magallanes. Kiki Smith. The list could go on forever...
Art does something to wonderful to me. It gives me language. Paintings and sculptures and objects seem to exist, to me, in a language vacuum. There's a title and the name of the artist, and nothing else. My mind immediately begins to call up words or phrases to fill in this vacuum. These words and phrases sketch a narrative, a seedling-story that I nurture and prune during the drafting process. Sometimes the language echoes the colors, the textures, the images present in the art. Sometimes the language is unpredictable, wonderfully odd. I remember viewing Felix González-Torres' "Untitled (Perfect Lovers)" for the first time at the MoMA in New York City. I had an emotional reaction to the piece: two battery-operated wall clocks on a wall. (I knew his background. His early death from AIDS, the partner who died before him.) I stood transfixed, tears in my eyes. Then I heard myself mutter: A sentence bleeding milk. I have no idea where these words came from. But they startled me, gave me pleasure, consoled me—I knew they were the beginning of a poem.
I wear my influences on my sleeve. Heck, my first book is an homage to Robert Hayden. But here's something odd: Great art (well, art I think is great) helps me generate language, but some images or lines push me into a space where language melts down into pure noise. When I'm struck by a line or an image, it reverberate in my mind. I meditate on the language, I break it down into vowels and consonants. Syllables ricochet in my skull, making a jubilant din. This jubilant din is very important to me. I can draft and revise with this racket, this hullabaloo in my head. Sometimes I use these lines and images as epigraphs or I weave them into my work. Call it homage or dialogue.
Rosa, thank you for the Spivak quote. It holds hands, in a way, with this book by Maggie Nelson that I only just started (& am reading very slowly) called The Art of Cruelty. She mentions "…the capacities of particular works to expand, invent, explode, or adumbrate what we mean when we say 'reality,'" & then goes further to write, "Another way of putting this would be to use Ranciere's term, 'the redistribution of the sensible.' To focus on this redistribution is to celebrate the bounty of representational and perceptual possibilities available to us, and to get excited about art as but one site for such possibilities—one means of changing, quite literally, what we are able to sense."
I guess a lot of my poems do speak to other poets, writers. They speak to family members, loves, friends, dogs. Across time. I love that writing, to me..., has always been like wearing a microscope or a camera or a time machine or an eyepatch... my process of seeing is often honed, knocked off-kilter, slowed down in writing. Events are revisited, again & again, & changed in so-doing. Like building up the paint on a canvas.
I read poems by poets I love or wrestle with, & sometimes the poems seem, to me, to be invitations. Consider this, read this, look at this! This is some of what they say. & sometimes they say: What do you think? Talk back to me! Write to me! & sometimes I do. My more recent elegies or elegiac poems are often working as epistolaries. There is something both defiant & reverent about the elegiac epistolary poem, which acknowledges death but refuses to totally accept that the dead cannot be addressed. The letter acknowledges that distance must be traversed, but that it can also be dealt with. That distance does not (necessarily) have the final say. This, to me, is terrifying & hopeful & desperate. All.
What is most comfortable for you today, in the practice of English poetics/prosody, and what is most uncomfortable? Is the discomfort productive?
In a pre-roundtable conversation, Eduardo wrote: "...we have to admit something: writers of color are expected to 'speak the truth,' to illuminate a marginalized life in poems that will mostly (am I wrong here?) be read by a white audience. That's always bothered me. I've learned to let the poem go where it needs to go: I follow the music, or I follow the paths suggested by an image. Some of the results have been troubling, uncomfortable."
Aracelis and Rosa, in thinking about who has read and responded best/most deeply to your books, what would you say about this?
And excerpting one of Rosa's pre-roundtable questions: what relationship do we have with the language(s) we write in versus the language(s) we don't write in?
Most of the students in my creative writing classes in college (both graduate & undergraduate school) were white, though I had one or two workshops in graduate school where the ratio was more 60/40 (a little over half being white students & the other half being a mix of Latino, Asian/South East Asian, African American students). The majority of my creative writing professors were white, though there was a semester in grad school when both my writing professors were of the African diaspora. I thought I'd been reborn. How rare. None of my creative writing professors in undergrad/grad were Latino.
I say all of this to answer your question in a few ways. I'll start by saying that in many of (most of) my in-school workshops, the workshop readers I had access to were white. I grew tremendously in these workshops—so many of my fellow students taught me by example. They risked, loved, tried, floundered, celebrated, mourned in their writing. They responded to my work. Each other's work. Still, there were many times, too, that their responses revealed a strange bewilderment or confusion about race dynamics, references. The position I was writing from revealed a complicated center—no more complicated than any other person's, but complicated by the fact, perhaps, that some of these white students were having to imagine a black center that they'd not been asked to stand in before. I think of Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark here & how reading pushes us to become other characters, voices.
Because of my white-centered education, because of the media, because of the presidential history of this country, because most of my fellow writing students were white, I had great practice in imagining the white center. One gets educated, quite quickly, in the nuances & range of whiteness—but we don't call it whiteness, we call it being American, human. That's how center is, how center plays. I learned so much from those workshops when people resisted "dealing" with the poem's meat because it felt (as I heard) foreign, sooo ethnic &, thus, too hard to enter. I'll not forget when one of my white workshop mates in college expressed feeling as if the poem was holding him at a distance because it was so ethnic & he couldn't enter into it, he couldn't access it. There were definitely times when I felt as if a failure to try to talk about race kept people from talking about craft, quest, content. I realize that people are afraid to flail, to sound wrong or ignorant or xyz... & so they go quiet so as not to offend, and to feel safer. But this can lead to shallow readings. One of the things that reading a poem with other people can do is show us how strange, funny, young, old we are. How very much we are learning. How far we have to go. How much we have to teach. All of this. Reading together can be like sitting at a table—there is sharing, conversation, learning. Such deep learning can happen from these discussions—but I remember that we often skirted around race.
After graduate school, Cave Canem blew my mind & changed my life. Being in fellowship with dozens & dozens of black writers—everyone so different in aesthetic, interest, language, history, class—& talking about these differences, or trying to. Asking questions. Saying. That was what—is what—I've been hungry for. Being in New York—connecting with LouderArts & Community Word, Teachers & Writers, & Acentos—I know that these programs were essential parts of my education in poetry.
This said, I don't imagine that I am or am not writing for white people, necessarily. I imagine I'm writing towards my family & all that means. I imagine I'm writing to send a letter to Henry Dumas, Nazim Hikmet. I am writing & thankful & writing toward June Jordan & Walt Whitman. I am writing to try to say something to my little girl self. I'm trying to bend this present into touching that present. Trying to see them touch. Cave Canem has held me up—let me know that there are people who want my voice to say some things, to try, to wrestle—that there's a place where my work will be deeply questioned & considered & lived with.
When Aracelis writes, "I imagine I'm writing towards my family & all that means," I start to think of how complex this statement is, even though, on the surface, someone may understand it as writing "about family." For me, the key words here are "writing," "towards," and "family." Firstly, the "writing towards" is interesting because one is moving, when it comes to writing, within a present, but it moves, with each moment, forward; yet, that "towards," especially when it comes to both family and language, requires one to move in many directions, to the past, to the now, to the future, and to an "imagining" that is, in some ways, timeless. In other words, I see writing about family as a way to write about many things and to be many places at once; it is to recollect the past and to invent it; and it is to come face to face with who we are, what has shaped us, and how we shape through writing. But also, how language shapes us; how it contains its own histories. This complexity about family, our origins, you would think has been solved, in part, by DNA testing, but it has only opened up the map of who we are. Poets do something similar; we don't pinpoint an exact identity, a place of origin, but allow language, as Eduardo said earlier, to complicate and worry that search, to take us into its own genetic whorl, its own origins and future, its endless histories, meanings, echoes.
This writing towards family, is related, for me, to the question regarding audience, and also to the question regarding our relationship to the language we write in and the language we speak. I do often write "towards family," as Aracelis claims of her own practice, and I do so in English. This "towards" then becomes peculiar in two ways. My mother, because she does not speak or read English, is not my audience. Nor would my father be, if he were alive. Even if I were writing in Spanish—or if my parents spoke English—it is unlikely that I would consider them my "audience." Or, I imagine, I wouldn't set out to write for them.
Another consideration in what shapes audience is class and education. Here, too, is a distance for me, as my parents had very little access to an education and didn't read poetry, although my father could recite some very beautiful verses he'd memorized. So, in some sense, writing towards them is also writing away from them. And this is probably true for so many of us. Writing towards them can also mean not writing about them, but instead writing about things that are important to me because their lives have shaped my understanding of the world. For example, my interest in the history of textile work is very clearly related to my own parents' labor in textile factories. This has led to looking at women's work in particular, and labor in general. My parent's stories are part of larger histories I feel the need to explore.
I know that I felt out of place when I was in grad school, where there were few working-class, bilingual students like myself, and maybe my audience is still unlike me; however, like Aracelis, I believe there is "a place where my work will be deeply questioned & considered & lived with." But like Eduardo, what I write isn't memoir or autobiography; it's sometimes messy and discursive and collaged—call it lyric, experimental, what have you—but I'm not ashamed to say that I "draw" (I'm thinking of both a graphic mark and a blood-draw) quite a bit from autobiography, that identity is central to my work.
Yes. I'm so glad you brought up this question of language again—especially as it relates to the question of audience. Rosa, you asked: "What relationships do we have with the language(s) we write in vs. the language(s) we don't write in?" I write in English. & I suppose it is an English with some range. Not vast range, but range. Syntaxes, dictions, musics, and references pulse with vastly different places that are, in some way, familiar to me as reference points. In my Englishes is the English of Al B. Sure & JJ Fad through the bodies of children on the Santa Ana schoolyard, the news, gospel church, a West Coast prep school, my Brooklyn-South Carolina landlords upstairs playing cards & teasing, every book I've read. English taught to me by people who learned English after knowing Spanish, Tigrinya, Amharic. It is an English peppered with accents brought over from Puerto Rico, Chicago, Eritrea. I don't know Tigrinya. Only a few niceties & words that have to do with food. My abilities with Spanish are far more great.
But so much of my music is attuned to the music of hearing languages (I'm mostly thinking of Tigrinya here) that I don't understand... Without meaning to, I'd interpret & absorb the music, the cadence, the volume, the kinds of sounds people were making. Without meaning to, I searched for meaning in these sonic elements throughout much of my life as though I were trying to read mouths through several sets of windows. I have never felt like language was something I possessed. Language is a vehicle, & holds me at a distance. It is like a horse, to me. It moves. I both understand & do not understand it. It takes me places & leaves me there. Sometimes I think I am telling it where & how to go, & then it bucks, it rears. It reminds me that we both touch the land—but that its hooves are different from my feet.
Over the last ten years or so, I've consciously begun to study & pay attention to these units of sound I was hearing in Tigrinya music or speech, & I push myself to carry them over into English.... trying to maintain something of the beat, the musical tendency, & space for the imagined or misinterpreted occurrence or utterance alongside the intended utterance, though I am using mostly English words. I think this is linked to play in that I am interested in language as a game of telephone... working in the space of progression, one sound or thought to another. I am interested in the misheard or mistranslated phrase just as much as the intended phrase... I think this is a way that language reflects how close each body is, but how easily changed, fooled with, tricked out. Language is both powerful & vulnerable to our accidents & hopes for it. & I think that language speakers are both powerful & vulnerable to the whims & constraints of language.
When I say that "I'm writing towards my family & all that means...," I do mean to call attention to the distance that "towards" implies. Arrival is not guaranteed, nor is it (necessarily) desired, or even possible. Once, in Eritrea, I asked my dad how I might address a bird if I wanted to talk to it in Tigrinya. My dad said something like, No, you don't do that. I asked him, Do you do that in English? This is to say, I am interested in moving through/with/despite my English to ask questions of nouns that may or may not speak English. What does the palm tree speak? What does the window speak? I believe any thing might teach us about speaking.
My English shifts & is changed, depending on who or what I'm writing towards. Without even meaning to—it shifts. Just as the eye shifts depending on what light it's seeing in. English is both scaffolding & trap door. It brings me closer to the world while maintaining distance. I try to collapse the distance. As you say, Rosa, language "contains its own histories." The words—each one of them a palimpsest—changed by how they were used—for what, by whom, & why.
Lately, I have been imagining that each word might be a map of shapes (not only sounds, not only definitions, but shapes that mean & might tell us something if interpreted metaphorically). I think of my relationship to Spanish & Tigrinya—both of them part of my sonic scape. Spanish, I can understand & speak, but not like my English. & Tigrinya, I do not understand or speak. & so there is this deep relationship with languages that I am somewhat outside of but that are around me so much. I look at the Ge'ez alphabet that Tigrinya uses & I see, not sounds, but shapes. I look at Spanish words that I don't know, & imagine how they might be related to the words I do know in English & Spanish.
New words carry stories with them. I can't hear "cosa buena" without hearing Hector Lavoe's "Ausencia" & picturing a night sky's moon (as it was when I first heard the song). Similarly, the highway will forever be linked to the Portuguese & Spanish word for sadness, "tristeza," as I heard it as a child in a Brazilian song (was it "Bom Dia Tristeza"?) my mother would play in the car as we drove. & so "tristeza" is linked with the freeway. &, oh, that is right. A freeway marks distance & was for me, then, a bittersweet thing to traverse. It meant "going somewhere" & "leaving somewhere" both. Tristeza. I want to have this fresh & mysterious & associative relationship with English. I think spending time in Eritrea helped me to see the ways that English too, is made up of impossible sounds & shapes & relatives & memories... & that meaning might come from all of that if I pay attention. Meaning, too, from the history of the mouth!
Eduardo C. Corral:
Language and family. Family and language. It's hard to separate one from the other, no? Like Aracelis, I'm training my ear to catch the music and the sense of the various vernaculars that surround me. Especially the Spanish my parents taught me. My parents and relatives all come from small Mexican villages. My family isn't highly educated. Their Spanish is not the Spanish of the middle-class, of the universities, of the newspapers. It's Mexican hillbilly: rustic, wrong, loud, and crass. I've never been ashamed of this Spanish, but I did lose my fluency in grade school. So nowadays I struggle to articulate myself in Spanish. I stutter, sputter and mutter. I have to work hard to dress my thoughts and feelings in Spanish; a Spanish that would make educated Mexicans cringe. My parents (and an English-only education) gave me a broken thing. And I'm thankful. Why? This effort at speech, I believe, wired my brain to think deeply about language, to dwell on fragments, to savor vowels, to constantly search for music. Spanish and poems come to me in pieces: the flash of a phrase, a jumble of syntaxes and dictions, verb hurdles, the pursuit of epiphany and meaning. But something magical happens when I'm writing a poem, I'm not singing in English or in Spanish—I'm singing in my mother tongue.
When Eduardo writes, "But something magical happens when I'm writing a poem, I'm not singing in English or in Spanish—I'm singing in my mother tongue," I also think of how his "mother tongue" represents a new lineage, not just one that fuses Spanish and English into poetry, but one that is informed by the language of other poets and artists.
This thought leads me to Jack Spicer's After Lorca and Jerome Rothenberg's The Lorca Variations (I am teaching a class on the translation and adaptation of Lorca by U.S. writers). Spicer's book contains: translations of poems by Lorca, poems written by Spicer pretending to be translations of Lorca, an introduction by a dead Lorca (which is, of course, really Spicer), and letters by Spicer to the already dead Lorca. Rothenberg, also in an attempt to pay homage to--or correspond with—Lorca, applies "chance operations" to his own translations of Lorca, and produces new poems in which Lorquian imagery becomes nestled within another's diction (Rothenberg's English), shining forth referentially. This movement, from poet to poet, this correspondence, is not always as obvious as it is in these two projects. Perhaps the correspondence between the languages Eduardo, Aracelis, and I are familiar with—how one changes or modifies the other—is less apparent in our work. Still, it's there: "A poet is a time-mechanic not an embalmer...No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it," Spicer tells us.
I am entranced by the idea and practice of repetition, or repetition with variation, in poetry. To that end, I have compiled an incomplete, impressionistic, non-representative catalogue for each of you—a catalogue of words that recur in your recent books. What reflections or observations leap to mind when you contemplate your, or others', lists?
Undocumentaries, Rosa Alcalá: job, mother, mess, girl, erection, memory, father, uncle, act, wedding, marriage, marry, beer, ape, English, cats, dog, body.
Slow Lightning, Eduardo Corral: wolf, deer, mice, serpent, guitar, father, mother, canary, indigo, pistola, border, socorro.
Kingdom Animalia, Aracelis Girmay: suitcase, rooms, hands, dress, name, home, small, sister, mother, black, bird, girl, sad, body, grandmother, egg, snake, sea, dying, angel, song, love, kill, bed, school, New York, uncles, heart.
Thinking about my work as a kind of translation between languages, as time travel, as a work of elective affinity, a building of a new language ("my mother tongue," as Eduardo asserts), as a looking back and moving forwards, as an admiration for and destruction of what came before us, as a rebuilding, I think of playfulness, too, of the pleasure inherent in infidelity and transgression, of poetry as a devilish activity (see Haroldo de Campos' "Mephistofaustian Transluciferation," in which he claims Lucifer as the Angel of Translation.," and see also Rosmarie Waldrop's "Silence, The Devil, and Jabès," in The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field, edited by Rosanna Warren. ). In this devilishness is the possibility of Aracelis' "misheard," "fooled," and "tricked out" language that opens up so much poetic territory for me, and allows me to explore beyond my own perceived limits (of language, of lineage).
So, when Maria asks us about these words culled from my work, I wonder how much they conceal or reveal about this process of correspondences, how many of these words are the result of my own translations, mishearings, chance operations, my passage through time, and also my love affair with English. But I ask, also, how did "erection" get into my poems? Why can't I place it?
Transluciferation! Wow! I will have to go read de Campos! Rosa, you bring in Lorca, & this poem of his that I have been living with pushes its way to the front of my mind. Lorca writes in this excerpt from his poem "El poeta pide ayuda a la Virgen":
Tú, Madre siempre terrible, ballena de todos los cielos;
tú, Madre siempre bromista, vecina del perejil prestado:
sabes que yo comprendo la carne mínima del mundo
para poder expresarlo.
Translated by Catherine Brown as "The Poet Prays to the Virgin for Help":
You, Mother, forever to be feared, whale of all the skies;
you, Mother, forever joking, neighbor of the borrowed parsley:
you know that to speak of the world
I must understand its slightest flesh.
I adore & am taken by these last lines of this poem. & while he is speaking to the Virgin & not (necessarily) to language here, the lines help me think about language & help me articulate something about my relationship to language. What constitutes the slightest flesh? Insects, animals, the small things. But what about words? If we think of the slightest flesh more broadly, & in terms of language--we might think of shape, utterance, sounds, accent (to the eye or ear). In broadening my sense of what flesh might be, I am reminded that everything I've ever lived & seen or understood or sought to understand informs, as Eduardo puts it, "my mother tongue."
Rosa writes of the "mother tongue" as "...a new lineage, not just one that fuses Spanish and English into poetry, but one that is informed by the language of other poets and artists." & I suppose Lorca's poem helps me to (literally!) remember that this information is negotiated through & by the body. Every thing that the body navigates or moves through informs its language. & so I am imagining the ways a body (text, human, word) moves through space. I borrow loosely from Thomas Sayers Ellis & Ross Gay here when I say that words are (can be) gestures, a performance, a birth & a death, a part of a larger evolutionary process. On a page, word becomes next word becomes next image or phrase or thought. Pieces & seconds & life & words become a poem. I believe every time we read or see or hear we are engaged in a process of becoming.
In her essay "Bewilderment," Fanny Howe encourages us to consider bewilderment "as a poetics & an ethics." Poetics & ethics! A clear articulation of a link between them—so many, many poets (artists) make this link (& so many don't), but I am so glad & taught by her clear articulation. I am interested in the ways that words bind & resist binding. I read the words that you've brought to my attention as repeated words, Maria, & so many of them (suitcase, girl, hands, dress, uncles, home) hold, inside of them, loss & birth & movement! These words, to me, have feet. Seem to be in the process of changing, or, in their contexts, represent a moment of change or shift or transformation.
I think that's part of what my language & body are attuned to: the lost & hybrid (half-this, half-that or half-there, half-here thing). Octopus or Kali language--holding many things in many arms. Making a house out of tools nobody thought you could make a house with. Every day, I believe, we are moving-in to language. Pushing or coaxing or breaking it to fit our (always new) histories, concerns, questions, identities, problems. Documenting & inventing & erasing & making. What are the consequences or implications of these gerunds? What frightening & encouraging territory.
Looking back over this e-conversation I've been honored to moderate, I find poignant moments of concern for the "rightness" of one's poetry. Aracelis wonders if she's adopting the right position of care for others, when she says, "I've ... got to ask myself (lately) who or what I may be harming—even if nobody else ever reads the poem—." Rosa finds herself wanting to resist "an unspoken code—even in poetry—of what's acceptable or not acceptable to talk about." In this case, Rosa is working to re-define what rightly belongs in a poem. Eduardo observes that, in an older manuscript version of his Slow Lightning, "all the poems that made me wince with embarrassment were autobiographical poems." He is careful to describe that this wasn't the embarrassment of self-exposure, but rather, the embarrassment of aesthetic failure. He goes on to describe how letting his poems be "shaped and refined by imagination" allowed him greater access to the aesthetic rightness found in "an astringent spine, a funny bone, a fictitious marrow, a brutal skin."
Their concern for getting it right shows these respondents to be reflective poets, mindful of their process and its impacts. I wonder where, in the arc of their poems' lives, these concerns for rightness are addressed by Aracelis, Rosa, Eduardo, and other poets. In composition? In revision? In selecting work to share with an audience? Our roundtable timeframe (intentionally limited to provide focus and realistic expectations) didn't allow for the abundance of follow-up questions that now arise as I re-read this tri-logue. I also wonder: if giving ourselves permission to fail is one of the chestnuts of wisdom that permit any writing at all, can we not give ourselves permission to fail ideologically and ethically, as well? As the Latino Poetry Now readings and roundtables continue over the next three years, perhaps these questions will be a engaged by future roundtable respondents.
In the reverse concern from how one's work impacts others, all three poets note how, in some way or another, other writers and artists have impacted them. I love Rosa's account of seeing Rodrigo Toscano perform, and how Rosa felt the performance to be "the missing puzzle to [his] text." Eduardo's encounter with Felix González-Torres' visual art—"I stood transfixed, tears in my eyes"—impressed me with the mystical spontaneity of the utterance it inspired, which was: a sentence bleeding milk. "I have no idea where these words came from," Eduardo explains, "but ... I knew they were the beginning of a poem." Aracelis, too, attributes inspiration to others' creative work: "poems by poets I love or wrestle with ... sometimes ... seem, to me, to be invitations ... & sometimes they say: What do you think? Talk back to me! Write to me! & sometimes I do."
It seems that Whitman's claim—I am large, and contain multitudes—applies to the poets here, whether it be that the individual person contains multitudinous stories, histories, relationships and experiences, or that the individual exists at the point of multitudinous connections between his own and others' (real and imagined) stories, histories, relationships and experiences.
The containing of multitudes can be ecstatic and, at times, painful. The discussion of race that emerges here illuminates distances and barriers that sadden me with (what I experience as) their familiarity. But the discussion is also deeply affirming of the fact that these poets need to be more widely read, heard, and discussed so that Eduardo encounters fewer of the narrow expectations he's writing against, and so that Aracelis' work is met with less silence or fear, and so that Rosa's work continues to dismantle the walls of "unacceptability" that keep parts of our lives hidden from each other. Familiarizing ourselves with the work of contemporary Latino writers who write in English is an effort to keep the way open for vital and revitalizing encounters that generate concentric rings, sonic waves, of connection and interconnection.
For ensuring these circles expand, thank you to the sponsors of this roundtable and of the reading at Harvard it anticipates. Thank you to our generous and thoughtful respondents. Most especially, thank you, dear reader.
Poet & Independent Editorial Consultant
Acquiring Editor, Momotombo Press
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Rosa Alcalá is a poet and translator originally from Paterson, NJ. Her most recent book of poetry is MyOTHER TONGUE (Futurepoem, 2017). She teaches in the Department of Creative Writing and Bilingual MFA Program at the University of Texas-El Paso.
Eduardo C. Corral's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Jubilat, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. His work has been honored with a "Discovery"/The Nation award and residencies from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. Slow Lightning, his first book of poems, was selected by Carl Phillips as the 2011 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition.
Aracelis Girmay is the author of the collage-based picture book changing, changing, and the poetry collection Teeth, for which she was awarded a GCLA New Writers Award. Girmay has taught youth writing workshops in schools and community centers for the past ten years. She is assistant professor of poetry writing at Hampshire College, and also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Drew University in New Jersey. Her new collection of poems, Kingdom Animalia, won the Isabella Gardner Award & was published by BOA Editions this fall. For more information about her newly published collection, please visit BOA.
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