Interview with Brenda Cárdenas & Five Poems
by Wendy Vardaman
WV: Do you see yourself as an academic poet, a community poet, or both?
BC: I don’t mean to buck the question, but I try to resist such categories and divisions, so I’d say that I see myself as both in that I am a university professor, so I do work in the academy, and I am also an active member of several communities (both local and global). In addition, during different periods of my life, I spent a lot of time organizing community arts events, working for community arts and cultural organizations (I haven’t always been an academic), and doing my part as a social-political activist.
Furthermore, as a reader, I do not privilege poetry that has been deemed “academic” by others, nor do I dismiss it. That term means different things to different people. Some see “academic” poetry as that which is especially difficult, obscure, and/or erudite, whereas others see “academic” poetry as that which is overly crafted and self indulgent without depth, risk, or inventiveness—what Silliman has called the School of Quietude. So what is academic poetry? The same question applies to the term “community poet.” For some people that term implies poetry that is accessible (which is another problematic term, especially when it means transparent), outwardly political, or that lives in the terrain of “spoken word.” Yet, we know of many poets who write very profound, inventive poetry and who are quite committed to community. We might hear complex, nuanced spoken word from the voice of one poet and clichés that rely on the gratuitous manipulation of readers from the voice of another performance poet.
My work varies from quite accessible (perhaps to a fault), to deceptively simple (with more there than meets the eye upon a first read), to more demanding of the reader. It also varies from poems that lend themselves to oral performance (and have been called spoken word) to those which are so tied to the page that they lose meaning/nuance if the reader doesn’t see them perform on the page. Some of my work is also translingual and so privileges a bilingual reader. Such a poem might be “difficult” in a very different way for a monolingual academic than it is for a bilingual reader who has never studied literature. I’m both an academic and a community poet. Community—and I do not take that term lightly—on multiple levels and in many incarnations is paramount to my essence as a human being. I also love learning. Why else would I have spent my life in college?
I want to be challenged, my mind to be stretched, to be left with more questions when I read a poem, but I also want to recognize a glimmer of something—to find some way into the poem. Ultimately, as a person and poet, I want to grow and play an active role in my own and my community’s (daily) transformation.
WV: Tell me about how you became interested in poetry. Did you write poems as a child, and if you did, who or what inspired you to do that? How and when did you decide to become a “professional poet”?
BC: I became interested in stories as a small child because one of my aunts and a few of my grandparents were especially imaginative and prolific storytellers. My nuclear family lived in a two-flat upstairs from my Aunt Elia and Uncle Karel (a Mexican American married to a Yugoslavian immigrant—imagine the mix of languages in that household!) until I was about six years old, and then we moved next door to my maternal grandparents; that grandma was quite the sparkplug, never lacking for vivid euphemisms. My paternal grandparents and another aunt, uncle and set of cousins lived less than a mile away, so I spent a lot of time with family and especially with adults. I have fond memories of all the kids gathering at the feet of my grandfather Cárdenas to listen to his stories about growing up in Mexico, folktales like the Llorona legend, or tall tales he made up. My aunt could keep me occupied with a box of buttons and endless stories while she sat at her sewing machine crafting entire four-piece suits. My parents and aunts also read storybooks to me from time to time. They say that long before I went to school and learned to read, I would memorize the stories they read to me, sit down with the book and turn the pages, pretending I was reading.
I began writing stories as a child. My aunt Elia used to make me blank books by binding together with yarn the scrap paper my uncle and father had brought home from work. My fifth grade teacher assigned free-writing time, which I cherished. While my peers moped and complained about it, I would fill pages and pages of my composition book. This forward-thinking teacher also held one-on-one conferences with each student. I never forgot the time she told me that I should be a writer. At home, I often hid at the back of a small closet, sitting on top of my mother’s shoes with a flashlight in hand, filling notebooks. For me, this was a very personal, private endeavor, and I didn’t want my brothers to know I was writing lest they tease me for not being out shooting hoops or dodging the balls they loved to whip just past my head.
The specific genre of poetry came later in high school. A class in American authors introduced me to Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings and others. I took a Creative Writing course then and had an awful little poem about the seasons published in the high school newspaper. Later in college, I was further inspired to write poetry in my Creative Writing classes.
I still don’t like to think of myself as a “professional poet,” as I do not make a living from writing and publishing poetry. I make my living as a professor, and although my teaching in a Creative Writing program is certainly directly related to my writing, I write when and because I am inspired to do so by living, because I witness and/or seek to understand something that I feel can only be adequately addressed by poetry, or because I see a challenge with which I want to wrestle. While my writing is often grounded in the world around me, I don’t believe in only writing about what I know, but rather in exploring and learning through writing. It is also one of the few activities that can both take me out of myself and push me much deeper into myself for long stretches of time—one of the few in which I become fully immersed. When I’m really engaged in the process, it’s a bit like a trance. I won’t even hear someone who is calling my name. Some people have this kind of experience when running or meditating, and I’ve recently fallen in love with gardening because for me, it can be incredibly meditative. But nothing collapses time for me, and nothing challenges me like writing. It can be as frustrating as it is marvelous, and I do suffer from writing paralysis at times, which is painful, as it is the process of writing, as opposed to the product, that is most important to me. The phrase “professional poet” always seems more tied to business and product. I do publish poems and give readings/talks, so I realize that is a kind of professionalization, but I wasn’t involved in such activities on a regular basis until I was in my late twenties.
WV: What poets and writers or other artists have influenced you? Do you have favorites?
BC: There are countless poets, writers, and artists who have influenced me at different times in my life. Due to a fairly broad aesthetic, I do not have one or two favorites. I appreciate strong poems in a number of different styles created from many different approaches. What matters is that the piece works—that it does what it attempts to do so well that it appears effortless, that it resonates, makes me want to revisit it, inspires me to continue questioning or thinking through something.
But to answer your question more directly, I mentioned some of my very early favorites in my answer to the previous question. A bit later (the 1980’s), in college level Spanish language and literature courses, I read and appreciated the work of Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Rosario Castellanos. Back then I was also reading American poets like James Wright, William Stafford, Philip Levine, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Ruth Stone, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Jack Spicer, Amiri Baraka, Philip Whalen, Charles Simic, Wendell Berry (so many men!!) among many others, as well as some of the great Latin American fiction writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, and Miguel Ángel Asturias.
Down the line in the early 90’s, I developed an interest in Native American fiction and poetry, much of which I still love: Leslie Marmon Silko (I think Ceremony is one of the finest American novels ever written), Louise Erdrich, Louis Owens, Joy Harjo, and Simon Ortiz. I was left breathless by Toni Morrison’s Sula and Beloved. (Who wasn’t?) And I finally found Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes’ Emplumada, which had a strong influence on me just as I started to get more serious about my own writing. Her work led me to a number of other U. S. Latino/a poets and writers that became quite important to me. There are far too many to name here, but some key works were Tomás Rivera’s poetic novel Y no se lo tragó la tierra / And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, which is, shamefully, one of the books recently banned from the Tucson Public Schools; Alurista’s poetry volume Spik in Glyph; Carlos Cumpián’s Coyote Son, Carlos Cortez’s body of work (both prints and poems), Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, also banned in Tucson, and Victor Hernández Cruz’s early books like Snaps, By Lingual Wholes, and Tropicalization. Eventually, I came to more Latino/a poets—and I’d like to simply say poets here (without the Latino/a qualifier)—who are among my favorites today: Juan Felipe Herrera, Cecilia Vicuña, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Demetria Martinez, and Frank Lima. I also became inspired by the work of Tim Siebels, Li-Young Lee, Ai, Wanda Coleman, Etheridge Knight, and June Jordan, among others at that time.
Although they’ve been around since the 1930’s, when I was in school, no professor assigned the Objectivists—poets like Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, and George Oppen. I knew the names and had read a poem or two but finally came to digging into a pile of their books much later in life than I wish I had. This is true as well of other greats like Jackson Mac Low, to whose work my husband introduced me, not to speak of visual and sound poets like Steve McCaffrey, bp Nichol, Mary Ellen Solt, Johanna Drucker, Derek Beaulieu, and Tracie Morris.
Finally, over the past ten years or so, I’ve also become quite fond of the poetry (and translations in some cases) of Craig Santos Perez, Mark Nowak, Haryette Mullen, Valerie Martinez, Peter Gizzi, Daniel Borzutzky, Paul Martinez Pompa, Rosa Alcala, Shin Yu Pai, Traci Morris, Tom Pickard, Claudia Rankine, Ed Roberson, Edwin Torres, Lisa Jarnot, Arthur Sze, Elizabeth Willis, Cole Swensen, Emmy Perez, Adrian Castro, Thomas McGrath, Cathy Park Hong, Jaime Saenz, C.D. Wright, Terrance Hayes, Susan Howe, Roberto Tejada, Christian Bok, G. S. Giscombe, Kevin Young, Thomas A. Clark, Anne Carson, Nikky Finney, A. Van Jordan, and do I have to end this list (there are so many more)?
Notice I didn’t even begin to get into visual and performance artists, many of whom have had a major influence on me and my work, especially Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Coco Fusco, and Ana Mendieta.
WV: Who are your favorite Wisconsin or Midwestern authors?
BC: Wisconsin poets Lorine Niedecker, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Timothy Yu, Karl Gartung, Kimberly Blaeser, Dawn Tefft, and Roberto Harrison (I know he’s my husband, but he’s brilliant just the same); Chicagoans Gwendolyn Brooks, Carlos Cortez, Daniel Borzutzky, Ed Roberson, Paul Martinez Pompa, Simone Muench, Kristy Odelius, Nina Corwin, Tony Trigilio, Garin Cycholl, Edward Hirsch, Tyehimba Jess, and Patricia Smith (the last three now in other places); originally from Michigan, Toi Derricotte, and this list too is missing many.
WV: You’re from Milwaukee, but left for grad school, spent more time away in Chicago, and then returned. What brought you back to Milwaukee?
BC: Oh, it’s a long story, but suffice it to say that I had family and friends in Milwaukee and was teaching full-time at a community college in Chicago with a huge teaching load but not a high enough salary to get beyond living paycheck to paycheck (to own a residence or save for travel). We had just gone back to work after a pretty long and brutal strike to save our health insurance during which I had been active and vocal. Although I was tenured, my job was not in danger, and the strike was certainly well worth it, the aftermath was pretty ugly. I landed a job teaching at MATC in Milwaukee, which paid a lot more money than the school in Chicago, so I decided to head home where I had aging family members and old friends. After a few years, I was quite fortunate to be hired at UW-Milwaukee where I teach now. I lost quite a bit of that MATC salary moving over to UWM, but I’m happy there—the students and courses I have the opportunity to create and teach are great. I also met my husband once I returned to Milwaukee, so I ultimately made the right decision although the present political situation with the extreme right wing running Wisconsin is incredibly ruinous and depressing. Financially, the move back to Milwaukee was a giant disaster. But in very personal ways and in other aspects of the academic profession, it was a great decision.
WV: How does being a poet in Milwaukee compare to being a poet in Chicago? Do you ever feel isolated or at a disadvantage as an artist living in the Midwest? Have you spent any time outside the Midwest?
BC: I’ve been on the Midwestern tour my whole life—born and raised in Milwaukee; moved to other parts of Wisconsin during my twenties, including the Appleton area; returned to Milwaukee to teach high school for about three years; then went to Ann Arbor, Michigan for graduate school and spent five years there; moved from there to Chicago for about nine years; and then back to Milwaukee. I seem to be perpetually bound to the Midwest.
In terms of the comparison you raise between Milwaukee and Chicago, I’d say that Chicago’s arts environment is richer in that it is more aesthetically and culturally diverse and lively than any other Midwestern city’s. There are so many different poetries being written and published locally in Chicago, and there are venues that host readings in bookstores, cafés, libraries, bars, parks, galleries, houses, festivals all over the city on any given evening, but that makes sense given Chicago’s size, literary history, and cultural diversity. At the same time, Milwaukee has Woodland Pattern Book Center, which for me is the crown jewel of the Midwest. Hands down, it has to be one of the two or three best bookstores in the nation for purchasing poetry, and for the past 36 years it has showcased readings and workshops by poets and writers from all over the country and world, along with giving us visual art shows, a film series, and concerts by musicians/composers from Marilyn Crispell’s contemporary jazz piano to Alash—an incredible group of Tuvan throat singers. Without WP, I might feel much more isolated in the Midwest. Of course, writers on the coasts, especially on the East coast or in San Francisco, live in the laps of publishing and more public support for the arts, so they have that advantage, but those are also very expensive places to live. In some ways, a bit of isolation can be good for a writer. It is, after all, a solitary activity. And I believe there is a big difference between a community of artists and a “scene.” I’m really not at all interested in the latter and find myself wincing in reaction to folks who seem like scensters to me no matter where they live.
WV: How often do you travel, professionally, and what are some of the conferences or workshops you like to go to? Are there any particular conferences that you’d recommend to poets in WI who haven’t gone to many regional or national events?
BC: I travel, professionally, quite often (almost too much) but not to distant enough places. Ha! In other words, I travel all over the country and very often within the Midwest, but wish I were going to conferences, workshops, and readings in Latin America, Europe and Asia. It may be time for me to start checking out those opportunities! In 2010-2011, I traveled to Kansas City, MO (twice); Goshen, IN; Tempe, AZ; Washington D.C.; Bethesda, MD; New York, NY; Chicago, IL (several times); Greensburg, PA; La Farge, Appleton, Horicon, Fort Atkinson, WI for readings and to Denver, CO and Pittsburgh, PA for conferences/residencies.
The only conference I attend regularly is the Association for Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which is held in a different city each year, and which I’d recommend to poets who have never been to a large international writers conference, even if simply to give them a sense of what it’s like when thousands of writers descend upon a city all at once. Hundreds of readings and panel talks are part of the official conference itself, and hundreds more offsite readings take place in venues all over the city; they are often some of the long weekend’s best events. One could spend the whole conference in the book fair alone learning about what has been published in the past year. At the same time, the AWP conference is so large that it becomes exhausting and overwhelming at times. Plus, one has to tolerate a fair amount of posing and “networking” (to put it nicely), which shoves the whole “professionalization of the arts” in one’s face. For this reason, some poets I know stay far away, but I’ve always learned something valuable about literature or writing or heard some amazing poet whose work I was not familiar with before the conference, so I usually attend.
I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience attending the Cave Canem Annual Writing Retreat as a visiting Letras Latinas poet in 2010. Cave Canem is a writer’s organization co-founded by Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady that describes itself as a “home for black poets.” I was incredibly fortunate to be chosen for a particular collaborative exchange between Letras Latinas, a Latino/a literary organization, and Cave Canem, but I would highly recommend this organization to any African American poet who might read this. Its week-long workshop/retreat is serious, intense, challenging, and more about community than just about any such experience I’ve ever witnessed. [For more on Cave Canem, read Bianca Spriggs' essay in this issue of VW.]
I’ve heard great things about Split This Rock and Canto Mundo but have never applied to attend either of them because I always seem to have a huge event to tend to in the summers (in the summer of 2011 I got married, and the summer before, I was going up for tenure, to name a few). I’m hoping that’s it for awhile where giant life changing events are concerned so that I might apply to those workshops/retreats in the future.
WV: Tell me more about your involvement with Letras Latinas and Cave Canem, and the partnership between them. What are the benefits of those organizations to their members? Are there any regional equivalents, and if not, would that be desirable?
BC: I spoke briefly about Cave Canem above. My involvement with that organization came through a collaborative effort between it and Letras Latinas and took two forms: my participation as a Visiting Poet at its 2010 residency/retreat in Pennsylvania and performing two poetry readings with several Cave Canem fellows at the American Poetry Museum in Washington DC and at the Bethesda Writers Center in MD.
Cárdenas (right) with poets Ed Roberson, Cornelius Eady, and Toi Dericotte.
Letras Latinas is the literary division (or wing) of the Institute for Latino/a Studies at the University of Notre Dame. My chapbook From the Tongues of Brick and Stone was published by Momotombo Press, which is an imprint of that Institute. It was chosen for publication by Francisco Aragón, the Letras Latinas director, who had read my work online and in an anthology of Midwestern Latina poetry that I had co-edited several years before.
Francisco [with Cárdenas right], an exceptional poet and translator himself, is a tireless promoter of poetry in general and especially of U. S. Latino/a poetry, which he feels helps expand and strengthen that body of literature. Letras Latinas is involved in so many projects that I cannot name them all here. Suffice it to say that they include a chapbook press, a first book prize, a second or third book prize, co-sponsoring and organizing the Palabra Pura reading series in Chicago as well as readings all over the country that each feature two-six poets, a writer’s residency prize, and collaborations with a number of other literary organizations, including Cave Canem, Con Tinta, and various publishers. See http://latinopoetryreview.blogspot.com/ for the best and most up-to-date information. Most importantly, Letras Latinas has really helped make U. S. Latino/a writers aware of each other and helped make them visible to other U.S. writers, critics, and publishers. The organization has inspired many Latino/a writers to become cultural workers who organize their own events (readings, workshops, etc.) or form their own organizations. It promotes collaboration. And it has really helped emerging writers get their work in the public eye via publication, performance and reviews. Cave Canem does all these things for its fellows too, but it has been doing so for much longer, and it is independent of any academic institution. It is an independent not-for-profit organization.
I do not know of any regional equivalents to these, but there are a few Midwestern organizations that do some similar work although not on the same scale. I’m thinking of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University; the Guild Complex in Chicago, especially its Palabra Pura series, which pairs Latino/a and African American writers for readings; Contratiempo in Chicago for Spanish language writers; Kansas City’s Latino Writers Collective; and some of the efforts of Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee (which I spoke about above) and Latino Arts (United Community Center) in Milwaukee.
WV: Becoming a poet, remaining a poet, are uphill battles with few rewards for most of us. What are some of the challenges facing Latino/a poets in particular, and what can be done to promote and to support their work? Are there ways—aesthetically, for example—that the poetry establishment or poetry journals create barriers to Latino/a writers, and what can we do to change that?
BC: Although Latinos/as are the fastest growing population in the United States with some 48 million people, and some aspects of Latino/a cultures have made their way into U. S. popular culture—certain foods, music, holidays, words and expressions—the American versions are usually watered down facsimiles of the original, detached from their full contexts and easy for non-Latinos/as to consume without understanding their complexities. Worse, we need look no further than the severe anti-immigrant legislation that targets Latinos/as in Arizona or attacks on ethnic studies and the Dream Act, to see the right wing’s malicious attempts to disenfranchise any Latinos/as except the wealthiest in the U. S., regardless of their legal status.
Latino/a writers are similarly often marginalized within the larger literary establishment. It was 2008 before a Latino poet, Juan Felipe Herrera, who had over 30 books published at the time, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has since also won the Guggenheim and was just named California’s poet laureate—so deserved and well overdue. It is especially difficult for those who write in Spanish (even if their work is translated) or translingually, but even English-language Latina/o poets who might use allusions to non-Western myths, legends, literary texts, and histories, find that it is not uncommon for non-Latina/o readers to view the work as esoteric and inaccessible. A Spanish-language subtext (such as references to an idiomatic expression or the purposeful use of Spanish syntax) may very well exist beneath the English surface of a Latina/o poem, adding a layer of meaning or nuance to the poem and often resulting in witty word play, but this is lost on the non-Latina/o reader who does not wish to do the work necessary to read for such possibilities.
Some Latina/o poets are caught in an internal tug of war regarding when, how, and even whether to write about or refer, at least directly, to their cultures and ethnicities in their poems. For good reason, one might fear essentializing culture in this way and purposefully resist falling prey to auto-ethnography. We are all so much more than our ethnicities. At the same time, a poet doesn’t want to be barred from incorporating cultural elements in her work. And then there are those who posit that one’s world view is so affected by culture that no matter what a Latina/o writes about, she/he is writing a Latina/o poem. In my lifetime, I’ve seen more and more Latina/o poets break through these barriers and see their work published. This is partly due to their own persistence and partly due to the tireless efforts of Latino/a organizations, editors and presses.
One thing we can all do to support Latina/o poetry is to fight against the demolition of ethnic studies courses and programs in public schools, colleges and universities. Another is to apply equal reading practices to Latino/a literature that we would apply to any other literature. If one is willing to look up “foreign” words and literary, mythological, Biblical, and historical allusions when reading a poem by, say, T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, then she/he should be willing to do the same when reading the work of a Latina/o poet. We also need non-Latinas/os to review the books of Latina/o writers and vice-versa. This is something that Letras Latinas has encouraged in the Latino Poetry Review, an online publication.
WV: You co-edited Between the Heart and the Land: Latina Poets in the Midwest (2001). Do you have any plans for a follow-up anthology or a 2nd edition? Are there, broadly speaking, particular characteristics of Midwestern Latina poetry?
BC: I do not currently have concrete plans for a follow-up Between the Heart and the Land anthology although I have thought about it, especially because, since the first edition, I have learned about the work of so many more Midwestern Latina poets, and new poets have begun publishing their work over the past ten years. At the present moment, I feel it is more imperative to work on my own writing, finish another book, and get to work on a new translation project I have before me. But I very well may consider editing a second edition in the future.
I’d have to write a long essay to adequately answer the second part of your question regarding specific characteristics of Midwestern Latina poetry, and I’m fairly certain that a new book of critical articles on Midwestern Latino/a literature is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press (edited by William Barillas), which will speak to that question. In the 2001 anthology that I co-edited, I noticed an even stronger sense of cultural loss, isolation and being between (“neither here nor there”) than I had found in Latina writing from the coasts or the Southwest at that time, although those themes are certainly present in many Latina/o texts. As one might expect, I also saw some of the work marked by the Midwestern landscape and environment—farms, fields, the great lakes, winter and its elements, along with the urban poems of Chicago. Most poets in the 2001 anthology wrote completely in English or in Spanish with far fewer code-switching between languages or using the Caló of Chicano/a poetry from Texas and California. Of course, Latina/o poetry has changed quite a bit over the past ten years and is now much more diverse in terms of subject/theme and aesthetic approaches. That would be as true in the Midwest as elsewhere.
WV: Appreciating the sophistication of writing that isn’t familiar often requires new knowledge and the willingness to move in different directions, even to expand our notions of what poetry can be. Is there anything readers who are new to Latino/a poetry should keep in mind? Which Latino/a poets would you recommend to a reader just starting out?
BC: I already spoke to this question to some degree in my answer to your question about the barriers that Latino/a writers face. Readers should keep in mind that many Latino/a poets (albeit definitely not all of them) are bilingual to some degree, so even when writing in English, they may do so with two languages present in their minds. Those languages influence one another, and both may influence the poem even when it appears to be written in only one or the other. The scholar Frances Aparicio wrote an excellent article about this subject titled “On Sub-Versive Signifiers: U. S. Latino/a Writers Tropicalize English,” and one of the best and most apparent examples of this occurs in the early poetry of Puerto Rican poet Victor Hernández Cruz. I would also refer folks to the work of scholar Doris Sommer in her books Bilingual Games and Bilingual Aesthetics.
Readers should also keep in mind how diverse the field of Latino/a poetry is today, both in terms of the many different Latino/a cultural backgrounds of the poets (not only Chicano/a, Puerto Rican, and Cuban-American, but also writers whose Latin American roots are in Central and South American countries) and in terms of subject matters and poetics. By this I mean that while some Latino/a poets may write directly about cultural issues and use cultural signifiers in their work (with various levels of complexity), which most readers can readily identify with minimal investigation, many others steer clear of those signifiers that readers have come to expect in them—the tortillas, curanderas, Quetzalcoatls, coquis, flamboyans, papaya and congas. Some may include issues of Latin American history or politics in their work, such as J. Michael Martinez’s book Heredities into which he collages translations of Hernán Cortés's accounts of his conquests, but with aims that move far beyond the exploration or reclamation of personal cultural identity. Others’ work may be most influenced by experimental movements in the arts, such as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project or Dada and Oulipo, and here I think of the work of poets like Edwin Torres, Mónica de la Torre, and Rodrigo Toscano. Some of Torres’ work uniquely blends a Nuyorican performance aesthetic of sorts with the influence of Dada, Futurism, Lettrism and visual poetry.
So it’s difficult to say which poets I might recommend to readers unfamiliar with Latino/a literature. To some degree that depends upon the readers’ aesthetic leanings and willingness to do some research on allusions they may not understand, to keep a Spanish-English dictionary on hand, or to read translingual passages for more than their denotative meaning. If the reader’s objective is to get a broad background in Latino/a poetry and to obtain a sense of some of its foundational texts, then I’d suggest starting with the work of Alurista, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Demetria Martinez, Pedro Pietri, Silvia Curbelo, Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Cecilia Vicuña, Ray Gonzalez, and Maurice Kilwein Guevara although that list is way too short; I’ll always suggest my favorite Latino/a poet whose longevity and breadth of work speaks for itself—Juan Felipe Herrera. But I’d never suggest stopping with these, and instead to move into some of the aforementioned poets who have more recently begun to publish.
WV: I’m interested in knowing more about Sonido Ink (quieto), the spoken word/music ensemble with whom you created the 2001 CD Chicano, Illnoize: The Blue Island Sessions. How did you start working together? Are you still performing?
BC: Sonido Ink(quieto) is no longer performing together. We stopped in early 2003 or so simply because each member had a number of different interests and obligations he/she wished to pursue or had to tend to: I was working on tenure at a community college with a colossal teaching load, the other poet Aidé Rodríguez was finishing a Masters Degree in Latin American Studies, and the musicians had all come out of punk en español and were involved in revitalizing that scene in Chicago by forming new punk bands. In addition, two of the musicians, Ricardo and Juan Compean (brothers), are visual artists as well as musicians (or I might even say, they are visual artists first), and had become quite productive in that arena at the time. We live in various cities now but keep in touch.
How did the group form? Basically, I had collaborated with other poets, musicians, and dancers on various projects before but, at the time, was doing solo readings in Chicago that folks characterized as performance poetry or spoken word. The Guild Complex asked me to be part of a performance art/poetry showcase, and I didn’t want to simply stand up on stage and do a lively reading of my work. I wanted to mix elements into an inter-arts show, so I approached José Casas, a friend and the former guitarist of the punk en español band Los Crudos, to ask if he’d consider collaborating. He was happy to but felt we needed to add drums. At the time, I was working as the Youth Initiatives Coordinator for the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum’s radio station WRTE—Radio Arte (90.5 FM), a completely bilingual, youth operated radio station (which is an amazing story in itself). The station served youth from 14-21 years old, and one of our oldest students Jesús Ortiz was an excellent drummer who agreed to join José and me. I also asked fellow poet Aidé Rodriguez to be part of the newly forming troupe. The four of us performed together for that Guild Complex showcase in front of three huge abstract paintings by the artist Jeff Abbey Maldonado whose work had influenced the mood of some of our pieces. That was before we even had a name.
After another performance or two, we invited Juan Compean to join us on bass guitar, his brother Ricardo on saxophone, and another radio station student Sal Vega on turntables. Because Jesús, the drummer who we fondly referred to as Jesuscio (Dirty Jesús), had been influenced as much by hip hop as by punk and ska, the group’s style became fairly eclectic. Some of the music tended more toward garage rock or punk and some toward hip-hop or rhythm and blues. Some tracks were soundscapes with José using spoons, lighters, and other objects to play the electric guitar. At times, the guys wrote music for poems that Aidé and I had already composed individually; at other times, Aidé and I wrote to music the guys were improvising during the free jams that often evolved from our rehearsals. Then we’d adjust word and music as we collaborated. The CD was a full-on D-I-Y project. We recorded in the radio station, mixed the CD on a computer ourselves with the help of an experimental composer who worked quite a bit with digital equipment, and the Compeans designed the CD jacket, etc. A friend who worked at a printing press even printed the jacket for us at 3:00 in the morning, and we assembled ourselves.
We performed mostly around Chicago and the Midwest, everywhere from coffee houses (which was very weird for the guys) to punk bars to colleges and even Ladyfest Midwest, but also did a tour of three universities in California. I’m proud to say that, along with some paid gigs, we donated many performances to fundraisers for various grassroots organizations. It was a 100-percent Pilsen, Chicago home-spun group, which is why we titled our CD “Chicano, Illnoize: The Blue Island Sessions.” The radio station where we recorded is at the intersection of Blue Island and 18th Street, which is the main drag through Pilsen. Those were the days of high energy to say the least.
WV: What are some of the differences between creating poetry for the page and for the stage? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
BC: I used to have a preference for performance poetry—the stage. Now I have a preference for the page, but I try to resist closing myself off to either. And although I understand that a flat reading is best for some people’s work (and appreciate the argument that the work should speak for itself without relying on too much inflection from the poet), I simply cannot do a flat reading. Poems live too much in sound for me—in the music and rhythms of language and in the juxtaposition of languages and sounds. I hear the lines that I write—hear them before I visualize anything—and I speak them aloud over and over again as I compose and revise.
Some of the obvious differences between creating for the page vs. the stage are the attention the poet pays to the poem’s performance or layout on the page, to tone and voice, and to cadence and pace. But I really feel that the best poetry lives (and works)—and may live (and work) quite differently—in both places. One might say that the manifestation on the page and the one spoken aloud are two different versions of a text or even two different texts, but they each should engage the reader/listener. An exception might be visual and sound poetries, which must rely on the printed page or the oral performance, as these are inherent to the respective forms, but even here a good poet will resist relying on the easy trick or gesture. And some consider ways to translate the visual poem to sound or a sound poem to the page. Consider b.p. Nichol and Steve McCaffery who were prolific in both visual and sound poetries.
WV: Have you done other collaborative projects besides the anthology and your work with Sonido Ink (quieto)? What do you like about collaborative work, and how can poets get started if they’ve never tried it?
BC: Yes, I’ve done a number of collaborative projects. When I was a graduate student, I co-founded a diverse spoken word poetry troupe; there were eight of us from many different cultural/ethnic backgrounds, genders and sexual orientations, who performed together, often choreographing our voices for particular interpretations of each other’s poems and, in a few cases, co-writing poems. Also through a graduate course in collaborative arts, I met and worked with another poet, a textile artist, a composer, and a digital artist to create a pretty elaborate installation piece titled “Mas Cara” in which the poetry took various forms—it was recorded with an original musical score as well as on film.
After graduate school but before moving to Chicago, I collaborated with dancer Evelyn Velez Aguayo on the performance art piece “Oh Goya! Goya!” which was included in Corpus Delecti—Sex, Food, and Body Politics: A Season of U. S. Latino/a, Caribbean, and Latin American Performance Art, curated by Coco Fusco for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, England. In addition, the jazz fusion band Poignant Plecostomus composed music to several of my poems, and we did a few shows together.
Once in Chicago, I was fortunate to be selected as one of the cast members of Ping Chong’s (a renowned experimental theater director) Undesirable Elements, Chicago. The script was comprised of the personal stories of the cast members, which Chong collaged together with historical facts, songs, and choreographed movement.
Around the same time, the visual artist Jeff Abbey Maldonado created six different linoleum cut prints and gave one to each of six poets so that we could write ekphrastic poems in response to his prints. In turn, each poet gave Maldonado a poem that he would respond to with a new linocut print. The project resulted in a calendar that contained a different print-poem set for each month, along with three art exhibits/poetry performances at places like the Chicago Cultural Center and the Field Museum. It was only after those experiences that I co-edited the anthology with Johanny Vazquez Paz and started working with Sonido Ink(quieto).
Much more recently Kelly Anderson of Danceworks in Milwaukee choreographed a dance to my poem “Sonnet for Thunder Lovers and Primary Colors,” and two dancers brought the piece to life. Finally, my husband and I have done some preliminary work on a large poetry translation project we plan to complete together.
So I guess you could say that I really value both collaborative and inter-arts work, and my experience has been fairly broad. Some projects have involved two or more artists bringing works they’ve already created to each other to serve as inspiration for new pieces, and other projects involve actually composing/creating together. I find collaboration exhilarating. So many ideas and so much material are generated when different minds and talents blend. They might intersect, overlap, link, or diverge in wildly different directions. Collaboration means learning from one another, negotiating, sifting and mining, merging visions and allowing them to mutate into something new, both letting go of control and directing when necessary. Those moments when collaborators feel completely in sync with one another are intense and beautiful, and the moments when they seem to be on different planets are transformative as well. Collaborators feed one another’s creative impulses, help each other stretch past their self-imposed boundaries and shake loose what may be stuck or blocked. I’m very much a people person, definitely not a loner, and gravitate toward syncretic spaces, objects and consciousness anyway, which may be a few reasons why collaboration is more joy than agony for me. Surely, it’s not for everybody.
How to get started? Mmmmm... Find a fellow poet or artist whose work inspires and intrigues you and who is open about sharing ideas, opinions, etc. Someone who is like-minded in some ways, but whose approaches to art and their effects are different from your own. Have a conversation about projects you’ve been considering. See where it goes. I’ve heard about a number of collaborative poems that were written online via e-mail exchanges, so while I prefer meeting face-to-face with my collaborators, that isn’t necessary.
WV: You were poet laureate of Milwaukee 2010-2011. Congratulations, that’s an illustrious group! What does the poet laureate of Milwaukee do? Did you have any particular project or goals as the city’s laureate?
BC: Thank you. It is certainly an honor to have been awarded this position. The poet laureate is required to make five poetry-related appearances per year with at least some of them taking place in the greater Milwaukee area. The events might include doing readings of one’s own work, giving workshops or talks, organizing readings/performances by other poets, or hosting an event by a well-known visiting poet. In reality, the poet laureate receives far more than five invitations to appear at local events, institutions, etc., and while it is virtually impossible to honor all the invitations, especially if one works full-time as I do, I have appeared at many colleges, universities, high schools, book stores, interest groups, special events—even at a law firm. During my first year, I also organized a special panel discussion for Central Library titled “Earning Our Daily Bread: Poets and Their Day Jobs.” The panel included published poets who are not academics and who have a variety of careers to support themselves: Frank Lima, a poet-chef; Nina Corwin, a poet-psycho-therapist; William Fuller, a poet-trust fund officer; Sue Blaustein, a poet-food safety inspector; and Karl Gartung, a poet-truck driver. The event drew a full house at the library.
I also organized Cantos Latinos, a bilingual reading and discussion by Latino/a poets, for the spring of 2012. It included Francisco Aragón, Xánath Caraza, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, Roberto Harrison, and Emma Trelles, each of a different Latino/a heritage. For the two years, of course, I did readings and workshops, as my schedule allowed, around the city, state, and nation.
WV: Madison established an unfunded poet laureateship in 1977. Milwaukee, under the auspices of the Milwaukee Public Library, established its laureateship in 2000. Racine and Kenosha recently appointed poets laureate—do you think more towns should do that? Is there any way that poets laureate of communities in Wisconsin could work together for larger ends? Or perhaps work with the state poet laureate (currently Bruce Dethlefsen) ?
BC: It’s interesting that you mention this since the Wisconsin legislature and governor in their biennial budget cut the funding for the state poet laureate [the position is now housed at the Wisconsin Academy]—the small amount the person in that position used to be paid for his/her vast efforts. Such a cut is repugnant to me; it says that the arts are not valuable and being an artist is not work, and it shows that the current state government has no regard for those things in life (like the arts) that feed our creative intellects and mental health. The small stipends that poets laureate are paid certainly are not going to balance the budget! So, I’d say that until the politicians and the citizens that elect them show more respect for arts and literature and for the services that leaders in those areas provide, we should re-consider having poets laureate for even more towns. While I congratulate the poets laureate of Racine, Kenosha, and any other town that might choose to appoint one, I also feel that instead of putting efforts and dwindling resources into many small laureateships, we might consider pooling our collective energy into supporting long-standing, non-profit literary organizations that have a proven record of serving communities in similar ways. Their funding has also been slashed, and if we do not support them now, we are going to find ourselves in a vast wasteland. In addition, we might channel resources into helping fund new small presses. But the trick is finding new, creative ways to garner and stretch resources—publishing cooperatives and the like.
WV: It seems to me that for a fairly small state with a necessarily small number of poets, there’s a lot of separation among our poetry communities—e.g., between university- and community-based poets, between Milwaukee and Madison, between page and stage. Is that your impression or not? Are some gaps more disturbing than others? Are there things we can do to bridge our differences, to promote communication and mutual interest?
BC: I don’t feel that the gaps are as wide as you sense they are, or, maybe I should say that if those gaps exist, it may be at least partly because people are so preoccupied with creating categories and niches and boxing themselves or other people/poets into them. Certainly, I feel that we would all benefit from attending a larger variety of poetry events (readings, talks, etc.) in multiple locations, as we are physically and financially able. I’d love to see more university students and faculty at the events community organizations sponsor and more community members at the events the university sponsors and opens to them. I try very hard to go to poetry events all over Milwaukee, and when I can, to other parts of the state, but I certainly miss many events I’d like to attend. Travel is an issue for a lot of people, both due to the cost of gas and the hours their jobs demand of them. So we need to be creative: tune into radio or web broadcasts of readings happening in other locales, find out about the upcoming readings in a geographic area we happen to be traveling to anyway and make an effort to attend. But all of this starts with reading as widely as we can to begin with—buying and reading small press books, subscribing to local literary magazines/journals as diverse as Verse Wisconsin and Cannot Exist, and asking local libraries to purchase such books and magazines.
WV: Many of your poems involve code-switching—between English and Spanish (for example, “Al mestizaje” or “Abuelo y sus cuentos: Origin of the Bird-Beak Mole”), between academic and vernacular (“Cartoon Coyote Goes Po-Mo”). Could you talk about what you hope to accomplish, aesthetically and poetically? Do you come at it in an academic/linguistic or a personal way, or both? Do you worry about asking too much of your readers? Can you point readers to some other contemporary poets who they might also like to read?
BC: Yes, many of my poems do involve code-switching between various languages and registers of language—what I tend to call translingualism. First, language is symbol and sound, and I’m very drawn to the musicality of poems—the way different sounds rub up against one another and how that affects or re-casts meaning, in terms of tone, timbre, and nuance. That music might be harmonious or dissonant, meditative or unnerving, playful or edgy or playfully edgy—the list goes on and on—but we feel what we hear in the body. Paying attention to sound is one way to embody a poem. This is true even when I write a poem in one language or one register. However, since I have two languages at my disposal (as well as bits and pieces of others) and various registers, as do we all, I enjoy discovering what new musics arise in the juxtapositions between, say, a Spanish syllable and an English one—in translingual assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhyme—or in one of the working class regionalisms I grew up hearing next to theory-speak.
Along with such play, I have always been drawn to the spaces between languages, cultures, countries, emotional and mental states (like waking and sleeping, for example)—the interstitial spaces, and the hybrid or syncretic ones that result when the two merge. For me, this is to embrace the transformation, flux, and becoming that is life. In such bringing together is the recognition that disparate elements both complement and resist one another in rich and intricate ways. My poems in part seek to explore such terrain and manifestations of being. Even more obvious, I suppose, is the notion that to be a Latina, period, and especially in this country is to be transcultural, and some of my poetry seeks to both honor and complicate that. Certainly, I have socio-political aims as well. Spanish is no more a foreign language in the United States than English or any other non-Native American language. It was actually present in the U.S. long before English, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo supposedly protected the Spanish language of Mexicans living in the conquered territories. Yet people have been punished in myriad ways for speaking their language. My poems embrace the notion that we should all speak multiple languages.
In some poetry that uses codeswitching, the languages other than English are heavily contextualized: The poet translates them within the line or uses only the most common “foreign” words. I feel that in my best translingual poems, the two languages or “codes” are so interwoven together, it becomes difficult or impossible to separate them, thereby resisting the notion that English is the real language in the poem and Spanish mere decoration. That may ask too much of some readers, but my job and goals as a poet are not to please all readers or make their participation as easy as possible. In other ways, many of my poems are quite accessible (and perhaps even too much so). It’s a give and take.
I’ve already suggested a number of contemporary poets to those who read this interview. In terms of others who write translingually, in addition to some of those already mentioned, I’d suggest Craig Santos Perez (Chamorro, Spanish, Japanese, English), Barbara Jane Reyes (Spanish, Tagalog, English), Urayoan Noel (Spanish and English), Lucy Tapahonso (Diné and English), and Regine Rousseau (Haitian Creole and English).
WV: Some of the poems in Boomerang, “Empty Spaces,” for example, and “Our Language” speak to the interesting issues that surround translingualism code-switching: “We work in English,/make love in Spanish/and code-switch past our indecision.” Are you a different poet in English and in Spanish? Does your voice shift working in (and between) the two languages? Does one language allow you to articulate things you can’t say in the other?
BC: That’s a difficult question to answer. My first impulse was to say that I am not a different poet working in one language than in the other—if I were, I probably wouldn’t mix them so freely. Yet, the more I think about it, the more complicated the answer becomes. Because I was educated in English and was raised hearing English alone, Spanish alone, and a blend of the two languages and speaking either English or an English/Spanish blend in particular contexts, I’m more fluent in English than in Spanish. I have more vocabulary at the ready in English than in Spanish, and I need to speak Spanish (without using English) for about three days before I really start thinking fully in it (or dreaming in it). So my English language poems may very well be more spontaneous (at least in early drafts) and nuanced than my Spanish language ones. At least that is probably true for monolingual poems. You may have noted that I write few monolingual poems all in Spanish (I believe there are only three in Boomerang).
Interestingly, many of my translingual poems that mix the languages tend to refer to (and on some level, to be about) language itself and/or culture; several (but not all) are more narrative. On the other hand, some of the English language poems tend to be quieter and more contemplative, which is interesting if we start thinking about issues of silence and speaking (permission to speak and resistance to being silenced), “official” or “academic” languages and “unofficial” or “home” languages. Of course, there are exceptions to this pattern like my series of meditations titled “Sound Waves,” which mix the languages. But my voice does tend to shift: It is often more energized in Spanish, perhaps darker and more detailed in English, and most playful and layered in a translingual blend.
To answer the last part of your question, yes, definitely, one language allows me (or anyone) to articulate things I cannot say in the other. Some cultures do not have words for particular concepts because those concepts do not exist in that culture; on the other hand, they might have ten or fifty words for another concept (for all the slight variations within it), which do not exist in the next language/culture. Languages are gendered in different ways as well. Due to one’s own closeness to a particular language (it being a first language, for example), words may also feel different in that language than in another—as though their expression of the idea is richer or fuller. The poet Francisco X. Alarcón once wrote in a poem, “Un beso/ is not just/ a kiss/ un beso is/ more dangerous/ sometimes/ even fatal.” Certainly, someone who grew up with Spanish as the main language, especially if he/she was educated in Spanish or spoke only Spanish in the home, would answer this question very differently.
WV: Do the rhythms/ characteristics or typical forms of each language affect the poetry you write in the other language?
BC: Yes, most likely, especially in subconscious ways (of which I’m trying to become more conscious) like the syntaxes of the languages and the typical grammatical forms for expressing certain concepts. For example, in English, we have possessive forms of words that require an apostrophe whereas in Spanish we say that one thing is of the other—the boy’s clothes/la ropa del niño. I use many “of” phrases in English (sometimes too many). The different cadences of the two languages affects how and where I might switch between them in a poem as well.
WV: Your recent book, Boomerang, begins with a prose poem and includes numerous examples of formal poems, like “Sonnet for Thunder Lovers and Primary Colors,” which has some wonderful sound effects, as does “By the Skin of Your Breath,” written in sapphics. Could you talk about your interest in form?
BC: I became interested in traditional European forms when, many years ago, I took a graduate course in prosody taught by Richard Tillinghast who is quite an expert in that area—in the theory and the practice, both of which were aspects of the course. I found that working in these forms taught me to think more deeply about the vessel holding the words and ideas—how that container might mirror, underscore, and help shape what is being expressed as well as when the entire notion of “a container,” for a poem is way too closed and limiting. This is true also (and, perhaps, especially) when the poet has created a form for a free verse poem. Working in traditional forms was challenging, and the process helped me tighten my poetry, which was important for me since I tend toward the lush and verbose rather than the minimal. (By the way, that propensity makes me love what I don’t do well, so I really enjoy reading the super spare poems of others.)
Now, where traditional forms are concerned, I’m more interested in shifting or splintering or breaking them open to a degree, so as to make them my own or make them do something new when that fits a particular poem’s context.
Long after that graduate course, I also learned about non-Western forms like the ghazal and pantoum and more experimental forms/procedures like visual poems, Oulipo and aleatory poems, which I feel are equally valuable to understand and try; they present constraints that have different goals and often lead to more surprising results, as well as to ruptures in normative grammar and syntax.
WV: Do you teach form to your students at UW-Milwaukee? What’s their response to that?
BC: Yes, I do teach form, especially in a particular manifestation of the capstone course for upper level undergraduates subtitled “Structures and Constraints from Traditional to Experimental,” and I include much of what I spoke of above. At the outset of such a course (or unit of study) some students are eager to try various forms and procedures, whereas others (probably the majority) are a bit more hesitant—not quite buying into it—and often for good reason. They are usually not objecting to the forms’ difficulty but rather to their political conservativism. Traditional forms seem old fashioned to them and out of favor in the literary world. Therefore, it’s very important to me that the students come to really understand each form and how it works, but that they seek to make it their own and make it new—to experiment with it. By the end of the course, the vast majority of the students feel that their poetry has improved, their knowledge about poetry has grown, that they sit down to write with many more tools at their disposal, and that they think about communicating and making meaning in much more complex and divergent ways. This is true even if they intend to write most future poems in free verse.
WV: Whereas I used to read books that were either written in free verse or written in form, more and more poets include both, and it seems to me that’s a kind of code-switching, too. Do you see it that way?
B.C.: Perhaps. It’s also a way of acknowledging that traditional forms (or formal verse structures) may be the perfect vehicles for poems that almost seem to naturally roll into (or evolve into or succumb to) them, but that those forms can be equally as mundane or awkward when used over and over again and less inventively in some cases than in others. In other words, it may be a way of simply finding the best mode, shape, and “language” for each poem.
WV: What do you consider your biggest success poetically? Your biggest failure?
BC: My biggest success may be that my poetry seems to have reached a fairly diverse audience, even with its translingual elements, and by that I mean a culturally diverse audience as well as one that consists of readers both inside and outside of academe. It has crossed into both the spoken word and the print worlds. I very much appreciate being invited by community groups and organizations as well as by academic institutions to present my work, and I’ve been told that it is work that brings people and elements together and builds bridges.
My biggest failures are 1.) that I haven’t produced enough work at my age—that I find it difficult to maintain a regular writing practice (in large part due to so many obligations of my job) and tend to work in fits and starts and 2.) that my work isn’t yet quite as challenging for readers as the poetry I currently like best to read; in other words, my own writing hasn’t caught up yet with my reading, or my taste as a reader has surpassed what I currently do as a writer. But there is so much that I want to try, and so many ideas swirling around in my head that I’m committed to turning these failures around before I’m finished with this life.
WV: What poetry projects are you working on right now?
BC: I don’t like to talk too concretely about projects in process, so suffice it to say that I just completed a few ekphrastic poems written in response to glass art and plan to write three or four more for that series, and I’m also starting on a series of ekphrastic collage poems that respond to an artistic rendition of a particular element of Mexican popular culture and that incorporate text from a classic Mexican novel and a scholarly book on the subject. I’ve also written a number of urban nature poems over the past few years and have realized that I’ve been creating a bestiary of sorts. My husband and I are about to begin a large translation project involving the work of a Panamanian indigenous poet. Finally, I’m working on a long critical article regarding the poetry of Maurice Kilwein Guevara, to be published in a Wesleyan critical anthology. I have my work cut out for me!
WV: How has the political situation and groundswell of activism in Wisconsin over the last 1 1/2 years changed you and your poetry? What does that activism and these events mean for poets and artists and for the the role of the arts in activism?
BC: I’ve certainly never kept quiet about my own socio-political views—solidly on the left—and I have been an activist—albeit with varying degrees of participation—since high school when I was suspended for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance due to some atrocity or another that our country was committing. I have worked since I was 16 years old at various jobs in both the private and public sectors, serving for the past 23 years in the field of education (through not-for-profit community organizations as well as schools, colleges, and universities). I’ve always supported unions and have been a union member whenever it has been an option. Among other activities, that has meant walking picket lines on an ugly month-long strike when a community college system for which I worked threatened both to diminish employees’ health insurance and to raise our already ridiculously large teaching loads. Although I wrote no poems about that strike, I remember sitting on a hillside with my colleague-comrades, placards slung over our shoulders, with our laptops on fire, writing letters to the editor. I was eventually invited to read a piece on public radio that I’d written in response to a commentator’s misinformation and attack on public employees. Long before that experience, I was also once fired from a part-time job for helping the full-timers start a union. I’d do both all over again…in a minute.
So there was no question that I was going to be engaged in the Wisconsin uprising. I wrote a personal essay while traveling back and forth to Madison during those first few weeks of protest, which was published in a number of print and online publications. I also wrote a few overtly political poems during the course of the first several months. Although as a young poet I had written several such poems, I’ve grown away from manipulative didacticism and toward appreciating more complex, nuanced and subtle socio-political critique. What is a poem after all if it loses its mystery? Yet more than once at offshoot protests in Milwaukee, I was handed the mic and asked not only to speak, but to deliver poetry. There exist thousands of poems about labor and class oppression, but I could find few that seemed both appropriate to our particular context and able to invigorate a rally until I turned to Thomas McGrath. Here was the bold poem that the situation called for, but how many times could I recite “A Little Song about Charity”? So I finally wrote a few of my own Wisconsin protest poems. They served a particular purpose and record a particular moment.
While I do not see this as a marked change in my poetry or poetics, engagement in the Wisconsin struggle has fueled my anger and commitment to activism. I greatly appreciate those folks who do activist work by day and write well about it by night. Yet, for lack of time due to the demands of my job (remember, I’m one of those public employees who sits around doing nothing all day except leech off the taxpayers), when I have to choose between the two, I think it’s more important to be “on the ground” than behind my computer. At the same time, I’m so livid about the right-wing attack on our civil liberties in the U.S., which is coming at us in myriad forms, that I’ve recently begun imagining a long collage poem I hope to write, which will treat one of those attacks. It will not be about Wisconsin, but it will definitely be political.
We’ve all watched (or chosen to ignore) the left become steadily weakened by the bullying tactics of the far right and also, to some extent, by a “failure of the imagination” or lack of long-term vision since at least the beginning of the Reagan years. There’s a long complex history there that I do not have room to explore and is better left to the experts. Suffice it to say that while the U.S. has always been a brute colonizer and its claims of democracy more illusion than reality, since the partisan Supreme Court’s passage of Citizens United with its designation of corporations as people, the country’s plutocracy has become so blatant that it seems to have rendered feeble, if not powerless, any vestiges of democracy. The Wisconsin uprising and the Occupy Movement that swept the nation simultaneously (some would say in WI’s wake) might be seen as reactions or challenges (depending on how one breaks down their various motives, philosophies, failures and successes) to that brute capitalism with its plutocratic and, yes I’ll say it, fascist forms of governing. There have been many excellent articles published in the aftermath of the Wisconsin recall election regarding the failures of the anti-Walker camp (Democrats, unions, etc.) and our tactics or lack thereof. Some pundits and activists have also written thoughtful pieces that are more optimistic in their assessment of the mass mobilization of people in Wisconsin against the “divide and conquer” agenda: the sheer numbers of ordinary folks who turned to grassroots activism, sometimes for the first time, in this particular moment, including some who are now committed to such participation for the long haul. As a friend said to me in the midst of my pessimism, “It’s not like we recall a governor every few years, let alone with 900,000 signatures.”
Yet Wisconsin’s governor and his billion-dollar blitzkrieg did manage to convince the middle class guy down the street and the working class woman on the next block, whose earnings have stagnated or steadily decreased over the past several years, to blame their lack on me, the sanitation worker, fireman, bus driver, and clerk at city hall (although our wages have done no better). All the while, those neighbors’ employers’ profits have risen exponentially, largely due to not paying their fair share of taxes, which has ultimately manufactured a debt crisis. Walker managed to draw a picture of a teacher, rather than a corporate banker, pounding the foreclosure sign into her neighbor’s lawn. If, as activists, we cannot expose those lies and open our neighbors’ eyes to the fact that they are voting against their own interests; if we do not really reach out to help those in despair (which also means climbing down from the ivory tower for those who work in one); if we do not turn toward creating and supporting more local cooperatives and sustainable ways to live; and if we do not use our creative energy toward developing newer and bolder activist strategies, which include moving beyond electoral politics, I believe we will remain conquered.
The arts and the skills of the artist/writer are necessary components of any such vision, movement, and action. What does that mean? For some, it may mean finding ways to merge the artistic projects to which they are drawn anyway with those that directly aid such efforts, thereby multiplying the ways in which they use their talent. For others, it may mean re-envisioning their processes toward more inclusivity, pooling resources, and creating new infrastructures that we haven’t yet managed to imagine. Ultimately, for me, the aim has to be toward building community with all the complexity that entails, including a major education component. It may mean braiding together elements of organizations like Growing Power, groups like the Overpass Light Brigade, and movements like Occupy but also expanding on them. We have many inspiring models to draw from, but we also need to keep inventing. I think it was best said by one of the founders of the OLB in a diary post on the Daily Kos web site: “Perhaps we wake up, look to ourselves, and realize it is the same as it ever was. Institutions aren't going to deliver us. In a one party system, all else is resistance. Visibility, creativity, bodies in space, the power of purposeful play, engagement, community… all semaphore for a way to live, cloud-tags for the practice of everyday life. We awaken, not to a wake, but to a wakening. We're still here, and we insist on essential visibility."
(after Harvey K. Littleton’s Orange and Purple Implied Movement, 1987)
Bass’s purple tones bend
our knees, swing our hips
low, but sax arches backs,
rolls spines up yoga slow,
twists our long necks
toward orange trumpet blasts.
Curls kink and spring
tendrils loose, sweep the floor,
spark the air. We lift
our faces, all bliss and flame,
in amethyst moans
glistening hot and wet.
Skim each other’s skin, barely
touch to twirl, clave keeps
our feet from landing.
Corazón cristal, por la vena cava,
solamente salidas y regresos.
En los canales, canoas de flores—
aves del paraíso, lirios de agua.
Y al dentro de la aurícula,
las rutas de una cueva morada—
cada viaje, cada descanso.
Fire bush peeks
through purple fountain
grass, hound’s tongue licking
a Siberian wallflower.
Bee’s bliss sage stings
the cosmos orange,
while wooly blue curls
around lion’s ear. Poppies open
to the tease of coyote mint,
seaside daisies bathed
in ocean mist. Lupines stretch
to catch butterfly weed,
and under nightshade, dog
violets rest in the glow
of Chinese lanterns. If only.
Blow the pipe like a pungi, whistling
wet scales through its open mouth.
Medusa’s purple hair will squirm
from the fire, rise in liquid twists
to the pitch of your breath. Watch it
writhe, dip into cool shadow. Quick,
charm it back, trap her in glass.
Catch and Release
with the slap
of the undertow,
boat, your creaky bed.
A lake chain-
links two countries
anchors shore to shore.
One, a room
black as an egg
ember at the center
of your breast-bone.
white as an egg
Surface lures you
to an isthmus.
towing a forest. Drift
past the tangled lines.
pitch and dance
thrash and switch
jerk and reel
snag and tug
reel, reel, reel
Flush the gills with lake.
until they flicker,
swathed in the clot
of thickening light,
the motor’s troll.
So many open vessels
for one more breath
toward the same shore,
rock and weed
at the brain’s stem.
What cell will save us
from the shimmer
that flips the surface
Will our bellies bloom
anemone and coral
in the hands that wrestle us
from hoop to hull,
keep them so full
of the catch
that they measure
drag a net
packed with nothing
to the shore?
A Wisconsin Poem for May Day, 2011
In the map of our fist
a crush of city and farm,
a knot of field and parking lot
in the map of our fist
a forest of ghettos, a ghetto of forests
between two great lakes
in the map of our fist
our Meskonsing lies red—
sandstone awash in the river
map of our fist
Ojibway, Fox, Menominee red,
Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Potawatomi red,
in the map of our fist
The birth of the state, 1848,
was the birth of the strike
in the shipbuilders’
map of our fist.
And bricklayers’ palms caked
in red clay laid roads
in the map of our fist
where carpenters raised red tile roofs,
Knights of St. Crispin stretched
leather boots to trek
into the map of our fist.
And 14,000 beat
Milwaukee’s young streets
in the map of our fist
Builders, cigar makers,
brewers, steel workers
in the map of our fist
pushed the fire hoses away
for the eight-hour day
in the map of our fist
and the state bid, “Shoot to kill”
at the Rolling Mill
in the map of our fist
where seven fell in view
of the bay in the bloody
map of our fist
Seidel and Hoan resurrected
lifelines in the tightly gripped
map of our fist
Daniel Hoan, come blow your horn
of plenty in the vacant lots
on the map of our fist
for the foreclosed faces
trapped in mazes of hunger
on the map of our fist
Call the Zeidler ghosts home,
his Red Falcons to roost
in the ageless map of our fist
where the black bears return
from their long winter naps
in the renewed map of our fist
and the vines crawl from garden
to wall, link wrist to wrist
in the flowering map of our fist
where the stones roll forward
and blue rivers rise, spilling
over the map of our fist,
and the great lakes rage
a tidal wave of voices
come alive in the map of our fist
in the map of our one raised fist.
Previously published in Cream City Review 35.1 Spring/Summer, 2011
(in memory of José Antonio Burciaga, 1947-1996)
"We are chameleons. We become chameleon."
—José Antonio Burciaga
We are space between—
the black-orange blur
of a million Monarchs
on their two-generation migration
south to fir-crowned Michoacán
where tree trunks will sprout feathers,
a forest of paper-thin wings.
Our Mexica cocooned
in the membranes de la Madre Tierra
say we are reborn zacuanpapalotls,
mariposas negras y anaranjadas
in whose sweep the dead whisper.
We are between—
the flicker of a chameleon's tail
that turns his desert-blue backbone
to jade or pink sand,
the snake-skinned fraternal twins
of solstice and equinox.
The ashen dawn, silvering dusk,
la oracíon as it leaves the lips,
the tug from sleep,
the glide into dreams
that husk our mestizo memory.
one life passing through the prism
of all others, gathering color and song,
cempazuchil and drum
to leave a rhythm scattered on the wind,
dust tinting the tips of fingers
as we slip into our new light.
Previously published in Boomerang, Bilingual Press, 2009
from Sound Waves:
El campesino rolls
his shoulder blades as he turns
from the furrows toward
the road's curve home,
Otro año, otro día, otra estación;
el ha añejado con su añojal.
~Ñ, the yawn in mañana~
La araña weaves her web of music,
tuning its strings while she sings
de sus compañeras obrando
en las cabañas, labrando
en los campos de caña.
She holds the high notes,
pulling filaments taut.
And when a fly's wing
touches one fiber,
~la añagaza del balance~
A cat's arch and curled spine
stretches into the long afternoon.
Sueña con alimañas
espiando de las montañas;
sueña con carne,
the wiry tension
of spring and pounce
on the small-boned
and the broken-winged.
~the sneer of engaño~
Deep heat of day rises
like a serpent from its cool tomb
entrañado beneath the sand,
leaves its tilde trace, la señal,
that loosens and fades,
one moment sliding
into centuries of terrain.
~el diseño antiguo del futuro~
guiñando desde el cielo,
slides past clouds over the edge
of sun at the tip of Chichén
onto a shadow of stone,
the equinox of a plumed past.
~the slow and brilliant tilt de los añosos~
Coiled in mantillas pañosas
y los llantos oscuros de añoranza,
the fire-eater waits for night
to define the sharp outlines
of his sustenance—la flama
debajo de su ceño
como una piñata abriendo
en una cascada de luz,
su señorada callando los gañidos
desesperados de niños—
eyes squeezed tight
above the blackened rim
of his open mouth.
~Ñ, the grimace of resistance,
un puño contra la saña del hambre~
Previously published in Boomerang, Bilingual Press, 2009