Rob Casper, Maria Melendez, Emmy Perez, Diana Garcia
Festival Flor y Canto. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.
by Maria Melendez
The Festival proceeded over a Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, with Wednesday celebrating “Yesterday” by honoring poets who were present 37 years ago at USC’s original Festival de Flor y Canto. Highlights of the day included Verónica Cunningham strutting her California Poets in the Schools prowess (“You people may not know who I am, but I am Hot Shit in the third and fourth grade,” she quipped—and then her reading ending with a prop-book bursting into flames! Still don’t know how she did that—), running into Alurista for a first-time meeting (I'd gotten his Calaca Press from publisher Brent Beltrán earlier this year), and a rousing, participatory reading by one of my big poetry heroes Juan Felipe Herrera, who brought a guitar to pluck and a hat to toss in the air.
Low lights: I had been so looking forward to hearing Ron Arias speak, and then he pooped on me and all the other “today” poets a little, saying he didn’t see sufficient enthusiasm from “younger poets” these days. This was before I had even said a word at the mic, mind you! And I thought: I didn’t come here to dump on him. Why is he dumping on me in advance of my even saying anything? (Notably, other young writers found at the Festival found Arias to be personally supportive and encouraging.) Then Richard Montoya introduced a lovely black and white film of Evangelina Vigil-Piñón and others at a 1978 Flor y Canto Festival, but he managed to get a few digs in, too, saying “younger poets use too much ‘I’—‘I went to the cafe, I turned on my iPod...’” Now wait a $#@! minute! When did Emmy, Diana and I, and Xánath Caraza, and Melinda Palacio, and other poets of “today,” get turned into punching bags and easy targets for veterano criticism? And didn’t feminism teach me that the literary “I” is revolutionary, that letting my life’s truths speak and not be erased is important cultural work? sIgh.
Despite these occasional barbs, most of the veteranos were the picture of graciousness, and the Thursday readings representing “Today” brought another chance to get high on poetry. Festival catalyst Michael Sedano and the brilliant programming team at the Doheny Memorial Library, led by Tyson Gaskill, set up the event so that poetry continued in the library on Weds. and Thurs. from 1pm-7pm, with periodic breaks for book selling and buying. The presence of esteemed documentarian Jesus Treviño as chronicler of the Festival gave the whole enterprise an air of enduring significance. Melinda Palacio and Xánath Caraza, who I mentioned earlier, are two poets whose recent work I’ve been admiring more and more. Melinda read from her chapbook, Folsom Lockdown, about trying to reconcile as an adult with an incarcerated father who had been largely absent from her childhood. Xánath embodied the multi-faceted nature of mestizaje—it’s not just about whites and indios!—in her chant poem, “Imagen Digital / Digital Image,” which begins with song lyrics in Wolof that she’d heard in Veracruz. This took place during an hour in the afternoon set aside to highlight those who have work written partly or mostly in Spanish, which her poem moved into after the Wolof. This hour for enjoying poetry in Spanish began with a lively reading by a mentor dear to me, Francisco X. Alarcón, who came bearing his newest multilingual poetry collection, Ce Uno One. He brought his roots in and personal connections to those early movimiento literary efforts, along with his infectious, ever-youthful smile.
Thursday evening closed with Rob Casper, Program Director for the Poetry Society of America, introducing Diana, Emmy and I as the keynote readers for the evening. Thanks to Francisco Aragón and Letras Latinas, Rob and the PSA, and the dedication of the festival organizers, we were able to come together from Texas, Colorado, and northern California to be part of this Flor y Canto Festival. We opened with a poem we put together collaboratively with bits of our own previously published works—Diana’s idea, inspired by Juan Felipe. I found it very moving to be literally working in concert with these women I admire so much. The presence of a strong showing from Emmy’s family in the audience, along with my cousin, the painter Alfredo de Batúc, and his friend L.A. poet Roger Taus, along with the supportive hermana presence of L.A. poet, playwright and publisher elena minor made real the ideal of Chicana literature as cord for strengthening the weave of familia.
Emmy, Diana, Maria
I regretted that other obligations took me south to San Diego on Friday, so that I missed the Festival’s final day. Slated to read were both established writers of the post-70s publishing generation, such as Rigoberto González and Dan Olivas, as well as the poets of “tomorrow,” presented in a selection of student poets. No doubt Treviño and his camera crew came away full and reeling from all the energia and entusiasmo. I left inspired and buoyed for the poetry writing and listening years ahead.
Note: Thanks to Emmy Pérez, who contrbuted the photos to this post.