Sunday, April 23, 2017

This Is Personal: a testimonio of JFH

In 1984 the San Francisco Bay Guardian—a progressive weekly—published a poem titled “Autobiography of a Chicano Teen Poet.” It'd been awarded First Place in its annual poetry contest that year. Here’s how it began:

I am a downtown boy, handcuffed
when I was eleven
for being accomplice to armed robbery.

I speak shoe-shine parlour brown and serve
as the only usher in Club Sufrimiento 2001

You can call me Johnny B. Nice.

The speaker in this irreverent 33-liner goes on to invoke Thelonious Monk and Janis Joplin, making, at one point, reference to “Inferno Street.”

It's my senior year in high school. This is my first experience with Juan Felipe Herrera.

At UC Berkeley two years later, I'm a staffer for the Berkeley Poetry Review (BPR). One day, in the magazine's office reading slush, I opening an envelope stuffed with Herrera’s poems—two would soon grace our pages. After the issue is out, we ask him to read in a series we hold on the grounds of the University Art Museum at the Swallow Café on Sunday afternoons.  He graciously agrees.

And yet I can’t pinpoint with precision the particulars of our unequivocal first meeting. Instead, I remember sitting in a metal folding chair in San Francisco, Francisco X. Alarcón in the audience with me. We're relishing Juan Felipe Herrera’s solo performance at Small Press Traffic (SPT). At the time SPT was located on the corner of 24th and Guerrero—a five-minute walk from my house, the one I grew up in. Or I'm in a café on 24th, below Mission just off Capp, sipping coffee with him and his wife, Margarita Luna Robles. We’d gotten to know each other, it seems, had become amigos. I remember buying, then devouring, Arte Público Press’ edition of Exiles of Desire at Modern Times Bookstore on Valencia right around that time, as well, 1986 or so.

But it was  Facegames, published in 1987 by As Is/So&So Press that would become part of my personal canon.  Here’s something I never tire of reading, from that book:

Inferno St.

I am dressed for the occasion.

My lover’s torso of enigmatic jade haunts you,
doesn’t it?

My grandmother’s last wish stalks
the plateaus where the night watchman lives.

Look at me
and the ravenous soldiers I break bread with.

Little silver boy,
guide me into the multi-night.

I’m trying to recall what I liked about this piece. I remember loving that last line (“guide me into the multi-night.”) but lacking a tidy logic of why. This was the kind of poet he was for me: simply, Juan Felipe was a blast to read. The term “non sequitur” wasn’t part of my vocabulary then, and so I wouldn’t have been able to ponder its brilliant use here, in this collage-of-a-poem. Re-reading it today, I suspect my sensibilities registered Herrera’s subtle use of slant rhyme between these seemingly disparate stanzas—echoing sounds gluing this wordscape into place. “Inferno St.” was one of the 10 poems from Facegames, which had 42 in all, that found its way into Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009.

Let me resuscitate another poem from Facegames—one which did not make the 10-poem cut, but which I view as a companion to “Inferno St.” and which I also remember delighting in:

for Picazzo, Pancho “Big Man”, Rodrigo and “El Piloto”

I have tried to rule the world many times, alone
and in congregations.

I do it best when I get dressed up.

See my camouflage pants rolled up to the calf?
My lime green Greek shirt
puffed out like a chile relleno,

an earcuff

to check the stray mind
and my orange-black shoe laces tied
around my ankles for the would-be connoisseur of male
and female gesture.

All you have to do is discover a pageant;
raise up your left hand,
then run fast,
bring it in like hara-kari & tumble on the soft belly
of the earth;

more L’s
and a so-what all over your Brown self!

If “Inferno St.” hints at something ominous--where wishes can stalk, where soldiers are ravenous, where one may need a switchblade, Herrera is light-hearted here, in “Quazar,” while still whimsically foregrounding fashion and fashion’s casual accoutrements (“an ear cuff//to check the stray mind”). And yet it was that last line that struck a particular chord in me during this time when I was seeking out other Latino/a poets to read:

            and a so-what all over your Brown self!

I should mention, by the way, that “Autobiography of a Chicano Teen Poet,” the piece I opened this reflection with, was part of Facegames, as well.

In 1989 a Santa Cruz-based publisher, Alcatraz Editions, put out AKRILICA, Juan Felipe Herrera’s dazzling dual-language collection: the poems, written in Spanish, were translated into English by a team of four translators, along with the author.

20 years later, Carmen Giménez Smith and I would form a partnership between Noemi Press and Letras Latinas. We’d seek to publish Latino/a writers whose aesthetic proclivities were more, shall we say, outside the box—in other words: defying expectation. When it came to brainstorming what to call this new series, we thought about the work, and we thought about the trajectory…of Juan Felipe Herrera. And then we remembered that singular collaborative small press volume: AKRILICA, and we had the name, as homage, of our new series.

I continued, of course, to follow Juan Felipe's work post AKRILICA, admiring its ambition, variousness, and scope. But these early volumes have always held a special place for me. I suspect this has mostly to do with when I encountered them, those formative years. 

And yet a scene, a physical space I associate with with the first phase of my formative years (1984-1989) managed to find its way into a poem of Juan Felipe's from in a much later book, Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler from 2002, when I was an MFA candidate at Notre Dame. There's this endearing series titled "Undelivered Letters to Victor"--a reference, I assume, to Victor Martinez that really caught my eye for its personal undertones. # 9, in particular, let off the page:

Undelivered Letters to Victor


I want to rock in Tede Matthews's America and his Hula Palace--remember Tede Matthew's? Ted out-gay talking about Nicaragua, doing the reading series at Modern Times? Ted working hard through AIDS, through pain and the end, with gaunt face, febrile fingers, and starry eyes? Ted's drawn face calls and his clear eyes peer through me. Battles, missions, random intersections, chaos, time and culture boosters, explosions; I want writing to contain all this because we contain all this--is this closer to what you mean by saying we are Americanos? Is this your mission? You know, Victor, I am going to say it--no more movements, nothing about lines or metaphors or even about quality and craft, you know what I mean?

When it came time, in 2006, to ask someone to write the foreword to, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007), who else could I ask?

“The Sweet Vortex of the Singers” by Juan Felipe Herrera reads, naturally, like a text that only he could have written. Let me pluck a paragraph and you’ll see what I mean:

            “In this vortex of creation, congestion, and notation, many artists, writers, subjects, things, and places are in gestation: Darío, Madrid, Montale, Beijing, Apollinaire, and Cendrars make cameo appearances, juxtaposed with metros, Hamas, and Mediterranean tides and further navigations of the poet’s speakers in fluid and borderless urban nations and cafés stumbling into loss and illuminations. Lorca rolls in wet and delirious and Nicaraguan. Terms repeat in tumbao rhythms, and pregnant fruit is sliced and devoured—bodegas, explosions, rooftops, and bullets. Prada, Gucci, and Havana drip into the body-flask, this abyss of letters.”


Since the appearance of Rebozos of Love (Tolteca Publications, 1974), Juan Felipe Herrera, author of some twenty books, has distinguished himself as a poet, performance artist, children’s book author, teacher, university professor, and cultural activist for the last—do the math—forty years.

While his more recent distinctions include the aforementioned National Book Critics Circle Award (2009), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2010), election to the Academy of American Poets’ Board of Chancellors (2011), and designation as the Poet Laureate of California (2012), I would argue that during the first twenty or so years of his literary trajectory, he pretty much flew under the radar, where mainstream recognition outside of California is concerned. It’s only been in the last ten or so years that his work has gained the national critical attention and acclaim that it merits.

And so what does it means for Juan Felipe Herrera to be named the Poet Laureate of the United States?

For starters, he’s part of that vital tradition in American letters—the trenches—made up of writers who publish with small independent presses.

His work, in essence, deploys a poetics of play, unbridled linguistic play. It’s also a poetry of deep empathy toward the people that populate his poems. And to quote Rigoberto González, the added value of Herrera’s oeuvre is that it offers “an important timeline of Chicano political history and social activism” in the United States.

His persona embodies an exuberance that will resonate and connect, I predict, with the men, women and children he will come into contact with during his term (s) as this nation’s Poet Laureate. 

I don’t think I speak for myself only when I say that his selection is a long overdue gesture that acknowledges artistic communities that are often overlooked by establishment gatekeepers.

In this sense, Juan Felipe Herrera’s U.S. Poet Laureateship, like no other in my view, will feel, fully, like the People’s Poet Laureateship.

He shared with me, recently, that when he was introduced to the Head of the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress, who’d been informed of his designation, she said to him:

“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time.”

Saturday, April 15, 2017

PINTURA:PALABRA: DC Residencies conclude

Letras Latinas, the literary initiative of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, is pleased to announce Alexandra Lytton Regalado as the third and final recipient of the PINTURA:PALABRA DC Residencies. These one-week stints, for three Latina writers, took place in 2015 (Laurie Ann Guerrero), 2016 (Gina Franco) and conclude in 2017. Regalado will be in residence from June 12 to June 19.
Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s poems and short stories have appeared in Gulf Coast, Narrative, Notre Dame Review, OCHO, Puerto del Sol and elsewhere. Her poem, "La Mano," was one of the ten poems featured at Best American Poetry Blog in March of 2017, as part of the Poetry Coalition’s inaugural initiative, “Because We Come from Everything: Poetry & Migration.” She is the winner of the St. Lawrence Book Prize and the Coniston Poetry Prize. Her poetry collection, Matria, (Black Lawrence Press) is slated for release in spring of 2017. To learn more, visit her website.

Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s reaction to being selected:

"As a mother, publisher, editor, translator, and art advocate I spend a huge chunk of my day promoting other people’s work—granted, they are people I love—but for me to have an entire week to focus on my own projects is such a gift. It's a Godsend because it comes at a perfect time. My first book of poems, Matria, launches in May (Black Lawrence Press) and this residency will allow me to sink my teeth into my next writing project. I work closely with emerging and established Salvadoran artists and writers (who live in their birth country and abroad) and I’m interested in developing transnational collaborative projects that combine writing with painting, photography, film, performance, and installation art. More than just providing pleasure, art plays a key role in challenging the way the world is represented because it urges us to question interpretations and perspectives. In El Salvador, a country overrun by violence, street crime, and corruption, where all avenues of societal change are stalled or completely collapsed, and for Salvadorans living abroad and contending with marginalization, discrimination, and deportation, I believe art and literature can provide ways of promoting reconciliation and reconstruction. I want to research how art and writing intersect as forms of survival, resistance, protest. My agenda includes the Sylvia Plath exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of African American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Galleries for Folk and Self-Taught Art and the craft exhibit at the Renwick Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts; and at the top of my list are the Phillips Collection, the Hirshhorn Museum, and other contemporary art spaces. Finally, I'm infinitely grateful to Letras Latinas at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, and to the residency's benefactors, Molly Singer and Martha Aragon Velez."
Publication partners for the first two residents are ORIGINS  and The Los Angeles Review, respectively. That work is forthcoming. Our thanks to Dini Karasik and Blas Falconer for saying Yes. Letras Latinas has yet to identify and enter into an agreement with the publication for our third and final resident.
Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the Institute for Latino Studies, strives to enhance the visibility, appreciation and study of Latino literature both on and off the campus of the University of Notre Dame, with an emphasis on programs that support newer voices, foster connections between writers, and impact local communities.

 Letras Latinas
would like to thank

Molly Singer
Martha Aragon Velez

whose generosity make
DC Residencies

Friday, March 31, 2017

#WeComeFromEverything: no.16

RGV poets

“Because We Come from Everything: Poetry &Migration” is the first public offering of the newly formed Poetry Coalition—twenty-two organizations dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities, as well as the important contributions poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds. 

During the month of March, coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers. This year’s theme borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Borderbus.” Please return to this space and enjoy all the pieces in the series, and leave comments to participate in the dialogue.

Barbara Curiel, CantoMundo
Francisco Aragón, Letras Latinas 

This Feels Similar to Something I Wrote About Eight Years Ago[1]
(but maybe now more people care about border walls)

by Emmy Pérez

Amid post-election talk about the need for more poetry of resistance, many of us writers of color acknowledge that we have always been writing as resistance. I would like to add that even when we are writing about our existence, it is an act of resistance.


We live in a country where many squirm when a minimal amount of Spanish is used, even when a word has no English translation, like the bird chachalaca (Nahuatl~Spanish), or more commonly when we pronounce our last names correctly outside of the borderlands.


“I don’t speak Mexican,” the seven-year-old says to the four-year-old, mimicking the parent who said this to an adult.


Two presidents ago, construction of 18-foot steel border walls and concrete “levee”-walls began here in the Rio Grande Valley, Tejas, and continued into one president ago.


The Secure Fence Act of 2006. My definition of a fence: a thing that when climbed, a kid’s adventure, gives a bit. These walls don’t bend.


Ten years later, campaign promises to build “a” wall (as if there are none) frenzied enough eager folks. The infamous cheerleading chant an order. The chant doesn’t promise they’ll actually do the physical labor or pay for it.

On the flip side, more folks are now concerned… because the words hurt, or if not hurt, provoke. More now that we’re in the first hundred days.

Hurtful and provocative language has made, to many, the idea of walls and the possibility of more walls (and taller ones), more real than our existing ones to them. We know it’s not only about walls. We also know that borderlands communities are going to have to live (continue living) with the physical ones.


In my poem “Río Grande~Bravo,” I call a wall built here eight years ago the “concrete abstraction in front of my face.”

Existing walls are out of sight, out of mind for many, even those who would hate them, like nuclear weapons and dangerous pipelines.

Most who want these walls will never touch them in satisfaction. And most who don’t want the walls won’t touch them in anger or sadness.

Or maybe, they will become a thing, a tourist attraction, like the satirical “Great Wall of Mexico” poem written by Ricky Tijerina two presidential terms ago, a piece he performed as a graduate student in a top hat like a circus-vaudeville announcer.

Without assigned seating, how have we and do we pick our seats?

Will we speak more openly now about the virtual or less visible walls, micro?


Actual wall building: big money for contractors and entities bidding for the job as if carrying out the will of god. (Or, “nothing personal… just business.”)

Many workers have hungry mouths to feed: “They are making our people build it, to keep our people out.”[2]


Post-election: the national media attempts to tell the RGV’s untold stories. Still, the whole community’s voice feels silent beyond our own local sensibilities, though the stresses are many.

Children here and everywhere are afraid their parents will not be home when they return from school.

Pick up the daily paper and witness plans to defund X, Y, Z, A, B, C… decrease taxes for the wealthy, increase military and wall (military) spending.


Campaign promise like the words of an Old Testament god. Fear it. Take it. Sacrifice, knowing some will die.

For what? No promise of a true heaven, even for the wealthiest elected and appointed officials, performing morality about who deserves to live (well) and die (sooner).


Activists spend their hearts and lives. The unsung sheroes/hero~ines. Thank you. You are hope.


Sometimes, after he’d raged and puffed up his chest, that OT god would decide: you don’t have to kill your own child after all.

If Congress doesn’t come through with the billions, maybe we’ll have, at least on this issue, a “loving” patriarch who reveals our final hope (as in lottery-ticket-lucky-feelings hope) by saying: I didn’t mean a literal wall.


Someday, the once loudest-mouthed border walls will emit no sound, except to those “still possess[ing] the need to cross”[3] them, except to borderlands residents unwilling to grow numb to them, who have allowed for the experience of loss amid numerous other losses. Except to those everywhere unwilling to forget the walls exist.


“Some people say it will lull you / to sleep” writes Lucinda Zamora-Wiley in a 2009 border wall poem.[4] “Comfort food / that makes your soul feel at ease— / those Mexicans won’t be climbing / that wall—zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”


(I’m willing to beg: if more walls are built, please don’t ever forget they exist. We know we exist. We don’t need wall supporters to know we exist. We need them to not order walls built where we exist.)


2008-2009: I cried watching the construction trucks. How do you raise children in this hate? I thought. I had no children at the time. Most everyone’s ancestors in the RGV are from México. Mine too. Regardless. How?


Amalia Ortiz asks “… how to ignore a wall?” in a poem by the same name. The poem calls out some of the local and global apathy: “Try risking nothing” and “Look anywhere, but do not make direct eye contact  / with the wall.”

The work calls upon writers, including Latinx writers: “Tell yourself the only good art is esoteric and / consider yourself part of the elite.” “And then when injustices do occur, avoid / them too. Tell yourself Trayvon has nothing / to do with a wall…”[5]


How to hide walls? Place some in people’s backyards. Call others “levee-walls” and make the tallest, exposed concrete sides face México. Don’t tell children the truth.


When the four-year-old first learned about the walls, and the plans for more, they said, “but everything will die! The grass, the plants, the river…” The child was not prompted to say this. “Who did this?” the child demanded. “Why?”

Even small children know what justice is before even knowing that people crossing will face the same dangers.


Anti-wall activists make things happen, and will not give up. They need more support. I will never stop thanking them. For giving us hope.

There is hope in the poets, too, in their refusal to accept what has been imposed, historically, and currently.


“Not a person, no.
You, border lands
You, home, you bloodied me,
swallowed me, made me”[6]
                                                            -Noemi Martinez


I’d like to propose that more poets and readers, including Latinx poets and readers, might lend their ears to more borderlands poets from the RGV[7], the birthplace of Gloria Anzaldúa and Américo Paredes, en la “herida abierta” where they were raised, where the communities are quite alive and among the most militarized.

While some in the literary establishment (and those who internalize or work within its values) are trying to catch a “poetry of resistance” wave in response to the recent election, I wonder when the larger literary establishment will be ready for the whole truth of our poetry.


Several RGV poets have won book prizes, achieved various markers of literary acclaim, and are Macondo Writers’ Workshop members and/or CantoMundo fellows (Rosebud Ben-Oni, ire’ne lara silva, my near tocaya Emily Pérez, Octavio Quintanilla, and Vanessa Angelica Villareal are all CantoMundo & RGV poets who live in other regions now).

Many RGV poets write in more than one language, or only in Spanish, with lyric power, and directness. Thank goodness for spoken word borderland poetry, such as the dynamic poetry of Amalia Ortiz, author of Rant. Chant. Chisme. published by Wings Press (she has another, Canción Cannibal Cabaret, in the works) and Veronica “Lady Mariposa” Sandoval, whose first poetry book is forthcoming from FlowerSong Books, an imprint of VAO Publishing, a local press founded by poet and writer David Bowles.

The poem quoted earlier by Lucinda Zamora-Wiley was published in Gallery student magazine in 2009 when she was an MFA student… somewhere else ought to feature it too.

RGV poets are also publishing in high profile venues: José Antonio Rodríguez, the author of three books, has a poem forthcoming in The New Yorker and prize-winning poet Rodney Gomez has recently published in Poetry magazine. All of their books and chapbooks are excellent.

Also check out books by local presses: Noemi Martinez’s South Texas Experience: Love Letters (Hermana Resist Press), Erika Garza-Johnson’s Unwoven (FlowerSong Books), Edward Vidaurre’s Chicano Blood Transfusion (FlowerSong Books). Or pick up a copy of the anthology Lost: Children of the River published by the Raving Press, and edited by Gabriel H. Sánchez and Isaac Chavarria. There are more.

The Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival (VIPF) is now in its 10th year of existence. FEIPOL (Festival Internacional de Poesía Latinoamericana) is planning its second international poetry festival. Pasta, Poetry, and Vino is another popular reading series. Lots more going on in the community and at the university too. We are here.
 RGV poets


Sometimes a few Latina/o/x students dabbling in creative writing worry if their work is “universal” enough, avoiding, in some cases, the painful and sometimes shameful idea of home in the borderlands. This happens often to students of color not provided with opportunities to study their histories and literature in their K-12 educations, or in college unless they seek out specialized courses or later set out on their own reading and experiential path. Resistance to writing about home is an important part of the process. There is always hope for decolonial healing in the future, and not only in writing about home.

The most active poets and writers who live(d) in the RGV write about their homes (this one and others) directly, imaginatively, with lots of love, even when they are critical of or complicating any definitions of home. We are planning a project to make this work more widely known. Most RGV poetry is hard earned for the poets and essential reading for the world.


Emmy Pérez is the author of With the River on Our Face (University of Arizona Press). She is also the author of Solstice (Swan Scythe Press). She has lived along the Texas-Mexico borderlands, from El Paso to the Rio Grande Valley, for over 16 years. She is a recipient of a 2017 NEA poetry fellowship and teaches creative writing and Mexican American Studies courses.

[1] My lyric essay “Healing and the Poetic line” (in the anthology A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, University of Iowa Press 2011) was written simultaneously with my poem “Río Grande~Bravo” (With the River on Our Face, University of Arizona Press 2016).
[2] Emi Z. as quoted in the above publication
[3] see #1
[4] “Seeing Through It: Reflection on the Border Wall” by Lucinda Zamora-Wiley in Gallery magazine, University of Texas Pan American, 2009.
[5] Rant. Chant. Chisme by Amalia Ortiz, Wings Press 2015.
[6] South Texas Experience: Love Letters, by Noemi Martinez, Hermana Resist Press 2016.
[7] A brief list of some Chicanx/Tejanx/Latinx RGV poets (raised here and/or live(d) here) with books and/or other literary accolades: Elvia Ardalani, Amado Balderas, Nayelly Barrios, Rosebud Ben-Oni, David Bowles, Christopher Carmona, Isaac Chavarria, Julieta Corpus, César de León, Lauren Espinoza, Anel Flores, Odilia Galván Rodríguez, Daniel García Ordaz, Erika Garza-Johnson, Rodney Gomez, M. Miriam Herrera, Meliton Hinojosa, ire’ne lara silva, Rossy Evelin Lima, Noemi Martinez, Brenda Nettles Riojas, José Antonio Rodríguez, Edna Ochoa, Octavio Quintanilla, Gabriel H. Sánchez, Veronica “Lady Mariposa” Sandoval, Verónica Solís, Lina Suarez, Edward Vidaurre, Vanessa Angelica Villarreal. Also my near tocaya Emily Pérez and me. There are many more I may have missed or who haven’t published much yet that I’d love to list, but that is part two someday.