Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Notes on the Margin

I've been posting to Emily Warn's recent blog on the Poetry Foundation site, regarding the presence of "indicator species" out there in the poetry universe. While I totally "get" the metaphor—that is, indicator species are those which break patterns and norms and indicate the beginnings of change in the environment—I still found the term needlessly problematic, because it assumes that certain poetries exist on the margin, waiting for their chance to mess with the biosphere. I guess there's something to the idea that Latinos and African-Americans are starting to break through the assorted American glass ceilings. But these days, I guess I'm casting my lot not so much with breaking the glass ceiling, assimilating with the "poetry universe" as it exists in the various worlds of grants, book prizes, academic recognition, or what have you....rather, I would like to see a fundamental conversation happen between poets as to why this ceiling happened in the first place, and what we can do to redefine it beyond adding additional flora and fauna to the landscape.

Ugh, okay, enough metaphor. Here's precisely what I mean.

Acentos is right now formulating a plan for building an organization for Latino/a poets, something modeled after Cave Canem. One of the poets involved with the planning brought up an excellent point, which has had me thrown for a loop for quite a while, to the point where I've had to seriously rethink some things. What she addressed, more or less, was the need for vigilance. That in building an organization designed to remedy a historical slight (the overlooking of Latino poets), it is essential not to become the very same structure you criticize by virtue of your very existence. Couple that with a new book I'm reading, entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, which argues that even the most well-meaning non-profits have become corporate caricatures of themselves, and you can see why my inner Keanu Reeves is currently muttering Whoa! to whoever will listen.

I am operating today in a world in which I'm reminded that Indiana Review did a Latino poets issue roughly a year or so ago, and that well-intentioned people and editors at the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere are now engaged with conversations with some of our best and brightest Latino and Latina literati. Poetry is currently considering poets who have never appeared in their pages. The Cave Canem retreat is next week, and African-American poets are currently winning book prizes hand over fist. And hell, Eduardo Corral is in residence over at Colgate this Fall, whilst yours truly gets to study with Rigoberto Gonzalez, Dennis Nurkse, Tayari Jones, and Jayne Anne Phillips over at Rutgers-Newark (which I'm truly getting excited for).

But I'm also operating in a world where a steaming pile of dogshit like Tony Hoagland's "The Change" is lauded by white liberals the world over as boldly stepping into the waters of race conversation. (Insert losing sound effects from "The Price is Right.") Por favor.

So then, here's the question I'm throwing out to the poetry world, or at least the world that reads this blog. Why do poets feel marginalized? Do we on the outside really want to be on the inside, or should we concern ourselves with fundamentally rethinking "inside" and "outside?" And if we burn down the clubhouse, what are we going to build in its place? All right, so those are more than one question. But I have faith in you all. Seriously, comments are totally welcome, links encouraged, talk talk talk is essential, yes?

Ah, yes yes y'all. It is wonderful to be a writer, at least that never changes. Funny, and I thought my political science training was going to waste...


raul said...

i think a latina/o cave canem is a mad good idea but why does it have to be limited to poetry? seems like the base could be bigger with writers who also write fiction or memoir o lo que sea

Lisa Alvarado said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa Alvarado said...

Rich -- In general, a feeling of maginalization is the result of the lack of value this culture places on poetry...writing, and the arts in general. When I lived in Mexico, I never felt marginalized. When I told gente, "Soy poetisa, soy escritora," their faces lit up.

The REALITY of marginalization as it affects artists/people of color is directly connected to the ability to control in all other arenas, IMHO. I do think separate "clubhouses" are necessary, while working with allies to open the doors at their place.

What is important, it seems is that our structures need to openly revise and re-vision the hierarchies that class relations influence...Will we function collaboratively or replicate what the dominant culture has created? The dearth of existing structures is in some ways a blessing. We CAN choose a different a different way to be.

And I am beyond psyched to hear about you and companeros building something new! Go on with your Big Boy self!

Francisco Aragón said...

Hi Rich:
Briefly: yes, keep it poetry based. Macondo already exists for all genres. Poetry, by definition, is the perennial underdog. One of the things I'm trying to spur with Latino Poetry Review is criticism on poetry written by Latino/as. What I have observed, among the people getting doctorates in Latino lit, is that it is overwhelmingly about prose, which is great. But I can't think of anyone out there doing serious literary inquiry on our poetry. What I have found, though, is that someone might write a chapter here or there about some of our more established voices, but it's usually to make a point that is not about the poem and its poetics. So yes, I like the focus you have in mind. Keep me posted. Keep Letras Latinas posted. Next Monday I'm heading out to the Hispanic Research Center at ASU to meet with Gary Keller and La Bloga writer Daniel Olivas to talk shop (Latino Poetry Community . Org, CANTO COSAS, Latino Poetry Review, etc). So yes, things are brewing. And I hope you keep posting at the Poetry Foundation. Six poems from The Wind Shifts are slated to post there in a bit, with brief commentaries. After Ron Silliman posted a link to my current post at the Letras Latinas blog, a guy in Norway wrote me out of the blue to say he'd bought the anthology. So:

One reader at a time.

Rich said...

To Raul: Good question. Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase...well, we do just that--we showcase poets. And we ARE poets. So sensibly, the efforts we put out there will center on poetry. That said, there is always room for other initiatives down the line, whether or not Acentos does it. Of course, poets make pretty good prose writers on occasion, and some new prose, we hope, will happen organically as a result of fellowship with other Latino poets.

Lisa: Renato Rosaldo talked with us about his "Presentacion del Libro" in Northern Mexico, when a small press there published a limited run of his collection Rezando a la Mujer Araña Poets get the rock star treatment, even from academic corners NOT their own. Wild stuff.

Francisco: One of the talks I have with Tara all the time is the lack of critical work on the writers we respect. No one else is going to pick up the slack on this, so we have to. I've been putting it off, but I will review Oscar's chap here just as soon as I get the chance, and one of us should really be working on a review of Aracelis Girmay's book. I was just re-reading some of it tonight, in fact.

I will indeed keep you posted, and now I must add Norway to my list of target countries for my book tour. (First I need a book.)

Francisco Aragón said...

Hi Rich:

How about as an intermedite step (before the book), placing some pieces here and there, including OCHO, #14. I got stuff from Oscar, John (Murillo). I just wrote to Raina. Am waiting on you :)

dwayne said...


What's up man, we met once. I'm Tara's cousin Dwayne.

Anyway, I just read the Ellison biography by Rampersad and would say that he'd tell you Cave Canem
and Acentos are essentially irrelevant, because the goal should be to integrate. NO, he would say that as our presence, latinos, black folks (I staunchly stand by the designation black just cause i like how it sounds in my mouth) and all other immigrants are an eternal and integral part of American culture.

Okay, so I feel the idea that really, the glass ceiling, though in all practical purposes exists, is some bullshit that we buy into when we try to become separatists. That is to say, when we decide that nothing founding with Caesar's money can destroy Ceasar." Cause, the question is, are we really looking to bust down a glass ceiling, or change conversations?

I don't think CC or Acentos or Kundiman get are separatists. One of the things that keeps them from being separatists is buying into the idea that Poetry Foundation is on some real levels sincere in bringing Kwame, Patricia et al to the conversation.

Or, more to the point, believing that some philanthropists in funding CC, or Acentos or Dwayne are sincere in thinking that they are funding an American tradition.

I like what Lisa said, we are trying to build structures that re-vision a landscape.


Rich said...

What up, Cousin Dwayne? Hey, send me your email to r.villar at gmail dot com.

As it relates to Ellison, all I can say is, while he would have definitely held these organizations at something of an arm's length, I think it's telling that he left Juneteenth (what was supposed to be the quintessential Black American novel) teeming at 2000 pages before he passed. Much like the problems we face now, he left some stuff just a TAD unresolved.

None of us can really be separatists, because none of us operate in a vacuum. On the same token, we can't pretend that white supremacy (not racism, mind you...thank you bell hooks) didn't build the structures we hold up as "ivory tower". It's not about tearing shit down, it's about extreme renovation.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Reading this exchange is exciting. Cousin Dwayne, this is Tia Lisa, and I just want to say the ceiling, the walls, the history of separation, are real.

We need vibrant cultural organizations in our communities where we are the major constituents, with accessable programs open to all. We also need to be equally visible and hold positions where we can enact change in organizations currently reflecting, for the most part, the dominant culture's tastes, inclinations, and selected artists.

Why? Beyond it just being right, what we write, what we dream, what we create is at the heart of change. Art coming out of our social and economic conditions has liberatory qualites, for the artist and audience. Does that means that we all write the same poem about the revolution? NO. But I believe that material that comes from what we know, what we experience every day, how we dream a world, is a potent catalyst. (I suspect several million Chileans would agree with me.)

Dare I say it? Free the mind and the body will follow.

This is as true for folks in "mainstream" organizations, the dominant culture as a whole, but it's harder for them to see...That's where our we and allies on "the inside" have to do their work.

It is difficult work, because we have to confront the real manifestations of privilege, that some will be loathe to give up. And it will mean saying to the powers that be (which by the way we have to do continuously in the political, economic and social arena) is that the problem is NOT that the emperor's tie doesn't match his socks, it's THAT HE'S NAKED AND HE NEEDS TO TAKE HIS NAKED ASS IN THE HOUSE AND PUT SOME DAMN CLOTHES ON.

Francisco Aragón said...

Hey Rich:

Cool stuff going on here! My Notre Dame e-mail is down (it's Saturday night). So whether or not you answered my earlier e-mail (In Tandem). I don't know. I need to clarify some things---in a good way. But I'm increasingly encouraged by the tenor of all these conversations. I mean to write to you about Eduardo's reading at ACENTOS in November. An idea occurred to me in the shower today (yes, this stuff happens!). I think it might put a good spin for all involved. More, when my e-mail is operational.