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Letras Latinas: Building Literary Community

As our poetry month (and time on Harriet) comes to a close, I wanted to reflect on an important program that continues to influence the visibility of Latino poetry in this country.

If the poetry community at large seems tiny, imagine the Latino poetry community--it’s no degree of separation. Though ours is a virtual community that stays in touch via social media (and comes together at least once a year at AWP, during the annual Con Tinta pachanga), we are fortunate to have a year-round resource such as Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. It sponsors readings and other literary events, on campus and across the country. And under the close direction of Francisco Aragón, the program has created important publishing opportunities specifically for Latino writers.

One initiative is the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, a first-book prize held every two years. Judged this year by one of my mentors, Francisco X. Alarcón, the 2012 winning entry and fifth recipient of the award is A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero. She is also the author of the chapbook Babies Under the Skin and currently teaches at Palo Alto College in San Antonio. The manuscript will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2013. Congrats, Laurie!

The second initiative is the Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Poetry Prize, which is open to Latino poets who have already published at least one or two books of poetry. The inaugural judge for this prize was poet and Notre Dame professor Orlando Ricardo Menes. But the interesting outcome of this contest is that two manuscripts were selected, their publication by Red Hen Press will be spaced two years apart, to give Letras Latinas momentum to promote and publicize the winning books, its authors, this new literary series. (Kudos, Red Hen Press, for your support!)

The winning entry slated for publication in 2013 is The Guide to Imaginary Monuments by Dan Vera. Vera, a DC-based poet, is also the author of The Space Between Our Danger and Delight (Boethuk Books, 2008). Vera is a queer poet and activist who is also the managing editor of the gay culture journal White Crane.

William Archila’s second book, The Gravedigger’s Archeology, will be published in 2015. His first book, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Press, 2009), a book that speaks to Archila’s Salvadorean heritage and his immigration to the U.S. during the Central American civil war. He is now based in Los Angeles.

These two Letras Latinas initiatives remind me of two other prizes that are geared toward specific ethnic communities. The first is also likely the model for all of these awards, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize (published by one of three participating presses that take turns sponsoring the award each year--Graywolf, the University of Georgia Press, and the University of Pittsburg Press). Established in 1999, this award for African American poets has launched a number of sterling careers, including that of recent Pulitzer Prize-recipient Tracy K. Smith, whose Cave Canem Poetry Prize-winning book, The Body’s Question, was published in 2001. The other is the Kundiman Poetry Prize for Asian American poets, published by Alice James Books, which is about to name its third annual winner. (Aragón, incidentally, is also the editor of Canto Cosas, a Latino poetry series published with Bilingual Press.)

That these awards are affiliated with ethnicity-identified literary communities speaks to the importance of belonging to and claiming a literary lineage. I have always told my graduate students: “Your first readers, champions, allies, will be people from your community, in whatever way you define or describe that community.” Believing that your audience is anyone who’s literate is like throwing a bowl of spaghetti to the wall, hoping more than one noodle will stick.

That nurturing community support is also at work with the various retreats that serve specific ethnic groups. Besides the Cave Canem and Kundiman summer retreats, I’d like to congratulate Canto Mundo, now entering its third year as an important space for creative exchange among Latino poets, and the National Latino Writers Conference, which celebrates in tenth year next month. (Alas, Macondo, Sandra Cisneros’ brainchild, has shut its doors after well over a decade of service to the Latino literary community. Gracias, Sandra, for a phenomenal run.) The Lambda Literary Foundation Writers Retreat for Emerging  LGBT Voices is taking place for the third time this coming summer. (I was a faculty member during its second year.) And of course, VONA, a writers workshop for writers of color, founded in 1999--one of its founders is Junot Díaz. I am certain that there are many more unheralded gems out there--please excuse any omissions.

Some writers may reject this path toward publication and mentorship, and that’s fine, just don’t expect any love back. These are already crowded houses anyway, and yet, there’s always a will to make room for one more. But only those who thrive within them know the importance of keeping an old tradition--of coming together in the spirit of shared experience--alive. It’s a very cold and expansive landscape out there, and communities like these, publishing series and retreats like these, make the journey into the professional and artistic world a little less daunting and, frankly, a little less white and straight--believe me, the queer factor in all of these organizations is palpable.

I must add that the aforementioned contests and series are not the only avenue for poets of color--though they are important paths. And if a poet of color finds success outside of these contests and series, that’s terrific--the point is that we should be representing every professional experience, traveling every possible journey. Two recent prize-winners in the Latino literary world with publications out this month are Carmen Giménez Smith, whose third collection of poems, Goodbye, Flicker, won the Juniper Prize for Poetry held by the University of Massachusetts Press, and Eduardo C. Corral, whose first collection, Black Lightning, was a Yale Series for Younger Poets selection.

But back to the task at hand: to give props to Letras Latinas and Francisco Aragón for developing national programming and establishing publishing opportunities for Latino poets. The Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Poetry Prize is an important and timely new venture, yet one more door opening for our fierce community.

Originally Published: April 27th, 2012

Rigoberto González was born in Bakersfield, California and raised in Michoacán, Mexico. He is the author of several poetry books, including So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks (1999), a National Poetry Series selection; Other Fugitives and Other Strangers (2006); Black Blossoms (2011); and Unpeopled Eden (2013), winner of a Lambda Literary Award. He...