Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Letras Latinas and Red Hen Press: the bigger picture

Letras Latinas and Red Hen Press: the bigger picture

“People make mistakes. In my experience as a Central American
 immigrant, it is essential to forgive.”

—William Archila
from “Controversy Dogs Red Hen Press After HuffPo Article" in Publisher's Weekly

In November of 2009, I was tapped by the National Endowment for the Arts to serve as a bilingual consultant in the Los Angeles pavilion at the Guadalajara Book Fair. For the first time in that book fair’s history—the largest in the western hemisphere—a city would be showcased as its guest of honor. A number of Los Angeles area presses were invited down to Mexico to display their wares, including a press I knew well and admired: Tía Chucha Press. Another was Red Hen Press. It was during my week in Mexico that I met Kate Gale.

As I began to look through Red Hen Press’ books and catalogues, it became apparent to me that they were not fulfilling their “diversity” mission where Latino/a writers were concerned. The irony was that they were falling short while based in the city of Los Angeles—one of the most Latino cities in the world. And so I kept on my Letras Latinas hat and began to engage both Kate and Mark Cull about, what else, the dearth of Latino/a titles in too many literary presses and journals. I tactfully made my case, often over carne asada and beer. That week was crucial because it allowed the three of us to forge a relationship, one which appeared to be heading towards one of mutual respect. By week’s end, when it was time to say goodbye, Kate suggested that we explore avenues of collaboration that would begin to address what she admitted was a gap on RHP’s list. I told her I’d take some time to think about it, and get back to her.

In my mind, they had passed the first test: they did not get defensive. They listened and were responsive. And yet I’d had similar experiences of engaging with seemingly well-intentioned, well- spoken non-Latino/a editors and literary curators who paid lip service to inclusivity only to, in the end, not lift a finger. I said to myself, “We’ll see...”

A month later, I met Kate for dinner in New York and proposed that we join forces and create the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, an initiative that would support the publication of a second or third book by a Latino/a poet. We reached an informal agreement that night, but understood that there were still a lot of details to hammer out in the many months ahead. We took our time. Our first two winning books have been Dan Vera’s Speaking Wiri Wiri and William Archila’s The Gravedigger’s Archaelogy. Forthcoming is a volume by Ruth Irupé Sanabria.

But the story of Kate Gales’s willingness to advocate on behalf of Latino/a writers doesn’t end there. At the time that I met her, she was on the board (she may still be, I haven’t checked) of the Poetry Society of America (PSA), and she shared with me (I had no reason to doubt her) that at a subsequent PSA board meeting, she laid into her fellow board members about the PSA’s need to step up, where Latino/a poetry and poets was concerned. Shortly thereafter, she arranged for me to meet for drinks PSA’s Executive Director, Alice Quinn, and their programs director at the time, Rob Casper.

Letras Latinas’ first collaboration with the PSA—thanks, in good part, to Kate Gale lifting more than a finger—was an event I wasn’t able to attend: a reading at USC as part of a Flor y Canto, one that featured Emmy Pérez, Maria Melendez, and Diana García. To this day, Rob Casper names that session, which he introduced, as one of the most meaningful he’d been a part of. That, in turn, led to Maria curating and moderating a ground-breaking, online roundtable discussion featuring nearly a dozen Latino/a poets at the PSA website. And that, in turn, led to the multi-year collaboration with PSA: “Latino/a Poetry Now,” which involved another 12 Latino/a poets and kicked off at Harvard University in the Fall of 2011 with Eduardo C. Corral, Rosa Alcalá, and Arecelis Girmay, and wrapped up at Notre Dame in the Fall of 2013 with John Murillo, Maria Melendez, Blas Falconer, and Raina J. León. When I think about this turn of events, this story, I am very aware that meeting Kate Gale in Mexico, and the steps she took subsequent to our meeting, is a key piece of it.

None of this justifies, to use her word, her “misguided” piece in the Huffington Post. But that piece is an incomplete picture. It’s impossible for me to view it in isolation. Kate began to redeem herself with her second apology. My hope is that she will make good, moving forward, on a number of the things she said in that second more substantive gesture.

I have been a literary arts administrator since 2003 and, as I’ve said in print before, my bread and butter have been collaborations borne of personal relationships. I can count on one hand the ones that have impacted, positively, my work of trying to create spaces and opportunities for Latino/a poets and writers. In no particular order, they would include: Don Share at Poetry Magazine (keep an eye out for March, 2016); Steve Young at the Poetry Foundation; Rob Casper, first at the PSA and then at the Library of Congress.; Sarah Browning at Split This Rock; and Kate Gale at Red Hen Press.

Thus, I simply didn't feel called to engage in what has been taking place on social media these last several days, though I have been in private conversation with a number of people.

Letras Latinas has no intention of severing its ties with Red Hen Press. We will not unilaterally relinquish this hard-won space that is the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. The next deadline is January 15, 2016, and we recently confirmed the participation of our next judge: Rigoberto González.



Unknown said...

Francisco--as your long-time friend and periodic collaborator, I'm grateful for this account, and for all the work you've done over the years to connect Latino poets with audiences. When numbering your collaborations borne of personal relationships that have created space for Latino literature, in addition to the fabulous five that you have mentioned, I'm recalling that Sister Marianne Farina, C.S.C. and the Center for Women's Intercultural Leadership at Saint Mary's College were part of creating wonderful spaces, plural, in the funding, premiering, and supporting of the Poetas y Pintores: Artists Conversing with Verse collaborative venture. That you have been part of even more rich collaborations over the fifteen years since we left graduate school than can be brought immediately to mind is a testament to your high level of effective advocacy and the multivalence of your positive impact. Your friend, with best regards, Maria

Francisco Aragón said...

Thanks, Maria. And the original impetus for P &P came from Dana Gioia, another long-time ally...

Francisco Aragón said...

Thanks, Maria. And the original impetus for P &P came from Dana Gioia, another long-time ally...