Into The Heart of Things: A Review of Corazón Pintado
Xánath Caraza, Corazón Pintado: Ekphrastic Poems (TL Press, 2012), paper, 42 pp., $8.00
In her bilingual chapbook Corazón Pintado (TL Press, 2012) traveler, educator and short story writer, Xánath Caraza, conjures up a collection of ekphrastic poems which summon both the indigenous and African roots of Mexico and which take the reader through a trip of visual and rhythmic narratives which descend “in to the heart of things” and celebrate art works by visual artists Israel Nazario, José Jesus Chán Guzmán and Thomas Weso.
In the title poem which makes reference to a piece by Chán titled Ojos que no ven corazón, que no siente, visual-landscape and dreamscape fuse to paint a narrative centered on the fragility of loss and human emotions. With “web of silk and honey” the speaker imagines herself weaving together the pieces of a “dismantled heart:”
With almond encrusted sighs
And a pinch of hope
I began to bring it together
But I did not count on
The wind taking
This heart away
Even though sewed together in the end
Of paper it was
And ran away
The act of imagination becomes the cornerstone in this collection of ekphrastic poems which summon the rhythms and images of the poet as the building blocks by which the poet constructs a literary narrative by which these visual works of art and their various subjects may be interpreted. But is not only Caranza’s rich use of the page as canvas that make these poems compelling but also the poets command of language and historical memory. This rich use of memory and language dramatically expands the scope of this landscape but keeps it grounded to the poet’s act of imaging. As in the poem Yanga, where the poet summons a language infused with the sensuous and thunderous sounds of the African drum of rebellion by which the 16th century slave, Yanga overthrew the Spanish in Veracruz, Mexico:
Yanga, Yanga, Yanga,
Yanga, Yanga, Yanga,
Today, your spirit I invoke
Here, in this place
This, this is my poem for Yanga
Mandinga, malanga, bamba
Rumba, mambo, samba.
Words having arrived from Africa
This, this is my answer for Yanga
Candomble, mocambo, mambo
Candomble, mocambo, mambo
Free man of Veracruz
While this ekphrastic poem, celebrating both Yanga and the poet Louis Reyes Rivera, dramatically expands the visual narrative of these poems to include a landscape that is driven not by a visual work of art but by historical memory, the poems as a series remain grounded and held together by the act of imagination. An act that concerns itself with a simple but noble act: conjuring up the literary equivalent of great painting and which may truly capture the “heart of things.” As in this poem about simpky “having tea:”
My palette fills with pistachio green and honey
The tea leaves dance with me
Songs of lavender blooms
Put simply, these bilingual poems tap into a “labyrinth” of colors and textures to build literary narratives that concern themselves with the act of “rocking the imagination.” And while some of the poems lose some of their powerful and sensuous rhythms in their move from Spanish to English, all of these poems “come from a place of infinite sensuality” where “white fills the imagination” and from which Caraza gives color to this painted heart.
(Twenty percent of the sales of this chapbook will also help raise funds for a summer arts programs for kinds in the Kansas City area).
Lauro Vazquez: First of all thank you for agreeing to this interview. You are originally from Veracruz, Mexico but now reside in Kansas City as an educator. How did you arrive where you are at and when were you first exposed to poetry?
Xánath Caraza: Hola Lauro, mil gracias a Letras Latinas por la entrevista y a ti. The answer is simple. I have worked very hard and with tons of passion for everything I do. Something that motivates me, among other things, is to remind myself of the fact that I was a college drop out for four years. I knew I had to go back to school. So, eventually, I did go back to college and succeeded. Immediately after college, I went to graduate school, because I was already an adult student. However, one advantage I had over my classmates was that I always read; I read everything I had at hand. Also, I’ve worked since I was sixteen years old. I have always been somehow economically independent since then. So, I paid for my education, and, because of the help of scholarships that I was awarded, I was able to continue my education. There were times I thought I was not going to be able to finish my college education, but here I am. Then, I met my partner in Mexico. Long story short, after spending three years in Vermont, I was ready for a place with a much larger Latino community and as a result went to Kansas City. By the time I arrived in Kansas City, I already had two graduate degrees and an international certification, but something was still missing. I decided to enter the MA program in Romance Languages at UMKC and I was happily surprised when they offered me a GTA position and later I stayed on to teach. I needed to be in touch with literature no matter what.
Early in life, I was exposed to poetry and literature. I have to thank mostly my father for that and also one of my tías, my tía Martha, my father’s sister. As a present for me at my birth, my father gave me the three volumes of Las mil y una noches. I still have them. As far back as I can remember, he introduced me to Lorca; he used to recite part of “Romance Sonámbulo” for me . . . verde que te quiero verde. Verde viento. Verdes ramas. El barco sobre la mar y el caballo en la montaña… Of course I didn’t know it was Lorca. I just memorized it. He also recited Sor Juana for me, “Hombres necios que acusáis a la mujer sin razón, sin saber que sois la ocasión de lo mismo que culpáis y si las incitáis al mal…” and a haiku that I also memorized as a young child, “A la fuente vieja/ salta veloz la rana/ el agua suena” by Basho. He also introduced me to Li Po or Li Bai and my wonderful Nahuatl poets. I always have the following verses from one of Netzahualcoyotl’s poems with me. I think it is from “Canto de primavera” …libro de pinturas es tu corazón, has venido a cantar…en el interior de la casa de la primavera…” I have several books of poetry that my father gave me. He still gives me books of poetry actually. All have beautiful dedications. My aunt did her part, too. However, she introduced me to different novelists more than poets. Then I rediscovered poetry from my friends when I was a teenager. A few of these friends, by the way, became writers, too.
LV: You are also a short-story writer. How does this writing inform you poetry? What moves you to commit your words to paper and who are some writers you keep returning to?
XC: A ver, vamos por partes. Some people who have read my short stories without knowing that I’m also a poet ask me if I write poetry. At times, I think I mix both genres, but honestly, I just write; I don’t think about it. Perhaps, literary critics like you will have to untangle my writing.
There are several reasons that move me to commit my words to paper, I think. One reason is my desire to write is out of my control. I know I have to write, and that’s it. I may not have published everything I’ve written, but I’m always writing, or making notes. Another reason is my commitment to help spread women’s literature. I have trouble discovering women poets and writers from the past, and many times through history several women have been misunderstood. The act of re-reading and re-evaluating women poets and writers is for me a great pleasure, and I’m not the only one who does this. Yet another reason is to learn about myself, specifically my background. I am the product of a mixture of cultures. I have to honor that, and I do that through my writing. It is important to understand who we are and to learn about our own backgrounds. Finally, I am a traveler at heart, and without doing it on purpose, my writing reflects people, places and moments I have encountered along the way.
There are a few authors I go back to, but it really depends on what I am working on. There was a time I used to go back to Alberto Ruy Sanchez frequently. I revisited Carmen Boullosa and Rosario Aguilar, too. Arnulfo Anaya has been always present in my writing ever since I was first introduced to him. I used to reread Marguerite Yourcenar, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras for a while, too. Erik A. Karlfeldt is a poet I return to from time to time. Edgar Allan Poe is an author I read early in life and revert to as well. I used to and still do read Oscar Wilde on occasion. Then some authors just haunt me for one reason or another. I’ve learned to honor that feeling, and I have to welcome them, either by re-reading them or learning more about them. Sometimes I have the urge to just read them. The most recent one was Kavafis. He came back to me when I was trying to remember some of his poems. Finally, there are other authors that I teach about, almost each semester, such as, Juan Rulfo, Cervantes, Lorca and many others. What do I do? Well, I write about them.
In addition to revisiting certain authors’ work, there are times I need to visit, and I’m going to highlight that I need to visit, the places where multiple authors are originally from or used to teach or write or are buried. I like to revisit their work as well as places they are connected to.
LV: You are an advisory circle member of the Con Tinta literary organization and a former board member of the Latino Writers Collective. What are thoughts on community, and specifically on being part of a Latino-centric collective in these days of renascent nativism?
XC: I cannot tell you how happy am I to be part of the Chican@/Latin@ literary community. That is the best thing that could have happened to me. I love my Latino Writers Collective group in Kansas City. They are like family. Besides being a very active, creative, and diverse group of Latino writers, they are a piece of heaven in Kansas City. Con Tinta is like las ligas mayores group for me. They are all an amazing group of writers to learn from. They are well seasoned writers who are wonderful to be around and when it’s time to work or go for a specific cause, you know that Con Tinta will always be ready. I admire all of the Con Tinta advisory members, ex-oficio and the current ones. We all do a great deal of cultural activism in our own communities; Con Tinta members are passionate about this. Personally, I plan on working with Latin@/Chican@ authors in Kansas City, in order to spread their work. I have created an annual Spanish Language Poetry and Narrative Reading Series and have had as guest presenters authors such as Mario Bojórquez, Glafira Rocha and Carlos Parada Ayala.
LV: You were recently in Granada, Spain for a writer’s residency. What can you share about that experience?
XC: For the opportunity, I’m extremely thankful. This is the first time I have had a writers’s residency anywhere. I was so happy because I was able to write any time I wanted. The feeling of being focused on just writing is rewarding. While in Spain, I took a couple of weeks off, one for visiting Morocco and one for the Floricanto in Barcelona. The Floricanto in Barcelona was an extremely nurturing experience. I love to learn about other writers’ work. What better opportunity than a poetry festival to do so. Rakel Delgado from Barcelona and José Luis Cabeza from Santa Coloma were the organizers of this year’s Floricanto in Barcelona, a Chicano-Charnego celebration of words. I am thankful for their hard work, and honored for sharing my work with all the Charnego poets I have met, for all of them my deepest respect. I was not the only US Latin@/Chican@ poet/author. José B. Gonzalez and Santiago Vaquera were part of this year’s Floricanto in Barcelona as well.
What I love from Granada is that it is a city full of history. Andalucia in general has a blend of Muslim, Jewish and Catholic cultures. It’s reflected in its architecture, food, music, and the way people talk, too. As I mentioned to you before, I was in Morocco and was surprised. It was like being in the Albayzín in Granada. Why is all this important to me? The reason is because in Veracruz we have so much Andalucian culture mixed in our architecture, food, music, and the way we speak. We may or not like it, we may be or not aware of it, but that’s how it is, and again, I want and need to understand my roots.
LV: What role has the poet Louis Reyes Rivera had on you and your work?
XC: Uy! Louis Reyes Rivera. You know, Lauro, through time I’ve learnt to surrender myself if something is calling my attention or, in this case, if an author is calling my attention. I’m going to try to be brief. I met Louis in Kansas City. He was invited by the poet laureate of the American Jazz Museum, Glenn North, to perform in February of 2012. If I remember correctly, eight poets from the Kansas City community, including me, met him on a Friday evening for a talk. He was going to perform the next day on Saturday evening at the Gem Theatre. I was mesmerized by him. I wasn’t sure what to expect that Friday evening and perhaps that made it more magical. I knew who he was, but to see him in person, the legend, was a different story. He was so approachable, down to earth and community oriented. Most importantly, for me, he was a professor, an excellent performer, a Latino, Puerto Rican, and not just Latino, Afro-Latino. The combination of everything that makes up who he is was the key for me. In a way, he summarized in life, right in front of my eyes, what I was looking for. I know I have an indigenous background and Spanish, too. But I also know, I have an African background, both from northern Africa and because of the fact that I am from Veracruz and through the Port of Veracruz the people who were enslaved were introduced to Mexico. I must have African blood for that reason, too. When I heard Louis Reyes Rivera read his work, I was completely moved. He read from his book, Scattered Scriptures, both in Spanish, English, Spanglish, and the rhythms he produced in front of me were incredible. He said that evening, “Never be afraid of the inner sounds you hear.” This was carved in my soul that evening. Being from Mexico, you don’t hear too many Mexican authors talk about our African ancestry. Most recently in Mexico, scholars have been researching Mexican African culture, but still, for me those essays are about them and not us. It’s been different within the Caribbean culture, even though, I consider Veracruz as part of Caribbean culture. We have Salomé Ureña from the Dominican Republic and Nicolás Guillén from Cuba as some early poets from the diaspora. Contemporary Caribbean poets and authors have been writing poetry and narrative that reflects their awareness of Afro-Latino culture, such as Louis Reyes Rivera. What I saw in him was the “us” I was missing. It was not them anymore, it was us. Most importantly for me was that I was actually able to have a conversation with him. He validated my African heritage, similarly to Rudolfo Anaya’s validating my indigenous heritage through his writing a number of years ago.
Louis Reyes Rivera’s personality impacted me a great deal, too. He was this humble, beautiful older man, with a long gray beard, a hat and a Kente print Dashiki shirt, sitting in front of me, and just being himself, very proudly with no apologies. Suddenly, he then started to read his poetry and he transformed himself into a giant; he was a monster in the best of senses.
That evening I went home with a new light and next morning I wrote a poem, “Yanga,” that I had wanted to write for a long time, and had not been sure how to approach it. I simply remembered his words, “Never be afraid of the inner sounds you hear. ” He reassured in me that my rhythms are as valid as everyone else’s, and that I am the product of a mixture of cultures, and, if a few drums have been playing inside of me, I have to honor them.
Less than a month later, we lost Louis Reyes Rivera. He passed away. The night he passed away happened to be the very evening when in public I read “Yanga” for the first time. This was at an off-site reading in Chicago for AWP. In an involuntary way, Louis Reyes Rivera helped me find the kind of rhythm I was not able to produce, but that was in me. Fortunately, I was able to share my poem with him when he was in Kansas City. I gave him my first printed copy of “Yanga” on the Saturday evening just after his performance at the Gem Theatre. He read it and we discussed it. He even told me he could see people acting it out. I really cherish that conversation with him.
LV: Could you also speak a little about your writing process? You write in Spanish and then translate your poems into English, what is this process like?
XC: In Spanish I write creatively. I always try to explain it to people. However, if I write an article, an essay or for example, this interview, I write them in English. With my poetry and short stories, this is different; I write them in Spanish. It’s very simple. I still breathe and feel in Spanish, but, in order to be read and to be in tune with my new life, I translate my work into English. The process, well, it’s challenging at times. I have to be careful when I translate my work. I have to detach myself from my own work, and at the same time I have to find the right feelings for translating them into English. I’m getting better at these endeavors. Now, let me tell you, since it’s my own work, I have the freedom of not being so literal if I do not find the appropriate sentence that expresses my original idea in Spanish. If I were translating someone else’s work I would be very careful about not changing the sense of his/her work.
LV: One poem which I think captures the essence of this chapbook is “Copalillo.” “Labyrinth of branches/ Endless depth/ And rough textures/ Rocking the imagination/ On trunks twisted/ The labyrinth comes from a place/ Of infinite sensuality.” What can you say about this place, this labyrinth and its relationship to poetry, are they one and the same?
XC: Vamos a ver. I think that I’m very passionate about everything I do. That’s reflected in my writing, too. I like to honor every moment of my life, to celebrate life as much as I can. I also try to be in the present time as much as I can. Life is too short I truly believe and may end during the next minute or at the moment we are reading these lines. La vida no la tenemos comprada. This feeling of urgency I have for life, I want to call passion. It helps me be in a constant, creative place or mood. We are human beings, not robots, “no somos de palo.” For me, it is simple. Life is too short. We have to enjoy it; we are not going to be here forever. We had better do what we plan on doing as soon as we can to the extent that as much as our possibilities allow us to. The awareness of myself as a finite being drives me to do everything I do, and in the process of doing, along the way, I reach that place of creativity that the reader sees in my poetry.
LV: Your new collection, “Conjuro: Poems,” is coming out from Mammoth Publications in a few months. Of “Conjuro” Rigoberto González says: "A decisively Amerindian song breathes through the pages of Xánath Caraza's Conjuro, a charitable book of invocation, incantation, lamentation and healing.” Your chapbook “Corazón Pintado” too, despite being a collection of ekphrastic poems, draws from what may be described as the oral/poetic traditions of indigenous roots. Can you speak to your particular affinity for the oral and indigenous traditions?
XC: It mainly comes from my mother’s side. She’s from an indigenous community in the northern part of Veracruz y quieras o no, se aprenden cosas nada más de ver. My mother grew up bilingually up until she was eight years old, Nahuatl and Spanish. My tía, my mother’s sister-in-law who is also from the same Huastec group, came to live with us in Xalapa, Veracruz from the time I was a baby. This was after she lost her husband, my mother’s brother. Between my mother, my tía and my cousins I learnt behaviors that were natural to me, but once I was outside my home I started noticing they were slightly different from other children. The way my tía speaks Spanish is very particular. She almost sings the rhythm of the way she produces the Spanish language which is similar to the rhythm of the Nahuatl language she grew up with. We shared a house with my cousins and when they were at home they used to have the same kind of rhythm. I noticed later that their rhythms were different when, in Spanish, they talked to people different from my immediate family. Then, there are all the several times I visited my grandmother’s house in Ahuateno, Chicontepec, Veracruz. I remember I knew my grandmother spoke “funny” Spanish. When we, my mother and I, went to visit Nila, my grandmother, many people came to say hello, mostly women. They arrived at my grandmother’s house and sat in the kitchen and talked, half Spanish mainly because of me, and mostly Nahuatl, but the sounds they produced when talking were so different from what I was used to. They were green sounds, from the open spaces of my grandmother’s indigenous community. I also remember that everything was lit with quinqués or lanterns. The picture I have in my mind is of their twinkling shadows on the walls, and people’s faces appearing distorted from the red flames of the quinqués and then disappearing while I was trying to follow their almost incomprehensible conversations. I don’t remember what they were talking about, but the sounds, rhythms and the fact that they visited for hours really impressed me.
On the other hand, as I mentioned before, I was introduced to Netzahualcoyotl, Macuilxochitzin, and other Nahuatl poet’s early in life. That was because of my father. I think that he was trying to introduce me to my mother’s rich heritage, and he was successful. Later at college I read them again, Miguel León Portilla, and many of his books about Nahuatl language and culture.
There was a moment in my life, when I was living in Vermont, when I was reading Netzahualcoyotl’s biography by José Luis Martinez and suddenly I started crying because I realized I did not speak Nahuatl; instead, I grew up speaking Spanish. To my good fortune, I have my mother and her side of the family. However, the realization of growing up without Nahuatl was truly shocking, especially since I’ve taught languages for many years.
What’s more, I love music and dancing. This comes both from my mother and father’s side. My father loves dancing as well as music; my mother does too. It was natural for me to see people dancing and singing growing up. I think this is reflected in my writing. Singing is another way of sharing stories.
LV: Most of the ekphrastic poems in this collection take us on image-driven narratives based on art works by Chán Guzmán, Israel Nazario and Thomas Weso. One poem that stands in contrasts to these is “Yanga,” the 16th century African revolutionary in Veracruz, Mexico: “This, this is my poem for Yanga/ Mandinga, malanga, bamba/ Rumba, mambo, samba./ Words having arrived from Africa.” In contrast to the other poems this one is driven more by its sounds and rhythms. It is also an ekphrastic poem to the poet Louis Reyes Rivera. What about Yanga inspired you to write this poem and how did you come up with this sound-driven form.
XC: “Yanga” is a poem I tried to write for a long time. I had the information. I started it several times, but never liked it, until I met Louis Reyes Rivera. The more I think about it the more I believe I needed someone to say to me, “Never be afraid of the inner sounds you hear”. I translated that into it is okay to reproduce rhythms from my third root, the African one. I’m from Veracruz, and that’s what Jarocho music and culture are about, the blend of the indigenous, African and Spanish sounds. Since I teach languages and literature, words are important to me. To be able to say them out aloud has an incredible power. They are not forbidden words, but we are forgetting where they come from. I wish I knew what African languages they are originally from. Africa has so many languages, just as Latin America has indigenous languages. I did something similar with my poem “Digital Image,” but what I did there was to reproduce a song that I believe is in Wolof. I start the poem by singing it because that’s what I remember, the song. I wrote what I remember. I’m sure it’s terrible Wolof, but that’s how it sounds to me. I feel proud to have all these sounds and words in me, but most importantly to be able to recognize drums beating inside me. I plan on saying them out aloud as long as I’m alive.
Now, Yanga is one of my favorite historical figures. In Veracruz, we learn about Yanga early in grammar school, and as mentioned in the poem there is a town named after him. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City I took a course, where I decided to write my final paper about African influences in Mexico. I prepared with a great deal of sources, and I was also invited to present about African Mexicans at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. There are other African historical figures in Mexican history, but Yanga had already been playing those drums for me for a long time. I try to imagine him, first surviving from wherever he was caught in inland Africa and taken to the coast, most likely in West Africa. Then it impacts me to think about the fact of having survived the actual Middle Passage from West Africa to Cuba most likely. Finally, he must have traveled from Cuba to Veracruz, still in the worst of conditions. Then can you imagine being sold at the slave market in the port of Veracruz, having lived in terrible conditions? Finally, in spite of everything he had the courage and both the physical and mental strength to escape and along the way organize other runaway people who had been enslaved. In the end, their settlement was attacked at least one time that we know of. This settlement was finally recognized as the first free zone in the American colonies. Of Course the scary side of the story is that if any of the new free African man were caught outside the limits of the village, they could be returned to slavery. However, I think that what he did was amazing, and very important for Mexican and Latin American history. He should be celebrated much more frequently. Now, in relation to my word selection, I believe, or at least want to believe that those are the words that Yanga most likely said out aloud, too. That was his language and through my voice he is with us. I don’t have anything of his, but his words and his courage that needs to be remembered.
As for the sound-driven form, that was thanks to Louis Reyes Rivera. If you listen to him, you’ll see what I’m talking about, and his words, “Never be afraid of the inner sounds you hear.”
LV: Finally could you share something from your new collection “Conjuro” or any future projects?
XC: It’ll be my pleasure y gracias, otra vez. From Conjuro, Mammoth Publications 2012:
Fuerza de mujer
Que fluye en aguas rojas
Fuerza que renace
Se enreda en las copas de los árboles
Fuerza creadora que canta
Que guía entre el oscuro laberinto
Que susurra al oído el camino extraviado
Que invita a vivir
Latidos de obsidiana
De fuerza incandescente
De humo azul
Corazón de piedra verde
Frente a ti están
Otras vibraciones femeninas
Fuerza de mujer que fluye
Entre las páginas
De poemas extraviados
De signos olvidados
De imágenes grabadas
Poesía tatuada en la piel
Montañas de malaquita
Áureo torrente matutino
Que recorre los surcos
Fuerza femenina ancestral
Sobre papel amate
Que se entrega
A los intrínsecos diseños
De las frases dibujadas
Pensamiento de jade
Que se evapora con la luna
Que se integra a los caudalosos blancos ríos
Fuerza de mujer
Del lejos y cerca
De arriba y abajo
Del dentro y de fuera
De ciclo eterno
De cielo de granate
Guirnaldas de flores blancas las celebran
Plumas de quetzal adornan las cabelleras
Las abuelas creadoras cantan
Al unísono en esta tierra
Fuerza femenina, ancestral
Flows in red waters
Tangles in the tree tops
Creative force that sings
That guides through the dark labyrinth
That whispers into the ear the lost road
That invites to live
Heartbeats of obsidian
Of incandescent strength and
Of blue smoke
Heart of green stone
Before you are
Women’s strength flows
Of lost poems
Of forgotten glyphs
Of engraved images
Poetry tattooed on the skin
Heart inflamed with passion
Mountains of malaquite
Golden morning torrent
Flows along the channels
Of the body
Ancestral feminine strength
On amate paper
To the intricate designs
Of the drawn phrases
Thought of jade
Evaporates with the Moon
Integrates into the white water rivers
From far away and near
From above and below
From inside and out
Of the eternal cycle
Sky of garnet
White flower garlands celebrate you
Feathers of Quetzal decorate your long tufts
In unison on this land
Ancestral, feminine strength