Recently, a reporter (Travis Nichols) called to ask why we publish Jim Behrle on our website. “Because he’s an indicator species,” I answered. His question got me thinking about other people and organizations that are breaking a pattern and in so doing, pointing out the vibrancy of the poetry world and its insularity.
Jim Behrle
Until recently the poetry world has been a fairly closed world without a significant force to counter the powers that be, the ones who create reputations through plum jobs, prizes, publications, and grants. There hasn’t been an audience large and voracious enough to sift through the thousands of books and magazines to discover talent (maybe there never has been), and there’s no equivalent to the Huffington Post to interpret the spin through its alternative storyline. Then the web happened and gigantic numbers of MFA poet-graduates happened, many of whom pine for a reputation but can’t get their first book published.

Enter Behrle, who is very much a product of the Web. So and so wins a NBCC award, and by 2 a.m., there’s a Behrle cartoon, looking more like a crude, elementary school, math story problem than a comic strip. They typically pose a question (that everyone wants to ask but out of politeness (social norms) can’t, e.g., “Somebody please tell me who Troy Jollimore is....” on Eyeball Hatred after the NBCC ceremony. And then they propose an answer, which in its foolery offers truth in a sometimes but not always palatable form. Sound a bit like Shakespeare's jesters? Yes, in part, because he’s generally attacking those with reputations and the machinations that got them ones. Is being the subject of a Behrle cartoon a sign that you’ve made it? He’s the poetry world’s Gawker. When he crassly and crudely attacks people and not their reputations, I don’t like it, but that’s one of the guilty pleasures we get in reading Gawker.
Cave Canem
Ten yeas ago Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded Cave Canem to “counter the under-representation and isolation of African American poets in writers' workshops and literary programs.” In its summer and regional workshops, it provides “a safe haven for black poets” to “come together to work on their craft and engage others in critical debate.”
Are we seeing the fruits of Cave Canem’s work in this year’s crop of prize-winning African-American women poets? Drum roll please….
Elizabeth Alexander received Poets & Writers' $50,000 Jackson Prize, which “honors an American poet of exceptional talent who has published at least one book of recognized literary merit but has not yet received major national acclaim.”
Natasha Tretheway won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Native Guard(Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Lucille Clifton won the Poetry Foundation’s $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.
Tracey K. Smith won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for her second book Duende (Graywolf Press, 2007).
Francisco Aragon
Can Francisco Aragon do for Latino poets what Cave Canem, I believe, has done for African-American poets? My bet is that while not many readers of this blog know Francisco, if you work in a job such as mine, you do. Director of Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Francisco is working overtime to gain wider representation of Latino poets in established literary magazines, such as Poetry and The New Yorker, and in the programs of poetry organizations, such as Poet’s House, the Poetry Society of America and the Poetry Foundation. He helped us pull together a selection of poems from Victor Hernandez Cruz.
Any suggestions for other indicator species in the poetry universe?

Originally Published: June 8th, 2007

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...

  1. June 9, 2007
     Francisco Aragón

    Cave Canem has always been, and continues to be, a touchstone for me. The Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize was modeled after the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and I am indebted to their former Executive Director, Carolyn Micklem, for the guidance she provided in the months leading to the foundation our prize---one that supports the publication of a first book by a Latino/a poet. The Outer Bands (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)---winner of the second edition of the Prize---is slated for release in August.

  2. June 11, 2007
     Rich Villar

    Speaking from my side of the universe (the Bronx, that is), our reading series, Acentos, has featured poets of Latino/a descent for four years now. During that time, we have been a home for Latino poetry and a place for Latinos and Latinas to share work without the need for apologies or translations. Francisco read for us in May of this year and I'm looking forward to my own visit to Palabra Pura in Chicago. If there's a Latino Cave Canem to be had in the midst of all this good will and community, it would seem construction has already begun.
    I think your choice of words is a tad unfortunate, though. As indicator species go, Latinos have a wealth of civilization on the American continent, particularly here in New York, where Puerto Rican writers have been busy at work since 1898. Of course, institutional recognition of these writers (and other Latino/a writers) has been haphazard, to say the least, which leaves us all in the unfortunate position of searchers. Like raulrsalinas, I remain hopeful for change.
    Warm regards,
    Rich Villar.

  3. June 13, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Dear Rich,
    By "indicator species," I mean people or organizations who are breaking patterns, who exist on the edge of ecosystems/communities where things are neither totally structured, nor totally chaotic. In breaking a pattern, they create new life, or new possibilities, and so indicate the vitality of a system and the insularity of the old one.
    For example: Patricia Smith broke the pattern in being a three-time national slam winner and then went on to win a National Poetry Series and earn a Pushchart Prize. Martin Espada is read and loved by labor organizers who rarely read other contemporary poets. Meghan O'Rourke, culutre editor of a mass-market media channel (Slate), consistently publishes great literary journalism about poetry. What other media covered Yeats and the Sopranos?
    The fact that there are more than 40 million people of Hispanic descent in the U.S. and that there are vibrant communities of Latino poetry but that the other 260 million people rarely get a chance to read Latino poetry in "established" print publications is an indicator of an unhealthy ecosystem (IMHO). Within the Latino poetry community, or on its edges, who or what organizations are the indicator species that I might not know about?
    Looking forward to your reading in Chicago. When is it?

  4. June 14, 2007

    To clarify: No one has yet invited me to read in Chicago. I suppose I'm what botanists might call a "bookless species," and not many literary organizations want to bring folks out to read without...well, actual literature. What I had planned on was saving up for a trip out to Chi and visiting Palabra Pura. But, as life would have it, I may actually end up in Chicago before the next reading happens, so we'll have to wait and see what develops over the next few months.
    At any rate. I appreciate your efforts to define the metaphor, the indicator species, and I think we basically agree about insularity and such. But I still won't use your metaphor to describe Latino poets, and here's why: I don't think we operate in the margins. Not intentionally, anyway.
    William Carlos Williams was culturally Puerto Rican. Before Piri Thomas ever penned Down These Mean Streets, before there was a Nuyorican movement, the Cuban Nicolas Guillen and the Puerto Rican Luis Pales Matos--taking cues from the Harlem Renaissance--wrote about being Afro-Caribbean, in language and sound (Sound poetry? Damn straight.) Before there was a Martín Espada, there was a labor organizer and poet named Clemente Soto Velez. As I've said, there was a community of poets in New York, of Puerto Rican descent, who wrote in the traditions of Puerto Rican poets from the 1800's and onward, poets whose efforts were anthologized in the book Papiros de Babel, edited by Dr. Pedro Lopez Adorno of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. And while journalists in Philadelphia and elsewhere kept busy calling Cubans and Puerto Ricans "mongrels" and "half-breeds" in their arguments AGAINST war and imperialism, it was a Cuban poet named Jose Martí who came to his people's defense with articles and commentary of his own.
    I'm scratching the surface. But here I'm also describing two ethnicities, over a hundred years of poetic tradition, each building on the other, in one U.S. city. Need I mention the Mexicanos? Los Chicanos? Maybe I should, but here's my point, Emily: I really shouldn't have to. Latinos have history, we have place. We have already innovated, code switched, and written our stories. We are not lichen springing from permafrost. We don't indicate climate change. We are the climate. But I humbly submit, there is an insidious culture that thrives on reading outdated history books, sitting comfortably in the air conditioning. Do we call it The Academy? American Poetry? Depends who you ask.
    In my opinion, organizations like Cave Canem, Kundiman, Acentos, Letras Latinas, etc., don't simply serve to point out the new story. They point out that the old story was never really complete in the first place. If there are American (read: U.S.-based) poets of color whose works are now winning the major book prizes and such, it's not simply because the academy has stooped to kiss 116th and's because these poets are telling the truth, like they've been doing for centuries, in new forms and old traditions, and not all of them in English. If there are poets who have been ignored, marginalized even today, then the role of any organization that claims to represent the best in American poetry ought to be to find out why that is, hunt those people and traditions down (there are far too many to list here), and celebrate them publicly.
    I do thank you for your post, and the questions I've asked myself. My hope is that I don't sound too combative, but I do live this stuff daily, as you may have guessed. Let's talk sometime in a place that's not so electronic.

  5. June 15, 2007

    Well, ok, actually I would be remiss if I didn't point out these two forms.
    1. CON TINTA
    Con Tinta is a coalition of cultural activists (Chicano/Latino poets and writers) who believe in affirming a positive and pro-active presence in American literature. Con Tinta's mission is to create awareness through the cultivation of emerging talent, through the promotion and presentation of artistic expression, and through the collective voice of support to its members, communities, and allies.
    Con Tinta Advisory Circle:
    * Kathleen Alcalá
    * Brenda Cárdenas
    * Lisa Chávez
    * Rigoberto González
    * Lorraine López
    * Daniel Olivas
    * Richard Yañez
    An online database and directory for Latino poets and poetry.

  6. June 15, 2007
     Tara Betts

    it was good to meet you at Bar 13 last week, and I hope we meet again in the near future. A few points of clarity on an important discussion that's going on here. Important not just because there's so much great work that's been generated for quite some time, but the reality is that many institutions have been unaware, oblivious to the conversation or just plained ignored that the literary canon is not what it is often perceived to be. Thanks for initiating the dialogue and creating an opportunity for exchange.
    *There has been an exchange happening between/among Black and Latino poets. I myself went to Cuba in 2001 and met Antonio Armenteras, Leo Guevara Navarro, Amaury Pacheco and several other poets. Many of the writers I met are in a collective called Zona Franca. Before I was born, Langston Hughes had built relationships with Nicolas Guillien and had translated Gabriela Mistral. There are also some Afro-Latino poets involved with Cave Canem, including Raina Leon, Aracelis Girmay, John Murillo, Dr. Jane Alberdeston Coralin and others. Also, I would feel remiss if we did not include some of the Nuyorican Poets like Tato Laviera.
    *There is Acentos, the whirlwind Francisco Aragon (because he's in so many places at once), Con Tinta and the Macondo workshop started by Sandra Cisneros in 1995 (not to be confused with the post-Marquez/poet-magical realism McOndo movement). So there's lots of activity on the part of Latin American poets, whether they identify as Chicano/a, Hispanic or Latino/a or by national origin. In Chicago, there's batey urbano in Humboldt Park and then there's Taller Mestizarte, Mexican Fine Arts Center, Polvo and Proyecto Latina in Pilsen, home of the much-missed Carlos Cortez. Cortez was published by the independent Latino press March/ABRAZO run by Carlos Cumpian in Chicago. Luis Rodriguez, a noted poet and multi-genre author, has been spearheading Tia Chucha Press and the Tia Chucha Cafe Cultural in California with his wife Trini for some time. In addition to Latino Poetry Community [dot] org, there is La Bloga, a blog for Chicano/a literature. Overall, I think it's a matter of figuring out who to look for and where to go.
    *Although most of the board for Con Tinta is women, I found myself asking the question that I usually ask, "Where are the women poets pertinent to this discussion?" Here are a few worth noting in this not-quite exhaustive list:
    Marjorie Agosin
    Claribel Alegria
    Lisa Alvarado
    Julia Alvarez
    Beatriz Badikian-Gartler
    Brenda Cardenas
    Ana Castillo
    Lorna Dee Cervantes
    Sandra Cisneros
    Julia de Burgos (translated by Jack Agueros in the comprehensive, bilingual work SONG OF THE SIMPLE TRUTH)
    Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
    Sandra Maria Esteves
    Rosario Ferre
    Diana Garcia
    Magdalena Gomez
    Gabriela Mistral
    Pat Mora
    Nancy Morejon
    Adelia Prado
    Daisy Zamora
    *Aside from me thinking about Federico Lorca's Poet in New York, I've been thinking about key anthologies that come to mind. I agree with Rich's comment on Dr. Pedro Adorno's (a great poet in his own right) stellar anthology. Here are a few that came across my radar:
    Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry edited by Stephen Tapscott
    Poetry Like Bread edited by Martin Espada
    Paper Dance edited by Victor Hernandez Cruz, Leroy Quintana and Virgil Suarez
    I hope this at least offers enough information to encourage some readers to explore.
    Tara Betts

  7. June 16, 2007
     Lisa Alvarado

    We are at a particularly contradictory point in America. Contradiction is woven through the American history, and as a Chicana, that contradiction is felt in my sinew and bone. While there are hundreds of issues I could point to, what I want to address here is one of Latino visibility/invisibility in public life, popular culture, and in the literary world. Let me say at the outset, that this problem is endemic to all communities of color, to working people, and is not a new one.
    What I've been thinking about lately is that in recent history, as a demographic, Latinos have been identified for quite a while as a source of buying power, with products geared to us, with sales pitches, entertainment etc. We are a major source of revenue as consumers, to say nothing of the economic benefit our labor has provided and continues to provide, day in and day out, as part of the history of this country and its current economic life.
    On a literary level, the relative increase in imprints geared to and cultivating Latino writers and readers is, of course, a good thing. There continues, as well, a certain expropriation of aspects of a generic "Latin" culture --the mojito/fajita craze as one example. However, when it comes to meaningful literary recognition by nationally significant bodies --- we are still woefully absent, marginalized or minimized. Our literary tradition is hundreds of years old, hundreds of years, in this country. I recently browsed the websites of the major literary foundations and organizations and saw little to nothing written by or about Latino writers. It saddens me, but it is a sadness I have known all my life, it flows from conditions that are as everyday as breathing. Thankfully, I continue to write regardless and am shored up by the writings of so many others.
    In re "indicator species" -- I am assuming no ill will. However, I hope you can "hear" that it is not a useful term in building dialogue. There is too much history tied to it that smacks of categories, separation, observation of the "other."
    It would be too easy to simply target or dismiss the post. We would be wrong to chalk this up as a single isolated incident, or locate it as existing in one individual. There is a larger discussion that must be had. The problem is endemic, it cuts across the board in the literary world and is a striking example of how Latino writers, Latino literary efforts aren't seen or rewarded, literally and figuratively at the institutional and national level.
    What we have on the one hand, is this cultivation in the marketplace, and on the other, an ever-increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. (Read anti-Mexican, but I would also say there's bleed out to other Latino communities as well.) It seems to me we must resist being relegated into the shadows, into silence, either by misdirected good intention, blindspot, or by design.

  8. June 16, 2007
     Francisco Aragón

    Dear Emily:
    I'm delighted to see that your "indicator" post has prompted this discussion in THIS space.
    Rich Villar and Lisa Alvarado are two individuals I've only had the pleasure of interacting with in the last year or so, and since meeting them and, for example, reading their posts here, I'm now beginning to feel less lonely in what, in some quarters, might be described as a simmering behind-the-scenes crusade on my part. I don't know Tara Betts but was delighted to read her post and hope to perhaps meet her the next time I'm in NYC.
    Lisa, maybe that piece I wrote for you could have been posted here, as a contribution to this discussion since it is very relevant and timely: the comment about The Poetry Society of America's "New American Poets Festival" this past April, which featured 10 "first book" poets, that was quite diverse EXCEPT where Latinos and Latinas are concerned: not one was invited to read, among the many who are out there who have published books in the last few years. This may have been the place to share it because in it I make reference to a person who offered me some encouragement about starting a discussion with the person who heads The Poetry Society of America.
    That person wasn't named, but in light of the discussion that is brewing HERE---and this is the novelty---I will say that it was Emily, and she deserves credit for opening a few doors here: first by inviting Lorna Dee Cervantes to blog (though that didn't work out as best as it could have); then by inviting Rigoberto González to blog. I then had the pleasure of meeting her in Chicago at a dinner after Martin Espada's reading, and she listened to what I had to say and then shortly thereafter invited me to help organize a group of people who chose Victor Hernandez Cruz poems that were posted here, and then agreed to post an interview I did with Victor. In short, she listened, and then acted. So thank you, Emily.
    Having said that, there's still so much more to do and point out: starting, for example, with that "New American Poets Festival" the Poetry Society of America put on in NEW YORK CITY and invited 10---count them, 10 poets, and not one was Latino or Latina.
    Which "first book poets" could they have invited without even having to pay for a plane ticket? I'll name two:
    Cynthia Cruz, author of a wonderful book published with Alice James, called RUIN and who Reginald Shepherd included in his New American Poetries anthology (though I will say she was the lone Latina/o voice in a quite numerous selection of poets)
    Ada Limón, author of WRECK (though in the last year--she's so productive--her second book has gotten into print, which I had the pleasure of hearing her read from at Cornelia Street Cafe the night before I read at ACENTOS.
    Those are just two names in NYC alone.
    But since the poets that were chosen to read were from all over the US, they also could have at least considered:
    Sheryl Luna, whose first book--PITY THE DROWNED HORSES--was profiled in Poets &Writers.
    Maria Melendez, whose first book--HOW LONG SHE'LL LAST IN THIS WORLD--was also profiled in Poets&Writers.
    [note: I do not think it's an accident that Poets&Writers has gotten better at covering Latino/as. They featured Helena Maria Viramontes on the cover, of course; they featured an article on Alex Espinoza; they featured an article on the Macondo workshop. In short, since Rigoberto González has been a contributing editor there, Poets&Writers has taken major tangible steps, which points to something that is so obvious: until Latino/as OCCUPY positions of real/tangible influence, we have to rely on well intentioned people like Emily. But at some point, we have to not just be consulted. We have to have a place at the table. The current roster of "regular" bloggers here at this website, for example, is bereft of a Latino/a voice]
    Blas Maneul de Luna, whose first book
    was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award a couple of years ago (for crying out loud).
    Miguel Murphy, whose first book won a national competition a few years ago.
    Gina Franco, author of a wonderful book of poems with U of A, who is publishing work in varied places, including FENCE.
    I'll stop.

  9. June 17, 2007
     Lisa Alvarado

    Francisco, Emily, Rich, Tara and those of you following this thread --
    The necessary work that's out there is vast...we need all the allies we can get.
    Those who are doing the right thing know there is much more to do...not just out of moral obligation, but also to serve the ends of creating a truly vibrant, living poetry legacy for all readers.
    While I realize that this may not apply to the "youngsters" that posted, it came to mind right after I read your contribution.
    Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
    We are not now that strength which in the old days
    Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
    One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.