Saturday, February 5, 2011

Rich's Panel Presentation at AWP 2011

PRESENTED AT AWP 2011: Poets/Editors on Race and Inclusivity.

Poet/editors discuss inclusiveness (and lack thereof) of minority voices in literary publications. Representing both mainstream and more community-based projects, the panelists consider the challenges of inclusiveness, and how successful (and unsuccessful) they have been. They consider how, in an atmosphere of perceived mistrust, constructive dialogue can be forged towards the goal of better presenting the broad spectrum of American poetry.


In racking my brains for a systemic way to approach this topic, I heeded some good advice and simply went back to the panel description.


In all fairness, it is hardly accurate to call me a poet/editor. I've been the fiction editor for The Acentos Review for a comparatively short time. I have been a poet, though. So I feel more comfortable speaking, for the most part, about my voice as a Latino poet, and where I fit in this sentence. The question for me is, am I a minority voice? If we're talking in terms of ethnicity, here is the tale of the tape: I am Puerto Rican and Cuban, identified with the African diaspora, born in Edison, New Jersey, and despite tea party protestations to the contrary, a natural-born American citizen. Where I grew up in Paterson, NJ, the majority was Black and Latino. To be more specific—African-American, West African, Jamaican, Boricua, Dominicano, Cubano, Peruvian, Colombian, Guatemalan. But, not by much. Paterson is also home to one of the largest Palestinean and Syrian communities in the United States. Still, until the advent of round-the-clock Dunkin' Donuts, my favorite place to acquire cappucino was at an Italian storefront called Cafe Capriccio on 21st Street, run by a tiny Italian man who apparently sold nothing but the stuff. I don't know if I can rightly call myself a minority voice, but Paterson taught me that I am one voice out of many kinds.

In terms of influence. I drop my coin, of course, in the fountain of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I also would have said Mark Doty straightaway, except that Mark was kind enough to point out to me at a reading once that he gets HIS penchant for exacting, revelatory detail from Elizabeth Bishop. So there's Doty, and there's Bishop. I would trace my fearlessness with vernacular speech and code-switching—that is, my right to use it as I see fit—to Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Willie Perdomo. And I am unafraid to mention my cultures, my politics—in other words, my specific stories, the ones only I can tell—because of the examples of Martín Espada and Sandra Cisneros. And the fact that I am a writer at all can be traced to where I started: the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe, the louderARTS reading series at Bar 13, the Acentos Poetry Showcase in the Bronx. Not exactly the MFA system. And that's where the picture gets interesting for me.

While my identity as a Latino, or as a writer, or as an American, has never been in doubt for me, I have engaged in some very creative accounting as it relates to my identities in the literary world. By literary world, I mean the conglomeration of presses, literary foundations, Universities, organizations, editors, journals...basically, anyone that you could conceivably submit a cover letter to, or that asks you to write a bio. My bio studiously hid my experience in the spoken word and slam worlds, and for good reason, I thought: because editors look at slam and spoken word in someone's bio and immediately turn into pillars of salt. I wish I could chalk this up to simple paranoia on my part, except that I began hearing first-hand anecdotes about how true it was. Not so much the salt pillars, but how panelists for foundational awards tended not to even read the manuscripts from spoken word writers, or how anthologies would make mention of slam and spoken word, but not publish the work itself because it is built for the stage. Even now, anthologies containing these so-called spoken word or slam writers get published with the words "warrior," "revolution" and "outlaw" alongside them, or with the stated need to Bum Rush the Page, or Take the Mic.

If you're thinking to yourself what this has to do with race or ethnicity, consider for a moment this partial list of foundational writers for much of what we call spoken word and slam: The Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, Sekou Sundiata, the writers of Nuyorican movement including Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero and Sandra María Esteves; Patricia Smith, Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore. And I found myself surrounded by black and Latino writers in the slam scenes of NYC: Roger Bonair-Agard, Lynne Procope, the aforementioned Patricia Smith, Edward Garcia, Willie Perdomo, Miguel Algarín, and the 150 or so nationally-known and ethnically diverse Latino writers that have passed through Acentos, the reading series I curated in the Bronx. Not to mention the numerous and multiplying Cave Canem fellows who live and write in the New York area. All this to say, the idea that there were writers of my ilk, my ethnicity, my races, my familia, that somehow felt left out of the American canon, or out of certain anthologies and journals, or who felt mistrust toward anyone because they were marginalized, was not only foreign to me, but infuriating.

Yet, the one common thread I can link all of these writers to is a phenomenon I call Table of Contents Anxiety. This is not an affliction, to my knowledge, that is suffered by Anglo writers. (I will happily stand corrected if need be.) Table of Contents Anxiety arises when the first reaction to holding a new journal or anthology in your hands, before you even read one line of literature, is to flip open the Table of Contents and quickly scan it for black folks, or Latinos, or Native Americans, or anything, ANYTHING, besides the usual Smorgasboard of the Unsurprising when it comes to editors and their lists. I know I am not alone in this TOC Anxiety. I know some of you in this room suffer in silence. I know some of you in this room haven't shut up about it since the 1970's. However you deal with your particular anxiety, know that is it very real, and it goes to the heart of this perceived mistrust within the literary community, and definitely contributes to my presence here today.


Please understand that all the original panelists had a hand in crafting this panel description. This part, however, escaped my notice until I started considering how, among slam poets, self-sabotage often contributes to isolation. What I do isn't poetry, they'll say. Well, who's to say? And similarly, who's to say what I do at the Acentos Review isn't mainstream? And considering that we've gotten submissions from as far away as Brazil, that we have published an interview with Ana Castillo, that we seek out new writers with as much aplomb as we accept established writers, I'd say we've been pretty successful at what we do. But we're not mainstream. CAVEAT: We only publish Latinos. Well. Maybe that makes us community-based. Maybe that makes elena minor's PALABRA journal community-based. Because Latino equals community. Because Latino does not equal mainstream.

So what's mainstream to a poet? Well. If I were an alien to this planet (tea partiers be damned), I might look to relatively large, well-paid entities with ambitious titles like The Poetry Foundation, or Poetry magazine, or The Poetry Society of America. And until recently, I would have been hard-pressed to find nary a Latino within their published works. To that end, for what progress has been made on those fronts, I want to very publicly thank Don Share, the editor of Poetry, as well as Francisco Aragon, who I know has been an advocate for Latino writers all over the country.

That said, these are only two people in the world. They are not able to go out and singlehandedly change every book awards ceremony that hands awards to Latinos at the same rate that ice melts in Greenland, nor can they alter the editorial policies of every journal that overooks Black writers, nor can they re-anthologize the anthologies where "regional" editors separate the Chicano from the Puerto Rican. And here is where I will invoke:


Sometimes, when the atmosphere is of perceived mistrust, when one's colleagues are feeling marginalized, and when writers of color suffer their anxieties in private or public, we go out and create our own tables of contents. This is what the Black Arts movement did. This is what the Nuyoricans did. This is what Third World Press did. And this is what we did at the Acentos Foundation: Raina Leon and Eliel Lucero, two poets from the Acentos collective, decided to create a journal for Latinos, by Latinos, online. Not a lot of distribution cost, not a lot of paper being pushed, or resources wasted. And, unsurprisingly, plenty of entries to wade through. When Latino poets are given the space to write and code-switch without translation or apology, when they are given the space to stretch and not worry about how some schools of political thought play out in a narrative, when they are given the freedom to not think 24/7 about the fact of their Latinidad, amazing things result, things like Latinos actually submitting work to you.

I've often heard the complaint lodged by editors about writers of color: how can we consider you when you don't submit to us? And I've often heard its retort: How can we submit to you when you never consider us? The Acentos Review is one of many answers to the problem. By showing the depth and breadth of Latino writing, and the insistence of Latino writers to get to the humanity beyond questions of identity in the United States, we are, in a small way, showing the broad spectrum of American poetry...or at least, the possibilities of it. Much can be said, and someone here may well say it, about the other entry points to the U.S. canon: To MFA or Not To MFA. Where do we seek out new voices? What's the difference between soliciting work and seeking work out? When has a journal gotten too big to see past its own prejudices?

I leave the rest of these answers and questions to the audience here, but in the meantime, it is my hope—especially considering the unfortunate absence of some of the original panelists—that is a beginning, not an ending point, and that constructive dialogues towards parity, inclusivity, and the end of Table of Contents Anxiety, can begin, at AWP, online, at home, in academia, and in the slush piles.

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