Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Fresno State's first Chicano student body president."

Tropicalia (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011) by Emma Trelles, which is the winner of the fourth edition of this prize, recently debuted at the AWP Bookfair and is now available.

The prize, in addition to supporting the publication of a first book by a Latino or Latina poet, is meant to keep alive the memory and work of its namesake. In fact, the funds that are raised from the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative will not only be earmarked for the long-term sustainability of the prize: it will also help underwrite the publication of a posthumous volume of poetry by Andrés Montoya, edited by his long-time friend, writer Daniel Chacón. 

Daniel Chacón
He recently agreed to answer a few questions:

Letras Latinas Blog:
In the special print edition of In the Grove, dedicated to Andrés Montoya, and which you guest edited, there was reference made to a posthumous manuscript titled Universe, Breath and All. Could you speak a bit about what became of that title and share with us how you have arrived at the current title of the manuscript to be published.  

Daniel Chacón
When I received his papers, there was enough to publish several books. There were thousands of pages, some of them typed, but most of them handwritten. I imagine that much of what he had written he had done so in a hurry, writing frantically in
notebooks in a coffee shop, eager to get down the image or the rhythm before it dissipated into ordinary thought.

I don’t know if most writers are like this, but my handwriting is indecipherable to anyone but me. His handwriting was even worse, probably best understood by him. At the University of Texas, El Paso, where I teach in the bilingual MFA, I had a few graduate students help me transcribe the thousands of pages, and one of them, a brilliant young poet from Uruguay, volunteered to help transcribe, even though she wasn’t assigned to me as a TA. She wanted to be a part of the project, because she loved the poetry of Andrés Montoya. And who could blame her? His rhythms and images have influenced many young poets. I handed over to her about a hundred pages or more from some of his journals, some of them poem fragments. I wanted everything transcribed, no matter how insignificant it seemed, and since most of the more completed work had been done or had been assigned to my own TAs, I gave her what was left.

After a few weeks of working on it, she sent me an email and said, “I’m really surprised. This stuff isn’t that good.” I had to laugh, because it showed exactly the task I had before me. I had to review not only pages and pages of fine poetry, but I also got pages of stuff that he would never have shown anyone—unformed ideas, lines that might have come to him in a flash, but that ultimately shined little light on poetry.

I even got a pile of pages of an essay he was writing about a minor artist, a friend of his. It was such a bad essay. No, “bad” isn’t the right word, too judgmental. Let’s say it was such an in-progress essay, one that didn’t seem to be very organic, a forced project that compared this artist to the greats.  There were a few good lines from the essay, thoughtful ideas on poetics and art, but the bulk of it, the whole of it, didn’t seem to be worth pursuing, let alone trying to publish. I’m probably the only person in the world to have read it.

Anyway, during this process of transcribing and reading all these pages, I would come across a gem. I mean, sometimes I found lines so beautiful I had to pause. Some of them I read aloud to my partner, the poet Sasha Pimentel, and that line, universe breath and all was one of them. It struck me as beautiful. For whatever reason, it struck me as a good line. Ultimately he uses the line in his poem (included in the new book) “Páketelas,” which is a poem about coming into language and spirit, a poem that also deals with the cultural oppression of the white poetry establishment.
The line goes
The busted eye of a green olds winks by
and a little boy
imagines God,
universe breath and all,
considering onion-like
street curbs
lullabying children.
The line had struck me so much that I found myself repeating it at odd moments, running up and down the stairs, walking down a steep hill on my way to teach classes at the university,

universe breath and all.

I love the absence of the coma, universe and breath and all, because it reads like releasing and holding one’s breath at the same time, universe breath and all. It would be entirely different if it were written universe, breath, and all.

When I told the Fresno poet Lee Herrick, the founder of the journal in the grove, what I was doing with the manuscript, he asked if he could publish some of the poems. Herrick is a great admirer of Montoya’s work, and they were good friends. They used to do poetry workshops in cafés in Fresno’s Tower District, and like many of us, he really loved Montoya, the man and the poet.

I ended up doing an entire issue of in the grove honoring Montoya. I included poets who influenced Montoya, such as Philip Levine, Garret Hongo, Corrine Clegg Hales, as well his friends and poets who he has influenced, Tim Z. Hernandez, Sheryl Luna, Javier Huerta, Michael Medrano, Marisol Baca. It was a fantastic issue.

When I was writing the introduction I still hadn’t been able to go through all the pages. I still hadn’t put the book together, so I had no idea what the book would be called. When I write nonfiction, I do it the same way I write fiction, I follow the language. I’m more than willing to fix the facts later if on a first draft the language leads me to where the essay wants to go.

When I got to the part in the introduction about his posthumous manuscript, which was still not put together, I didn’t think about it, the language just said “a book called universe breath and all.” After revising the intro many times, I decided to keep it. “Why not?” I thought, “That sounds like a good working title.”

A year or two later, I began to discover in the pile of all that work a manuscript that reflects two aspects of his poetic life, his early work, which was wild and passionate and often times angry-young-man-ish, and his later work, which he wrote after he had what I suppose must be called a Malcolm X-like spiritual conversion.

Colón-ization includes the manuscript he was working on after the conversion, after the iceworker sings, a book he called whispered fruit, but it also includes poems he wrote when we were MFA students at the University of Oregon, some of which he included in his thesis, a section of which he called “Before Colón-ization.” I find that title very funny, in a playful José Montoya way.

Colón, of course, refers to Christopher Columbus, so colón-ization in his linguistic reality refers to how the invasion affected the indigenous, and in a sense this is what the manuscript is about.

But there’s another level to it. This is something I have never told anyone.
The first time Andrés heard Columbus referred to as Colón, he thought it was a joke. He encountered it while reading a Chicano poem, and he thought the poem was making a joke in calling Columbus “Colón.” He thought the poet was saying that Columbus was the organ that transports the European poop out their own butt, through the colon, onto the heads of the indigenous. It’s a cool image, if you think about it. You can see the trail Columbus’ ships make when they cross the ocean waters, forming a tube, a colon, and pooping out the pilgrims onto the shores of the Americas. He laughed so hard thinking it was a joke. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Colón was the real name, because it made him giggle so much, like a little kid hearing a nasty joke.

I had never thought about it until this manuscript, but making the connection between colonization and Colón seemed like an interesting etymology. I did a little research and found there really is no etymological connection, but still, it seemed to reflect not only his very xican@ ideas about the conquest (Colón brought a bunch of caca into our lives), but it also reflects the work, what colonization does to our poetics, how it questions our love for rascquache, which challenges the symmetrical “western” standard of art.  

Letras Latinas Blog:
Your substantial introduction to the manuscript is, among other things, a moving testimonio about a friendship between two writers. Could you give readers of Letras Latinas Blog a “thumbnail” of that friendship? 

Daniel Chacón:
At Fresno State we were roommates and friends for many years, me working on a degree in political science and he a degree in history. We did everything together, bought groceries, drank beer on the balcony, dropped our first hits of acid. We were Chicano activists together, started a political party on campus called Raza, a bold move if you know how racist Fresno politics can be. Andrés was our candidate for President on the Raza party.

So many veterano Chicanos told us that the name Raza would kill us in the elections, that no one would vote for us. At that time, student body politics was controlled by fraternities and aggies, and the most Chicanos were able to achieve was a seat in the senate representing the School of Social Sciences. That was my position when I was senator. But Andrés won. To everyone’s surprise and to the consternation of university president John Welty, Andrés became Fresno State’s first Chicano student body president.

And during all these years, we lived together, hung out together, planned stuff together, along with Lawrence Tovar and Frank Aviles and others. All of us were senators. In my last semester of getting a degree in Political Science, I took a fiction class just for fun, and it changed my life. I didn’t want to go to law school anymore. I wanted to be a writer. 

Then he started writing too, and we took our activism into our love for the word. We started the Chicano Artists Association at Fresno State, which still exists today. And then a miracle happened. I tell this story a lot, but for me it captures so much about the times. We had been roommates and friends for years. We even started writing at the same time, and we both got accepted into the MFA program at the University of Oregon. This was a shock, because we had thought the literary “establishment” would never take our work seriously, that we were too Chicano, too political, too irreverent of what Andrés called “cracker craft.” How could we both be accepted into Oregon? Lorna Dee Cervantes writes in a brilliant poem how Chicano/as, are constantly taught to question our own intelligence and worth, “That nagging preoccupation that I’m not good enough.”Andrés and I naturally thought that the FBI, not our work, got us accepted into Oregon. We really thought that. But we both went to Eugene, and we were roommates there as well.

We were the only two Chicanos in the program, and we struggled with how the culture seemed to push us in directions in which we didn’t want to go. In our second year we were joined by another Chicano poet, Augustine Porras, but being in Oregon where there were few Chicanos and where we were either exoticized or ignored made our friendship stronger, brought us further shared experience that would play into our development as artists.  

Letras Latinas Blog: What would you say to readers and admirers of The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems about this next volume of Andres’ work that will eventually get into print? What can readers expect and can you offer a few insights on what they might learn?  

Daniel Chacón
The book reflects the development of Montoya as a poet and a human being, from the early works, which were full of sexual and political passion, to the posthumous manuscript, which is a portrait of the Latino artists as a young man. It’s a book about how he came to love words, how ever since he was a child, he came to collect images and rhythms of language. He learned to love what was great in the works of the great white poets, as well as recognize how their aesthetics can be used as agents of oppression. It’s a book that shows Montoya not just as a Chicano, but as a Latin American poet.

Please consider collaborating with the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize Initiative, and stay tuned as we track our progress in this worthy cause.

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