“Because We Come from Everything: Poetry & Migration” is the first public offering of the newly formed Poetry Coalition—twenty-two organizations dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities, as well as the important contributions poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.
During the month of March, coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers. This year’s theme borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Borderbus.” Please return to this space and enjoy all the pieces in the series, and leave comments to participate in the dialogue.
Barbara Curiel, CantoMundo
Francisco Aragón, Letras Latinas
POETRY CONTAINS MULTITUDES:
A conversation between Suzi F. Garcia and Carmen Gimenez Smith.
CGS: I’ve been thinking a lot about the wall and the recent political discourse connected specifically to Latinidad and the idea that we encroach and probably the great irony when we consider how recently much of the Southwest belonged to Mexico, which before it was a Spanish colony, belonged to indigenous populations.
SFG: The idea that we are crowding out others; space, jobs, benefits such as Healthcare, etc?
CGS: Yes, and I wonder what sort of figurative system it leaves for us after January 20, especially as there are Latinx all around who will be wrestling with belonging and the (sometimes forced) redefining of their migrations.
SFG: I think the wall makes visible our insecurities and fears in many ways. We have a wall that is built specifically for one nationality that makes up our community, but we all recognize though, for example, you and I have a greater distance when we think of migration: that wall means us too. It is a shutting down of our community, not a specific part of our community. Yet it will still instill division and further insecurity in our community. If that makes sense?
CGS: Absolutely. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would call the folkloric imaginary of media and how it engages with shared anxieties, and then I came upon this movie:
I realize a couple of things: that the stories of how the US West is populated by the lower Americas is a potent narrative in the American imaginary and that it’s also one that’s loaded with political symbolism. El Norte was such a defining film for my Latinx identity when I first saw it because it gave voice to what felt subtextual to my parent’s existence, not necessarily in how they came over, but in how the common goal is the source of such intense striving to belong in a country that still cannot fully integrate the presence of Latinx, despite the history.
SFG: That film looks horrifying. I feel ill watching that trailer, and I can’t imagine watching that in fullscreen in a theatre in the Midwest. I saw El Norte in a classroom in Arkansas, and I felt so disconnected from it, interestingly. Because I was so disconnected from my community, because it was not my father’s experience, which is so different in many ways than immigrating today, but most because of a lack of communications. I was discussing INS almost misses with a friend the other day, and I mentioned my father was once mistakenly arrested while undocumented and how my family has always laughed about it. It was the wrong person, he had the same name as someone with a warrant out. But they didn’t realize my father was undocumented so once they figured out he was the wrong guy, they just let him go. And if they hadn’t, I very likely would not have been born. But we laugh about these moments in my family instead of communicating about some of the fears I have about his still incredibly heavy accent, etc. It was easy for me to disconnect when I was younger because I did not have the same kind of community that forces me to engage.
CGS: How do you integrate that into your work and who are Latinx poets or poems you turn to for perspective?
SFG: I think it’s hard, because I think it’s not the way I think organically. I think generally, it took a long time to also see myself as a raced person, because I was in a community in the South heavily divided into a black and white binary (if you know anything about the Central High Integration, that’s my school district, where my older brother went to high school, my partner, etc). I try to be more conscious and think about what I would want to communicate, even if I don’t always do so with my family. I’m a very confessional poet, lol. Oddly, I look to two very different kinds of poets, but both incredibly expressionist. I’m very interested in slam and performance poets, such as Elizabeth Acevedo and Jennifer Tamayo, because I think they, in their different styles, are open to being declarative and not shying from what they want to say. It’s more organic for me to joke about a topic (which has its place), but I think neither of them are afraid to be serious and honest about expressing themselves in whichever way fits them best (including humor). I think you recently mentioned that you steered away from spoken word because of ingrained racism? I think many of us “page poets” have some roots in that, and now I crave that style of honesty and vulnerability. There is something vulnerable in being declarative that I am afraid of as a poet, but something I want to embrace. I’m also obsessed with Anne Sexton’s letters, for similar reasons, though stylistically, again, very different.
CGS: Spoken word, like jazz, is a very American art form, with roots in many different immigrant cultures (like the connection between capoeira and breakdancing), so it’s narrow to not engage with it as an artist and scholar. I’m terrible at memorizing things, so I don’t think I’ll ever perform, but I do think that those original early lyric impulses and those that impel spoken word or exactly the same.
SFG: Once you recognize that you’ve been shying away from something valuable like spoken word, how did you find yourself re-calibrating? How did you begin to think of these ideas of lyric in your writing and bring out the spoken word connections?
CGS: Mostly I felt drawn to the rhetorical power of anaphora that lives at the core of spoken word, and the amazing diction play, the engagement with the material world. Affectively, a more neuter version of that energy was available in “page poetry,” but not much of that work engages with issues of race and gender in the direct way found in spoken word. I also love the joker/griot energy, the dynamic storyteller required to live inside of the work. Here is Edwin Torres's Sensei Sunset:
SFG: I want to bring the way spoken word is so direct about race over to “page poetry” desperately. I’m also really influenced by hip-hop and music, generally, as is spoken word. I have no memorization skills and no sense of natural rhythm, so I can’t ever be a spoken word artist, but I also want to take what they do on stage and see how we can morph that on the page to meet the challenges of the page, but also do something new.
CGS: Here’s Urayoan Noel doing Spic Tracts:
In that video, Ura really captures an interesting subject position: one in which the cultural backdrop informing the work isn’t clear-cut. Despite knowing this on a philosophical level, I think Ura’s work and Edwin Torres’s too, for that matter, explore how un-monolithic Latinx identity really is, and that perhaps that’s the nuance to internalized racism, believing that one particular approach is too weighed down by narrowness (when many other poetic “schools” also suffer the same problem).
SFG: That video is amazing for many reasons, but yes, even when thinking about this project, I wanted to think about Peruvian-American poets, but I couldn’t think of others. And then Peruvian poets translated in English… But there is something hard about being a continent away, with such a specific history that then gets generalized/ we generalize into the “Latinx experience.” There is room within us for all of these experiences and these expressions, but it feels as though there is an ease to being narrow that we need to push against.
I think Monica McClure pushes against narrowness. In this video, she contains so many multitudes, embracing a subjectivity in what is often seen as objectified. I’m discussing this video at a conference soon in conversation with the idea of Camp. The language and styles of Latinidad is seen as unironically kitschy, as though we don’t see our own bright colors and love them with an aware sincerity. I find Monica not necessarily answering our questions about the complexity of gender roles, multiracial identity, machismo, etc. in Latinidad but exploring them, throwing them into light in a way I respect and am engaged by. I show this video to students often in creative writing classes. When they first watch the video in the beginning of the semester, they are so confused (they feel like they know what poetry is and Monica is not a whole lot like Poe), but by the end of the semester, they see it as an entrance into poetry, a new way they can play with tools and see themselves.
Monica McClureSuzi F. Garcia has an MFA in Creative Writing, with minors in Gender Studies and Screen Cultures. She is a Poetry Editor at Noemi Press, and her work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Vinyl, the Offing, DREGINALD, Reservoir Journal, and more.
Carmen Gimenez Smith edited Angels of the Americlypse with John Chavez. She is publisher of Noemi Press and teaches at New Mexico State University. Her next poetry collection, Post-Identity, will be published by Graywolf Press.