Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What constitutes "strong" and "good" work?

Rich Villar, in a post not too long ago over at his place, penned a post ("Notes on the Margin, Wednesday, June 20, 2007) about a discussion going on at the Poetry Foundation's blog. It's a conversation that's been taking place in one of Emily Warn's threads, and one of Jeffrey MacDaniel's (I link to them below). Thus far, there seemed to be a consensus on one thing and one thing only: that it was good that the conversation was taking place.

However, a recent response over there introduced a nuanced view, which I think deserves consideration. The comment in question, which I quote below, brings up a couple of points. The first seems to suggest that all this conversation about Latino poetry's visibility or lack thereof needs to be accompanied by a rigorous consideration of the work. I interpret the comment as saying: it is counter-productive to promote mediocre poetry by Latino/as. I don't think anyone would disagree with that. I know I wouldn't. Given that, what do we make of the comment below in light of what Letras Latinas is trying to do?

Is the writer of this comment suggesting Letras Latinas fold up shop; that its efforts do more harm than good? It borders on suggesting that---enough for me to write this post. Why am I bringing this up here? Because Letras Latinas' mission is one that has been articulated in good faith, and Letras Latinas is striving to do good by Latino poets & writers and welcomes reasoned feedback.

The most useful thing about the comment is that it has generated the question I pose as the title this post: "What constitutes 'strong' and 'good' work?" The comment doesn't specify what "strong" and "good work" means, nor give examples of (nor characterize) the work that led to the remark.

In the interest of defending my professional reputation, which I feel has been called into question, here are some of the poets whose work I especially admire and have strived to champion in one way or another these last few years:

Eduardo C. Corral
Emmy Pérez
Urayoán Noel
Richard Blanco
María Meléndez
Steven Cordova
Brenda Cárdenas
Naomi Ayala
Kevin A. González
Blas Falconer
Sheryl Luna
Paul Martínez Pompa
Gina Franco
Gabriel Gomez

Are these the poets the author of the comment had in mind when suggesting I work on behalf of poets whose work isn't "strong?"

In a spirit of open and reasoned dialogue, I respectfully invite comments on this question (What constitutes "good" and "strong" work?) and how it might fit into this conversation on Latino poetry in particular and American poetry in general.

Finally, I have asked myself: Will Latino Poetry Review publish "negative" reviews of books by Latino/a poets? One of the ideas I'm kicking around, and will bring up with the advisory board, is eventually publishing more than one review of a same title. If the review (a "negative" one) is thoughtful and backs up its arguments with samples from the text, why not? Or would publishing a negative review be counter-productive at this point in time?

Here is the comment:

"This is an interesting conversation. I would like to add that one important thing for us to remember as U.S. Latino/a poets is that the work itself must come first. In a sense, ongoing discussions about Latino/as not getting enough attention with very little attention being to the work itself is problematic. Francisco has done a lot of work, but he tends to focus on connections more than strong work, and this in itself will not get Latino/a work anywhere in my opinion. We must support good work first and foremost. [...]"

In the interest of transparency, here is Emily's thread, and here is Jeffrey's.


Lisa Alvarado said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa Alvarado said...

Well, let's see...

I have not had the experience that Latino poets are interested in bringing offal to the marketplace. Despite the invisibility that flows from racism, sexism and classism, I have read work of superb craft and emotional depth by a wealth of writers. One does not impinge upon the other, thankfully.

I would add to those writers on list your from who I've had the privilege to review in La Bloga. Martin Espada and Demetria Martinez come to mind, although they are more touchstones than newer writers who may benefit from our exposure. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have reviewed and interviewed indigenous poet Margo Tamez, who was recently nominated for the upcoming Pulitzer. So excellence IS NOT the issue. The "work coming first," is patronizing. What else as writers would we be concerned with? Perhaps occasionally, issues of day to day survival, from which perhaps the maker of the comment you quote is blessedly free.

As for whether or not LPR will publish negative reviews, I would encourage you to stay on the moral, editorial, and critical compass you already have. Of course, there will be works that deserve a complex and critical read and no doubt, will receive that. But we are also not here to entertain Caesar by slaughtering for sport.

Continue to build what you're building, I'll continue to write my own poetry, have public conversations with campaneros/as about their work, share my analysis of that work, and continue to gird my loins.

Perhaps the quote would inspire a list poem from you? 10, no 50, no 100 Latino poets who are at the top of their game.

Lisa Alvarado said...

I re-read the threads mentioned in the post and want to clarify re: Jefferey's thread: a variety of clearinghouses for work is a good thing and they do not have to have the same approach. The Laboratorio appears to be engaing in necessary work, as is LPR. We need many more such groups.

Rigorous standards? Sure, but any group needs to consider where those standards come from, what are the values reflected in different criteria. And while I, at the end of the day, am less het up about the whole thing, I would still reiterate that our lack of visibility is not a result of lack of quality.