Red, White, & Blue

Brenda Cárdenas

Brenda Cárdenas author photo

Do you value the examination of the political in poetry? If so, what experience(s) taught you its importance?

My first instinct is to define the political fairly broadly, not only as policy and legislation (or the "demands" that the Occupy Movement so wisely refused to present), but also as systemic factors—socio-economic, cultural, ideological, epistemological, etc.—that leverage so much power over our lives, including our access to knowledge, movement, physical and mental health, civil liberties, the tools of social justice, and the ability/freedom to form sustainable communities. Of course, the political also includes various intersecting acts of resistance to that hegemonic control as well as those rare acts that stand outside of it altogether. My second instinct is, then, to ask whether we can ever really separate the political from just about anything else we do. I can't.

Poetry for me involves exploration of the worlds around, within, and outside me, which means it's partly about wandering, but even more about questioning so as to uncover some facet that leads to an entirely new set of mysteries and openings; it's about learning new ways to listen, see and navigate so as to honor wonder and multiply potential understandings. This all implies dialogue and connection. Ultimately poetry, for me, is about inter-connection, and that's political as well as cultural and spiritual. Consider what linked arms have meant to political protest in many places and eras throughout history or what, in 2011, Tucson high school students' act of chaining themselves to school board members' chairs in an attempt to save their Mexican American Studies program meant to anyone involved in the struggle for ethnic studies. Consider the connection established, de una voz a otra, through the human microphone in the Occupy Movement or the decision of Wisconsin firefighters, police officers and, yes, even private sector employees who were exempt from Walker's union busting bill, to join non-exempt union members in the Wisconsin uprising. Consider the very terms "labor union" and "union busting." And then consider how overtly political the right-wing's ability to merge the identities of corporation and person in a Daliesque nightmare that seals plutocracy's deal so that it can more easily divide the poor, working and middle classes from one another, so that it can more easily divide the poor, working and middle classes from themselves--from their own social and economic interests. Connectedness and lack thereof are political. So, yes, I generally value the examination of the political in poetry, which is not to say that I necessarily appreciate the ways in which all poets incorporate the political into their work.

The poetry that is most engaging for me is neither dogmatic nor necessarily polemical. It doesn't start with the answer before it fully considers what the questions might be, and it doesn't simply tell me what I already know so I can pat myself on the back for "getting it." Some of the poetry that I appreciate most (and that folks might characterize as "political") investigates, deconstructs, reformulates, quotes, splices, collages, and through a gathering of voices and materials, may even expose and inform, while always simultaneously asking new questions without readily supplying their answers. I think here of Muriel Rukeyser, C. D. Wright, Craig Santos Perez, Mark Nowak, Tina Darragh, Cecilia Vicuña, Reznikoff in Holocaust, and Valerie Martinez in Each and Her. They show us how poetry may treat explicit political themes in incredibly complex ways, which often includes interweaving them with other concerns.

Some poetry that I admire (which includes aspects of that written by the poets named above) may be less about a political subject than it is infused with a politics, which, in turn, becomes (or at least informs) its poetics. I think here of innovative approaches that destabilize and deconstruct linguistic norms and by extension conventional epistemologies: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, aleatory, visual, sound, and other conceptual poetries, as well as (and perhaps especially) those that resist being labeled. Is not the work of Jackson MacLow, Clemente Padin, Christian Bok, Monica de la Torre, Rodrigo Toscano, Harryette Mullen, Tracie Morris, and Douglas Kearney political? I certainly read it as such. And then there's the speculative world of Cathy Park Hong's Dance Dance Revolution in which the poet invents a language; the surreal-absurd and its dark humor taken to new extremes in Daniel Borztuzky's The Book of Interfering Bodies, which I feel is one of the strongest explicitly political poetry books written in the past few years; and the genius of Will Alexander, whose vast and versatile lexicon, intense intertextuality and erasure of just about any boundary one might fathom, casts the notion of the imagination in an entirely new light. What is his Asia & Haiti if not visionary, spiritual, and political in all of the best senses of those words?

I also can't help but think here of the multilingual and transcultural poet tricksters whose work is deeply immersed in the politics of language, while simultaneously opening into larger visions: Victor Hernández Cruz, Alfred Arteaga, Juan Felipe Herrera, Alurista, Craig Santos Perez, Barbara Jane Reyes, Luci Tapahanso, Adrian Castro, Edwin Torres, and Cecilia Vicuña come immediately to mind for the way they defamiliarize English, subvert its dominance, and privilege the multilingual reader.

What experiences taught me to value the political in poetry and in general? Growing up in a working class family of immigrants (who began their lives in the U.S. working in the Midwest's brutal tanneries) on one side and of folks whose forebears had once belonged to Wisconsin's Socialist Workers Party on the other side. Knowing that my paternal grandfather, long after he was retired, would march with his union brothers and sisters when they went on strike because the job he had finally landed at age 50 in a union factory had been heaven compared to the work conditions he had suffered before that. Living in a two-flat where three languages—Spanish, English, and Slovenian—were spoken and often mixed, where stories and prayers to St. Jude, patron saint of the hopeless, were plentiful. Becoming politically active in high school when I started reading Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks (and was especially taken with how they experimented with variants of English), Kerouac, and Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" essay. I remember being suspended for refusing to say the "Pledge of Allegiance" and giving an impassioned speech as to the reasons for my "belligerence." In undergraduate school, reading Lorca, Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Neruda, Martí, Rosario Castellanos, García Márquez, Asturias, and Rulfo en español first and English second. 1980's activism against U.S. intervention/militarism in Central America, Lebanon and Palestine, as well as being fired from my part-time job for helping full-timers to form a labor union. In the 1990's, risking arrest in a direct action against open-pit mining on land adjacent to a northern Wisconsin Ojibway Reservation; activism against California Propositions 187 and 209; sitting in the Walter Reuther Labor Archives at Wayne State, pouring over Cesar Chavez's papers while teaching Tomás Rivera's …Y no se lo tragó la tierra/And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (now banned from the Tucson Unified School District, AZ) and deciding that I would simply never cross a picket line—period, punto, ya. Along the way, reading the poets named above as well as Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Tim Seibles, Ed Roberson, and many, many more. Leaving academe on purpose for a number of years to work in community arts programs, including a completely bilingual, youth operated radio station in Chicago's barrio Pilsen (I've seen few programs as immediately transforming for urban youth as that one). Walking picket lines for a month in my own union's strike when working for the City Colleges of Chicago. Continued activism right up to and into the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda from day one of the uprising.

If you write about politics frequently, what issues, difficulties, advantages and disadvantages do you negotiate? Which poets do you draw on when conducting such negotiations?

I can't say that I write about politics frequently, but much of my work is infused with a transcultural cosmology, and I often (although definitely not always) write interlingually. When I do, I wish to write a poem that refuses to cushion the Spanish (and/or other non-English languages) for the benefit of monolingual English readers by glossing it, italicizing it, translating it within the line, sprinkling it cautiously into the poem, and other practices that only reify the notion that English is the real language in the poem and other language(s), mere decoration. This means weighing the costs of reaching as wide a readership as possible at the risk of trivializing the multilingual potential for transforming static and essentializing conceptualizations of culture by re-inscribing their signs.

Regardless of the languages braided together in a poem, I also wrestle with how to best approach certain issues of culture and social justice that may concern me—how to do so in ways that resist cultural essentialisms, auto-ethnography, and other limitations of the identity politics I and other poets I admire have engaged in the past. I look to the poets I've listed in my answer to the first question as some of those in whose work I find the most integrity. Literary Studies scholar Doris Sommer in her books Bilingual Aesthetics and Bilingual Games points to the precarious in such "hybrid" exchanges as integral to democracy. Ultimately, I'm interested in languages infiltrating one another's substructures so that the fusion pushes the sonic and semantic tensions and nuances, ultimately cracking both languages open. I see this in the juegos linguisticos that some multilingual writers engage, even in poems they write wholly in English or in what appears—on the surface—to be normative English. I'm referring here to what cultural studies scholar Frances Aparicio calls the "sub-versive signifiers" in books such as Victor Hernández Cruz's Bi-Lingual Wholes and Tropicalization.

To take your question in a different direction, I've also found myself in situations as an activist, such as protests and rallies, where I've been called upon not only to speak about the political issues at hand, but also to deliver poetry. The 2011 Wisconsin uprising included not only the occupation of the Capitol in Madison with its mass protests inside and out but also many smaller demonstrations, often gathering 200-1000 people in cities and towns across the state. I was asked more than once to read poetry that would both speak to labor issues and rally the crowd. Although there exist thousands of poems about labor and class oppression, I could find few that seemed both appropriate to our particular context and direct, bold, and intelligent enough to invigorate a rally without sacrificing that which makes poetry sing (no matter how dissonant the music) and makes us think and re-think. I turned to Thomas McGrath, one of my favorite overtly political poets, but I could only recite "A Little Song about Charity" so many times, so I finally wrote a few of my own Wisconsin protest poems. They served a purpose and record a particular moment, but I was never really satisfied with them as poems apart from that moment. On the other hand, I also wrote and published a personal essay in the midst of travelling back and forth between Milwaukee and Madison during those first few heated (and incredibly cold) weeks in mid-February. The essay still works better for me both as a record of the moment and as literature than do the poems.

This does not mean that the essay as a genre is necessarily better suited to such political content than the poem. Perhaps in the hands of a more capable poet, the results would have been different. Perhaps—for me, anyway—the poem requires more time (and the space for reflection that time affords) between the fever of political action and the writing. Perhaps it is best to think about various manifestations of poems existing in different forms for different purposes in the way that we might weave altered versions of poems we've written into performance art pieces or transform sections of performance art works into fuller poems meant for the page. Thomas McGrath speaks of tactical vs. strategic poetry:

One is the kind of poetry that might be called tactical, about some immediate thing: a strike, let's say; some immediate event. The poet should give it as much clarity and strength as he can give it without falling into political slogans, clichés and so on. I also thought we needed another kind of poetry that is not keyed necessarily to immediate events, a poetry in which the writer trusts himself enough to write about whatever comes along, with the assumption that what he is doing will be, in the long run, useful, consciousness raising or enriching. A strategic poetry, let's say. There have been a lot of tactical poems directed to particular things, and those poems now are good in a certain sort of way, but the events they were about have moved out from under them… That is bound to be the fate of a lot of tactical poetry. But that's O.K. If we have to have somebody give us a guarantee that our work is going to last a thousand years before we'll be willing to write it, we may as well give up the ghost… The ideal thing of course is to bring the tactical and the strategic together so that they would appear in this massive poem of pure lucidity, full of flying tigers and dedicated to the removal of man-eating spinning wheels from the heads of our native capitalists--absolute lucidity and purest, most marvelous bullshit. That's the poem I would like to have, because there's a place where those two are the same (See "The Frontiers of Language," Modern American Poetry, via).

Although, as McGrath posits here, we cannot necessarily expect the power of that tactical poem to last, it may help to consider how such a poem (or other work of art, for that matter) may resonate differently over time—how its approach might allow its message to expand and contract. Consider the Chicano/a tradition (emanating in part from a long Mexican tradition) of political printmaking, often in the form of protest posters. Such pieces as Malaquias Montoya's Undocumented, Ester Hernández's Sun Mad Raisins, and Carlos Cortez's Draftees of the World Unite are as aesthetically rich and multivalent (at least for me) as any other satirically nuanced art I might value. The same is true for the poetry of McGrath.

What 'responsibility' does an artist have to artistically engage his or her own politic?

The key word that defines this question for me is the word "artistically": "What 'responsibility' does an artist have to artistically engage his or her own politic?" I would think that, in at least some subtle way, we are often artistically engaging our own politic in our poetry, whether we feel a responsibility to do so or not and whether we are consciously thinking about our own politic or not. But I would not want to dictate any artist's responsibility in this way, as feeling forced to artistically engage one's politic in one's art is often only going to result in inauthentic art and bad politics.

When I first read this question, I was going to say that I'm much more concerned about the responsibility of artists and scholars who profess a particular politic in their writing to also engage that politic in their daily lives—to actually get off their butts and away from their computer screens long enough to engage in the activism that might affect the injustices they decry, expose, question, analyze, and (yes, I'll say it) use to win prizes and make careers. Nothing burns me up more than champagne Marxists who do nothing but sit in their campus offices (rather than the rotunda, town square, Zucotti Park, legal aid office, or uranium dump site) writing very political high theory (or poetry or novels) for which they receive large grants, never taking part in a single action aimed at unsettling the status quo. I want them to write the political theory or poem, to build the installation, to carve the linoleum block if and as they wish to, but I also want them walking that picket line with me if they are going to write about the strike, dammit! Yet, the more I think about this, the more I realize that perhaps what I said earlier about being forced to artistically engage one's politic in one's poems applies to the reverse as well—perhaps being forced to engage in the activism that supports the politic expressed in one's poems also makes for weak activists.

In 2008, Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel prize jury, wagged his finger at American writing saying that "[American writers] don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. […] That ignorance is restraining." What do you think? How have recent American poets engaged with or neglected the so-called 'big dialogue' of literature? Is this 'big dialogue' a political one?

I would think that any "big dialogue" of literature would at least consider, if not weave together, the political (defining that broadly), the cultural, and the philosophical/spiritual—questions of epistemology, cosmology, ontology, phenomenology, ethics, etc. Obviously, this is not to say that any single writer covers all this territory in any single work, but rather that these are the elements of the "big dialogue" as I see it.

Certainly Walt Whitman is an example of a classic U. S. poet who engaged in the "big dialogue" on multiple levels, and we can find many poets (too many to name) in the generations hence who have followed suit in their own, often very different, ways—from Gwendolyn Brooks to Adrienne Rich to Patricia Smith, Allan Ginsberg to Jackson MacLow to Anne Waldman, Muriel Rukeyser to Thomas McGrath to C.D. Wright, Amiri Baraka to Gerald Vizenor, June Jordan to Lorna Dee Cervantes. This list could go on and on; it's far from complete.

Engdahl points to a provincialism and/or insular attitude he sees in "American" writing. It would seem that he feels we do not participate enough in a global literary dialogue, and to some degree, I can see how the U. S.'s cocktail of brute capitalism, plutocracy, and anti-intellectualism does nothing to cultivate an appreciation for literature beyond its own borders, let alone within them. At times, even those of us who resist such forces focus more on arguing with one another over aesthetic differences, trying to trap one another in boxes with wry labels we waste our wit on inventing, or cultivating what may too easily become a "hate everything" detached cynicism, rather than entering into that global dialogue. Yet at the same time, Engdahl may betray his own narrowness when he uses the label "American," rather than "U.S. American" or "United States," for literature being produced in the U. S. The word "America," as far as I'm concerned must always be plural, as in "the Americas"—North, Central, and South.

I might even use Engdahl's phrase "the big dialogue of poetry," at least as I define it, to describe the work of the aforementioned U.S. poet Will Alexander or Panamanian-American poet Roberto Harrison (my husband) who has been developing a poetics of an ineffable isthmus that bridges northern and southern hemispheres; human, animal, and cyberbeing; mathematics and meditative chant; the personal, political and universal; states of minds; transcendence and the most elemental essence of here and now. This certainly seems a poetry preoccupied with the "big existential questions" that move not only past the borders of nations but past those of universes as well.

I spoke in my answers up to this point about various U.S. poets and poetries deeply engaged with the politics of language, which Engdahl seems to have overlooked. He also says that U. S. writers do not translate enough, and while that may be true as compared to writers in other countries, in recent years, we've seen more translation, especially of contemporary Latin American poetry into English. U. S. poets such as Daniel Borzutzky, Forrest Gander, Monica de la Torre, Rosa Alcalá, Jen Hofer, and Roberto Tejada write their own inventive poetries and have also published a number of translations of full-length collections by Latin American poets Jaime Huenan, Raul Zurrita, Pura Lopez Colome, Coral Brancho, Jaime Saenz, Gerardo Deniz, Lila Zemborain, Cecilia Vicuña, Lourdes Vázquez, Dolores Dorantes, Laura Solórzano, Myriam Moscona, and José Lezama Lima. In 2007-2008 alone, we also saw the publication of such substantial works as Clayton Eshelman's The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, Achy Obejas' translation into Spanish of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Chicago poet John Tipton's translation into English of Sophocles' Ajax, just to name a few.

And what would Engdahl do with authors whose identity cannot readily be tied to any single nation although they may be currently residing at least part-time in the U. S.? The poet Cecilia Vicuña (mentioned earlier) moved first to Europe and then to the U. S. in exile from Chile's Pinochet dictatorship and has lived primarily in New York for over 20 years but has returned to Chile and other Latin American countries for various periods; in 2009, she edited the incredibly important Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, which collects over 500 years of multilingual poetries from Latin America, including those of many indigenous writers. Is Vicuña a Chilean writer? A Latin American writer? (in exile)? A U. S. writer? Here, perhaps, the term "American" (as in Americas, plural) may actually be most appropriate. And what of Craig Santos Perez, a Chamorro poet who grew up in Guam and moved with his family to California when he was about 16, and whose two full-length collections interweave English, Chamorro, Spanish and Japanese? These poets, like many others we could name here, write in multiple languages, and their work is informed by a wide range of literary, cultural, theoretical, philosophical, and political influences and concerns. If that isn't the "big dialogue," then I'm not sure what is.

Is there room for romantic or rugged individualism in political poetry (as opposed to a capacious perspective of Whitman or other past poets)? If so, where is its place?

I do not see such a distinction in Whitman who is both rugged individualist and capacious. As one who understands that he is comprised of the interconnected many, Whitman writes about the multitudes of the self, and in the later half of the 19th century, he is also by himself, forging a new capacious poetics, the likes of which were unprecedented in the U.S. This rugged individual proposes a radical connectedness that we are sorely lacking now. At the same time, Whitman's support for the Free Soil doctrine is intertwined with his support for U.S. imperialism in its "manifest destiny" land grab of over 900,000 square miles of Mexican territory; some of the contradictions he celebrates are complexly problematic. Still, his overall democratic vision was such that he both influenced and was re-cast by many Latin American poets from José Marti, who wrote a laudatory essay on him in 1887, to Darío, who named him "el gran Viejo," to Neruda, Paz, and even Borges, among others. (See Raab, Josef, "El gran Viejo: Walt Whitman in Latin America," Purdue University Press).

If by "rugged individualism," this question is seeking an opinion on the validity of the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" "U. S. myth—the mentality that would privatize every last service and force all those without boots to squabble over the master's crumbs—then I'd prefer to, once again, go back to Whitman who told us to look for him under our boot soles.

Where do you draw the line between poetry and propaganda? What is the purpose of such a line? Should today's poet be concerned with editorial censorship?

I think I've already answered this question within other answers above. Suffice it to say that propaganda perpetrates, at best, half-truths based on the most simplistic renderings of a political situation, and increasingly, as we see in political campaign ads, "facts" and rhetoric that are so contorted, they become outright lies. Its goal is to manipulate rather than to question or complicate. There is often nothing self-reflexive and little imaginative about it. Poetry—even the poetry you or I do not necessarily gravitate toward—usually embraces at least some of those qualities that would weaken propaganda.

I'm sure it will sound paranoid to many, but I think we should be concerned about and remain vigilant against censorship in general, especially in the wake of the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011, which seriously restricts the people's right to protest (see ACLU articles by Gabe Rottman on this legislation at and the many attempts at legislation that would facilitate government censorship of the internet.

What are your thoughts on shifts in the state of the political voice in contemporary poetry, from the early modernist to the beat poets and black arts movement, to today? Where are we now? Where are we going?

The diversity of the influential movements that the question mentions—Early Modernism, Beat Poets, Black Arts Movement—calls my attention to the increased diversity of approaches and voices we see in the landscape of poetry today. That diversity, along with how difficult it is to categorize much of the poetry being written today, at least neatly, into schools and other boxes signals a positive direction. I mean a poet writing today might very well be influenced by particular writers in all three of the groups you mention and also engaged in finding new ways to speak to the political problems of our time. I never thought I'd see as many Latino/a poets publishing books and developing such a wide range of poetics as I see today, thanks at least in part to the cultural workers-poets-editors-publishers like Ray González, Francisco Aragon, Carlos Cumpián, and Gary Keller, among others, who have tirelessly promoted this literature. Yet as much potential strength as this diversity opens up for us, we're still in need, poetically and politically, of that collectivity and inter-connectedness I spoke of in my answer to the first question.

While I acknowledge the problems inherent in any institutionalization of the imagination and understand the criticism leveled at the MFA industry, I've been encountering more students in graduate level workshops who are not in the Creative Writing Program, but instead in Urban Studies, Library Science, Social Work, and other fields. Likewise, I'm encountering more creative writing students who are not necessarily pursuing careers in academe and/or who have serious commitments to community work and socio-political work in addition to their academic work. They do not live solely in the mini-world of the Creative Writing program or the university, for that matter. I was as inspired by my graduate students who occupied the Capitol in Madison, WI, and then went on to engage wholeheartedly in other manifestations of that struggle, as I was by anyone else involved. Some of those students were leading—and finding new formations for—their TA unions, as those unions were being ripped away from under them; planning incredibly inventive direct actions of all shapes and sizes; and simultaneously defending some of the strongest dissertations of poetry I've yet read. Likewise, I'm seeing more and more poets outside of academe publish books, win major prizes, and the like. Enough of them? No. But more, yes.

Back to the Wisconsin uprising:

Day 3 of the Capitol occupation, the Assembly Republicans shut down hearings on Walker's "Budget Repair Bill" so that they can move it rapid-fire to a vote. My husband and I are among 30,000 protestors who are flooding the elevators, hallways, and stairwells in an attempt to block the senators' routes to their chamber and out-shout any possible vote. The noise is deafening. Suddenly, thousands of "Shhhhh's" fly across the rotunda, and for a long moment, the chants fall silent as the news spreads: The 14 Democrats have fled the state to prohibit the vote. Then the wave of cheers louder than any I've ever heard. There is so much unison that I forget my own voice is among the others cheering. You couldn't anticipate or script this. I cannot capture it, nor do I wish to capture it in a poem, but the moment was a seed-syllable of some new collective utterance that may find its way to poetry.

Day 18, March 12, 2011, the day after Wisconsin Republicans separated their union busting bill from their budget, renamed it Act 10, and rammed it through in the middle of the night, Roberto an I are again standing on State Street outside of the Capitol with about 150,000 others. A tractorcade of farmers in a procession that extends farther than I can see, rolls into town. The signs propped up on the backs of their rigs say, "Made in Wisconsin by Union Workers," "Farmers for Teacher's Unions," "Sow Sustenance: Keep Rural Wisconsin Strong," "Pull Together." They are led by a group of whirling, dancing people dressed in red masks, shreds of burlap, and long dread-locks. The tractorcade intersects and merges with the Wisconsin Librarians' march, which opens into a sea of humanity that includes everyone from grannies singing protest songs to sewer workers with signs bearing scatological-political jokes to children playing in the streets that were suddenly safer than they'd been in years. Here were the multitudes in an oddly joyful desperation. It's about as surreal—or, rather, hyper-real—a moment as I've ever participated in. Poetry will not be the same after it.

Nor will it be the same after the much smaller gatherings of 50-100 at the Milwaukee County Courthouse or Zeidler Union Square, where anyone who wished to speak was handed the microphone, and we heard testimony more honest and moving, socio-economic analysis more truthful than we often had from those on the official speakers' list at the largest gatherings.

November 15, 2011, a Milwaukee contingent gathers in the suburban neighborhood where Scott Walker lives to kick off the recall signature collecting. An artist friend comes with a 3 x 4-foot "Recall Walker" sign made out of LED lights so it can be seen in the dark. This sign, its designers, and a diverse community of activists eventually evolve into the Overpass Light Brigade who make portable 2 x 3-foot LED signs of individual letters to spell out a variety of messages, with one community member holding each letter, on overpasses throughout the state. For a time, many of the messages center on the recall election. The day after the recall election is lost to Walker's billions of dollars and, some would say, to the Democrats' weak campaign, while others would say, to electoral politics in general, the OLB goes out on a Milwaukee overpass with their LED signs anyway. They spell out "We Shall Overcome." Some days later, "Question Austerity." And the following week, "Boycott Palermos" to support striking Palermos workers. These actions become witness and testimonial; they become Happenings. They become, as one of the OLB's co-founders has written in a Daily Kos diary, "Visibility, creativity, bodies in space, the power of purposeful play, engagement, community… all semaphore for a way to live, cloud-tags for the practice of everyday life…We're still here, and we insist on essential visibility." And although the previous work created by these "sign-makers" may live more firmly in the world we call "art"—in the forms of artists' books, experimental film, Dada-inflected collage—I have to question the drawing of such lines between that art/work and this art/work, between the OLB's signs and Jenny Holzer's or Bruce Naumen's light installations, between the OLB's collective messages and the full context of the OLB community and its acts—acts of resistance you can dance to…although that makes the bridge a bit bouncy at times. What poetry will light up the next bridge that the OLB steps onto?

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Brenda Cárdenas
is the author of two collections of poetryBoomerang (Bilingual Press, 2009) and From the Tongues of Brick and Stone (Momotombo Press, Institute for Latino/a Studies, University of Notre Dame, 2005). She also co-edited Between the Heart and the Land: Latina Poets in the Midwest (MARCH/Abrazo Press, 2001). Cárdenas' work has appeared in a range of publications, including the anthologies The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, U. S. Latino Poetry Today, Brute Neighbors: Urban Nature Poetry, Prose and Photography, and the 2013 Wisconsin Poets Calendar. She is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing program at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee.

Published September 2012.

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