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Literary Activism and Practicing Generosity

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Thank you Rigoberto González for the shout out, and for your recent post! I would also love to say a few things about “po-biz” work, riffing off that post. One of the last times I saw Rigoberto was at CantoMundo in Albuquerque. Though I’m not a Latino poet, I’d tagged along with my husband Oscar Bermeo, who was one of the program’s inaugural fellows. The CantoMundo folks were so kind to me, and let me sit in on a couple of non-workshop events. One of these events was Rigoberto’s talk on literary activism.

If I could distill his talk down two words, they would be, “practice generosity.” This is similar to what I was told by Eileen Tabios many years ago. To promote yourself, promote others (and let’s face it, we do have to promote ourselves in order to move our books).

Thank you also, Gillian Conoley, for addressing my question regarding women of color publishing venues. I have to tell you though, I’m actually averse to conference. Not that issues do not need to be discussed; you are right, they do. Like-minded folks need to get together and action plan, right? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I am averse to conference culture, when the conference becomes thought of as the activism, when it is an annual convergence of speakers of academese, for the benefit of themselves, and from which folks come away immediately empowered feeling and energized. Then, momentum falls away after everyone travels home, back to their routines, families, and work. Until the next year. This is not concrete enough for me, and I don’t feel like it’s a good use of my energy, time, and funds.

Rather than just kvetch about non-activism, let me offer up some suggestions, taking Rigoberto’s advice, things I’ve been doing my best to enact, to practice generosity:

Adding to his point about reading a lot of books, I think we have to be not shy or reticent about putting our ideas out there. We’re schooled (formally or informally) in poetry and poetics, so we should be able to articulate our thoughts on specific works and movements. So how about this: write articles, papers, essays, interviews, reviews of books written by members of your many and expanding community/ies. Seek publication for these (what good are they, sitting in your hard drive?). I tend to blog about what I’m reading; some of this is decent first draft which ultimately gets crafted into a review. Now, some folks can only write reviews about books they like. I think this is legit; getting caught up in the damaged egos, hurt feelings, all the drama and politics of “negative reviews” sucks. Hell hath no fury like a poet scorned.

Publicize and attend literary events that are not your own, encourage others to as well. Write about these events (not what you wore to the event, not what you ate before the event), and post videos and/or photos from these events on your blog, FB, on Flickr and YouTube. I am interested in documentation, which becomes a pretty valuable resource for teaching and otherwise. I can’t tell you how bummed I was, when teaching Nuyorican poetry last semester, not to be able to access any video of Miguel Piñero performing, “The Book of Genesis According to St. Miguelito,” or “A Lower East Side Poem.” (I ended up showing a clip of “A Lower East Side Poem,” performed by actors and the poets Miguel Algarín, Pedro Pietri, and Amiri Baraka, in the Piñero movie, starring Benjamin Bratt.)

Curate and host events that do not feature you. Feature folks other than your friends. Give emerging writers the opportunity to read alongside established ones.

Edit publications featuring writers who are not you, and instead, actively go after those whose works interest and/or challenge you. Again, take a chance and include emerging writers, and feature them alongside established ones.

Lead/conduct/teach local, affordable community writing workshops. Don’t just teach those who are admitted into the MFA programs at which you teach (and here, I am NOT saying it’s bad to teach in MFA programs).

Share publishing, reading/performance, and funding opportunities with other writers and artists. Why hoard these unless you have problems with artists who are not you gettin’ some shine. Please get over it.

Course adoption! Teach the work of your communities’ writers and artists. If you can, bring them into your classrooms. Encourage your students to get out of the classroom and attend their events; offer extra credit if you have to and can. In the very least, bring the artist into e-dialogue with your students (I Skyped with two of Oliver de la Paz’s classes last semester, and I thought that was a good alternative to travel, and the least I could do as he’d assigned my book Diwata to what looked like well over 50 students, many with very thoughtful questions. And! That’s a healthy number of book sales).

That said, I think we also have to remember the importance of the gift economy in “po-biz” practice, what kind of work are we willing to do for currency that is not dollars. I think the items above are a kind of currency that can really take us a long way.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 by Barbara Jane Reyes.