Latino/a Poets Roundtable
Latino/a Poets Roundtable, part three: Xochiquetzal Candelaria, Lorena Duarte and Rigoberto González
Visually, I've often found a single space block style poem claustrophobic. The double space feels more like a representation of the western landscape where most of my poems take place. The wide open space for light to spread has always felt like home to me and I try to represent that sense of openness...
I don't "plan" my poems. But I do edit a great deal and refine. So I let the initial inspiration be. I play in the aftermath. I try to be as honest as I can. Try not to let ego get in the way. Try to make the disparate parts tell a greater whole (both within a poem and poems as part of a collection.) That is as close as I can come to describing my process.
I am very deliberate about what I set out to do on the page. I don't think this cancels out surprise or discovery, it simply means that this many books later I have done so much of the thinking in my head before I sit down to actually write the poem on paper. I know what I want to do on the page with image and sound, and I make no excuses for reaching toward my favorite vocabulary—bone, finger, mouth.
Once, during his office hours in Wheeler Hall on the Berkeley campus in 1986, Robert Pinsky said, "There are no rules." That maxim sprung to mind upon re-reading the selected excerpts above—from this our third installment of Latino/a Poetry Now. That is: these online roundtable discussions.
These snippets suggest that poets, whether they share a community in common or not, each do what's best for him or her when practicing their art—whether that's being inspired by the "open space" of a particular geography, making a set of "disparate" elements cohere into a "whole," or perhaps composing most of a work in one's head before "sit[ting] down to actually write the poem on paper." Forget roadmaps. Forget blueprints. Antonio Machado was right:
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
This is Lauro Vazquez's second stint as moderator of these discussions. I was taken by the extended and astute observations that accompanied his questions and prompts. I also had a sense, simply, that he was having fun. He punctuates one of his inquiries: Do you ride around the world on the back of a flea or a brontosaurus?
As this is the third of a projected five-part multi-year series, we have reached the half-way point of Latino/a Poetry Now. It has become clear—at least to me—that these online discussions are as important and meaningful as the public multi-author readings. We started at Harvard almost a year ago, moved on to Georgetown last March, and are now anticipating our stop at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN—an installment that was originally conceived during my visit there in April of 2011. This is an opportunity, therefore, to thank Kristin Naca, poet and friend who teaches there, who is our principal collaborator "on the ground," so to speak. Thanks, as well, to The Loft Literary Center for their support and collaboration. As always, our heartfelt gratitude to the Poetry Society of America, which gives this initiative its national veneer, as well as a home for these online discussions. Finally, Latino/a Poetry Now—a Letras Latinas initiative--would not be possible without the generosity of individual donors.
Institute for Latino Studies
University of Notre Dame
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Two sisters, side by side/ during the day,/one holding a cartridge belt,/ the other firing,/ are lying curled back to back.
Quick,/ Pretty/ Prick/ Jump./ Quick,/ Pretty/ Prick,/ Learn,/ You Lump.
What does a creature do/ in the tar pits of its own extinction/ but lift its tusks to the heavens to pierce its own wail?
What I particularly like about the lines I've plucked above is that they focus in on a strong undercurrent running strongly through both Black Blossoms and Empire, and to a certain degree in Lorena's manuscript The Wars are my Words. What I am referring to is a strong sensibility which roots these poems in the strength of femininity and against the forces that push to extinguish or at the very least restrict that strength. Black Blossoms complicates the old metaphor of women as flowers; yes this is a garden of women but they have found a voice in each other's company. Empire uproots that very word from its patriarchal definitions of power and statehood and grounds it to a creative female-energy which is no longer excluded from history and story making. The Wars are my Words, with its unapologetic and unflinching impeachment of U.S. foreign policy and its involvement in the violence that led to the ongoing exodus of Salvadorans gives us a "flint tongue" poetess, with "tongue ready to renounce traitors and fools" and to "tell the stories of those whose tongues have been cut out and silenced."
When writing about stories that are not our own, as is the case with some of these poems, there is a danger involved and that is that one runs the risk of repeating the same old tropes that often exclude women and others from history making. What elements of your craft have allowed you to not fall victim to this trap? What issues, difficulties, advantages, disadvantages have you had to deal with in order to negotiate these complex imaginative and historical spaces?
As a male writer, I don't think that I would have even attempted to explore women's lives on the page if I wasn't a reader of literature written by women. It's too easy for me to simply say I respect women or that I am pro-feminist, or that I am a gay man therefore I connect with being marginalized or excluded from the heterosexual male world. As a gay man, I still benefit from male privilege. My responsibility is greater: to learn from women writers, to understand how they craft a multi-dimensional and energetic identity, to read how they crack open sexist language and construct story, and then be guided by that knowledge in my own efforts. Black Blossoms was a risky project for me, but it was a challenge I had to undertake because I wanted to confront my fear of writing about women, through the eyes and lives of women. Even now I don't consider this book to be writing in the voices of women, but rather writing in close proximity to the voices of women. I cannot write as a woman, I can only write as a man standing next to a woman.
I try to avoid tropes that marginalize women by reminding the reader that I am creating a narrative as much as describing an experience. In the poem "Mexico 1910," the poem reminds the reader of my authorship by saying, "I call her Dolores." This turning toward the self as writer and the use of imagery allow for what I hope is a complete dramatic event that draws attention to itself as such. It is a performance that I hope inspires the reader to think deeply about history and the possibilities for a more humane future. Through the use of an image that leads to something unexpected, I try to implicate the reader so that he or she takes a more active role when reading. In "A Question," I try to perform the role of both spectator and subject when I begin by looking at my neighbor that looks like me. I do a lot of twinning in Empire hoping to encourage our recognition of the fallacy of a subject/object dichotomy. The last poem, "The Last Line," has a woman standing at the end of a line, "One of the women, far ahead in gold earrings and folkloric dress, looks like her sister, but darker, finer." I want to inspire myself and others to feel comfortable saying, "what is my role in this?" rather than "whose fault was it." Don't get me wrong, I get plenty angry about injustice and was moved to tears by Lorena's poem "San Nicolas, Patron Saint of Children." But what I love about that poem is that it tells a story and at the same time haunts the reader through a lyrical use of repetition. It sings as well as cries out and I think a poem that can do that inspires readers to imagine tender ways of being.
Xochi, thank you, that means quite a lot. Your work comes from a place of female strength, of surety, both in your own voice and the voices of the women you introduce us to, so thank you. The best way I can answer the question is this: honesty. First, in choice of topic: I write about women because it genuinely concerns and fascinates me. Second, in method: I focus on the woman I'm writing about (myself, others) and strip away the unnecessary (be that words, other voices, my own commentary, etc.) What is her truth? If I zero in on that, clichés fall away. The expected falls away. What I hope is left is the moment of fire, or heartbreak or wonder—the moments of humanness, of connection with a reader. That whisper that you get when you read a poem, "I've felt this too." For that moment, that woman lives. She has not been silenced. She has been remembered and acknowledged. Her story adds to my life.
This is all a bit vague, you'll forgive me, but it is the best answer I can give. I don't plan my poems. I write and edit and edit and edit some more. But I don't plan. If the woman wants to repeat things, I let her. If she want to yell, I let her. If she is deeply sad I let her be. I do my best to present whatever truth there is in her on the page.
I feel one of the elements in your craft which has allowed you to successfully navigate these spaces is in movement. Movement as in the movement a dancer takes when moving from one choreographed step to the other or in the movement of the eyes when traveling the geography of a work of art, the lines and ridges that make a textured sculpture whole. In Rigoberto's work I am thinking of the long-line and its intricate use in Black Blossoms, a long line which can easily fall flat and "be quickly forgotten if there isn't another mechanism in place to sustain its energy" and whose difficult employment was acknowledged by Rigoberto in a pre-roundtable discussion. Lorena on the other hand navigates a subtle movement, a sort of dance between two partners: between the performance of the poem which electrifies the air, and the stillness of the page which first gives a poem its first faint sounds of song. For me, movement in Xochiquetzal's work lies in the spaces between the lyrical and narrative and what Juan Felipe Herrera calls the "poly-vocal strategies of line, photo-dream, and exploded texts."
The examples of movement I have given you are for the most part all visual, but movement of course is also a thing of mass and sound as in the flight of a bullet or the flutter of the eardrum at the touch of sound or in the ripple of air at the tip of a bird's feather. How do you conceive of movement? Is artistic movement like the transfer of energy (where that energy is moved as if on a one way street from one place to the other) or can we think of it as something more dynamic where the "static" long line can defibrillate a poem with newly-found energy, where the narrative and lyrical can open up into poly-vocal lines and exploded texts igniting a conversation between content and form, where the marriage between how a poem is experienced and how a poem visually strikes us can lead us to that which is "impalpable in us all?"
There's plenty to respond to with this question. I confess that I have always leaned toward the more conservative configurations of the line—the standard left-justified, most likely regular stanzaic form. But that's where convention ends for me. When it comes to sound, I aim to communicate plenty of music. Juan Felipe Herrera once explained that language generally moves in two directions: toward the page (what the poet writes in ink) and off the page (what readers hear when they read the ink). I appreciate that because it privileges sound, a few beats before meaning, which only comes together after multiple sounds (or words) are read. But first, there's sound. Once upon a time I had to be a little more aware of it, now when I write, it's second nature my reach for alliteration and internal rhyme. It's pleasing to hear and it creates an interesting tension with the subject matter of my work, which is not easy to sit through sometimes.
This question reminds me of Gerard Manely Hopkin's idea of both instress and inscape. In short, he believed that each individual identity is both unique and constantly in flux (inscape) and that humans could hurl energy at living things (instress) and it would result in an accurate rendering of that entity's uniqueness. He tries to capture this experience in his poetry through inventive alliteration and assonance so that to hear the poem is to experience what the poem describes. I have always admired this about Hopkins and have attempted to use it here and there in Empire. Hopkins also believed that the English language should never have been corrupted by romance languages, so I take great pleasure in knowing he would have hated my use of Spanish in poems written predominately in English. If he were here, I'd assure him it was just another example of everything being in influx. I also enjoy how a poem can move from one topic to another seamlessly. Poems that do this can highlight the complex nature of existence and how things are interconnected. I'd say I've tried to borrow from Larry Levis's use of simile to do this. In one of Larry's poems you can begin with the speaker's fingernail and before you know it you are in a plaza in Veracruz where a woman is selling old movie posters. I made that up, so if the reader finds the example second rate, please read Larry!
I love this question! For me, movement is crucial, primarily in the inspiration for a poem, but certainly in its execution (by which I mean to say its form). And of course in its presentation.
I very much "hear" and "see" my poems first. It is a dance. And it is so deeply moving to me that I want to share that with my reader/audience. You should see me when I write. I'll rock, wave my arms—and I swear my best ideas have come to me in fast-moving cars. The forms and tricks I use are all an attempt to infuse the poem with the movement that I first experienced. So a line break can be that long sob and thump in the chest ("Purple, Bruises, Sky"), the stanza break is a punch whizzing through the air ("Pretty Girl, Pick, Pick, Jump.") I think you'll note that I use a lot of repetition in my work and it is very much the same reason that a dancer repeats his/her movement: it is pleasing, it builds energy and momentum. It's also why you move on to a different step: to surprise, to move on, to leave you wanting the familiar and wondering why. And there are other poems. Poems created in stillness. Perhaps under a duvet, or with a cat on top of you ("Poultice.") Those tend to be shorter. They very much capture a solitary, quiet moment, the thought between thoughts ("For a Friend Far Away and Once Met.") Other things: I associate rhyming with laughter—big, heaving belly laughs. And you'll notice I'm not a big rhymer. I one day hope to write more rhymes. Also, I hate to share my poems from behind a podium. Hate it. Even if it's just a hand gesture, or the raising of an eyebrow, I feel I can share my poems better when I come out from behind the podium. In fact, my favorite way to share a poem is if I have it memorized and I can walk, amble, point, stomp. Let the original movement that inspired the poem come to me and share it—in the moment—with other people.
I want to echo Xochi's advice to reach for Levis. Which kind of brings me to another issue, about where we find our teachers on the page. I always give my students two responsibilities: to read the writers of their respective communities, and to read beyond those communities—to read widely. And this also means read those who have passed on, like Larry Levis. Here's an added incentive: take a copy of Winter Stars, now read each first sentence of every poem in one sitting. Prepare to be dazzled. I ask you do the same, with the last sentence of each poem, in Brigit Pegeen Kelly's The Orchard. There's plenty to be learned just by reading. That's really the best advice for any writer. I'm stunned when someone admits they don't read when they write. That's like saying they don't think when they write. I can't think of a more useful exercise during the writing process than reading. When I was writing Black Blossoms I kept going back to the poetry by the poet Ai, to Lorna Dee Cervantes, to Federico García Lorca, to Carolyn Forché—I like to believe their fingerprints and energies and other blessings are all over the book.
How do you tap into and control the creative and aesthetic energy behind the craft in your poems? In other words is there a specific element(s) in your craft that serves as the driving catalyst behind these poems, is each poem different and if so what element(s) of craft binds them together as a collection, as a whole?
In considering the way in which craft defines both the "local and global geography" of poem and collection, I am reminded for example of Rigoberto's "The Ballad of Lucila la Luciérnaga" and the poems in Part Four ("The Mortician Poems") in that both that single poem and the mortician poems—through their use of line and imagery—give rise to a narrative that restores and honors the conversations taking place among the women which inhabit that collection. In Lorena's poems I am thinking of the longer and more narrative and language-driven poems ("San Nicolás, Patron Saint of Children," "Veteranos," "Ojala") which when coupled with some of the shorter and more image-driven poems ("Beaver, Really," "Nails," "Poulstice") create a middle ground where poetry can be put into "everyone's lips, in their minds," where what is literature and what is song meet. And in Xochiquetzal's poems I am thinking of the short but carefully constructed "breathing line" in the narrative poems of section one which when coupled with the lyricism of the poems in section two open up to the same geography of sisterhood and female-driven story making. In short, I am thinking of the way in which various elements come together to give individual poems and series of poems its distinctive geography…
This is a tough question. I'll try to be as coherent as I can. I suppose that if there is a place called "longing" that's where you'll find my poems. That's where they live. Longing in all forms, with its myriad of implications and consequences. It is the driving force behind my poetry. But I don't call it forth. As I mentioned before, I don't "plan" my poems. But I do edit a great deal and refine. So I let the initial inspiration be. I play in the aftermath. I try to be as honest as I can. Try not to let ego get in the way. Try to make the disparate parts tell a greater whole (both within a poem and poems as part of a collection.) That is as close as I can come to describing my process.
My work bursts with organs and limbs. I realized this when someone pointed out how many tongues and eyes and hands were in my first book, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks. The poem "Body Maker," read like an ars poetica: "My business...is body parts." And it's interesting to note that though the window dresser of the poem is left genderless, I always thought of him as a gay male (are window dressers straight?) plucking mannequins out of the box and "returning them to their wholeness." Fast-forward to Black Blossoms and there's that gay window dresser again, putting the fragmented lives, narratives and bodies of women back together, reconstructing as an act of recovery, healing, commemoration. I am very deliberate about what I set out to do on the page. I don't think this cancels out surprise or discovery, it simply means that this many books later I have done so much of the thinking in my head before I sit down to actually write the poem on paper. I know what I want to do on the page with image and sound, and I make no excuses for reaching toward my favorite vocabulary—bone, finger, mouth. But I do like to see some growth. I would stop writing if there was no difference in a poem from my first book with a poem from my fifth, even if I do use the same language of the body. I am writing different stories, wearing different masks, constructing fictions that are more complex. The architecture of my work—lines, word choices, similes—has to get more sophisticated with each book, otherwise I'm writing the same book. But this means I have to be aware of choice, suspicious of inspiration.
I often start with language and let it guide the poem. I might read other poets for a few hours or a couple of days before I feel ready to write. Most of what I observe from reading other writers happens on a subconscious level unless I come across a beautiful and arresting transition or image. My inclination is to begin with the rhetorical or abstract so I try to resist it and start with an image if I can. I think by doing so it opens me up to more unexpected possibilities. In terms of craft, my work has been called for the most part a narrative lyric though some of the poems in Empire are more lyrical than narrative like "Blue Alert." I've never thought of my work breathing, but that is an apt way to describe the double space I use throughout the book. Visually, I've often found a single space block style poem claustrophobic. The double space feels more like a representation of the western landscape where most of my poems take place. The wide open space for light to spread has always felt like home to me and I try to represent that sense of openness throughout the book.
Can we consider the relationship between poem and audience too as an element of craft; can we say that poets write not only guiding themselves by the aesthetic consciousness of language but also by the need to have others react to their work? Can we use a better word other than "need," an element of craft that better describes this encounter?
I would say that it's a hope, rather than a need. Let's be honest, if we didn't want reactions our poems would still be in a notebook somewhere. We make them public for a reason: to share a bit of beauty, to provoke, disgust, inspire. I take great inspiration from the poets of Latin America—from women bravely sharing a new sensuality in the early 20th century to the poets who stirred political movements in the 60s, 70s, 80s—they who were jailed (and killed) first. It's like anything in life. If you're just doing it for yourself, what's the point? For me, the measure of success in a poem is not if I'm pleased with my own cleverness, it's this: Was it truthful? It's Hamlet's advice to the players isn't it? "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." Poetry can show us our greatest virtues and our ugliest vices. That is the gift we offer others. As a poet, my job is not to get in the way.
I like Lorena's affirmation of the poem as public act/ art, even if we do shape the poem privately. I also keep thinking of my mentor, Francisco X. Alarcón, who reads poetry as a communal experience—sage burning, incantations, whatever will break down the distance between the speaker and the listener. I didn't adopt those ceremonies, but I did take to heart this notion that poetry should move towards connection, interaction or even provocation, as Lorena said, but the response should not remain static. Usually the audiences I read to (in bookstores or universities) tend to be polite. At best I get what some refer to as the "poetry moo"—that random hmm-ing from the crowd at the conclusion of a poem. Or even worse, no response—a silence that unsettles and makes me nervous at the sea of fish-eyes before me. Maybe I should break out the sage and copal, or borrow Lorna Dee Cervantes' bird rattle in order to achieve a full sensory and interactive experience.
I remember poet June Jordan saying that a poem should be a message to the world. She also said if you can call your friend on the phone and deliver the contents of your poem and feel satisfied, chances are it was not meant to be a poem. I think a poem is the commons so to speak. It is shared space that we as writers cultivate at a given time. As a writer, I'm not looking for a reaction because as was mentioned we have no control over how people react. However I do always try to share something. I know I'm in trouble if as I am writing I start to take a righteous removed position. I think it leads to over simplification. This doesn't mean that I think we are all equally responsible for everything. I get very disturbed when this "balanced" approach gets used to downplay atrocities perpetrated by some at the expense of others. Still I feel I need to recognize my position in light of larger forces at work. That is why in part I named the collection Empire. I wasn't simply looking at an empire historically and in the 21st century; I was also trying to acknowledge that I live in an empire and therefore I indirectly impact the lives of others throughout the world.
I am thinking now, for example, of three specific poems in each collection: From Empire I am thinking of "The Only Thing I Imagine Luz Villa Admires about Her Husband's Gun—," "Ojala" from The Wars are my Words, and from Black Blossoms "The Beauty of Guanajuato." These poems are of course different from one another but the way in which they manipulate imagery and language provides narratives which converse with and invite a reader's reaction and I imagine that reactions may be as varied as feeling hope, despair and anger among many others. Which for me begs another question.…
Could you describe a public reading, a poem or any other creative space where a reader/listener reacted unexpectedly to your work? What did this encounter reveal about yourself, your craft and your relationship to that audience, to other poems or poets?
I am now working on my fifth book of poems and I have long-since given up the notion that everyone in the room is going to understand that I am writing about the beauty of scars, stretch marks, imperfections, flaws—both physical and metaphorical. I know that I am challenging audiences to latch on to frightening narratives about loss, death and violence, which I know isn't appealing to everyone. I have no control over the reaction—I can amuse but I can also startle. I can touch a person's emotions and I can also hurt a person's feelings. My intention as a writer is to unveil, reveal and make visible what some would rather silence and conceal. It's taken me this long, however, to be comfortable with the range of responses. I remember when I was first writing the poems in Black Blossoms and one particular publisher (who will remain nameless) reprimanded me for writing "twisted psycho-sexual" poems about women. I simply said to her that I acknowledged her point of view but that she had just betrayed the fact that she hadn't read my previous books because I also wrote "twisted psycho-sexual" poems about men. My reaction was flippant, I know, but her word-choice didn't invite dialogue. And that's the key: poetry is a conversation between the writer and the reader. A response should move beyond "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." A response can come from the gut, but it should be articulated from the brain.
Speaking of surprises, reprimands, sexual misunderstandings and flippancy, I once got a rejection from an editor who objected to my use of the word "come" (in the poem "Yours, Truly") which she took to mean "orgasm" and which she felt brought the poem down, the word "vulgar" I believe was used. Which threw me for a loop because it was one of those cases of poetic blinders, I really had not meant to use the word in that way, didn't see it that way at all. After licking my ego, I decided I liked her meaning, it gave a whole new—ahem —thrust—energy to the poem, a whole new meaning. And while she didn't like it, others would— me included. I guess I invite the multiple interpretations any one reader/audience might have to my work. Who am I to ever say they have misunderstood? A poem is a beginning of a conversation. I am glad if my poems create dialogue, exchange, arguments. A poem is nothing without those who read it/hear it. A tree in the forest and all...or, as I like to put it sometimes (excuse me unleashing more vulgarity at you) it's just a lot of poetic masturbation. Playing, fretting, stroking our words till we just couldn't love them any more...but then what? So give me misunderstanding and applause and confusion, I'll just write more poems about it.
I can't recall an unexpected reaction to my work. I can say that the hardest poems for me to write are love poems. I often feel like a cat bringing a dead bird to the front door. What I think of as an example of my passion others might find too fragmented or strange. I think that is why I write a lot about miscommunication and multiple meanings. I do this expressly in "Sappho." I was inspired to write that poem when I realized how little of her work has survived. That is why it begins: "Fragments-a line, sometimes eight, one scrap found stuffed in the mouth of a mummified cat." The lover in that poem turns away from Sappho and Sappho finds this act, though painful, beautiful because she enjoys the look of the lover's tangled hair.
These conversations have got me thinking about an idea that is not my own but which I've been living with for a few days now. And which I will explain by plucking a quote from each one of you and posing a question which I hope (with your answers) will further clarify my thoughts.
I recently had the opportunity to take a workshop with another Latino/a Poetry Now featured poet, Roberto Tejada, who introduced me to Michel de Certau's The Practice of Everyday Life in which de Certau explores how human beings unconsciously navigate everything from city streets to literary texts and how these negotiations are often in resistance to regimes of power. In walking, for example, (in taking short cuts and cutting corners) how often do we not walk against the established paths laid before us? Another example I think of is this one: if graffiti is tagged on a train car, that text occupies a physical space and the train, when moving, is altering other spaces as it moves. If we make a mental leap and think of walking as an act of enunciation, then writing becomes a spatial experience: language as a "lived space" and craft as the ability of the poet to build "spatial stories," to cut corners, to alter the route laid neatly before her or him. This opens up the possibility for a poem to have its own agency in the world, for the poem to colonize and decolonize the spaces it occupies. (Is this a too utopian way of thinking of language?)
Rigoberto writes: "My responsibility is greater: to learn from women writers…, to understand how they crack open sexist language and construct story…. Even now I don't consider this book to be writing in the voices of women, but rather writing in the close proximity of women." The key word here is—I think—proximity. What does the landscape of this proximity look like (I think of bridges)? I think of Rigoberto's long line and the way in which it is broken, how this enjambment creates a tone of intimacy between the various female voices but also between reader and speaker (I am also thinking of Lorena's poems "San Nicolás, Patron Saint of the Children," and "Veteranos," and how these too recreate a similar tone). What do these bridges reveal about the line or the line break? Besides creating intimacy do they also make us vulnerable to that which is exterior?
Xochi writes: "This turning toward the self as writer and the use of imagery allow for what I hope is a complete dramatic event…. It is a performance that I hope inspires the reader to think deeply about history and the possibilities for a more human future." For me the key word here is not only history but more importantly performance, the performance of history, history as performance and the negotiation of this third (or fourth?) space through language. I am thinking of poems like "Mexico, 1910," and "Empire #1: Five and Dime Store, 1949," and how the speaker of these poems masterfully manipulates the scope of time, tone, imagery and point of view in such a way that these historical events unfold on the page; the page thus becoming a theatrical space where both speaker and reader find themselves implicated. What does this performance look like and how do certain word-choices ("empire" for example) or images (the moving description of the horse above Torreon in "Mexico, 1910" for example) negotiate these historical landscapes, if at all.
Lorena writes (in speaking of the logic behind her craft): "I focus on the women I'm writing about (myself, others) and strip away the unnecessary (be they words, other voices, my own commentary, etc.)." And asks: "What is her truth?" This in turn reminds me of the poem "Ojala," and the stripping away of unnecessary language to arrive at a place where the speaker may humanize the victims of violence that are reduced to "a bombed black pixie/ Lost in front of a fireball." The equating of the victims of violence to a black pixie (pixie being reminiscence of an elf or gnome but also—with its similar spelling to pixel—to the dehumanizing effect behind the language of power and news media and the distancing that is often the result of technological innovations) reminds me again of the idea of language as a social space and writing as act of enunciation but also an act that allows for negotiating these spaces. My last question is this one: what does the simile or metaphor do to the people or objects that inhabit the physical spaces of a poem? What does it do to the poet? What type of movement does it arm you with? Do you ride around the world on the back of a flea or a brontosaurus?
Good heavens. Or as they say here in South Africa , oh my hat. (One of my favorite new phrases.) Lots of questions here. I think I'll tackle the last question, "what does the simile or metaphor do to the people or objects that inhabit the physical spaces of a poem? What does it do to the poet? What type of movement does it arm you with?"
I think that similes and metaphors (and any kind of associative language for that matter) seek to find a new voice to speak with, a new point of connection with a reader/audience, a new way to find a resemblance to the people/places/objects/events you are writing about. As poets, this kind of language empowers us. But it's a big stick. One that can be swung around carelessly. One that can thump and be too loud. It can build bridges, yes, but it can also knock them down. So caution, please.
As for me, I unapologetically invite people into my space. It doesn't mean you'll like it when you get in there. In fact, sometimes I like to lure and trap. Write pretty, get you into it and all of a sudden you realize you're reading about some pretty heavy shit ("Sastrugi" and "The Ocean" immediately come to mind.) But I'm inviting you in. Even when you don't understand it all. Even when what I'm writing about is difficult. So associative language is just one of the tricks I use. I think I'm going to go write a poem now. Call it Venus Flytrap.
As a descendant of the lost and forgotten, I am acutely aware that "History is written by the [powerful]." Much of my poetry is an attempt to remind my readers of all that is left out of the historical record. When I was writing "Mexico, 1910" I was surprised by the lack of names of women who actually took up arms and fought in the Mexican Revolution. Granted, it wasn't a large number, but they did exist, yet the chroniclers of that war didn't seem to think it record worthy to learn their names. Even today it is shocking to me how news reports will simply ape what a prior article has said without checking facts or questioning point of view. Much of my poetry is an opportunity for me to destabilize stale narratives. I like that Rigoberto said, "[his] intention as a writer is to unveil, reveal and make visible what some would rather silence and conceal." I agree completely and would like to add that by highlighting the constructed nature of recollection, I welcome the reader to rethink history. I also see my work as part of a chorus and it is an honor to sing along side Rigoberto and Lorena.
If I can synthesize a response to a number of observations made by Lauro—it's been a pleasure, by the way, engaging with such an astute reader!—I think that in the end, what really matters is that the stories we tell outlive us, that they travel beyond our final footprint. It's interesting because in order to enter that future we mine our pasts, our histories, memories, lore, etc. I believe that's why we write song and poem, to commemorate, to remember, to give artistic integrity to that which we value. Isn't that what we learn, even as children, that good song, good story, is remembered and endures? As poets we take the subject matter seriously and giving it shape, structure, language is showing respect for what we love. We craft it, polish it, allow it to breathe as art. I think that's the note I'd like to part with—the great responsibility we have as poets to engage both the aesthetic and the political. I read that in Xochi's wonderful book, which I had the pleasure of reviewing a few years back. I observed: Empire is a book about the woman as historical figure and history-keeper, both the storyteller and the story. I am reminded of Frida Kahlo and Yayoi Kusuma—artists who became their art, who blurred the border between creator and creation as a resistance to erasure of the female voice and creativity. I believe, Lauro, that when you mention performance, I think that the focus should be on the reception instead—the audience's peripheral vision, has been expanded and enlightened. I observe a similar energy (or movement) in Lorena's work: the healing voice of the woman, certainly, but also the empowered voice of the storyteller, un-silenced, urgent and, when need be, accusatory. The act of naming the wound, the wounded, and those that caused the damage--we know from our troubled Latin American history--is nothing less than courageous. To "image" is to make visible, is to speak. Which brings me to the line, the life-line, I will call it, that umbilical cord that keeps the word connected to the act, to the story, to the rescue.
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Xochiquetzal Candelaria holds degrees from UC Berkeley and New York University. Her work has appeared in The Nation, New England Review, Gulf Coast, Seneca Review, and other magazines. In 2009, she received an NEA Fellowship, and her book, Empire, was published by The University of Arizona Press in 2011.
Lorena Duarte is a Salvadoran-American poet and playwright. She holds a degree in Romance Languages and Literature from Harvard University, has been a finalist for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize as well as the Loft Mentor Series in Poetry and has received two Jerome Foundation Many Voices Fellowships from the Playwright's Center. She has represented Minnesota at both iWPS and the National Poetry Slam and is a board member at The Loft, the largest and most comprehensive literary center in the United States.
Rigoberto González is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, and The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.
Lauro Vazquez was born in Veracruz, Mexico and grew up in the San Francisco/Bay Area. He holds a B.A. in the Humanities from Dominican University of California and is currently an MFA candidate in poetry in the University of Notre Dame's creative writing program. He is an associate editor and writer for Letras Latinas—the literary program at Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies. He maintains a regular blog at granmaforpoetry. His poems have appeared in journals like Paragraphiti, Pemmican Magazine, Left Curve, and the anthology Ban This: The BSP Anthology of Xican@ Literature (Broken Sword, 2012). He is a CantoMundo fellow.