Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Announcing the POETRY COALITION


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For Immediate Release


Poetry Organizations from Across the U.S.
Join Together to Form Historic Coalition
& Launch March 2017 Programs on Migration

December 6, 2016—Twenty nonprofit poetry organizations from across the United States have formed a historic coalition dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities, and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.

With support from Lannan Foundation, the poetry organizations convened last November in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to begin discussing how they might join forces to enhance the visibility of the art form and its impact on people’s everyday lives. Contrary to the public perception that interest in poetry is waning, over the past few years, these organizations have witnessed increases in the number of students participating in poetry recitation and spoken word events, visitors to poetry websites, individuals attending poetry readings, and young poets taking to social media to share their work.

Now, more than ever, these organizations believe that poetry has a positive role to play in our country. It is through reading, writing, and discussing poems that we learn about one another on our most human level, inspiring empathy, compassion, and greater understanding of one another. Poetry Coalition members believe that by collaborating on programs, they will spotlight the art form’s unique ability to spark dialogues, create opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation, discover unexpected connections with each other, and inspire new readers.

As its first public offering, throughout the month of March 2017, Poetry Coalition members will present multiple programs on the theme: Because We Come From Everything: Poetry & Migration, which borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem,  “Borderbus.” Here are some of the Poetry Coalition members’ March plans:

The Academy of American Poets, which launched National Poetry Month, will feature a week of poems by contemporary poets from countries that have endured disaster or conflict in its Poem-a-Day series, which is distributed to more than 350,000 readers each morning via email, social media, and syndication. 

The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers will engage recent alumni of their National Student Poets Program to conduct a Tumblr Takeover at awawards.tumblr.com during March. During the takeover, National Student Poets will contribute original poems and share others’ poems on the theme of migration. Highlights from the takeover will be featured on the Alliance’s other social media channels, activating our network of tens of thousands of young poets to share, repost, and add to the poetic conversation with the hashtag #WeComeFromEverything.

Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a national community space and online magazine publisher, will award fellowships for emerging Muslim American writers to tell the stories of their communities, conduct front-line events and publish stories online featuring first and second generation immigrant writers, and hold Asian-language community arts events in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Chinatown, Manhattan.

CantoMundo, a national organization that cultivates a community of Latina/o poets, and Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, have jointly invited CantoMundo poets to write essays or conduct interviews about the theme of Latina/o poetry and migration, which will be published daily on the Letras Latinas Blog.

Cave Canem Foundation, a national organization committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of black poets of African descent, will invite its 400-member fellowship to submit original poems on the topic of migration. Textual and video files will be assembled into an online anthology, which will be shared on social media and archived on the organization’s website.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival will copresent “The Birds of May,” at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, followed by a discussion with conservationists and a poetry reading. The film documents efforts to save the endangered Red Knot during its 9,500 mile migration by restoring one of its few resting and feeding places, along New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore, destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and to protect its major food source: the eggs of the over-fished horseshoe crabs who migrate there each year. Poets, teachers, and students in attendance will also participate in banding the birds during the height of their migration and write about their experiences.

Kundiman, a national organization promoting Asian American poets and writers, will collaborate with Split This Rock and Letras Latinas to host a joint reading featuring poets Wo Chan and Orlando Ricardo Menes on March 19 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. Kundiman fellows will also participate in a Migration Postcard Poem Project, for which they will design, write, and mail postcard poems highlighting the migration theme for their readers, both new and old, advocates and adversaries. Select poems on the theme of migration will be featured on the Kundiman website and social media channels.

Letras Latinas, the literary initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, is partnering with Notre Dame’s Creative Writing Program to hold a campus-wide event during  the month that will feature students, faculty, and staff sharing poems around the theme of migration and in support of their DACA students.

Mass Poetry, which supports poets and poetry in Massachusetts, will feature poems about migration in its Raining Poetry project. Using a biodegradable water-repellent spray and stencils made by local artists, the organization will place poems throughout the streets of Salem. The spray vanishes once dry, so the poems are invisible—until it rains. Once wet, the area around the poems will darken, enabling passersby to read them.

The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University will be conducting the entirety of its March programs under the collective theme, with featured artists including Whiting Award-winning poet Layli Long Soldier, citizen of the Oglala Sioux Nation; Iranian-American composer/musician Hafez Modirzadeh in collaborative performance; and Margaret Randall presenting her newly published anthology of Cuban poets.

The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine and an independent literary organization based in Chicago, will host a reading in collaboration with Kundiman and Letras Latinas featuring poets Tarfia Faizullah, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Emmy Pérez, and José B. González on March 29.

Poets House, a national poetry library and literary center, will partner with Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to invite young people to write poems on the theme of migration and immigration. The organization will also host a celebration of an anthology of Cuban poetry.

The Poetry Society of America, which launched Poetry in Motion placing poems in subways and busses, is planning an event at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Split This Rock, an organization of poets and social justice activists based in Washington, D.C, in addition to collaborating with Kundiman and Letras Latinas to host a joint reading, will also feature poems on the theme in their Poem of the Week series and promote others published in The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database on social media.

The University of Arizona Poetry Center in collaboration with the Poetry and Literature Center of the United States Library of Congress, will present multiple programs addressing overlaps between poetry and figurative and literal migration, including issues of translation, the private and public life of poetry, and poetry’s role in addressing human migration, borders, and cultural interplay. Programs will include a featured reading with United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and a panel discussion between him and Arizona Poet Laureate and Academy of American Poets Chancellor Alberto Ríos, moderated by Poetry and Literature Center Director Rob Casper at the Tucson Festival of Books.

The Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University will present weekly programs (broadcasted also online) featuring original poetry and short video interviews of refugee and immigrant children and adults who have been resettled in NE Ohio, in partnership with the International Institute of Akron, Project Learn, Urban Vision, and  Akron Public Schools. With a major grant from the Knight Foundation this project, Traveling Stanzas: Writing Across Borders, will distribute these poems on posters, designed by KSU Visual Communication Design students and alumni, and displayed on NE Ohio mass transit, as well as in videos and greeting cards available on the project website.

Poetry Coalition Members (as of 12/6/16):

Academy of American Poets
Alliance for Young Artists & Writers/National Student Poets Program
Asian American Writers’ Workshop
CantoMundo
Cave Canem Foundation
Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival
Kundiman
Lambda Literary Foundation
Letras Latinas at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies
Mass Poetry
O, Miami
Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at SFSU
Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Project
Poetry Society of America
Poets House
Split This Rock
University of Arizona Poetry Center
Urban Word//National Youth Poet Laureate Program
Wick Poetry Center

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Monday, November 28, 2016

An interview with Roberto F. Santiago


SEIS
an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)
3:
 Roberto F. Santiago

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
RFS: Roberto F. Santiago

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LLM: 
What was your inspiration for starting the journey to get this book published? Did your graduate experiences solidify your manuscript and give you the supporters needed to get it published?

RFS:
Growing up I didn't have the chance to read stories like mine...that isn't to say they didn't exist, but they were definitely not valued in the same way as other literary works. This made me think my writing was always going to be my little secret, but one day my principal, a man that I had never written a thing for, singled me out in class. He was highlighting the superstars that he expected to hear great things from in the future. Initially he mentioned the athletes and club leaders, and then he went into great detail about my writing. I was so proud of myself that day. I want to make sure I give that feeling back to all the readers and writers that don't realize how important their voices truly are. I want them to feel as if they are an integral part of the literary community. And if you feel there is a lack of representation, you should take that on as a challenge and not a permanent, insurmountable problem.

My MFA years were eye-opening! So much so...I wanted to quit after my first year. Weeks before I began my program at Rutgers University, my best-friend passed away. A few months in I had some serious family matters that made it hard to concentrate. Partner all that madness with people pushing you to be more writer than you have ever been allowed to be...it was all almost too much.

I built up my confidence to quit a few weeks before we entered the second year. I talked it over with my partner, who was very understanding. He just asked that I give it one more try. I thought, "what could it hurt...I've come so far." That semester was the one when it all clicked: I realized my project and I regained that excitement I had when I got my acceptance letters to MFA programs. I am not sure if Angel Park would be what it is today without my MFA experience. I am glad I won't have the chance to find out.

LLM:
In Angel Park the poems are all working together. You seemed to have written it that way, so audiences can clearly see the many threads from start to finish. Can you elaborate  on how this book was put together were there any poems you left out in this collection, if so, why?

RFS:
I started the foundation for Angel Park as an undergrad…I didn’t really have a master plan for what a manuscript would be, but I thought it would be interesting to try to tell a story. One of my professors said, “we write our obsessions” and I really did begin to notice them manifesting themselves in this project--both consciously and subconsciously.

In grad school, I began shaping the project to tell a story that was already there in the poems. Once I began to group the poems together on my living room floor, three piles emerged: Home, Away, and Far Away. I am so glad to hear that you feel the threads are clearly laid…because at times I wasn’t so sure it would make sense to anyone but me.

Were there any poems left out of this collection? Oh, for sure! Mostly because they were not ready, others because they were redundant within the scope of the project...but some were also left out because they didn’t really fit this book. I have big plans for those poems in the near future.

LLM:
The title of this book is first introduced in your poem titled, “Some Birds Are Exotic.” How and why did you decide on using “Angel Park” as the title for this collection of poems? As a reader I noticed a strong contender for the title of this book could have also been your poem titled, “City Boy.” Was there anyone who influenced your decision on choosing the title for your book? I ask this because titles are very important and have been known to make or break a book!

RFS:
I had several titles in mind before I landed on Angel Park. Some were terrible and some less so, but Brenda Shaughnessy—immensely talented poet and my thesis advisor—in one of our thesis meetings, had several suggestions…one of them was Angel Park. Angel Park was my little
sister’s nickname for a tiny park off the Cross Bronx Expressway. I always loved that she called that little triangle of grass and glass Angel Park. The one with a couple of swings and a slide. It was a getaway in the middle of the city’s chaos where everything seemed ok. Not perfect, but as if everything was going to be ok. Thinking of my sister on the swings at her Angel Park makes me feel joy to this day. I want to share that with the world. To give other people that escape.

I actually considered City Boy as a title for a collection…not necessarily this iteration of my collection, but there was a brief moment where it was a contender. “City Boy” would have been the mixtape—or chapbook—to Angel Park’s full length album.

LLM:
Something I noticed in Angel Park that was very interesting and fascinating was the use of the Spanish language in the titles of your poems. This was clearly intentional. I love it. How did you decide on doing this and why? Would the English titles, instead of the Spanish titles, change
the meaning of the poems? Would there be something lost if the titles were translated? Would you consider, then, this collection of poems to be a bilingual text?

RFS:
Thank you so much! I have always been fascinated by translation and Spanglish is pretty much the ‘language’ in which I feel most comfortable. Growing up in the South Bronx, I didn’t really distinguish between English and Spanish…not until one day I mentioned “la sala” to one of my friends who didn’t speak Spanish. He said, “sala…what the hell is that?” So I described what a sala was and he said, “you mean a living room?” And I had actually never heard/used that term before. I went home and talked to my mother about this encounter and found out that there were so many other words and phrases that we used in our everyday lives that traversed our two languages. I also really found it fascinating how my family made that switch between languages… there is something magical about finding the right words regardless of language and translation. I just had to incorporate that part of my upbringing into my collection.

Without the Spanish in the titles and lines throughout my collection, Angel Park would not be my collection. It would not be true to the story I sought out to tell. There is something powerful in printing untranslated Spanish in an English text. It’s a wink to those that need no translation and an exercise in reader responsibility for those that do need it. I would love for my collection to be considered bilingual, it was conceived of two languages.

LLM:
You mention your abuela from the start of this book and it is clear she is a very important figure throughout these poems. In your poem titled, “Café Con Abuela you are essentially comparing your grandmother to a Geisha. Can you elaborate a bit more on how these two figures are similar? There are two cultures working together in this poem beautifully and it is
fascinating to link the two together.

RFS:
Ah…mi abuelita! Thank you so much! I have always loved that poem! I thought about writing about my abuela forever and I think that almost every Latinx poet has as well, so I wanted to write about her in a way that was different. Not just her cooking, or the way she was the keeper of my family’s traditions…I wanted to show her as a complicated person. One that lived many other lives before this one. I wanted to give her a counterpart that seemed very different on the outside, but wasn’t upon closer look. My maternal grandmother was a caretaker and artist in everything she did. She was not only concerned with outcomes, but the process and production in which she did anything really. I also found her to be a bit of a riddle.

LLM:
You wrote a beautiful love poem or love letter about memory of childhood, about race and education, about the body and masculinity. In the poem titled, “Odd Man Out” one of the most powerful stanzas for me was:

In our school, both of us were odd men out. He, white. Me, gay.

How is race and sexual preference (sexuality) highlighted in this poem and how are the speaker and Kenny similar, regarding being seen as the “minority” by social constructs? Did the themes of this text affect the form and style of this poem on the page? How did you decide to do this poem in essentially three sections, using 3-line stanzas and couplets?

RFS:
That stanza was really strange to put on paper. It felt so naked. I immediately wanted to embellish it with descriptions of the light streaming in the window of the gym, and the cling of sweat and gym clothes…but I challenged myself to be open and honest about what it felt like to be alone in a crowd. That desperate search for kinship. I wanted to write a non-romantic love poem…a queer one. Odd Man Out grew out of He Writes Like a Girlwhich both seek to chronicle my Catholic school education. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, where I was part of the majority in one sense—being Latino—but was also gay, which although I was DEFINITELY not the only queer student, it certainly felt that way most of the time. Kenny wasn’t gay…that I know of…I never really asked… but he was white. The only other white boy at the school had a Bronx-ified accent and swagger that made him much less a target of ridicule than Kenny. You see, Kenny wasn’t trying to fit in either. That inspired me to do the same. I think that identity is ever-changing, especially depending on the context.

The form—for the most part—came together organically, but I did see the need to root this poem in a more rigid structure…to represent the institutions it seeks to depict. The material deals with three people, or two people depending on how you look at it. There are 3 sections. The abbreviations were two letters. There may be a nod to the Holy Trinity, as well. It just felt like the best fit for this text.

LLM:
There seems to be a heavy presence of family throughout most of these poems; the energy of the mother, father, grandfather and grandmother figures. How much more have the female figures in your family affected your work, in contrast to the male figures? We see these figures listed as
stanzas in “Collecting Spanishes” and we as readers see this poem as a recipe for finding or knowing one’s own voice. It’s like making the perfect pie; we need a little bit of everything/everyone…

RFS:
The women in my family are strong and vocal. My mother is my favorite speaker in the world. She has been a million things: legal counsel, high priestess, chef, real estate agent, my biggest supporter, my mortal enemy 

:::laughs:::

My mother being so outspoken and was always an inspiration. The male figures in my life were less vocal, but they were still present. My father, for example, was/is a strong presence in my life and writing. He always chose his words wisely and preached the gospel of consistency...be it of
character, or penmanship. My dad was such a detail oriented person, he is a very talented artist and always supported my creativity. My mother was a stage mom in many ways. She never let me settle for anything less than my best. I guess in that respect the women in my family gave me the energy to perform my art and the men reinforced my attention to my craft, but those borders informed, intersected and bled into one another.

"Collecting Spanishes" was such an important poem for me to write for myself. My relationship to language has always been a sacred and profane one. Spanish was never singular in my mind. It was plural. Came with so many different identities, depending on the speaker. Spanish was a tool of understanding, expression and even mystery. When my mother used Spanish it was usually when the stakes were too high for English and its flatness. That or when she wanted my little brother to not understand what she was talking about :::laughs:::. My father's Spanish felt like an appeasement, or an apology...but in an endearing way. In this poem, I wanted to sharpen English...use it to describe the untranslatable moments.

LLM:
In many of your poems, the start of the text is causally written, no tricks or surprises, and really pulls the reader in. How important are first lines for you as a poet? Do you believe this, like the titles of poems, have the power to “make or break” the entire text in the eyes of the reader?

RFS:
Hmmm...well, I think that poetry should not JUST be written for the workshop. I write for the page, the stage, the poet, the person that thinks poetry is too dense...I always find first lines should be a welcome. Kind of like a catcall in a way. I want you to want to find out how this story ends. If poetry is impenetrable, it becomes a luxury... I think poetry is a necessity. The highest compliment one can give fiction, drama, art, music...etc is that it is poetry—in my opinion. Nothing can break a poem, but the poet. Believe me, I have broken more than my share :::laughs:::. Sometimes opening lines and titles are the tools by which the poet makes or breaks the poem...but that is on the poet.

LLM:
“Self-portrait of a Boy Kicked Out of His House” is a very touching poem. I connected to it personally, as I am sure many other gay Latino boys/teens/young adults have too. What advice or words of wisdom would you give to the 17-year-old speaker in the poem (Roberto/yourself) right now?

RFS:
That means so much to me! Thank you! Self-portrait was a poem I HAD to write. Being kicked out of your home is such a formative experience for so many queer young people. My advice to the boy I was, and that the poem represents is: you matter. Your voice is valid. Find a way to turn that pain, that loss, that guilt…turn it into art or motivation, not just for you, but for the others that will come after you. I wrote Angel Park to ensure that little boys and girls with last names like mine had someone they could relate to…someone they can argue with, and connect to, in the moments that it seems there is no one.

LLM:
I love the repetition in the poem, “The Lexington Avenue Line, III. Castle Hill Ave.” Repeating something is very powerful, in that it will never be read the same, and it helps give the poem texture and context. How were previous drafts of this poem working differently than the final poem? Did the use of repetition come from the birth of this poem, or was it something
that developed in the process of revision? Also, how do you expect readers to read this poem, regarding the shape and form it takes on the page? Does this matter to you as a poet?

RFS:
Repetition is powerful! That poem is millions of sections longer... I just don't think that story is ready to be completed. Earlier drafts incorporated repetition in other ways, even sought to obliterate the white space. In that sense, repetition has always been a part of that poem...but there was something about the call-and-answer version that made its way to the collection that just made sense to me. It felt more honest and musical. Reminded me of my choir practice notes.

I am much more interested with how other people read the poem…and why...because I think that tells me more about my reader. When I began writing, I would have been much more concerned about how people were reading my work. Now, I believe art is malleable and my intention does
not negate your appreciation, or vice versa. That...and I am just so happy to talk about my poetry--or poetry in general--with anyone that I would love the space and time to argue over line breaks for eternity!

LLM:
“The Voyeur” is like a 14-line sonnet in one stanza. The rhyme creates a satisfying whisper in the reader’s ear throughout the poem. What are your thoughts about using rhyme in poetry? With contemporary poets and free verse becoming more and more popular, do you think it is less attractive or less valid to write using little to zero rhyme? And why do you think we tend to write poems currently that stay away from the recognized stylized historical rhyming methods?

RFS:
Rhyme is underutilized! That being said, successfully incorporating rhyme into poetry is a challenge. It requires the poet to use rhyme in unexpected less conventional ways, otherwise it comes off as less serious, joke-y…less refined. But that is not an excuse. I love when there is music in a line. Makes me think the writer really cares about the performance of their work. I think there is a place for rhyme in poetry, but conventional rhyme schemes to leave little to the imagination. Although "The Voyeur" is not a traditional sonnet, it takes traditional elements and translate them to something that the poem wanted to be.

LLM:
In your funny and ironic poem titled, “Two Old Ladies at the Met Staring At a Mural,” we clearly see race and privilege play-out. Do you think poetry should and can be a medium of discussing heavily charged themes like racism, class, and immigration, among others? Do you believe artists should use their voices to bring light to current events and social injustices?

RFS:
Poetry is revolutionary. It is a weapon. It is a battle cry. I don't think ALL poetry has to delve into every social issue and injustice of its day, but I do think that writers should do their part to leave more accurate and inclusive histories for future generations. It would be impossible for me to not write about race, class, gender, sexuality, language, home, ability status, and all the facets I ascribe to, and have also been ascribed to me.

"Two-Old Ladies"... seeks to explore the moments and conversations between people that have less at stake in the conversation they are having. I am not an advocate for teaching those women everything they need to know re: identity. That is their responsibility. But there is such beauty in the moments where someone doesn't necessarily have the language to illustrate their point, but they still push through. They don't allow what they lack to dictate their abilities.

LLM:
“The Widow” is a tender, rather quick moment of a poem, with simple language and title; a very beautiful work. What inspired this lovely poem, besides Doña Luz and does this have any connection to your own mother or abuela?

RFS:
"The Widow" was inspired by a real life moment. It was winter and the snow had become a thick ice, none of which had been cleared yet. As I began to cross the intersection (same one that appears in the poem), a small older woman came out of nowhere, and linked arms with me. She didn’t ask. She just went for it. And we crossed together. As we slowly walked together she told me I reminded her of her son. She hadn’t seen him in so long. And she missed him. Him and her late husband. A few blocks later she let go and I never saw her again. Meeting her made me think of my abuela…and my mother…the amount of time I had spent far away from them. I hoped that they always had someone to help them across the street. Maybe me meeting/writing Doña Luz helped to ensure that karma.

LLM:
“As a Feather” is an erotically charged and personal moment between the speaker and a lover, using hints of Spanish in a couple of lines. This is very intriguing and we are left wanting more stanzas with words in Spanish. How did you decide on what words you wanted to include in Spanish? In both circumstances there is alliteration present as an almost by-product of The English and Spanish words being next to one another; the musicality here is very attractive to the ear. Was this planned or a lucky accident?

RFS:
Intrigued, huh?! :::laughs::: That is always a good thing to hear! I just let The sounds dictate what needs to be English or Spanish. To my ear, some words just make more sense both sonically and poetically in Spanish. Music is really important to me—there are many things in this world I don’t know…but music aint one of `em—so hearing that there is music in
my work is such high praise, thank you!

As for lucky accidents, I have a pile of drafts that would say otherwise!  There are very few accidents in my writing and even fewer are lucky ones… I put the music in my work one note at a time. 

:::laughs:::

LLM:
Lastly, to wrap this interview up! “Behind the Green Door” is a surreal adventure into a name-filled world, including Pontius Pilate, Lorca, and La Gata, among others. This poem could spread to a whole new book! How did you dream this fabulous outrageous concoction and what was your inspiration for writing such a poem?

RFS:

HA! Don’t give away my next book for free!? :::laughs::: 
Thank you, Luis. I really love this outrageous not-quite elegy. I wrote this toward the end of
the book journey. …the Green Door comes from a few places.

1.    Loss. So much of my life has been revolved around the loss of someone. When I gave a eulogy for my best-friend several years ago I realized how important expressing that loss is.
2.    FOMO, or fear of missing out. I wanted to write a poem that talked about people I never knew, but affected me so much as a writer and person.
3.    A wild dream I had after…

4.    A conversation I had with a very good friend of mine about a class in which the 1972 American feature-length pornographic film of the same title was a required text.




ROBERTO F. SANTIAGO received his MFA from Rutgers University, and BA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is a 2016 Community of Writers Fellow, 2015 Sarah Lawrence Fellow, 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow, the recipient of the Alfred C. Carey Poetry Prize, and his debut book of poetry was a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Poetry. Roberto writes and produces his own music, and likens himself to Tennessee Williams in a poodle skirt, Gloria Anzaldúa in culottes, and/or James Merrill in short-shorts. Currently, he works as an educator in San Francisco and lives in Oakland with a fiction writer and 16 year old cat that edits most of his poetry…whether he asks her to, or not. www.therfsantiago.com

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LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review,CloudbankThe Packinghouse ReviewPublic Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Projectwww.luislopez-maldonado.com

Sunday, November 13, 2016

An interview with Yesenia Montilla



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SEIS
an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)

2:
Yesenia Montilla

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
YM:   Yesenia Montilla

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LLM:  
In your poem titled, “Raise,” race plays an important role in the meat of the poem. Can you tell us a little about your own “fruit” and “root” like the ones mentioned in part one? How do those affect your work as a poet?
 
YM:
Re-reading this poem, I always find that it’s not daring enough. I wanted badly to introduce myself to the poetry communities I service but I also wanted to get to a truth about raise/race. A truth about upbringing and what creates us, what influences us and how we shatter under the weight of it all. My relationship with fruit and root or home and homeland has always been problematic, as I think it is for all first generation sons and daughters. How do we define homeland in this place, when we clearly are only one love-making story away from having been made in another place? How do we reconcile the complications of whiteness with the idea that our parents too young and too green didn’t adopt these ideals early enough to offer us something as American as sitting in a bed at night and reading us a bedtime story? I wanted to murk the waters a bit; I wanted to show my fears and my reservations. I am not sure if I was successful, but I do know that my fruit/root, my NYC, my mother dragging us to funerals, my rumba and merengue, my maduro and toston are all me & if they reside in my body, then they reside in my poetry.

LLM:
Another abuelita poem! This poem is beautiful: The Patron Saint of Lost Grandmothers. What do you think about some poets saying abuelita poems are dead, that they are over-done and typical of the Latino/Latina poet? I mention this because I am a fan of abuelita poems.

YM:
Abuelita poems can’t die because abuelitas raise us. This poem in particular is about the not knowing, the gap. If I can write a poem about the sheer black hole that is created in the absence of an abuela, then having one, all of us being afforded one gives us the responsibility of writing the poems. There is no greater honor I think to pay your abuela then to write a poem about her. If it weren’t for mine, I’d probably not be fluent in Spanish. If it weren’t for mine, I might not have survived my childhood.


LLM:
In “La Llorona Part I” I can’t help but to think of the famous La Llorona that we all know from stories passed down to us by our family; the story of screams, children, death and loneliness. Did you think of this when you wrote this poem? Did you maybe think that some readers would have her in their minds as they read this poem? This poem is fascinating, and by default, the symbolism of that La Llorona character is very present.

YM:
When I wrote these poems I was dreaming about La Llorona, the one of our childhood nightmares, and I was wondering about her before she snapped. I was wondering what kind of mom might she have been, and I then started imagining that my mother was La Llorona before the real pain, right before the brink of it. What if La Llorona were my mom, loving funerals, wailing, famous for suffering? This poem came from those musings. When you have complicated relationships with people you love, and add to that you’re a poet, a dreamer, the lines of myth and truth blur constantly. That blurring is part of my creative process, and I think these poems offer an interpretation to the pre Llorona, who she might have been before —


LLM:
Two poems heavily deal with identity and cultural truths: Hispañiola and The Day I Realized We Were Black. How important would you say is using one’s historical make-up to produce work? How important is your cultural background and how much does it nourish your poetic voice?

YM:
So when I answered the question about the poem Raise and I said I didn’t think I was daring enough I don’t feel that way about The Day I Realized We Were Black. In that poem I think I risked a lot. It was one of the most painful poems to write, and took me nearly two years to be able to read it aloud without crying. & that is poetry, when the truth in the poem turns you so delicate that you break, then you know you’re risking everything on the page. I can’t say that it’s important to use historical make-up to produce work for others, I can only speak for myself, I can’t write a poem if it’s not in some way bringing my culture and my blackness into light. Do I write poems that don’t talk about mi cultura or my race, of course, yes on the surface, but underneath deep down I am engaging from a space of Afro-Latinidad and that’s my truest voice.

LLM:
“Haiku for Iris” is one of several haikus in your collection. Can you expand on how form plays in your poetry? Do you prefer to write via one form to another? And do you think form can make or break a poem?

YM:
I am not a formalist. I wish I were, I wish I could say, I am an expert sonnet or villanelle writer. I am not, but I do like a challenge. I love ghazals and I love odes and I love haikus, particularly because I can use them as vignettes and set a tone for the poems that follow. I think that just like any other craft element, forms need a lot of mastering. I don’t think I am a master haikuist (is that a word?), but I do feel a real strong connection to them. I fell in love with poetry over fiction or memoir because I could do a lot in a little space, and haiku’s are the quintessential small confined space. I love poets that challenge themselves to write in form, I don’t think any form can break a poem. I think a bad poem breaks a poem, only that.

LLM:
Turns! Turns can be game-changers in poetry and some poems really need them to be successful. In “Ode To My Purple Dress” the turn at the end of the poem is beautifully extinguished. Can you expand on that turn? And may you enlighten us on how violence or abuse may have an important role in this poem?

YM:
My odes are less odes and more of what I like to call odettes. They are odes that at the end make a sharp turn. In Ode to the Dakota for instance, I blame the building for not watching out for John Lennon and letting him die; all this after lines upon lines of paying it reverence. I like the idea of odes being knotty. Life is knotty, our relationship to everything, everyone is knotty, I love cake, but it’s not good to have it every meal, every day. I love my beloved, but sometimes I want him to leave me alone, that’s knotty. So when I began to write about my favorite purple dress, I knew that with all its loveliness it also reminded me of something not so lovely, violence often hides in the beauty, beautiful things are violent, poison fruit and all that. If you dissect something long enough, you’ll get to its extremities, its beauty and its ugliness. I wanted to write a poem that showed the contradiction that can reside in something as insignificant as a dress, if we can see it in that, then we can see it in everything.

LLM:
In “On The A Train” we read six similes in fourteen lines. The images in this poem are rich and transformative. Can you talk to us about how you use simile and metaphor in your poems? Is it something you have to include? Is there a technique you have or use while creating such loaded poems? For this specific work.

YM:
The similes and metaphors come to me from the seeing. I was an art major in high school, we spent a lot of time sketching drapery for instance, and in that drapery I learned to see chiaroscuro and so I see the world and write it as such. I do this in normal conversation, if it’s hot outside I find a way to convey that via simile. At lunch with co-workers they always wait for me to describe what I taste, not just say: this is good, but this is better than a first kiss. It is just part of my world, simile, metaphors and fantasy, so it was quite easy to see all that was in front of me on that train, and in a way I wanted to pay homage to this man that everyone ignored or tried to ignore. While they looked away I wanted to really see.

LLM:
Your poems “The Funeral” and “On The Subway” seem to be placed next to each other strategically. I see a connection. Can you, if so, elaborate on this idea? Is there a relationship between rats, fashion, death, and love?

YM:
I am deathly afraid of rats. I am not kidding. I am so scared that for a very long time if I had to leave for work before 6:00 a.m. I would force my beloved to walk me to the subway and stomp as he walked in case there were any rats, he’d scare them away. What I seem to not be afraid of is death. I put these poems next to each other because I found it such an oddity that I spent so much time meditating on death and dying, and losing, and so little time on the thing that could actually metaphorically kill me, a rat running across my feet. I wondered too about phobias and obsessions, the rat running across these very expensive shoes in no way is equivalent to loss of life, but our obsessions can kill us, and what about the mark on the tie, this seemed to me symbolic to what we take with us, as opposed to those we leave behind. Your question has me seeing the positioning in a new light.

LLM:
“I love the world most, so I make a decorative box of my precious womb— ” This poem is incredibly powerful and moving: To My Co-Workers Who Said I Am Incomplete Without A Baby. Can you expand on how the closing of this poem ties in with the title of this collection of poems? Most readers will make this connection, one way or another. What does this represent in relation to the world, to being Latina, and to being a poet?

YM:
This is another poem that was all risk. How dare I, a Latina, write about not wanting to be a mom? It is a woman’s highest calling and yet I pretty much turn my back on it. The Pink Box clearly is a metaphor for my womanhood, for my sexuality, for my daring spirit, for love making, but also for pain, and for societal pressure. I can tell you exactly what my co-workers were wearing when those words came out of their mouths. I remember because I barely blinked, I just opened up Word and started writing the poem. This poem I felt was an unapologetic rant, but I felt like I had to tell them, these two men (because the co-workers who said it were men) how I felt. It’s very dangerous, living in a society in which men believe that they can have an opinion on a woman’s body, but also on a woman’s heart.

LLM:
Haikus! In “Haiku at the Soho Grand” we read about Italian hips and eyes and heat; it’s erotic and tender and I loved it. Reading all the Haikus in this collection, has me thinking: Is a collection of Haikus something you are interested in doing? Is this your next project? Because I would buy it! You have a way with using few words and the haikus in this collection shine.

YM:
I never really thought about writing a book of haikus. I love them, but I don’t know if I can temper my spirit enough to write a whole collection of them, I have so much to say sometimes that my words flow for pages and pages and then I have to go back and edit edit edit. Haikus are super hard for me, that’s why I love them, but I don’t know if I am patient enough or skilled to write a whole collection, but I will add this to my bucket list for sure.

LLM:
Repetition galore! In “Meditations on Beauty” you drown us with similes and on the page, this poem looks powerful and beautiful; I could almost see each line as a title to a poem on its own. How did this poem find its way into this collection? What was your process like in writing such a poem? It is distinctively different from your other works in this collection and it shows another layer to your poetic voice. I think it’s fabulous!

YM:
I was attending a reading, I believe it was for Best American Poetry 2014 maybe, and Major Jackson read his poem OK Cupid that starts off “dating a catholic is like dating a tribe/ and dating a tribe is like dating a nation.” When I heard that poem I was like, “man I want to try that one day.” A few weeks later I was in the Poconos on a poetry retreat and one of my poet brothers Sean Morrissey brings up this poem again and challenges us to all write a poem that follows this form, and so I did, and that is how Mediations on Beauty came to be. You say that this poem is different from my other work; it is, because it’s the last poem I wrote for the entire collection, I had evolved significantly by then. However, it is also a poem in which I am mimicking another poet’s form and trying to create my own voice within the confinements of this idea of simile, after simile, after simile. I love that poem, it represents for me a moment in time where I was evolving deeper and deeper into my poetic landscape. I hope to thank Major Jackson in person one day.


YESENIA MONTILLA is a New York City Afro-Latina poet, translator and educator. She is a founding member of Poets for Ayiti (Haiti) a collective of poets from diverse backgrounds committed to the power of poetry to transform and educate. Her poetry has appeared in the Chapbook For the Crowns of Your Head, as well as the literary journals 5AM, Adanna, The Wide Shore, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast and others. She received her MFA from Drew University in Poetry and Poetry in Translation and is a 2014 CantoMundo Fellow. Her first collection, The Pink Box is published by Willow Books and was long listed for the Pen Open Book Award in 2016. She lives in New York City where she’s working on her second collection of poetry. She writes her best poems while her boss is in meetings.

LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review, Cloudbank, The Packinghouse Review, Public Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Project. www.luislopez-maldonado.com