Thursday, March 5, 2015

Solecism: An interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni

 ** the poem "She Calls Once That Is a Lie" was published in Nepantla Journal's inaugural issue.


an interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni
by Ae Hee Lee


With every Jewish, Spanish, and English word, SOLECISM reveals a map of crossed borders and cultural voices that do not seek to be pinned down but to travel freely and infinitely across lands. The identity of the speaker is just like its language— ridden with paradoxes and compounds that one could perceive as unusual, and yet that in their beauty and craftsmanship make perfect sense in the heart. Just like this, Rosebud Ben-oni withholds nothing and claims the reader's sight, hearing, and everything. 

Note: Solecism has been such a delight to read. I have always been interested in how writers with multicultural backgrounds manage to put together the “multi” in “one,” how several identities and landscapes can exist in a single textual context. Through her book, Ben-Oni proved to me that this is not so different from our very selves, as we have and are so much more than a one-dimensional identity trapped in one body.


1.     Thank you for doing this interview for us. To start it off, I must say that the cover is beautiful. The colors are just amazing! It is noted inside the book that the cover painting was done by Rogelio “El Indio” Cisneros and the cover design by Regina Schroeder, but could you tell us more about how you came to decide on the final picture and how you feel it represents Solecism?

Rogelio Cisneros is my uncle, my mother's brother-in-law. He’s mixed (Mexican and Native American), and had worked on the border in Tijuana and Chula Vista, California, for many decades. He’s a tall, imposing figure, and looks very serious when you first meet him, and yet he and his wife, my Aunt Olivia, were the life of the party in our family.  Like most of my mother’s family, they had a strong presence in my life. When I attended college, my aunt wrote me long, long letters about their life together, about growing up in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and driving all the way to California with barely any money, only to have their car break down on the way there. In California, they became involved in the Chicano movement early on, vocal in their politics, and then they could dance like no one’s business.

Uncle Rogelio finally retired about seven years ago, and he’d plan to focus on his art, but then my aunt fell very ill; he now cares for her full time. In the summer of 2012, a few months after I’d had my book accepted for publication, I went with my parents to see them in Chula Vista. He showed me some of his paintings, and the ones of the wolves were incredible. The wolf on the cover of my book was actually his own pet wolf. Yes, he kept a she-wolf in the suburbs of San Diego. Whenever she’d howl at the moon, he’d tell the neighbors that her breed had a very peculiar relationship with the phases of the moon. I loved this story. I then wrote to my publisher, Steve Schroeder, about using one particular painting as the cover. Luckily, the publisher said yes. And so that’s how it happened.

I chose this painting for the cover because, to quote “Burning She-Wolf” by Vasko Popa, one of my favorite poets: “With her teeth the shewolf reaches/ The blonde braid of a star/ And climbs back to the base of the sky.” As a child I was often this kind of animal, always returned to this animal, no matter what new discovery. As a poet, I shift in and out of this animal, unfollow the scent of the pack, the pack the childhood selves out of which these poems in SOLECISM first spring forth.

2.    Throughout your book, you employ untraditional grammatical structures and juxtaposition of ideas. There is a beautiful play of words present as you compound words like “razor-wild” or “leather-rebellious” and compose paradoxes in phrases like “born a muerto.” What is the inspiration behind the title and theme of your collection of poems? What was the process like of writing in such a solecistic way?

As I preface in the book, solecism is defined as: nonstandard or ungrammatical usage; breach of good manners or etiquette; any error, impropriety or inconsistency. I am guilty of all these.  If the place of return (rather than home) is the wolf, then my spirit animal is doubt. When I was putting the collection together, I realized that the journey here was not to seek redemption, but to explore a multicultural experience of warring (and often contradictory) doubts and lay it all out to see what that journey looked like. Migration as a way of life, so to say, rather than a means to an end. That was where I was at that point in my life as a poet and as a human.

3.    There are instances when a sort of exoticization of a person or experience takes place in your book. For instance in “The Reply of Sal Si Puedes,” you write, “Quit photographing my children for/ exposés of The Second Coming.”  In “For the Mixed Child with Pale Skin,” the child must pose with a macaw on his shoulder to “draw out the exotic.” In “Proof of Absence” people ask what it is like to survive a bombing and are surprised by how the speaker compares it to something as banal as “bad music.”  Could you share with us how you further explore the idea of the exotic in your book and whether you had in mind the notions of gazing and othering?

I’ve had some interesting experiences with the dominant discourse; that I had a mentor tell me that she found my poems with “Jewish” subject matter to be more “mature” than whatever my “picturesque” Mexican side could ever bring out. I had a grown man tell me he’d been to Mexico once, and that the poverty there was more “romantic,” and that the people “weren’t unhappy there.”  A man with a Ph.D. and tenure. Telling me. To my face.

This sort of thing continues. Just recently I had a white, straight, male poet write to me that with the “changing” landscape of poetics, he found himself listening more than speaking, and that he wasn’t used to that, and that he felt disempowered by it. He jumped off from there, and wrote that, given his recent experience, he was struggling to find some way to identify with some of the poems I’d written in SOLECISM. That while he liked me as person (I should mention we’ve never even met), he believed that it was heavily implied throughout the book that I was blaming him, or rather, directing my “anger” at all white, straight, male poets.

I was taken back by this (half of the poems aren’t even set in the U.S.), but also curious as to why he had to identify with these poems at all. I think that’s part of the problem, that one has to identify with the poet. Why not just listen? I’ve been listening all my life to the dominant discourse. It’s called K-12. It’s called Survey of American Literature. It’s called Pedagogy. It’s called Well-Meaning Mentors who Ask You Where Are Your Tortilla/Abuela Poems? Weaving in and out of those is the power of the gaze, the exoticizing, the othering.

In the end it couldn’t be a conversation because he was offended. He stated again that said he had been listening, but where did that leave his voice? I found the whole thing very strange: he was trying to “other” himself by thinking he had to be a victim, to show that he was under attack. I have friends whom are white, straight and male, and they are finding plenty of places to publish their work, so I couldn’t really see his point at all.

I think too many people are hung up on the idea that there needs to be one, solid idea of U.S. poetry, one spirit animal, one voice that we can all identify with. And those kind of people wanted to see it represented in a way that reflects their own beliefs and agendas. Well, good luck with that, honey. Maybe it’s because I’m mixed, but trying to fit every single person in this country within those kind of confines is a recipe for disaster. Because those like me will always escape the box, and live outside of it. And you will have to “listen” even then.

4.   I love these two verses: “I am the mistress of fragmentation” and “You are not the first to break/ into restricted areas// wanting nothing at all.” I am very interested in hearing what fragmentation means for you in relation to remembering the place where the fragments come from and crossing boundaries.

Sometimes it’s just about the breaking and breaking in, rather than to collect something. What about coming to the crossing and seeing what’s there first before going forward or heading back. I’ve lived on physical borders, in the communities that have sprung up there. Fragmentation for me is my origin as a poet. It’s where I still rest my head at the end of poem, a line, a thought. I long for something whole, though, which is why the breaking in. I’m drawing a line in the sand close to the surf coming in. I’m cutting though an old shoe climbing a fence of razors. I let the foot bleed, the mark wash away. I write.  Sometimes I fragment things that think themselves whole, that think they can only exist one way. I cross them over into a new world, I make them awkward and silent and misunderstood.

5.    Animals seem to be recurrent in your poems, especially winged ones like locusts and birds (sparrows and pauraque). How did they come to you? And what kind of place would you say they have in your life and poetry? Is there any connection between them and the concept of journeying and flying over borders?

Once after a snowstorm, I saw this sparrow sitting on a patch of snow outside my bedroom window. I thought it was dead because it was so cold. But then someone passed by and it flew up into the air, and then down back on the same place. It began to preen. It sat there for a long time. This is totally the poet speaking, but I swear that sparrow was mocking us with our coats and scarves and boots, rushing to our warm homes, that it could sit on a pile of snow just to show how tough it was. I think of the film Days of Being Wild. There’s this line from the movie in which Leslie Cheung says: "I've heard that there's a kind of bird without legs that can only fly and fly, and sleep in the wind when it is tired. The bird only lands once in its life... that's when it dies."

In SOLECISM, the speaker begins as this bird. Because I've have been that kind of bird. Now, I’m still this bird. But I'm not completely of it. But how I once was, in entire. Given over to reckless things, leaving too many people and thing, leaving, leaving, always leaving. And as I wrote, slowly the layers of this bird peeled off because I was forced to land as I wrote. And I didn't die, entire. As a poet, I'm still peeling, letting go the sum of all those one-minute peccadillos and larger transgressions. And in this book I gather the peels. And in the book some give way to sparrows sitting in the snow, while some burn, remain burning, a kind of forever in flight like Cheung’s bird who can’t land. Both make up the journey. Both have flown over borders in way I can as a poet, in a way I can’t as a human.

6.   Your biography says you were born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father. In Solecism a rich interaction between cultures and religions can be found; Spanish, Hebrew, and English words meet in a single poetic context, and the speaker interacts with God, Ishtar, and the Virgin Guadalupe in his/her life. Please tell us where (or how) you find your identity (do you feel a necessity to find it?). Would you say these poems are autobiographical and that you find yourself in your writing?

The poems are rooted in many histories, both personal and generational. I am writing about my multiple selves who have communed with Ishtar, the Virigin Guadalupe and the Jewish God, and those selves have been reimagined. What I find in a lot of these poems is that the poet searching for home and for a homeland, which are two very different things. These day I don’t worry too much about finding my identity anymore—it’s there, in fragmentation. Mixed heritage can be an origin itself (I wrote about that here). Putting together SOLECISM as a collection was a way of discovering this idea, that one can exist in plural and also hold dear conflicting national/religious/social histories. That one can house them all in the manner that they work perhaps nowhere else, and break with them when she or he chooses.

My Mexican identity is one rooted in family; it is because of my mother’s family that identity is so strong. And while I still identify as Jewish, it has less to do with the communal aspect of Jewish life, though I might return to it someday and join a synagogue again. I miss the sound of the shofar during the High Holy days, attending Shabbat services, building a sukkah. But these things live in the poems, so they can’t be taken from me. Sometimes I’m still Cheung’s bird who falls asleep in the wind, but after the publication of this book, I now awaken on much more certain ground. No matter what, I land. And I awaken. That is the finding, the continuing.


Born to a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists' Collective), a CantoMundo Fellow and the recipient of a 2014 Poetry Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Puerto del Sol  and elsewhere. In 2010, her story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor's Prize in Camera Obscura.
She graduated from New York University, where she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. During her study at NYU, she was also a Leopold Schepp Scholar. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned a Master of the Fine Arts in Poetry, and was awarded grants from the American Jewish League for Israel and the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. She was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she completed post-graduate research
A graduate of the 2010 Women's Work Lab, she is a playwright at New Perspectives Theater, and also at work on a new play. Her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, a Newsletter Columnist for Kore Press, a Contributor to The Conversant and at work on her first novel, The Imitation of Crying. She has served as Guest Editor for several publications including [Five] Quarterland Winter Tangerine's IMAGINARY HOMELANDS feature. She is also completing her second book of poetry.


Ae Hee Lee is a South Korean by birth and Peruvian by heart and memory. She is currently an MFA candidate in the creative writing program of The University of Notre Dame and works as a graduate assistant for the university’s Institute of Latino Studies. You can find (or will find) her poetry in Dialogue, Cha, Cobalt, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Ruminate, The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society, Day One, and Silver Birch Press.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Maceo Montoya on the eve of his visit to ND: an interview

Maceo Montoya

This week, the Chicano artist and writer Maceo Montoya will be visiting the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of his dual-site art exhibit “Cielo Rojo.” But his visit will also serve as an occasion to consider his latest book, LETTERS TO THE POET FROM HIS BROTHER (Copilot Press, 2014). In fact, thanks to the generosity of two private benefactors, every current Notre Dame MFA candidate received Maceo’s book: he will be holding a colloquium with them this Thursday. In the meantime, Letras Latinas associate and ND undergraduate Amanda Castañeda (‘17) conducted the following interview, in which he discusses the book in question. Enjoy.  —FA

Upon opening the book, the first thing I saw were the individual plates separated from the rest of the book. I felt each portrait was telling a story of specific people while also bringing out the commonalities of these Chicano individuals. My first question is how you decided to separate these plates from the rest? Do they each remind you of a story or friend? Additionally, do you have a favorite among these and, if so, which is it?

When I started sharing the manuscript with friends they often asked before sending back their comments if they could keep an image or two to frame. I was so grateful for their feedback that I was more than happy to share what, to me, were just color copies. It placed a seed in my mind, though: the desire on the part of reader to take something away, something tangible, and my desire, as the creator of this work, to share something tangible with them as a form of appreciation. They took the time to read through my work, sharing an image or two was the least I could do. I also grew up with a series of books called the Metropolitan Seminars in Art, and inside every front cover was an envelope containing images of the artworks to be discussed in the interior essays. It gave the reader/viewer the opportunity to hold the image, move around with it, and to spend time with it in a different way than you can with an image in a book. You could also hang up the images, which is what I did in my apartment during graduate school. When I started discussing design ideas with Stephanie Sauer at Copilot Press, I mentioned to her both experiences. Copilot specializes in ways of combining text and images, as well as creating an experience for the reader, a different way of engaging the material. So Stephanie ordered a few of the Metropolitan Seminars in Art, and set about creating a format to include removable prints. The fact that the prints are the first thing a reader encounters upon opening Letters to the Poet from His Brother indicates that this book is going to be something different.
         As far as the selection of the ten prints, I wanted the work to be representative of what would be found inside, so we picked a few from each series. I also chose those that had resonated strongly with viewers over the years. Again, thinking, “Which images would someone want to hang on the wall or give to a friend?” When I look at the ten prints together, I don’t necessarily think of the stories told in each one, I think of the years, the time in my life that those paintings chart. I remember where I was when I painted it, what I was thinking, what I was hoping for; looking at my own work is like thumbing through an old journal. For that reason, I don’t have a favorite, I look at them nostalgically, or sentimentally, maybe even with a certain degree of embarrassment. Others have said this in different iterations, but my favorite work is always in the future.

In “Letters to the Art Critic”, you mention that you hope your paintings can touch somebody and make them see these undocumented workers as real people. This essay left me with two main questions:
Do you believe that art as a whole should represent real life, or is it a personal goal to give faces and voices to the Chicano population?
         I see everything in this book as personal. That it deals with larger political issues or overarching concepts of art and its purpose are because these are issues that define me, that either move me to create or frustrate me, often both at the same time. But I only feel comfortable speaking for myself. The reason I included dates on several of the essays in the section, “The Chicano Artist,” was because I wanted to show a progression, an evolution in my thinking. The same questions remain throughout – What is the Chicano artist’s role? What is my role as an artist? – but whereas in 2004, when I wrote “Letter to the Art Critic,” the voice is more hopeful and idealistic, maybe even a little naïve, that changes by the time I’m writing “Conversation Between a Father and Son” in 2008. By then, the artist is more cynical about that earlier idealism; he questions it intellectually, yet he is unable to let it go because he realizes that this idealism is intrinsic to his being.
         I paint and write about what moves me, and often I draw from real life, my own experiences or the experiences of those around me, but I also freely utilize the license to invent. The paintings in the series “Cantos of Sorrow” are all based on memories, but the characters in the paintings are entirely from my imagination. To be chained to “real life” would be limiting. I insist on the freedom to push my work in whatever direction it takes me. At the same time, Chicana and Chicano stories are still so rarely told, their faces so rarely depicted, that there’s still this great need. We see it in the voices of early Chicano and later Chicana writings, “If we’re not telling our stories, who will?” On the one hand, it’s sad that we still must ask that question; on the other, it’s an important responsibility, the choice between visibility and invisibility. As artists, we should want the stakes to be that high.

Who is the intended audience for your books and paintings? Do you want to speak to people like Mr. Saltz, to the general public, or to the artistic community?

         Like most artists, I believe that my work is universal. What moves me I hope moves others. But when I was getting my MFA in visual art, I remember becoming so frustrated during my peers’ studio critiques because although I respected their devotion to their craft I didn’t understand what motivated them to create; I didn’t get the formal or conceptual rules they played by. I kept insisting on meaning defined by emotion, by my heart and by my gut, but for most of them that was too elemental. Gloria Anzaldúa wrote how the academy’s distain for anything “simple, direct, or immediate” is a way of silencing the stories we want to tell. I see myself first and foremost as a storyteller, so immediacy will always be important, yet I also acknowledge that one of the reasons I feel so fortunate to work in different mediums is the flexibility to operate on different levels. Perhaps the written word will reach a reader where the visual image does not, or vice versa.

In “Letters to the Artist from His Son”, you talk about the difficulty of defining the “Chicano” identity. Do you think there is one true definition or description of what it means to be Chicano? Or is accepting this Chicano identity different for each individual? Most importantly, how would you define yourself as a Chicano, or what do you think this identity could ultimately mean?

         I teach in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis and I always begin my classes with an open definition of Chicano. This can be frustrating for my students. Partly, they seek a strict definition because that’s how we’re conditioned, but maybe they’re also looking for a way of deciding once and for all whether to accept the identity or reject it. They could also simply feel as if I’m beating around the bush. Either way, I’m being an honest when I encourage an open, flexible definition of Chicano. No one person owns the term or identity, which allows for it to evolve, and where it has ultimately derived its power. So, to answer your question: I don’t think there is one true definition or description of what it means to be Chicano, and yes, accepting a Chicano identity is different for each individual. But what binds us is the fact that we’re confronting ourselves – our history, our identity, our negotiations of the in between, our resulting confusions and insecurities, but also the fruitfulness of those negotiations – and doing so directly. The reason it’s easier to identify as Mexican-American or Hispanic or Latino is because what do any of those terms say about how one experiences the world. Chicano is putting a name to experience and that’s what makes it so complicated, at times problematic, but also so rich.

The section “Cielo Rojo” was structured completely different than the rest of the book and contained portraits and paintings as well as a short story. I also noticed the reference of the title in the song “Cielo Rojo” by Juan Záizar. Can you comment on the inspiration behind this specific section, as well as the connection between the story and portraits to the actual song?

         In summer 2008, I was working on a mural with junior high and high school students. After the students left for the day, I continued painting. After a while, I noticed that a man had driven up to the wall, got out of his car, and was waiting to speak with me. When I stopped painting, the man asked without any explanation, “¿Cuánto me cobras?” – how much would I charge him? When I asked “for what?” he proceeded to describe all the things that were going wrong in his life – he had injured his back, he had lost his job, his wife and children were pressuring him. I included most of what he told me in the narrative poem. He would occasionally pause and then ask again, “¿Cuánto me cobras?” When I ‘d ask again “for what?” he’d launch into another litany of hardships. Finally after about ten minutes, the paint drying on my palette and brush, I pushed him to answer what exactly he wanted, and he answered: “How much will you charge me to express what I feel right here?” And as he said this, he pointed to just above his stomach and below his chest, as if that was where he located all of his stress, his frustration, and his disappointment.
         Afterward, to be honest, I chuckled to myself at the exchange, his request seemed so absurd, but I also couldn’t let it go. I kept thinking about his desperation and his belief that I was the one who could represent what he was feeling, and not only that, how there was this need for him to express it, or rather, for him to see it expressed. At the time, I was working on the series of portraits and landscapes that became “Ciejo Rojo.” I was just working through the process, enjoying the aesthetic of the black-and-white drawings/paintings on a red background, but suddenly in all those faces, and in all those empty landscapes, I started to hear the man’s words – “How much will you charge me to express what I feel right here?” – each face, each empty landscape had a story, each one wanted it told, and it was up to me, the artist, to tell it. I didn’t seek that man out, he found me. I had a choice, of course, whether or not to tell his story, but maybe I didn’t. I couldn’t let it go. To this day, I can’t.
         As far as the song “Cielo Rojo,” during this period I was listening to the version sung by Miguel Aceves Mejía, and I loved its haunting quality. I can listen to a song a hundred times and not bother to listen to, or, as in this case, translate the lyrics, but one day I paid closer attention and heard the line about the man dreaming that he’s heading toward a blue sky but awakes and discovers that the sky is red, and suddenly it hit me: the red background in my paintings, the man who approached me at the mural and his realization that none of his hopes and dreams had panned out and most likely never would; that, for so many, the sky is red and always will be. I wanted to bring it all together. I started writing the narrative poem shortly after.

I thought that your essay “Conversations between a Father and Son” was particularly interesting because it demonstrates the different approaches both you and your father took in documenting Chicano history through art. Considering the strong dedication you and your father have to Chicano art I want to know: do Chicano artists have a certain responsibility to document Chicano history? In essence, can a Chicano artist or author create landscapes or write books not related to the socio-economic struggles or cultural celebration of Chicano people? Or could this be seen as assimilating into American or main-stream culture?

         I think less in terms of “responsibility” and more in terms of “honesty.” Responsibility has the ring of convention or tradition and artists either instinctively (or are taught to) buck those. Artists must be honest with or authentic to themselves. If they’re not, the work is merely an imitation of something else. What moves you to create is what moves you to create, and worrying about how and where it fits can be crippling. As has been said before, there isn’t one Chicano identity, only Chicano identities, and the art emerging from that experience should reflect that range. So no, it doesn’t have to be explicitly about socio-economic struggle or cultural celebration. At the same time, Chicano artists (whether self-identified or not) must be aware of all forms of outside pressure, including those placed on us by contemporary fads or graduate programs.
         I felt very alone in my MFA visual art program. I thought that no one understood my work (a common feeling, believe me, and not exclusive to Chicano artists), and I felt immense pressure to adapt my work to something that was more accessible or understood or liked by my mostly white teachers and peers, or the commercial galleries just outside our doors. We must ask ourselves: how many visual artists have gone through MFA programs and had a mentor encouraging them to make art seeking social change, or art that was relevant to their community, or art that spoke directly to the heart of their identity and experience? I would guess very few. More often than not we find mentors encouraging us, at best, to be subtler (usually for the sake of subtlety) or, at worst, to take our work in the opposite direction. What impact does that have on our visual production? I also want to be clear that I’m speaking about visual art. I could be wrong about this, but for writers, the maxim “write what you know” tethers us to our experience in a way that’s just not expected of visual artists.
         I want to add one last thing. My first semester at Columbia was a dark one. I mean, dark. I felt like I was starting to lose my instincts as an artist. I had so many voices in my head that I had trouble locating my own. I had never experienced that before. Maybe it was good to have gone through that, to know what it’s like to create when the ground has been removed from beneath you. But late in the semester, I had a chance studio visit with the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar. He looked at my paintings in progress, he flipped through a binder of printouts of past work, and afterward, he said to me a variation of this: “Don’t listen to a thing they tell you in this place. They won’t understand what you’re doing or trying to say. Get through here, make the necessary connections, but keep making this work.” In an instant, he had validated the tradition I was working in (he may not have known extensively about Chicano Art, but he was certainly aware of long histories of socially-engaged art), and he had restored my confidence. I set about slowly regaining my instincts, and I’m forever grateful for his words. I had my dad telling me the same thing, my artist friend Carlos Jackson, too, but I couldn’t hear them – or I had heard them so many times before that their words could no longer reach me – but Alfredo Jaar, he was of that place, of the “art world,” yet he knew what I was going through. It was just a small nudge, but it was everything. I was fortunate, but it makes me wonder how many Mexican-American or Latino or self-identified Chicano artists enter these institutions, lose their instincts, and then must rebuild completely alone. It’s a vulnerable position to be in.

All of the paintings were beautiful, but I truly loved the profiles of the different people throughout the course of the book. In each of the faces I was able to hear a story and feel the emotions conveyed. Of the numerous paintings included in your book, which one do you believe or hope to believe will resonate most with your readers? Plus, if you could pick one word to encapsulate the specific painting, what would it be and why?

         I agree with you that just a simple rendering of a face contains a story and emotions that can’t be articulated any other way. It’s hard to single out just one painting as representative. I like having a range of styles in my work – from the large almost operatic black-and-white compositions in the “Cantos of Sorrow” series to the quieter moments in the “Inmensidad” series – and I imagine viewers will be drawn to different images for different reasons. One thing I’d like to mention (or confess) is that to get the shadows and highlights just right in my work, I often take photos of myself posing as the figures in the painting. So somewhere in my photo library there’s an image of me on my deathbed, another as an old woman reading the bible, and another as a fieldworker with a Pumas hat and pañuelo. It’s just a tool to help me in the painting process, but I think there’s something there: this idea that all of these faces and stories are me, or are inside me, and that for all my outward-looking gaze, the process of painting is, in fact, an excavation of myself.

After reading “The Last Letter” and seeing the last painting, I felt as though you were finally coming to peace with the passing of your brother. That being said, do you think that perhaps creating this book was necessary for your healing process, or a result of it?

         When I finished this book, or when with the help of Copilot Press I saw what this book had become – this beautiful object containing roughly the last ten years of my life – I definitely had the feeling that a chapter had closed. Whether it was the process of finding my voice as an artist, or coming to terms with my father’s legacy or my brother’s death, or how I had carried Andrés’s loss around with me for so long and wielded the grief as a tool in my own creative process, I felt that this book had placed it all in the past. And for a while I was struck with certain doubts: What do I create now? What do I draw upon now? To this day, I enter the studio and struggle to answer these questions. In writing my narrative, encapsulating it, placing distance between myself and the narrative I’d constructed about myself enough to name it, have I become only too aware that moving forward I must chart a new path or else risk repetition or self-mimicry? I don’t know. I want to say that there’s never peace. Or maybe I fear peace just as I fear remaining stagnant. I sought answers in writing this book but that’s not to say I found them. You asked about healing from my brother’s death and here I respond with how it has affected me creatively. Perhaps that’s evidence that I’m still the same person after this book as I was before. When I was little, Andrés used to play rough with me and he didn’t care that he had such a size advantage, and often I’d end up hurt, and yes, crying, and I’d go immediately to my parents and tattle on him. I remember how he’d look at me afterward, as if I had betrayed him so deeply that maybe he would never forgive me. As I’m writing this, I imagine him looking at me now just like that.

For me, reading Letters to the Poet from His Brother was similar to reading a new story in every painting, recollection, and essay. I want to know how different it was to write this book compared to your previous novels. Did you have a vague plot line outlined in your head? Was there a focus on the interpersonal relationships? On the other hand, I’d also like to know how writing this book was similar to writing a novel.

I couldn’t have written this book all at once. I pieced together writings over the years, and then I stepped back and asked myself, “What do I have?” I didn’t exactly know. I saw that I was talking a lot about Andrés, about my dad, about Chicano Art, about the role of the artist, but I didn’t know what they all had to do with one another except that they emerged from within me. It really wasn’t until I shared the manuscript with a few friends, including Tim Z. Hernandez, David Dominguez, and Manuel Paul Lopez, and later, Bidisha Banerjee, and heard their feedback that I realized what I had. It was Tim who first referred to it as a memoir. That struck me because I honestly hadn’t thought about it in that way. In fact, if I had I probably would’ve abandoned the project. As a fiction writer, I prefer screens between my stories and myself. But once I came around to that label, and admitted, okay, you’re talking about yourself here, you’re the center, I was then able to move on to how I constructed that narrative; what I needed to add to round out sections, what I left in or took out, and how I went about creating a through-line or arc. In that sense, I found my footing as a novelist – I wanted the reader to feel that there was a progression, that something was building.
         Admittedly, it’s not a very long work, but so many people have told me that they read it one sitting, unable to put it down. From a collection of disparate writings to a page-turner – the novelist in me is satisfied. In fact, the day after the book release party (and celebrating until well into the morning), the poet Javier O. Huerta, sat on my front porch swing and read the book while soaking his feet in a tub of water. Poets Laurie Ann Guerrero and Joseph Rios were there, too. Joseph was actually in the driveway dismantling my old truck for parts. Anyway, two hours later, Javier closed the book and then sent me a text message despite the fact that I was five feet away nursing my hangover. It said, “Just finished Letters. Good job.” My head hurt a little less after that. Maybe that’s my novelist preoccupation, I just want to know whether you made it all the way through to the end.

Letras Latinas would like to thank
Gary and Barbara Hogle
 for their generosity, which resulted
in each ND MFA candidate receiving
(Copilot Press, 2014)
by Maceo Montoya

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Letras Latinas Writers Initiative: last year, this year.

Last April (2014), the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative held its second gathering, during which MFA candidates from various programs spent a weekend at Notre Dame. What follows are some testimonios (see below).

Nayelly Barrios
(McNeese State University)

What a weekend it was! It was refreshing to listen to the talks that Laurie Anne Guerrero, Diego Baez, Orlando Menes, and Francisco X. Alarcon gave. I walked away from each talk inspired and reaching for my notebook and pencil. Duende was very much walking with us this weekend.
he time shared with Lauro, Elizabeth, Javier, Lynda, Jonathan, and Suzie was like chilling at home with people you’ve known since elementary. So second-nature, even for those I had just met for the first time. It was familia, no doubt. Spaces like this one are so necessary given the low numbers of Latin@s in MFA programs. Many times there are conversations that can only be unloaded in spaces like this. I’ve got to say that one of my favorite things was editing and reading poems late into the night with Elizabeth and Javier.
Thank you all for a great weekend. Lovely individuals! Brilliant poets! This heart needed these moments so terribly. 

Lynda Letona
(University of Notre Dame)

Meeting new poets Elizabeth Acevedo, Javier Zamora, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Francisco X Alarcon, and spending time with old friends like Lauro Vasquez, Francisco Aragón, Orlando Menes, Nayelly Barrios, Jonathan Diaz, Suzi Garcia, and Diego Báez was a highlight of my year. We had a great time sharing each other’s work, talking about the joys and challenges of being a writing student, watching Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding and discussing the production during a lovely reception, among other fun activities. In these gatherings, one feels right at home, as if you’ve known these poets for years. I found it so inspiring to learn from them and to listen to their stories and their amazing work. The Roundtable gatherings are a great opportunity for us to pause from our hectic lives and remember why we do what we do. 
 Suzi Garcia
(University of Notre Dame)

Spending the weekend with Letras Latinas was invigorating. We were poets from all over, with many different heritages, experiences, and aesthetics among us, but we came together for fellowship and encouragement. It was amazing to not just make new friends, but to share resources, to commiserate, and to learn from some of the most respected and exciting poets writing today. Letras Latinas took us away from the world and reminded us of where we're from, as well as where we can go.

Javier Zamora
(New York University)

The time I spent at Notre Dame with fellow MFA poets, Elizabeth Acevedo, Nayelly Barrios, Jonathan Diaz, Suzi Garcia, and Lynda Letona, was nothing short of a blessing. It was an intimate opportunity to write and revise poems, knowing that their feedback was one given with all the sentiment of familia. It also shed light into the privilege I have at NYU of having other writers of color in my workshops. Not that numbers matter, but I believed the numbers at NYU were low! Which made me realize the problems of the MFA world; there simply are not enough brown voices in workshops and that’s a problem! Therefore, more than ever, gatherings like this one need to occur much much much more often.
            The words of MFA grads, Diego Báez and Lauro Vazquez were more than valuable as they shed light into what to expect in the real world after graduating with an MFA. The retreat didn’t stop there and the famila aspect expanded by spending time with steamed poets, Francisco X Alarcón, Francisco Aragón, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Orlando Menes. Their wisdom is never quantifiable and to share avid discussions and everyday conversations with them was a privilege. Thank you Letras Latinas and Notre Dame for providing a little breathing room as the MFA semester winded down. 
 Laurie Ann Guerrero
(Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize winner)

I was so happy that the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize reading overlapped with the young writer's initiative at Notre Dame.  Not only was I able to have  moments of confirmation & encouragement with one of my own mentors, Francisco X. Alarcon, but my experience as a student, writer, and educator allowed for some great conversations with the MFA students. What is most endearing and inspiring about these poets is their commitment to each other and to the fight to raise Latino/a voices in the US. Their work on the page & in the community--as well as their determination-- confirm that change is being made all over the country. The older generation of Latino/a poets has paved a road that allows us, and those who come after us, to keep building upon those roads, making them wider, more accessible to future generations.  We are in a time of great change; I'm proud and honored to be among those involved in the work.

Elizabeth Acevedo
(University of Maryland)

The Letras Latinas weekend retreat was absolutely inspiring. To share a space with other poets who understood what my MFA experience was like, who shared the same insecurities while simultaneously encouraging my ambitions, who allowed my full person and experience to be in the conversation of my writing and poetic goals, was one of the most transformational moments I've ever had. Seeing the different stages of Latino writing from the MFA students, who like me are working on their thesis and potential first book, to Laurie Ann Guerrerro who is working on her second, to Francisco X. Alarcon who has published many books and is engaging with so many different aspects of writing, opened my eyes to the potential of my writing and career.


This year’s Letras Latinas Writers Initiative gathering is taking place at Arizona State University this weekend. MFA candidates from four programs are partaking in Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writing Conference through the generous support of the Virginia G. Piper Center. In addition to the time they will be spending at the conference, this year’s cohort will also take part in a conversation on Latina/o Poetics with Alberto “Tito” Rios; and a craft talk, “The Poetics of Witness,” presented by Cynthia Hogue—all sponsored by the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry and the Creative Writing Program. Outside these activities, participants will also have the opportunity to have a special dinner with Rigoberto Gonzalez, DNRS faculty, and to visit the Phoenix Art Museum.

Here are this year’s participants:

L to R:
 Jacqueline Balderrama 
(Arizona States University)

Melissa Garcia 
(University of New Mexico)

Steve Castro 
(American University)

Ae Hee Lee 
(University of Notre Dame)

Lauren Espinoza 
(Arizona State University)