Sunday, April 21, 2013

Letras Latinas Writers Initiative: a Testimonio, a Picture Gallery

                                          —Letras Latinas Blog, April 8, 2013

The weekend gathering alluded to above is one aspect of a multi-faceted initiative which includes—as Francisco mentions at the end of the the post I’ve quoted above—an online roundtable discussion and a physical gathering of a small group of Latino/a poets who are currently enrolled in graduate MFA programs, and who are the very participants in the aforementioned roundtable conversation, which will appear at Letras Latinas Blog soon.

In trying to conceptualize the significance of this gathering, I keep going back to the quote I plucked above, more specifically to the phrase “physical space.” We all understand the concept of space: houses, whole communities, are raised and erased on a daily basis because of official definitions of space. People’s lives, likewise, can be threatened due to a lack of “safe space.” As writers we all know the importance of space, which means having access to “a room of one’s own.”

I also find myself reading and re-reading Eduardo C. Corral’s comment regarding his MFA experience, an experience that seems to be—from conversations I’ve had with poets that have taken the MFA route before me—emblematic of a kind of “institutional racism.” This makes me sad, but also makes me realize how indebted I am to those trailblazers before me who have cracked open the door for emerging voices like myself.  

My experience at Notre Dame has been mostly positive. It has provided models of aesthetic freedom to explore my art in any way I choose to. Creative writing professors Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson have pushed me to be a better reader of poetry and exposed me to challenging new ways of conceiving poetry, while Orlando Menes' mentorship has been fundamental in the development of my voice and in the nurturing of what I envision as a poet. My peers have been thoughtful, challenging, caring, progressive in their outlook of the world, and most importantly supportive of who I am as a writer and human being, particularly during my second year.

That being said, I also think that we stand at a crossroads where Latino/as and other minorities stand on the verge of being much more visible in many of these spaces, but who can still experience the reality of exclusion. In thinking of this phenomenon I am reminded of an AWP panel I attended last February titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” in which poet Ken Chen, who is the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers Workshop, made a compelling case that more needs to be done to address the question of equity. Having great numbers does not necessarily translate into equality. Just because one is let in the room does not mean one will be allowed to sit or sleep or jump or eat on the bed.

Thankfully, for the poets whose testimonios you will be reading shortly, there exists “spaces,” such as this pilot Letras Latinas initiative, that will hopefully nourish a new generation of poets, who will become trailblazers, as well. Many strides have been made. More needs to be done to bring about not just an  American literature that is more inclusive but also one that recognizes all communities as vibrant and fundamental parts of U.S. society: a more inclusive América.

“Stride” I say, because I am reminded of the spirit of collaboration and of the life-long commitment to literary activism (a long and hard “step-by-step” process) that was evoked via Antonio Machado in a recent Latino/a Poetry Now roundtable:

            caminante, no hay camino,

se hace camino al andar.



Marcelo H. Castillo:

In this first gathering of young poets in a house covered with Latin@ art, I felt such joy, excitement, and honor that I was invited to commune with other like-minded poets for the weekend. We had many interesting conversations about poetics, issues of race, class, and gender and more importantly, we talked about how to further this ongoing community and how to create a niche where other Latin@ poets can turn to when either looking for applying to grad school, in grad school, or post-grads. We shared each other’s work, we read to each other, we workshopped each other’s poems and had a stimulating conversation on the American Baroque with the MFA director of Notre Dame, Orlando Menes. There was an intimate sense of community because the participants, for me at least, were people who I have been in conversation with in the roundtable component of this “object/ gathering/ discussion” and to see them for the first time and share our ideas about the state of Latin@ poetry and the concerns of our generation was fantastic! As Lauro said at the conference, I don’t think anything like this exists, where there is a conscious push for the advancement of Latin@ voices not only in MFA programs (and Notre Dame in specific) but also in all programs and a wider representation in major literary publications and publishers. This is an important first step for something that will hopefully (with the guidance of people like Francisco Aragon, Orlando Menes and now each one of us who attended the gathering as well as those scheduled to come next year) launch a nationally known cornerstone for Latin@ poetry and help those voices be heard. It was my distinct pleasure to be in the company of such talented artists and I hope to continue this conversation well into the future.


Lynda Letona:

The Latino Roundtable gathering was an enriching experience allowing us to meet talented poets from across the nation and to experience their creative approach to poetry firsthand. The amazing conversations we shared, geek out moments, and good food with new friends will always be remembered. I very much enjoyed listening to their work and feeling part of the Latino community of writers.


Lauren Espinoza:

Coming back to class after the gathering, I couldn’t help but think about my first semester here at ASU.  I was, oftentimes, at odds with the poems I was writing and bringing to workshop. I felt that I was writing what "wasn't mine to tell," and I was wary of bringing those poems to an audience of my peers.  At the gathering itself, I didn’t have that feel of concern over the content or context of my poems, I felt an immediate kinship with the folks that were there as they shared experiences and values that echoed my own: an attention towards navigating truth, a sincerity towards language, and a true investment in our respective communities (however that be interpreted).  While I was at the gathering I didn’t necessarily recognized the importunateness of this, it wasn’t until I was sitting in Sally Ball's workshop on Tuesday that we read the following from James Longenbach’s The Virtues of Poetry that I was able to reconcile what had happened over the weekend with the legitimizing impact those short days had on my own conceptualization of my work: "To exercise restraint in the face of catastrophe, to refuse the glamour of its occasion, is not to insulate oneself from self-congratulation (no work of art is completely immune to that) but to pause before the arrogance of understanding, the contentedness of having met the challenge of what should not be met” (99). I am forever indebted to those who shared their thoughts and energy over the weekend, understanding that we are meeting challenges that should not be met.


Thade Correa:

          A few weekends ago, thanks to the hard work and visionary efforts of Francisco Aragón, I participated in a gathering-together of young Latinoa poets at the beautiful home of Professor Gilberto Cardenas on the campus of The University of Notre Dame, which is where I am currently completing the second year of my MFA program. Besides myself, there were five of us: Lauren Espinoza, Marcelo Hernandez, Lynda Letona, and Lauro Vasquez. I met Lauren, Marcelo, and later Diego Báez (who is a recent MFA graduate currently living and teaching in Chicago who joined us for one night) for the first time during this weekend; Lauro and Lynda I had already known as classmates through my program at Notre Dame. Though I am a poet (and perhaps because I am a poet) I know that words can never bear fitting testament to the reality of experience; my sense, however, is that subtly, quietly, something of immense significance happened during this gathering. The sense of community that arose among the five of us was immediate: we read each other our poetry, talked about race, identity, community, and the importance of the art of poetry to the world. We dined together while listening to each other tell (sometimes heartrending) stories, shared our lives and our passions with amazing ease. Diego Báez generously shared his post-MFA journey with us. Professor Orlando Menes visited us one afternoon to read his work and converse intimately with us about his personal poetics, and read his stunning work to us. He offered the kind of advice that only poets can give to other poets: “Write the difficult poems, the poems you need to write, the ones that make you uncomfortable,” he said, and told us of the importance of believing in one’s own artistic vision.
            Vision is what all of us gathered together shared with one another; being able to share my personal vision with other likeminded poets is what made the weekend unforgettable for me. Not only that, but each one of the poets I had the gift of sharing time and building community with during this weekend shone for me, like a comet across the night sky of what is possible. I am grateful to have been able to take a part in what I believe is a groundbreaking endeavor to bring together Latino/a poets across the country so as to form a creative, diverse community that furthers the range of the possible, for the one as well as for the many.


Marcelo H. Castillo is an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan and a CantoMundo Fellow. He was born in Zacatecas, Mexico and earned a BA from Cal State Sacramento. He has served as artist in resident at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and has held residencies at the Squaw Writer’s Workshop and the Vermont Studio Center. In collaboration with CD Wright, his translations of  the Mexican poet Marcelo Uribe’s latest collection of poetry is forthcoming and with Robert Hass, he co-edited the Squaw Review 2011. He was a finalist for the 2013 Theodore Roethke Prize and recent work can be found in Poetry Quarterly. He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife Rubi. 


Lynda Letona, a current MFA student at Notre Dame and Creative Writing Instructor, received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of South Dakota. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in Liternational,, and The VLP Magazine.

As a previously undocumented student also referred to as a “DREAM Student,” Lynda underwent the risky legalization process (during the summer of 2011) known as the “consular option” that requires applicants to return to their home country. Not knowing whether she would be allowed to return to the U.S. after living here 23 years, Lynda spent much of her time writing poetry and a series of blog entries to her friends. She turned this “adventure” into a third-world writing workshop. Lynda was allowed back in the country after five months in Guatemala; she has enjoyed being a U.S. legal resident for the past year and half.


Lauren Espinoza is currently a graduate student in the M.F.A. Program in Poetry at Arizona State University.  Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, her work investigates the intersections of language, sexuality, border-identities, humor, and culture. Her poetry has appeared in an anthology selected by Naomi Shihab Nye entitled Time You Let Me In: 25 Poets Under 25, in print at The Mas Tequila Review, online at The Acentos Review and Whole Beast Rag, and she has a poem forthcoming in NewBorder: Contemporary Voices from the Texas/Mexico Border published by Texas A&M Press.  She is a member of The Trinity, a poetry cliqua from the Rio Grande Valley; and holds a graduate certificate in Mexican American Studies from the University of Texas-Pan American.


Born and raised in Northwest Indiana, Thade Correa received his BA from Indiana University, Bloomington, and his MA in the Humanities from the University of Chicago. Though he considers writing his primary artistic vocation, he is also a composer and pianist. His poetry and translations have appeared in various journals, both in print and online, including Paragraphiti, Ibbetson Street, The Aurorean, and Modern Haiku. A chapbook of his poetry, Anthem, appeared in 2010, and a collection of his recent work earned him the 2012 Billy Maich Academy of American Poets Prize.


Lauro Vazquez, Diego 
Báez, Lauren Epinoza & Marcelo H. Castillo @ Notre Dame
Thade Correa, Lynda, Letona, Lauren Espinoza & Marcelo H. Castillo @ Legends

Diego Báez & Thade Correa

Lynda Letona & Lauren Espinoza @ the Scott St. house, (space graciously provided by Notre Dame Professor Gilberto Cardenas)

Thade Correa, Rubi Hernandez & Marcelo H. Castillo getting comfortable for Prof. Orlando R. Menes talk and conversation.

Lauren Espinoza after the talk....


Poet & ND Creative Writing Director Orlando R. Menes with poet Marcelo H. Castillo in the forground

                                      Orlando Menes reads his poem "St. Rose Counsels the Washerwomen of Lima."

Marcelo H. Castillo, Lynda Letona, Thade Correa & Lauren Espinoza


Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you, Lauro, for putting these testimonios together, as well as your own. And a special thanks to my Notre dame colleague Orlando Menes and fellow CantoMundista Diego Báez, who provided, in many respects, what amounted to a backbone of the weekend.

But I'd like to also make clear that this pilot Letras Latinas program, which we hope to continue, was not conceived without crucial antecedents. The Macondo Writers' Workshop and the CantoMundo workshop are the shoulders this modest initiative stands on. The only difference is that this initiative seeks to serve, as I mentioned in an earlier post, those Latino/a writers who have chosen the path of graduate school training in creative writing. So its reach is more modest.


Thank you Letras Latinas!
My current graduate education would not be the same without supplemental blogs and interviews like yours.