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Rigoberto González on Three Poetry Contests that Seek to Remedy
The Los Angeles Review of Books has Rigoberto González discussing the merits of the poetry contest within the context of a more diverse literary landscape–the winners of three contests in particular serve “as antidotes to the underrepresentation of minority poets.”
The first of these to be featured is the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, steered by Letras Latinas, an initiative of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which chose Laurie Ann Guerrero for A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying; second, the longstanding Asian-American poetry organization Kundiman, who, along with Alice James Books, picked Matther Olzmann’s Mezzanines; and third, the Carolina Wren Poetry Series, which “demonstrates a clear commitment to this mission, selecting works by poets from diverse communities including women, ethnic minority, and LGBT authors. L. Lamar Wilson’s Sacrilegion is shaped by a black gay identity.”
González reviews in full each of the books. Here’s an excerpt from his thinking on Sacrilegion:
Wilson’s contribution begins with poems that cover a part of the journey when every gay man becomes aware of his difference and its dangers: school bullying because he plays games for girls in “Woe Unto Sons,” the unsettling recognition of the self in the body of another gay relative in “Family Reunion, 1993,” the innocent homoerotic fantasies that become not-so-inconsequential in the era of AIDS in “It Could Happen to Anyone: A Letter to the Boy.” But it’s with the poem “Resurrection Sunday” that Wilson’s voice and skill reaches an extraordinary pitch.
“Resurrection Sunday” weaves two visual encounters that shape the speaker’s understanding of himself as a black gay body: one is a homoerotic film in which a white director is instructing a black male to perform auto-fellatio; the other is a photograph in the book The Anatomy of a Lynching, in which victim Claude Neal (accused of raping and killing a white woman in 1934) is shown hanging from a noose, his murder made more vulgar because first he’s castrated as part of the public spectacle. In both images, “A man holds his penis in his mouth.” The poem navigates between the two obscenities — one a sexual exploitation, the other a desecration, both acts of racism. In that journey back and forth, the speaker must locate himself as an object of desire, informed by his Otherness, and claim the subjectivity of his black male identity, which is eroticized and feared by the white gaze. In other words, he must mature into a sexual being aware of the the temptation and threat of his masculinity
[. . .]
As a stunning turning point, “Resurrection Sunday” sets a tone that endures through the end of the book, even as Wilson shifts directions occasionally into the portraits and praises of the lives of women such as Henrietta Lacks, Lucille Clifton, and the important women in his life: his mother, grandmother MaMary, and MaMary’s sister, Tudda. The mother becomes particularly essential to the speaker’s identity formation. Refreshingly, the story of the relationship highlights acceptance and support, which makes the mother’s cancer all the more tragic: “You didn’t turn me away when I said His name is Johnnie / & I love him, & you never said Brown boys can’t be sissies, baby, / though I wish you had, since now a lump the size of the head / of a tack may take away the only one who hasn’t recoiled / at what comes naturally to me.”
Wilson claims an important political/social responsibility and does it well: to write about the black gay male experience conscious of his time. . . .
González also underscores the significance of his own review when he draws the books together:
Carolina Wren Press’s stress of the word “quality,” Letras Latinas’s affirmation that it will “nurture the various paths” of Latino poetry, and Kundiman’s selection by committee, are efforts to secure the best work from specific communities, that is, to make sure that the smaller competition pool and precisely-defined guidelines attract manuscripts of literary merit. The future success of these processes, however, will become evident in the critical reception of their award-winning books.