Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Coda: Why Poetry is Not Sal's Famous

First: If you haven't seen Do the Right Thing, see it, then reread this post. It might make more sense.

Now then. Don't get it twisted. When it comes to erasing the margins, I'm down to bust a couple of metaphorical windows, burn some shit down. Politeness never got us anywhere, as June Jordan eloquently reminds us.

I've heard tell of Black and Latino writers being reticent to submit their work to certain journals and anthologies, because they represent something of an insidious system...a bell hooks-ian white supremacist kind of system. Of course, who am I to disagree with bell hooks? Hell, anyone who's seen "Sicko" can attest to the fact that the good-ol-boy structure is definitely alive and well. But what's the proper response to a system that spits us out? Do we threaten to burn down the academy until they put some Black people on the wall? Do we boycott the Oscars until they give Pedro Infante a lifetime achievement award?

OR...am I Black enough/Latino enough/Chicano enough, to complain on your behalf? (Now THAT would be an interesting argument, wouldn't it?)

Here's the bottom line, as I see it. When you write well enough to be noticed, when you build the proper coalitions on your own, and when you create for yourself a voice...one that is undeniable and unassailable...YOU become the institution.

It all comes down to what institution you want to fight, and what particular mission that institution entails. A publication like Poetry has a pretty broad mission, I'd say. I mean it's right in the title: poetry. Big concept, but not without risks. The question for the poet is this: How much more legitimacy would the institution lose if it didn't publish/recognize YOU? In the long run, can Poetry afford to pass you up? Imagine if an entity like Poetry had left out Gwendolyn Brooks. You could safely use it for toilet paper. If the same can be said about your work twenty years from now, who then has the power to legitimize and de-legitimize? The answer, o seeker of power, is you.

Poets: Do the right thing. SUBMIT YOUR DAMN WORK. Don't let somebody tell you that your shit is no good for "a certain kind" of magazine. Cultivate that voice. Write your shit down. Show them who you are, by making them read your work...or making them trash it...at their own peril.

And well. If anything. There's always a garbage can nearby.


Lisa Alvarado said...

Damn you Rich Villar, for continuing a conversation that makes Tia Lisa drop a line early on her day off.

I agree wholeheartedly with pushing through the internalized barriers that tell us "No, you're not good enough...the work isn't strong enough...."

But as for: "When you write well enough to be noticed, when you build the proper coalitions on your own, and when you create for yourself a voice...one that is undeniable and unassailable...YOU become the institution."

The hook here is "well enough to be noticed." I think it's wading in deep water to put one's work out there given the real biases that still exist. Do it anyway? Of course, but understand that you'll have to ford the rapids in doing so.

When I first started putting work out there 15 years ago, I submitted a poem that dealt with a young person's longing for Aztlan to several publications. It was romantic in a certain sense, and it got picked up. But I also got the response with submitting other work that it didn't have a clear "a Latino/Chicano theme," as well as the repeated request for another version of the same poem. Again, who decides, who frames, are important factors to consider, as well as whose aesthetic is in place in selecting work.

Also, I think we both know people who are nationally and internationally known, who still faces isolation and are still not featured in a significant way in publications like the one you reference, etc. This underscores for me, the need to also continue to build centers in our own images, as well as being a consistant presence in discussion with "tradtitional" institutions.

Rich said...


I certainly don't dispute the presence of certain barriers and biases with editors and institutions, and what have you. I guess my message here is to writers whose work is already strong, already confident, writers who are already singular in their voices, or getting there. Certainly there's something to be said for choosing the right fit as far as submissions go. But I'd argue that the best way to show the ridiculousness of exclusion is to be every bit as excellent as you can be in your writing, and let the excluder become a fossil in his own time. Yes, some of our mutual heroes don't always get the right acclaim, but my point is, it's not to THEIR discredit. They are still the heroes, and the institutions who don't get on board with that will dry up and blow away on their own.

I realize this approach requires a great deal of King/Gandhi-an faith, but well, I'm cool with that...and yes, I'm also ready to homespin some cloth, if I must.

Anonymous said...

Compa'i! I think we're on the same page here, it's a question of shading.

I will say that I am perhaps less optimistic than you on the question of the "fossils" either changing or being blown away, but perhaps we have to trust a process of incremental change that sometimes for me has felt like movement in geologic age.

But here I am, at 50, still slugging it out, still putting my two cents into the mix, practicing what I hope you can see is my sort of faith.

Lisa Alvarado

Steven said...

Good post. People can complain about the publishing world and how closed it is not just to latinos, but to new voices of any kind, but then like any business they have two motivating factors (aside from personal prejudices, etc as you mentioned): 1) they like to go with what has worked in the past - new voices need not apply. 2) they go with what sells. This is where it becomes important that publishers begin to see the Latino community as a market, I think. I've had booksellers tell me (in NYC, no less) that Latinos simply don't come into the store to buy books. That might be a little bit of a chicken and egg thing, but if it's true, then it has to change.