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Roundtable on a More Complicated Latino/a Poetry Now at PSA
Installment 4 of Latino/a Poetry Now, at Poetry Society of America, features J. Michael Martínez, Carmen Giménez Smith, Roberto Tejada; and is worth a read, especially if you fancied our recent post on the new Noemi Press/ILS collaboration. Francisco Aragón introduces the interview:
When I curated the slate that became installment 4 of “Latino/a Poetry Now,” my proposition was straightforward: Here are three poets whose work undermines- complicates-thwarts the expectations one commonly encounters when the subject is “Latino poetry.” Translation: you will not be reading poems like these, nor these poets, in the relatively recent Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, which a number of us lament.
One of Aragón’s questions for the participants:
How do you see your own work and the work of your colleagues here actively participating in contemporary American poetic culture, and how does your work and the work of your colleagues purposefully and productively, if it does, “complicate” or “recast” American poetic culture and culture writ large? I’d really encourage dialogue too, to determine if there is any overlap in influence or inspiration.
Roberto Tejada gives close readings to both poets and to the questions in his response, part of which is below.
It seems to me, Carmen, that what you pursue in Goodbye, Flicker is a replacement legacy. In the process you also describe the dilemma many of us currently confront: “I had a forked tongue. / a story to tell with one bit. and the way / to tell it with the other.” You turn to literary versions of European folk knowledge—Brothers Grimm, Giambattista Basile, Hans Christian Andersen, among others—to belie human experience as solely composed of verifiable evidence, action, and outcome. The poems, too, are of twin manufacture: even as each poem’s perceptible surface appears as an identifiable form, they are containers perforated with “self-holes” that trip up the “one story”: call the latter aesthetic determinism. Just as a poem satisfies a sonic or thematic expectation, an unforeseen element emerges—a hardness of semantic plane, the clip-work or overlap that averts a reader’s compass—to recall techniques of an earlier modernism (as in certain moods of Mina Loy): “I became a small colony in the world upon request.” This absolutely singular world, with its self-self-governing frame and attendant surrogates for a subject (Sliver Poet, Owl), coalesces to re-enchant in counter-narratives that dispute our geographically-inflected “exile in the literary world.” Goodbye, Flicker is the password for such cruel ironies as when the alleged democratic leveling of digital space does not uniformly distribute attention: “I hide the bones / but sometimes they win.”
This is to say, as in your book, J. Michael, that I think we’re unwilling to abandon the cultural grounding of our rhetorical stakes. I side with an uneasiness concerning poetry of “witness” if it devolves finally into hushed affirmations, and to the exclusion of history’s unavoidable impact. By contrast, Heredities aims to upend contemporary evocations of the ancestral when deployed in art as a unifying story. An apocryphal record of bones, “Articulations of Quetzacóatl’s Spine” and “The Sternum of Our Lady of Guadalupe” are descriptions, surgically written and aligned with ink drawings derived from Gray’s Anatomy, as rendered in your hand. They provide a residual view: to the degree that a mechanical process reinforces the idiosyncrasy of the hand-made, so a cultural practice holds the appearance of social relations to light: “I said, The Chicano shapes identity like an icicle fingering down from the roof’s edge.” These poems disavow ostensible appeals to a mythic past as per one’s present imaginative location by foregrounding a forensic archeology. Your poems ask: Do crime scenes of the historical process exasperate or exult the specificity of our present flesh and bone? They reply as well: In the open-ended endeavor that uncovers specters of the past arises a relationship between one’s individuated dawning and more recent emergences: a “Third Capilla (fig. 203) whose surfaces “temporally attach[ ]” to the upper and lower “levels of creation.”
It’s not difficult to situate conceptual poetry as having achieved a noteworthy but belated redirection of art-historical method into a frame of manufacture for US avant-garde poetry, albeit with a nuance that rivals that of garden tools. That’s one reason I prefer to avoid reference to ekphrasis, inasmuch as the aim of works evolved from my interaction with living artists has been to underscore an “art object” only insofar as it is contingent and entangled; not detached or in keeping with some puritanical work ethic and its accumulative concept of production. These engagements compel me to unlearn the assumptions of description as anything other than a lawless encounter of subject and object—the dreamwork so external to the self as to render that difference into something rhetorically indistinguishable.
I sense—from the varieties of experience we’ve shared among ourselves, and with a greater cohort, drawn, like Carmen, “to art and protest with multiple modalities”—a common dissatisfaction. It derives from what appeared to be a horizon of promise and possibility enjoyed by prior generations: that if you had the inclination—a gift—cared deeply enough about the craft, and surrendered yourself to the intellectual labor, then the system that values competency would properly acknowledge work well done with a sustainable readership to confirm not only your configuration of experience in the sphere of art, but to confer as well a visibility to compel you to more expansive wagers; an engagement with a public that so intensified the forecast proper to our task.