Monday, July 14, 2014

Maceo Montoya, Copilot Press, and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative

Last fall I was invited to engage with a remarkable work of art. When I was done, I wrote:

"[W]here does it all come from, Andrés? The images, the words?" Posed early on, the question unleashes a mestizaje-of-a-tome--that is: a book that marries word and image, prose and poem: a hybrid work of art as personal and vulnerable and moving as anything I've read in a long while. This is risky writing, maybe even counter-intuitive if one is pre-occupied with forging a certain kind of "career." I couldn't stop reading, continuing to the end in one sitting. Maceo Montoya, the artist-writer, opens multiple fronts: dialogues with the living (father, art critic, lover); dialogues with the dead (beloved brother); indelible images from my native California--too often overlooked. But the exquisite prose poem narratives--unapologetic romanticismo in my view--are what completely won me over."

That was/is my two cents for LETTERS TO THE POET FROM HIS BROTHERMaceo Montoya's new book, published by California-based Copilot Press

But what came next was an act of generosity which, given the subject-matter of the book, did not surprise me. Maceo agreed to donate his share of the proceeds from the sale of the first 300 books to the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative. Specifically, the proceeds are being earmarked for the one-day symposium Letras Latinas intends to carry out upon the publication of Andrés Montoya's posthumous collection of poems, edited by Daniel Chacón, and slated for publication with Bilingual Press.

Up until now, the money we've been raising for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative has been coming from sale of Malaquias Montoya's "Untitled," a silkscreen print inspired by Andrés' poetry. Those who have been able to afford its price tag have generously contributed.

But Maceo's generous gesture is going to allow people to join the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative for what we think is a very reasonable amount: $25, and that gets you this gorgeous book.

But there's more, in the same fashion that we have asked folks who acquired the print to have a photograph of themselves taken with it, we are inviting folks to have a photo taken with Maceo's new book in order to contribute to a photo gallery at Copilot Press' website. Here's the photo I contributed:

So, please head on over to Copilot Press, order LETTERS TO THE POET FROM HIS BROTHER, and when it finds its way into your hands, follow these instructions, and join us. Gracias!



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An Interview With Maceo Montoya

 “Montoya’s humorous yet moving critique of the United States’ deportation policies avoids easy depictions of good and bad. The book features a decidedly complicated anti-hero whose journey sheds light on the lives of those who are affected when a person disappears from either side of the border.”

So wrote Rigoberto González for BuzzFeed back in mid-February in an online feature titled “14 Must-Read Works of Chicano Literature.”

Letras Latinas Blog is now pleased to offer this thoughtful exchange with the author of The Deportation of Wopper Barraza.

Our thanks to Letras Latinas Associate Roberto Cruz, who conducted this interview shortly before completing his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame.


RC:    Roberto Cruz
MM:  Maceo Montoya

RC: One of the things I found interesting about your novel was how it gives readers different perspectives, though mostly focusing back to Wopper Barraza. What informed your decision to take this multiple viewpoint approach instead of having the whole story unfold entirely through Wopper’s eyes?

MM: Wopper’s deportation began as a short story detailing his last night in his hometown. Basically an exploration of what was going through his mind as he pondered his very uncertain future. But upon finishing the draft, I kept wondering what would happen to him once he arrived. So I dove back in, and this time I found myself telling the story through the voice of an old farmer in La Morada, Michoacán the day of Wopper’s arrival. At the time, I was heavily influenced by Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which employs numerous voices over the course of decades to not just tell a story about the visceral realist poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, but also about the dreams and aspirations of an entire generation. Bolaño described his work as a “love letter” to his generation. This appealed to me. My aspirations were less ambitious, though. I wanted to tell a story of a smaller community, in this case those tied to the diaspora between Woodland, California and La Piedad, Michoacán and its surroundings.
As the voices multiplied, I looked for others who had used this polyphonic device. Of course there are many, but probably the most well known is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In fact, Faulkner’s entire oeuvre draws on multiple voices, with its roots in the Southern oral tradition. This made me think about the early works of Chicano literature, which also drew upon oral storytelling. For example, Tomás Rivera’s …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him and Rolando Hinojosa’s Sketches of the Valley both employed numerous voices and perspectives to reveal a larger community and experience. As my own novel developed, I felt more confident knowing that it wasn’t simply a formal device, but that I was, in fact, drawing on a longer tradition where voice, community, and place are intertwined.

RC: While I did find that I got to know a lot about Wopper from other people, it seems like the story itself lets us know the least about how Wopper perceives things. Rather, it is an interpretation made by people surrounding him. Could you comment on this?

MM: At the end of the novel, Arnie Beas, Wopper’s onetime counselor at the community college, finds that no matter how hard he tries to get inside Wopper’s head, he can’t figure him out. All he knows is that Wopper fascinates him as much as he befuddles him, which leads Arnie to have something of an existential crisis. For Arnie, Wopper’s inscrutability comes to symbolize his own frustrated ambitions. Similarly, as the different characters offer their perspective on Wopper– whether in Woodland or in La Morada – they’re actually describing themselves, their hopes and fears. Wopper might be an enigma, but I also understood that he was a cipher. This is a hard protagonist to pull off, and I often felt frustrated by my own inability to know him, but I realized that in my work as an educator I encountered young men and women like Wopper all the time. There was something very real about his inarticulateness, his unknowability. Others imposed their understanding of him on him. Ultimately, Wopper’s struggle was to figure out how to transcend those perceptions. In short, to become his own person.

RC: I noticed that there was a hint of mystery regarding some of the characters like Mija, and Don Martin that did not necessarily reach a conclusion. How do you think this affects the book in terms of bringing it to a close?

MM: Our lives are full of incomplete stories. We may know multiple parts but rarely do we get the whole. In a novel driven by perceptions I had to be okay with leaving certain mysteries unresolved. Much of the novel’s conflict results from lack of communication. Wopper was not a communicator. He shrugged his way through life, and so just about all of his relationships were riddled with mystery – mysteries no one cared about, but mysteries nonetheless. When he meets Mija the stakes grow. If early in their relationship the two of them had sat down and talked about themselves – their pasts, who they’d been with, what they’d been through, what they were looking for in life – their relationship may have endured. Easier said than done, of course. But because they never talked, they had to piece together each other’s lives, and eventually the partnership they’d developed, which was really very special, succumbed to hearsay, gossip, and misunderstanding. Near the end of the novel, when Wopper is back in Woodland and he and Laura (the girlfriend he’d left behind), have a conversation in the hospital it represents a significant step forward for Wopper. This small articulation of who he is offers hope that maybe his future will be driven by volition rather than by others’ judgment.

RC: The setting of this story felt very important. It seemed to come full circle from Woodland to La Morada, then back to Woodland. I feel like this addresses a bigger issue. How important do you think this element of your book is in portraying the struggle of belonging to two different worlds, but having trouble embracing one over the other?

MM: Woodland and La Piedad are actually sister cities. A large number of Woodland residents immigrated from La Piedad and its surrounding pueblos and ranchos. La Morada is invented, but I based it on a rancho where a few of my friends’ families are from. I think what has always fascinated me about Woodland is that so many of its residents are thinking about, dreaming of, and yearning for another place. But it’s not only in their minds, they are also actively trying to preserve that place, and, so much as possible, recreate it. This requires a tremendous amount of imagination. And when you have a whole community imagining collectively, it’s something very powerful. But for the children of those immigrants, who grow up surrounded by this imagined world – maybe they’ve visited it a few times, but for the most part they know Mexico, lo mexicano, through their parents – I think it can be a struggle to know where one’s place is. For me, this is the root of lo chicano, what it means to not only occupy that in between space, but to also learn how to come to terms with it. We all struggle with where we belong, we must constantly find a way of balancing worlds, and this requires its own kind of imaginative thinking.

RC: You added another part to this story that is not usually common, at least in my experience. Wopper was actually able to return to the United States. How do you think including this in your story changes the way in which people think about this struggle of having influences and belonging to two different worlds, not only culturally, but physically since Wopper made a life for himself in both these places?

MM: For me, Wopper had to return. Yes, his deportation woke him up, his relationship with Mija and his political activity and business dealings showed him what he was capable of, but living in Mexico would always be a form of exile. It would never be his home. Woodland is. And if he had never returned, I think he would’ve always wondered about it, yearned for it, much the same as his immigrant parents yearned for La Morada. But his parents, if they chose to, could always return. Wopper could only return as a fugitive, which is why I liken his experience to that of an exile rather than an immigrant. In ancient Greece and Rome exile was seen as a punishment worse than death or imprisonment. This makes sense to me, as the home is where one finds relevance, purpose. This is probably why so many immigrant dreams involve eventual return, whether it happens or not. Wopper may have succeeded in La Morada, but his true fulfillment as a person was only going to happen in Woodland, and so I feel as though there was always a sense of inevitability about his return. He fled La Morada in desperation, and part of it was because he started to comprehend that he was in over his head, that he was in a place that he didn’t understand and maybe never would.

RC: Another fascinating part of this book is that Wopper is actually from Mexico, but is more familiar with Woodland. Seeing the success that Wopper was able to have in La Morada, but his longing for Woodland, do you think this speaks to a reality that many people face in the United States, who were born in another country, but grew up in the United States?

MM: The numbness of Wopper’s existence in Woodland represents his inability to imagine a life different than the one he has. On the one hand you have a generation who staked everything on an illusion, a single-minded quest for a better life, while at the same time they imagine and reimagine the home left behind; on the other hand, you have a generation that is faced with the challenge of finding its own dream. Their parents staked everything on something imagined, but they, the children, must live with the reality. For this second-generation, finding its own dream can be trying in a country whose promises are often as intangible as they are unattainable. Wopper is clearly capable, as his success in Mexico demonstrates, but that doesn’t answer what he wants from his life, or even what’s possible. His deportation jarred him awake, but the larger questions remain. I mentioned above an existential crisis. In a way, all of the characters are dogged by the same uncertainties: What am I? Where do I belong? What do I want to become? Personally, I’m far removed from the immigrant experience, but as an artist, an educator, and, simply, someone who feels deeply for those whose experience it is, I believe that the answers to these existential questions are important to us all. 


Maceo Montoya grew up in Elmira, California. He comes from a family of artists, including his father Malaquias Montoya, a renowned artist, activist, and educator, and his late brother, Andrés Montoya, whose poetry collection The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems won the American Book Award in 2000. Maceo graduated from Yale University in 2002 and received his Master of Fine Arts in painting from Columbia University in 2006.

Montoya’s paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in exhibitions throughout the country as well as internationally, including the traveling show “Caras Vemos, Corazones No Sabemos: The Human Landscape of Mexican Migration to the United States” and “Inter-viewing Paintings” at the SOMA Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea. His artwork has appeared in a range of publications, including seventeen drawings in David Montejano's Sancho's Journal (University of Texas Press 2012), an ethnography of the Brown Berets in San Antonio. Montoya’s first novel, The Scoundrel and the Optimist (Bilingual Review, 2010), was awarded the 2011 International Latino Book Award for “Best First Book” and Latino Stories named him one of its "Top Ten New Latino Writers to Watch." Recently, University of New Mexico Press  published his second novel, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza, and  Copilot Press published Letters to the Poet from His Brother, a hybrid book combining images, prose poems, and essays.

Montoya is an assistant professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis where he teaches the Chicana/o Mural Workshop and courses in Chicano Literature. He is also affiliated with Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer (TANA), a community-based arts organization located in Woodland, CA.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Publishing as Community Building: an interview with Louis Villalba

Louis Villalba is the hardest working writer I know. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Chicago back around 2006. He learned of PALABRA PURA, the poetry series I used to curate, and would often show up to the readings. In the course of our conversations, and subsequent shared meals over the years, I learned that he wrote. In short, we became friends. When I first met him, he’d been trying his hand at writing for around six or so years. He showed me a sample of his work, and I asked if ever thought about joining a writing group or take a writing workshop. I soon learned that he’d enrolled in a creative writing course at Northwestern. Months later, he showed me another sampling of his prose. I was astounded. The improvements had come by leaps and bounds. Eventually, in 2012, Villalba, who was not particularly concerned with the “expected” modes of getting into print, published The Silver Teacup: Tales of Cádiz, a collection of stories and pieces about his native city—a city I know and love from my years-long residence in Spain.  He also translated the original English-language manuscript into his native Spanish and simultaneously published La Tacita de Plata. His collection was warmly received in Cádiz, where me made appearances on local radio and television, and he had string of events in the Chicago area, as well. In short, his book was a model for what I like to call an ethos of “publishing-as-community-building.” I was so taken by the manuscript that I happily wrote a preface. Letras Latinas Blog has long had in mind publishing an interview with him based on The Silver Teacup. Letras Latinas Associate Roberto Cruz (’17) conducted the following interview.


RC: Roberto Cruz
LV: Louis Villalba

RC: Some of the time periods in these short stories go back hundreds of years. I realize that the city itself has a lot of history, but how do you as the author manage to go back in time yourself and write about these places and experiences as if you had been truly present during some of the time periods you describe?

LV: You need to live there as a child, perceive the love of the natives for their land, breathe the history of the town, and feel that you belong to the same ancestral past. Extensive reading can give some clue about what hides under the surface of an ancient city—obviously you need to do so to write historical fiction—but you need much more than that. You must listen to your elders, catch their expressions, and sense their feelings.

RC: The first story, “The man in the Blue Tunic,” gives an interesting start to the presentation of the book as a whole, including descriptions that take us back in ancient Rome. Was there any particular reason why you started Silver Teacup with that story?

LV: I wanted to highlight the glorious beginnings of Cádiz. Although the city was founded a thousand years earlier, it reached its maximum splendor during the Roman Empire. Cádiz was an example of how Romans integrated their conquered territories into their system of government. Four Roman Emperors were born in Spain: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius.
The tale brings out the history and myth of this enchanting town, where anywhere you dig a hole, you find artifacts or human remains going back thousands of years. As a five-year-old child, I used to go to an old theater called “El Comico” every week. My cousin and I sat in the highest and cheapest area in the auditorium, which we called “El gallinero,”—the coop—because it was full of rowdy children. We used to watch Lone Ranger movies and cheered at the top our lungs when our hero pursued the outlaws on his horse at full gallop. With the passage of time, the building was demolished. Several feet underground lay the remains of a Phoenician man who had died jumping a fence—he rested on his side with one of his arms elevated—seven hundred years before Christ was born. Little did we children know that we were disturbing the sleep of one of our ancestors with our vociferous behavior.

RC: I find it really interesting how you can navigate through these different time periods in Cádiz’s history. How is it, though, that you decide to pick the specific perspectives from which you write? Are any of these perspectives relevant to some type of experience in your own life?

LV: Most of the tales are based on stories that I heard as a child, so most of the accounts go back to that period of my life. Some tales like the “The Old Man and the Dog” derive from true events that recently occurred. But I moved the plot to my childhood, and let it unfold right in my neighborhood where my memory could go back and pick someone who had made an impact on me and transformed this person into the main character. Some are based on events in my life. For example, “the Ruby Ring,” was based on a ring that I lost swimming on one of the beaches in my hometown.  When I came back to the US, I mentioned the unfortunate loss to one of my patients. The following month, she came back for an office visit and told me that during a dream she had seen my ring in the bottom of the ocean.

RC: Looking back on all these different stories, is there anything about Cádiz that has remained unchanged? What are some of the changes that you find most compelling?

LV: There have been drastic changes in the geography of Cádiz since the time of the Roman Empire. There are only a few things that have not changed: the blue color of its water, the azure of its sky, and the bright sunlight that bathes its cityscape almost every day. Antonio Machado wrote that Cádiz was made up of “salty luminosity.”
The most compelling change lies in its people’s philosophy of life. It seems as if Gaditanos —as the people from Cádiz are called—look at any event that affects the world through the prism of three thousand years of experience. Nothing from outside their hometown rocks their lives. They have a pragmatic view of what is important and what is not. An anecdote illustrates this philosophy. When the Gulf War was going on, scores of bombers took off from the US air base in Rota, Cádiz. The planes roared over the sky of Cádiz on their way to Iraq as the people in my hometown were enjoying Mardi Grass. A chirigota group composed a song with the following refrain:
“Ay que casualidad! ahora una guerra gente no respeta ni que estamos en carnaval”
“Ugh! What a coincidence! Now, a world war … people don’t even respect that we are celebrating our Mardi Grass.”

RC: There are specific stories, like “The man in the Blue Tunic,” and “Carnaval,” that distort the sense of time, that is, that the past and present are meeting at one single moment. How do you feel this component functions in the book?

LV: It brings the past to life and establishes its continuity with the present, conveying that things are not only the way they are, but also the way they were. The writer can describe two contrasting yet connected views. It also improves the readers’ relationship to the story because they can pick up the thread of the plot in the present and trace it back to the past. This makes the tale enjoyable and engaging. At least, that is my hope.

RC: How has this city and its history influenced your writing? There is an obvious integration of its history in the book, but what is it about this history that compelled you to write these short stories?

LV: I wanted to remind the world, particularly the Anglo-Saxon world, of the great contributions that Cádiz has made to the history of humankind. It was the far west frontier of the ancient civilizations, a major outpost in the discovery of America, and the most important center of commerce between Europe and the American continent. I selected March 2012 for the publication of the book to honor the two-hundred-year anniversary of the first Hispanic Constitution that was held in Cádiz on March 19, 1812 and has served as a template for the fundamental laws of all Spanish-speaking democracies.

RC: All of these stories have their own perspective. There are some, however, that do not necessarily appeal to the history of this city, but rather specific experiences like in “The Accordion Man.” Is this another way of presenting the city, not through its large buildings and amazing history, but rather through the perspective of a specific man?

LV: I was inspired to write this story after I had seen a Romany man play the accordion on a street corner in Madrid. His expression was one of restrained sadness and fear of people’s rejection. I transplanted him to Cádiz because I wanted to describe my hometown through the eyes of a migrant troubadour who tries to survive amidst the beauty of its cityscape, his life’s harsh reality, and people’s indifference to his contribution to their happiness—through his music.

Louis Villalba was born in Cádiz, Spain. He graduated with a degree in medicine and surgery at the University of Seville. He completed his training in neurology at Chicago Medical School, where he taught for over thirty years. Board certified in neurology and clinical neurophysiology, he has published seventy-three scientific papers and book chapters over the course of his career. The Silver Teacup is his first creative work, published in 2012. More recently, he has published, The Stranger’s Enigma, his second book of fiction. Visit his website at:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pablo Miguel Martínez interviews Naomi Ayala

Naomi Ayala

Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations 
(Bilingual Press, 2013)


A few years ago, Naomi Ayala conducted one of the best CantoMundo workshops I'd experienced as a CantoMundo fellow. Letras Latinas asked CantoMundo co-founder Pablo Miguel Martínez if he'd be willing to interview Naomi about her latest book, the latest installment in Bilingual Press' CANTO COSAS series. Here is the result. Before we get to the interview, here are three plucked gems. Naomi Ayala, in her own words:

"I think our job, as poets who identify as Other, is whatever we choose it to be."

"I try not to look at the poem as an outsider except, sometimes, with regard to sound."

"Draw closer to those who seem to have harmonized or are harmonizing the various facets of who they are—in their writing, sure, but most importantly, in their lives."

The Interview:

PM: Pablo Miguel Martínez
NA:  Naomi Ayala

PM: Naomi, this is a beautiful, filled-with-music gathering of poems and the voices that sing them. And though these poems are contemporary, they issue from an old soul. That’s only one of the many things I love about this collection.
One of the first things developing writers of fiction are taught is the crucial, central role conflict and tension play in a short story or novel. And though we don’t deploy such conflict in poetry (well, it does come into play where some narrative poems are concerned), I am drawn to the significance of conflict in these poems. For example, there’s the conflict of jíbaros, campesinos, and guajiros who come to cities such as Washington in search of new lives; there’s also the tension that ensues when developers (oh, that word—develop—and our love-hate relationship with it!) gentrify working-class neighborhoods; finally, there’s the compelling tension that arises when love between two individuals sours and no longer sings its formerly alluring song.
Can you comment on how conflict, which usually has a negative connotation, shapes some of your poems?

NA: For me, tension does play a key role in poetry—though, certainly, not in all poems. Each poem comes to do a different job in this world. As I say this, I see a taut wire in my mind’s eye—two forces moving in opposite directions. For me, tension is conflict in poetry, and it can be present at any point along the length of the wire that the poem focuses the light of its attention upon—which need not necessarily be at each of the two (or more) end points.
In some poems, we don’t see evidence of the tension in the writing, but it is certainly palpable to us. To me, this is mastery at work—writing in the quiet, expansive spaces between the lines, where the reader comes into contact with the subconscious at work. Reading, then, becomes more of a multidimensional or expansive experience, rather than a flat, one-dimensional experience.
The poems I like writing most are like the poems I most like to read. They invite me to return to visit and tinker, release them into the world, or discover something new, something that, in their creation, not even I may have been privy to. And when these poems happen, it is incredibly humbling: they are larger than me. They are a testament to the power of poetry, the power of the written word. And I was there; I showed up and they passed through.
I usually never want to visit more than once or twice with the one-dimensional pieces. To me, they are akin to instant gratification—with which there is nothing wrong; sometimes, that is exactly what one needs. But I can experience that in my memory of them, so I move on. There is always so much more to be done.
Finally, for me, tension (or conflict) is contrast. Without it, we can’t see other things so well. That’s the nature of our collective understanding of the world. Our lens: polarities. Contrast shapes. Contrast defines. This is my great point of intersection with painters, contrast.

PM: I’m in awe of your beautifully deft weaving of personal narrative and larger histories. In fact, your book is a lovingly rendered history of brown people. It reminds us that the place(s) we call home are myriad, diverse, unstable, and filled with hope and longing. But even farther back—and more specifically—your book is a reminder of poetry’s long, rich history: it reminds us that poetry is song (in that regard, we poets are literary/spiritual descendants of priests, healers, diviners). The book’s title announces its bi-directional perspective: it foretells, as all vatic texts do, while it praises the past. And I believe there’s tension in that shifting focus. (Is it shifting? Or is it simply part of our orientation as descendants of indigenous people?) Is this part of the work of poets who identify as ‘other’?
NA: It’s all of it, my story and our story. There is no separation. The weaving (the small of it and the great) is that lens taken form. I can’t quite take credit for it. The crafting part, yes, probably. I work obsessively at it, though not as much or as often as I would like. There is a level at which that way of seeing has been integrated and is synthesized.
I am made, first, of three distinct nations. Then, four or more. I am daughter and sister to a lot. All of these emotions you bring up, all of these facets of what we call home, we are all of that—memory and foretelling, the impoverished, the landscapes, and all the varicolored struggles for freedom; the dreams of the young and our elders.
I think our job, as poets who identify as Other, is whatever we choose it to be. It needs to be uniquely ours, even if the outside world does not see it as such. What tasks do we want to carve out for ourselves, if any? What unique contributions do we bring to the table by being more and more who we truly are and hoisting that to growing craftsmanship among like minds? I think of CantoMundo here in particular when I say this. May its tribe increase.

PM: The final poem in the collection, “Manifesto,” ends with this straightforward declaration: “My heart is good./I work my words./I pray my songs./I sing my work and work/works for me./I sleep awake./Awake, I dream./I apologize for this no more.” (By the way, it’s just one of so many wondrous examples of the gorgeous musicality in your poems. The yoking assonance of “work” and “words” is a stunning summation of what poetry is.)
Do you believe contemporary poets apologize for our ‘word-work’? Is it that type of apologetic affect that sometimes renders poetry irrelevant in our culture?

NA: No, I don’t believe that contemporary poets apologize for their work. I certainly hope that none do. If you know of any, have them write me.
“Manifesto” is a self-affirmation aloud on the page.
In my not-so-long life, I’ve had many incarnations. Along some of the roads I’ve walked, especially 30 or more years ago, poets were looked down upon and I was often belittled for being a poet. The stereotype went something like this: you were poor, lazy, wayward, dreamy, too touchy-feely, probably didn’t have any skills and, most likely, had no idea where you were headed in life.
One’s mere presence seemed to be an unspoken attack on the middle class or the American dream—getting a college education and/or a reliable job, falling in love, marrying, owning a home, having children, etc. This was especially true in the workplace. It was as if you might be less trustworthy than other people. And when it came to certain jobs, it was as if the very fact that you were a poet could discredit your “other work,” your paid work—especially if that work involved writing. At some jobs, I learned to tell no one.
It wasn’t that being a young woman who was “too smart for her own good” or that being a Puerto Rican or Latina was a piece of cake either. It was the combination of affronts that, at times, became almost unbearable. But the thing with poetry is that no one had made it not okay to be condescending to working-class poets, not okay to threaten their livelihoods. If you wanted to be a poet, the respectable thing to do, maybe, was to teach at the university level. That was a real job with a real future. And I think that, to this day, at least in part, poets are looked upon that way by others.

PM: And speaking of declarations and manifestos, I also am completely taken with your poems’ straddling what are usually deemed “feminine” and “masculine” registers. Your poems are sometimes ‘feminine’ (if by that we mean private utterance in domestic spaces) and other times masculine (public discourse). In that sense you strip gender from the speakers’ voices, making the poems universal. More to the point, if we take the speakers to be from historically marginalized segments of the population (women, Latinas, Native Americans), the poems are a form of empowerment.
At what point in the drafting/revising process are you aware that the poems may have that effect on your readers/listeners?

NA: I am not aware. I try not to look at the poem as an outsider except, sometimes, with regard to sound. If, as you say, that is the case, then I am deeply grateful. I would want that for my poetry in English, where it was possible, where it would not compromise the workings of a poem. (I say for my poetry in English because such a thing seems to be an impossible feat in Spanish or other Romance languages).
So this is not premeditated. It is not a conscious choice. In the act of writing, a lot of things hold my focused attention. There is all that my mind’s eye can see and wants to see, and all that tugs at my ear. Sometimes, they are very fine things that can quickly disappear if I try to balance too much. All of these fine things become fragile scaffolds holding up the élan vital of the poem. If something loosens, I risk losing the vital breath, the vital energy of the poem, one I may not be able to bring back or rescue later.

PM: The epigraph that opens the third section of your book is from César Sánchez Beras’ poem “Areíto por todos.” It reminds us that though attempts to erase the aboriginal root in us have been strong and unceasing, we return, renewed and emboldened (by language).
What do you say to young and developing Latina/o poets who, through the MFA experience or larger societal pressures (mainstream media, public education), feel pulled away from their indigenous and multi-racial realities in their writing?

NA: I say to them: Do as you must. Most roads lead to the same place. But claim as much of yourself as you can every step of the way that you can. And I mean everything—not just your roots, past, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religious or spiritual beliefs, but who you are outside all of those lines and who you want to grow into.
Some years, some things will get more attention than others and that’s alright. Just do what you can to come back to the rest of you, or to shed the light of your focus on what resonates most with your growth at that time or with your life context.
It can be daunting, yes. But you’ll breathe more easily. You’ll be happier. You may, at some point, even feel “whole,” no matter how disparate those identities.
And wherever you are, find others who are at least somewhat like you. Disregard no one. Draw closer to those who seem to have harmonized or are harmonizing the various facets of who they are—in their writing, sure, but most importantly, in their lives.

PM: Another important theme that runs through this collection is the natural world—the environment—and the need to preserve it (there’s the forward-looking perspective). And though this is not a theme widely associated with Latina/o poets, we know that the curanderas in our cultures certainly knew about plants’ healing properties and growing seasons long before holistic medicine appeared as an alternative. In this regard, your collection at times reads like a manual of sorts. It imparts a kind of traditional knowledge that the colonizers discredited, dismissed, and tried mightily to erase. Are your poems a sort of reclamation project?
NA: I believe all of us have a role as stewards of our environment, no matter where we are. Stepping up to that role is stepping up to a full citizenship of sorts. But there is also the relationship that we foster with the natural world. I believe that we must have a relationship—whatever it is and however large or small. One cannot be a steward of what one doesn’t know.
For me, my relationship with the natural world helps me mind my size. That is, it keeps the false thinking of the ego in check. But that’s just one thing. It reminds me as well of my expansiveness and potential for greater expansiveness—in the self and the actions informed by that self. This relationship with the natural world serves as my life’s harmonizing force. Just as importantly, it keeps at bay any illusions of separateness that creep up.
A worldview with the potential for evolution of the human race needs to be informed by our symbiotic relationship with the natural world. In my mind, no solution to the world’s problems can ever be viable or progressive or expansive enough when respect for that symbiotic relationship is absent.
Safeguarding the natural world today is not exactly forward-looking as it was long ago by the first peoples of the United States who, like first peoples throughout the world, understood and lived out this symbiotic relationship in endless forms. First peoples of the Americas and the world have always been the soul of right relationship with and stewardship of the natural world. And while we are fortunate to still count with their presence in some parts of the world, they are disappearing more quickly than ever.  (My poetry does not want to have to ask: What is to become of us then?)
Later, in Latin America, I think of Chico Mendes, because I do. In the U.S., I think of John Muir and Lady Bird Johnson. They were poets of a different kind. They did not need verses. They wrote their forward-looking poetries with their lives and these persist. If verses are love given form—whether directly, in what they behold, or indirectly, in what is beheld outside the lines—then theirs was a poetry of sorts.
Numerous poets, though, have held this forward-looking gaze in their poetries in various ways, or held that symbiotic relationship up with honor and respect. I think of Francisco X. Alarcón, N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, and—one of my favorites—poet, essayist, short-story writer, and novelist Wendell Berry.
The natural world also presents us with sacred spaces, and these need to be honored as such. More and more, we need to protect these as we might our society’s most vulnerable. Not like a church or temple. No. Those can be rebuilt.
So the poems in this collection are not a reclamation project, per se. That, at least, was not my intention. But I am always trying to claim and reclaim my relationship with the natural world however best I can, and making room for it in my life. The most important place this happens is outside of my poetry. That must remain true. Any threat to that relationship becomes a personal threat. It becomes a threat to the physical and the spiritual and to my identity—even when it is me who might be posing the threat.
Poetry comes later. With me, it is a language of interaction for the intimate. But there are other languages and other interactions outside of poetry—like ritual, for the private self.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, my relationship with the natural world came before poetry, at the age of eight or nine. It was an important time for me and I remember it well. Some years later, about the time I began writing, my relationship with my maternal grandfather made my relationship with the natural world more expansive, and I began developing a relationship with plants. For him, that relationship was natural, vital, and it was one of the things that most informed his world. At some point, after I began to write poetry, I became aware of the need to write down his remedies, but caught in the belief that there would always be time in the future, he died before I could. This was a huge personal loss, one that doubled after being plucked and replanted in a new landscape with a different flora and fauna.
In my early 20s, I took on a peace-making project with my heart and new environment. I began growing all sorts of herbs and plants in my studio apartment on Dwight Street in New Haven. At one point, these outnumbered books and writing notebooks. And I played with their medicinal uses in teas, tinctures, and balms so that I could learn to understand them. That was a challenging time in my life; this new relationship brought happiness and calm.
Up until sometime in my early 30s I felt bitter, cynical, and angry about how I had ended up in the U.S. and about many of the things that had been giving rise to my growing social consciousness. In the end, it was my relationship with the natural world that saved me from being swallowed up whole by those emotions. I understood this, experientially and very literally: I was just now located in a different part of the big blue planet I so loved. It sounds almost insignificant, entirely geographic. It is not.
Until that point, I had felt incredibly divided and dim inside. From that point on, however, I began to feel more at home everywhere. I began to better understand acceptance, appreciation, and gratitude, and I began growing in the direction I wanted to choose for myself.

 Naomi Ayala is the author of three books of poetry, Wild Animals on the Moon (Curbstone Press), This Side of Early (Curbstone Imprint: Northwestern University Press), and Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations (Bilingual Press). She is the translator of Argentinean poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s book of poetry, The Wind’s Archeology/La arqueología del viento (Vaso Roto Ediciones, Mexico), which won the 2013 International Latino Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book Translation. Some of Naomi’s work in Spanish appears in Al pie de la Casa Blanca: Poetas hispanos de Washington, DC (North American Academy of the Spanish Language). Naomi has won several awards; among these are Artists Fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Special Recognition for Community Service from the U.S. Congress, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy of Environmental Justice Award. She lives in Washington, DC.

Pablo Miguel Martínez’s collection of poems, Brazos, Carry Me (Kórima Press, 2013), received the 2013 PEN Southwest Book Award for Poetry. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sandra Cisneros praised Brazos, Carry Me as her favorite book of 2013.
Pablo’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Americas Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Harpur Palate, Gay and Lesbian Review, Inkwell, North American Review, Pilgrimage and the San Antonio Express-News, among other publications. His poetry has been anthologized in This Assignment Is So Gay, Best Gay Poetry 2008, Poetic Voices without Borders 2, and Queer Codex: Chile Love. Pablo has received the Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Artistic Excellence, the Oscar Wilde Award, and the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. His literary work has received support from the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation and the Artist Foundation of San Antonio.
Pablo is a Co-Founder of CantoMundo, a national retreat-workshop for Latina/o poets. He teaches English at the University of Louisville.