As a follow-up to yesterday’s press release announcing a new partnership between Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies and Notre Dame’s Creative Writing Program, Letras Latinas Blog would like to flesh out a bit the “story behind the story.” For example: what, exactly, was meant by saying that MFA alum Lauro Vazquez “was the model” for this new Latino Studies assistantship? Quite simply, this: Lauro was able to work for Letras Latinas (and receive a modest stipend in return) during his time as a Notre Dame MFA student because of an ad-hoc, one-time-only arrangement between The Graduate School and the Institute for Latino Studies. It was an experiment of sorts: Letras Latinas had never had a graduate student assistant, let alone a promising poet enrolled in ND’s MFA program. Yesterday’s release meant to highlight the beginning of a more formal arrangement and give it some context (highlighting Lauro in large part). What follows is more context—a fuller, more complete picture. If anything, I'd like to consider it a piece whose audience is: Latino/a poets applying to MFA programs this year. —FA
by Lauro Vazquez
Yesterday I was hanging out with Thade Correa, who also graduated from Notre Dame’s MFA program last spring. And in talking about our MFA experience I had the following thought: If one starts with the presumption that an MFA experience is judged by the quality of the poems one leaves with, then I think I might—contrary to what winning the Sparks Fellowship suggests—have fared quite poorly (I’m saying this with a batch of rejections in my left hand).
But if on the other hand—my right hand, my “shaking hands” hand for example—one judges the experience based on meaningful relationships that were born of that hand, then I think I might have fared, and will fare quite well. What I am trying to say is that I left the program with a solid network of people who I feel are invested in my work and growth. This is the kind of growth that can’t really be measured, it’s an inward growth and I’ve been lucky enough to experience it.
I’ve been fortunate, overall, to have had really great mentors and teachers along the way. I was lucky, for instance, to have been admitted to the first CantoMundo gathering back in 2010, this was before I did the MFA program and my identity as a poet was just starting to coalesce. Well, some of the poems that I wrote in Albuquerque that summer ended up in my application for Notre Dame’s MFA program. I think Joyelle McSweeney was a huge champion and believer of those early poems, which I presumed were good enough to convince (or trick?) her into advocating for my admission into Notre Dame’s program.
I had written on my Facebook page, shortly after graduating, that I was very happy to have had studied under “Master Poets” Joyelle McSweeney, Orlando R. Menes, and Johannes Göransson who are on the permanent faculty there. But also Susan Blackwell Ramsey, who was a visiting faculty member. And I really do feel that way, that these are master poets, and so each one, in his or her own way, was fundamental in nourishing those early poems into what Orlando has generously called a “sophisticated fusion of myth and history.”
With Joyelle, for example, I felt free to explore and conceive of poetry in many other ways than just as what is on the page. Joyelle has an amazing ability to enter into your poems and to wear them like clothes, and to force them to walk out into the world.
Johannes’ interest in the kitsch also prodded me into thinking deeply about the relationship between poetry and aesthetics, his interest in translation—particularly “weird” or “impossible” translations—opened up my language and reading of poetry to fascinating wordplay.
And, finally, Susan’s ardent belief in the power of stories and narrative (and humor, which I am still trying to master) gave me the tools to do what I am trying to do.
Susan Blackwell Ramsey
And what I am trying to do, on the surface, might seem simple: and that is the very human need to tell these stories, these marvelous lies that tell the truth behind the lives of certain historical figures. Figures that have left their mark on my imagination and whose stories I just need to tell: everyone from Nicaragua’s Augusto Cesar Sandino; to Chicago’s Haymarket Martyrs; to Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, who was born a slave in Texas and later went on to be an anarchist in Chicago; to William Lamport—an Irishman condemned to death by the Inquisition in 17th century Mexico and whose life gave birth to the fictional myth of McCully’s Zorro.
And so, if you’re a Latino/a poet who’s applying, or thinking about applying, to an MFA program with an eye towards enrolling next Fall, do consider Notre Dame: perhaps you’ll get to work with these fine mentors, as I was lucky enough to.
November 16, 2013