Sunday, January 10, 2010

AHORA LAS MUJERES: Latina poets speak

In the wake of writing a 300-word piece for the Poetry Foundation website a short while back, I decided to send out an e-mail to a fairly ample (though by no means comprehensive) group of Latina poets. On behalf of Letras Latinas Blog, I asked them, in essence...

"[...] to take a moment (a day, an afternoon, a weekend) to think about the period 2000 – 2009 and write 300 words about a "poetry event" that impacted you in some special way—that is, in a positive way. You can define ‘poetry event’ however you like (a book, a person, a poem, a reading or panel you took part in, a reading or panel you witnessed, etc). Write about it, and how it affected you and your work/life as a poet, and what, if any, residue of that "event" you carry with you today [...]"

What follows are the responses I received. I will add any additional responses, if they trickle in, and probably re-publish the whole thing in Latino Poetry Review #3. But for now, theses pieces to ponder. The only thing I might point out here is that I did not explicitly ask for “Latino-centric” responses. I simply wanted hear the perspective of Latina poets—a perspective that was missing in the Poetry Foundation roundup.

A brief biographical sketch follows each response:

Maria Luisa Arroyo:
On October 24th, 2009, hundreds came through the rain to Chestnut School in Springfield’s North End, my home in Massachusetts throughout life before college and, at the same time, sensationalized—then and now—as a crime-ridden, violent neighborhood. Magdalena Gómez, co-founder and artistic director of Teatro V!da, had invited Iris Morales, legendary activist and filmmaker, to show her documentary about the Young Lords, Pa’lante, Siempre Pa’lante. Before the film, Teatro V!da ensemble members were going to perform my poem, “I Grew Up in the North End, an Island,” which Magdalena had adapted to the stage.

Why would I count this as an indelibly vital poetry event for me as I reflect on the last ten years?

This is the night when I stopped being, in papi’s eyes, una poeta loca, and became a community poet.

Up to this performance, papi –
a machete-wielding cane cutter from Ponce
a hard-drinking foundry worker
a handicapped van driver in his older years
a life-long músico,
and now,
a retired, wheelchair-bound diabetic double amputee –
uneasily eyed my writing of poetry.

When my first collection of poems, Gathering Words: Recogiendo Palabras, was published (Bilingual Press, 2008), I sincerely doubted that he, a fluent reader in English and in Spanish, would read beyond my dedication: “Bendición, papi. Para que sepa que no soy una poeta loca, sino una poeta peligrosa.”

During this performance, papi experienced how my unrhymed poem—written mostly in English with code-switching into Spanish—communicated our Springfield Puerto Rican experiences.

During this performance, papi heard how other audience members—boricuas and non-boricuas—responded with recognition to many moments.

When Magdalena introduced me as our community’s poet at night’s end, the crowd roared.

And both papi and I left, transformed.

Springfield North End native educated at Colby, Tufts, and Harvard, María Luisa Arroyo speaks English, Spanish, German, and Farsi, has travelled to 20 countries, and, currently, is a Family Access and Engagement Coordinator at Peck School (Holyoke, MA). María Luisa facilitates poetry workshops, gives poetry readings, and is completing her second collection of poems.
Irasema Gonzalez:
In 2006, I read Confessions of a Berlitz-Tape Chicana by Demetria Martinez. In her opening lines she states the following, “A long time ago I learned that if I were to stay sane, I had to jot down notes in the margins of the official story…The margins are a great place to debunk. To tell your own version of the story.”
Like a mantra, I found myself recalling those lines, whenever I sat down to write.  That idea settled into my subconscious and played a role as I began to find myself inadvertently morphing into an advocate of Latin@ literature.  That same year I accepted an invitation by Diana Pando and Coya Paz: they approached me about organizing a new reading series that we eventually named Proyecto Latina.  Our goal: to create a platform for Latina poets, writers and artists to step away from the margins and onto the main stage and share their work, without having to worry about explaining or translating. 
In July of our first year, we had a reading on a very hot afternoon at a café with a faulty air conditioner and humidity at an unbearable level.  The house was packed and our feature that evening was Achy Obejas—we also had a long list of enthusiastic open mic participants—we’ve since learned to cap our events to one hour, but that evening we almost hit the three-hour mark—we were newbies at the art of curating readings.  Despite the heat a majority of the folks stuck around for the entire event, including Ms. Obejas.  
At the end of the evening, a friend and fellow writer, Paloma Martinez-Cruz walked up to me and reflected how this must be a testament to how much we needed and desired a creative haven like the one we had just created for ourselves.  
Years later, in November 2009 and at the end of Proyecto Latina’s fourth year, Paloma returned, no one knew she could turn her poetry into music or sing or play the guitar. It was the first time she performed for an audience outside her family.  And Ivonne Canellada, a woman that has attended our readings for a number of years finally found the courage to share a short poem.  Both women shared similar sentiments, “If I can’t share my work here, then where?”   
It is inspiring to witness the supportive community that has emerged from our creative network and I'm excited about the collective force of mujeres that is pushing to debunk the "official" stories that drape over our shoulders like ill-fitting garments.  Demetria Martinez defined the place where we have all been writing from, but her words also pose the challenge, to put our manners aside, and let our pens push into the official script even if it’s as unwelcome as the crayola scribbles of a toddler on the pages of a prized book.
Irasema Gonzalez is a writer and merchant. Her poems appeared in Afternoon Wine: Vicios, Sueños y Confesiones and Between the Heart and the Land: An Anthology of Midwestern Latina Poets by MARCH Abrazo Press. She is a founding member of Proyecto Latina, a reading series and website dedicated to featuring and documenting the work of Latina women. She is the owner of, an online bookshop that focuses on Latino titles by indie presses. She is a graduate of Columbia College in Chicago where she earned a B.A. in journalism and creative writing.

Sheryl Luna:

I attended the Provincetown Fine Arts Summer workshops in 2006 and had the good fortune of being in Martha Rhodes’ workshop. It was a wonderful learning experience as Martha has a keen eye about how a poem can be transformed.

There were many exciting and influential events from 2000-2009, including the Napa Valley Writer’s Summer Conference in 2002. I was lucky to have received scholarships specifically designed for minority writers from these week-long programs. These conferences offer minority writers the opportunity to engage with writers that one might not ordinarily meet.

Rhodes, the publisher at Four Way Books, offered insightful critiques coupled with encouragement that summer. This workshop came at an invaluable time in my development as a poet.  Martha Rhodes was able to bring me back to the poetry itself, back to the pleasure and joy of it, a lesson that I must re-teach myself now and then. She encouraged me with one particular poem to change the speaker from second person to first person, which was a powerful thing as I’d previously been discouraged from using a first person speaker in workshops. The change led to more immediacy and urgency in the poem, and I left Martha Rhodes’ workshop at Provincetown with a valuable lesson in the possibilities of revision.  Rhodes taught me to appreciate playfulness. The process of refining and polishing became a joyous endeavor of exploration instead of a restrictive burden.

There was a memorial for Stanley Kunitz that summer at Provincetown, and one could sense the powerful tradition and spirit that drives the Fine Arts work center.  I highly recommend this summer workshop.  Salty whale watches off the cape and Provincetown’s summer glow, with its quaint shops, and lively arts’ scene make this a memorable poetry event which creates hope.
Sheryl Luna won the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and Pity the Drowned Horses was published by University of Notre Dame Press.  7, was runner up for the Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press. She received the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award funded by Sandra Cisneros in 2008.
elena minor:

The revelation hit me in early 2008, at an evening offsite Latino poetry reading at Hunter College during the AWP annual conference in NYC.  I don’t recall specifically whose brainchild it was, although I do remember that Rich Villar and ACENTOS were at the forefront, rounding up readers in advance of the conference. It was the first of the “One Poet, One Poem” readings.

The evening of the reading was rainy—pouring rainy.  When I arrived with about seven or eight others, the auditorium was perhaps a third filled.  We checked in with Rich, who took down our names and assigned a reading order.  I sat in the front row.  All around me poets and writers and other lit lovers were yakking up a storm.  Lots of noise, banked excitement.  People kept arriving; I was somewhat surprised, given the weather. 

Of course the event didn’t start on time, but at last Rich stepped up to the podium, offered a welcome and made his opening remarks.  The auditorium was packed—people lined up against the walls.  I don’t remember who went first but I do remember the feeling of poets virtually racing to the podium one after another to read their work.  The words poured out—angry, wistful, wild, joyous, playful, spiritual, sexy—no two alike.  It was a full and glorious body of work, an experience of palabra to be repeated but never exactly replicated.  A kind of “Where you there?” event. 

Well, I was there, and for the first time I realized Latino poetry, in all its complexity and diversity, was finally coming into its own, had reached critical mass.  I wasn’t wrong.  Latino poets are increasingly getting their work published both in books and litmags.  I know:  I have several volumes stacked in a pile on the floor, waiting to be read. 
elena minor is founding editor of PALABRA A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art.  She is an award-winning writer with work published or forthcoming in RHINO, Mandorla, Hot Metal Bridge, OCHO, Quercus Review, Diner, City Works, Vox, Poetry Midwest, 26, Segue, BorderSenses and The Big Ugly Review, among others.  

Adela Najarro:

The blurred ribbons of light on California freeways. Spanish bouncing through Mission Street in San Francisco. Reggeaton beating out a car window. My grandmother, tíos, tías, primos, y la familia charlando in English. This confusion that I call myself. Then writing poems. Then isolation. Then an anthology. The Wind Shifts. We read our poems at Cabrillo College, at UC Merced, at National Hispanic University, at Moe’s Bookstore in Berkeley. Throughout the nation we read, got to know each other, spoke the Spanglish and the not. The not like before. The not like expected. The not like anything else but what we are. The complexity of US Latinidad.

I know Francisco is not searching for thanks or golden laurels, but that anthology placed the work of so many of us into the US poetic framework. The Wind Shifts was published in 2007 and a whirlwind reading tour occurred throughout the nation where each of the contributors read at least once. In my own case, arranging a reading with others in the anthology began a relationship with Poetry Santa Cruz. I’m now on the board of directors for this grassroots organization and we’ve expanded to hold a poetry reading/open mic in the Watsonville Public library in a predominately Latino/a community. Last month, I found myself involved in two Latina writing groups. So much has come from that anthology. We got to know each other, while our communities registered our presence.
Adela Najarro is a member of the board of directors for Poetry Santa Cruz and teaches in the Cabrillo College English Department where she co-coordinates the Puente Project. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and can be found in the University of Arizona Press anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry.
Emily Pérez:

It is a safe bet that the last thing I want to do on Friday after a week of teaching high school is spend time with students. But that night at the Youth Speaks Poetry Slam finals in the spring of 2007 was different. My advisees had gathered to support Khatsini, one of their own who was competing for a spot on the Youth Speaks team.

Fortunately, the kids had saved me a seat in Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium. The place was packed, teeming with teens, crackling with their charge. 

The crowed buoyed each poet who took the stage. Favorite poems were received with exuberant calls and snaps, lines “spat” and sung to rapt listeners. On stage, poets poured out their pain—absent fathers, relationships derailed, isolation. And they exclaimed their power—the way they’d risen from ashes—again, again, again.

I don’t call that night the most memorable poetry event of my decade for lack of other opportunities: since 2000, I’ve heard “the greats” read in Seattle as well as at conferences and events around the country. I don’t treasure it because Khatsini won, earning her place on the national team with a poem asserting her worth as a young woman. I don’t even consider myself a particular fan of slam.  Rather, that night captured me because poetry was so alive, an electric connection binding me and hundreds of others. Poetry was a common language, not just for ageing academics, but for youth in every stage of becoming. 

That night over 200 teens traded a Friday of partying for poetry. And judging by their familiarity with the poems they’d heard, they’d done it before. And judging by the buzz poetry brings to my school and my city, they will do it again. 

Emily Pérez grew up in Weslaco, Texas. She earned a BA from Stanford and an MFA from the University of Houston. Her poetry has appeared in The Laurel Review, /nor, DIAGRAM, and Borderlands, and her reviews in Gulf Coast and Latino Poetry Review. She currently teaches in Seattle.
Linda Rodriguez:

In September 2006, a handful of writers formed the Latino Writers Collective and asked me to join them. There were only eight of us then, meeting for writing critique and to plan a Latino reading series in Kansas City where no local Latino writers got readings and hardly any national Latino writers came. (Once, I was told by an event sponsor that the Latino community wouldn’t turn out for literary events and the literary community wouldn’t turn out for a Latino writer.)

This founding of the Latino Writers Collective was the seminal poetry event of the decade for me. We became familia and saw each other through childbirth, illness and injury, job losses, and family deaths. While getting my undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing, I was discouraged from writing about Latino or Cherokee subjects. They were deemed unpublishable. My LWC family pushed me to finish those poems about La Llorona and La Malinche and the Cherokee poems. For many years, I wrote from one side of myself, and they encouraged me to write from my whole being, transforming my writing practice.

We now have over 45 members and two award-winning anthologies, and our fourth and biggest reading series is underway. Guess what? The Latino community in Kansas City turns out in droves for literary events that speak to them, and the general community has learned to love Latino Writers Collective events. We were voted “Best in Kansas City” by a local newspaper in 2008. But for me, the greatest gift of the many LWC has given is that freedom to write from all sides of my mixed heritage.

Linda Rodriguez has published Skin Hunger (Potpourri Publications) and Heart’s Migration (Tia Chucha Press). She received the Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award from the Macondo Foundation and the Midwest Voices and Visions Award from the Alliance of Artists Communities and the Joyce Foundation and is vice-president of The Latino Writers Collective

1 comment:

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thank you, Francisco, for asking us what we thought when others don't bother or just don't think of it.