monroe-at-desk

Every once in a while I’ll hear a Latinx poet on social media describe getting published in Poetry as a dream come true. Invariably I’ll roll my inner eye. Sure, I get the prestige and the fact that the journal pay$ its contributors, and I find the current iteration of the journal a welcome joy to read, both for its formal adventurousness and its range of voices. Still, a part of me will instantly go back to those summer days in 1999 when I would try to stay cool by reading litmags at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. I would always struggle to care about the issues of Poetry, and as a young Boricua poet new to the U.S. lit game, I would wonder what was wrong with me: this wasn’t one of those genteel yawnfest journals for endlessly replicated high-society whitewashing, this was frickin’ Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, the Poetry of Eliot’s Prufrock (June 1915) and Langston’s “Po’ Boy Blues” (November 1926)!

I would spend a lot of that summer at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, new on the scene and taking in an alternative poetic history. Little did I know that I would end up writing a dissertation, and eventually a book, on Nuyorican poetry and the alternative it offered to print-centric histories of literary life in the U.S. Even now, as a professor of Latinx literature who can marvel at the cool Latinx work being published in recent issues of Poetry, I can’t let go of those memories of summer afternoons struggling to read the journal and thinking I should be at the Nuyorican instead, so I knew when I was asked to blog for Tía Harriet that I had to write this post.

Despite an auspicious beginning and an encouraging last few years, Poetry has hardly been a home to Latinx voices, especially as these have informed and been informed by social movements and political struggles over the last century. Certainly, Poetry is not unusual in this regard, not many places have. Still, given its stature and the outsize role of its Poetry Foundation in shaping the contours of poetry in an increasingly Latinx U.S., it becomes crucial to at least minimally reflect on Poetry's Latinx history. (Also, as a poet who survives thanks to the generic version of expensive epilepsy medication, I’m happy the Poetry Foundation’s pharmaceutical fortune can be used for dissident purposes!)

In the early days of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, a few Latinx poets figured as part of the modernist ferment. Most notably William Carlos Williams—whose Puerto Rican mother and British father met in the Dominican Republic—was part of the journal from almost the very beginning, its second year. In the June 1913 issue he appears alongside Rabindranath Tagore and others, and a couple of years later in the poem “A Confidence” (May 1915), he writes with a diasporic Caribbean intimacy about the dystopian climes of El Norte: “Today, dear friend, this gray day, / I have been explaining to a young man of the West Indies / How the leaves all fall from the little branches / And lie soon in crowds along the bare ground.”

Then there’s Salomón de la Selva, who crashed the New York scene with his 1918 debut Tropical Town and Other Poems but would later gain renown in Latin America for El soldado desconocido (The Unknown Soldier, 1922), an autobiographical book, informed by his experiences fighting in World War I, that also anticipates aspects of antipoetry. De la Selva’s “My Nicaragua” (November 1917) is an at once loving and ironic evocation of his homeland that dares to unwrite the exportable pastoral and with it the fantasy of the exotic other: “Not picturesque, just dreary commonplace—/ As commonplace and dreary as the flats / Here, in your cities, where your poor folks live.” There’s a clear global-south consciousness that links the everyday struggle of Latin America’s “tropical towns” to the barrios in the U.S., an especially important connection given that Nicaragua was occupied by the U.S. at the time. Williams’s and de la Selva’s translocal landscapes tropicalize the modern canon.

After the modernist heyday, however, things get bleak for Latinx Poetry. And I’m not even thinking of late-modernist giants such as Américo Paredes (who wasn’t primarily known as a poet) and Julia de Burgos (who wrote almost exclusively in Spanish and wasn’t substantively translated into English until the 1990s, unless, as Harris Feinsod notes, we count the FBI). What’s depressing is the almost total absence of poets from the Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which were and remain crucial to shaping the field of Latinx poetry, and are also key to our contemporary social history.

In their introduction to the anthology Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing (May 2014), editors Carmen Giménez Smith and John Chávez rightfully claim writers like Juan Felipe Herrera, Alurista, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Pedro Pietri, as key innovators and forerunners of the contemporary poets in their anthology, yet Alurista, Anzaldúa, and Pietri are all otherwise invisible in the pages of Poetry. (I used the search bar on the journal’s archive page, and I also browsed dozens of issues through JSTOR.) Even Herrera, the current United States Poet Laureate and certainly the most widely recognized poet emerging from the movimiento ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, only finds his way into the pages of Poetry in July 2016 (!), and then only as part of a dossier curated by the indefatigable Francisco Aragón, for his fantastic PINTURA : PALABRA project. (Aragón’s dossier also marks the first appearance of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Tino Villanueva, two major figures in Chicano poetry.) Herrera’s Rebozos of Love came out in 1974, and he had already mapped a radical post-movimiento poetics with the scores and photo-poems of 1983’s classic Exiles of Desire before receiving the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry for Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. Given all this, his 2016 publication in Poetry is a literal afterthought.

Missing along with these 1960s and 1970s poets are the oral and performance traditions they recovered and reimagined at Flor y Canto festivals and cultural spaces such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. As far as I can tell, not a single Nuyorican poet from the Cafe scene has ever been published in Poetry, not foundational figures such as Pedro Pietri, Tato Laviera, Sandra María Esteves, and Miguel Algarín, and not even widely published younger poets emerging from the 1990s slam generation, such as Willie Perdomo and Edwin Torres. Lastly, largely missing along with Anzaldúa is the essential tradition of Chicana feminist poetics, without which we lose a proper framework for reading Latinx poetics from the perspective of not only gender, but also sexuality, race, language, territoriality, poetic form, and so on.

True, a number of these poets appear in a poets sampler called “U.S. Latino/a Voices in Poetry,” published on the Poetry Foundation website and apparently last updated in 2015. Still, this is simply a series of links to the poets’ individual pages on the Foundation website, many of which (and especially in the case of the elders whose key work predates the Web) contain no poems. Anzaldúa’s is a particularly sad case, given her stature and influence and how unfairly neglected her poetry has been compared to her essays. Her author page includes no poems, and as for articles “about” her only a review of TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson’s landmark 2013 anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, which mentions Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s legendary This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981).

While I can’t quibble with the biography’s claim that Anzaldúa’s “poems and essays explore the anger and isolation of occupying the margins of culture and collective identity,” I find it ironic how the author page reinforces Anzaldúa’s marginality with its lack of texts and its “Poet Categorization” limited to listing her “Life Span” (1942-2004). (I guess borderlands/frontera poet and Chicana/Xicana and radical-woman-of-color writer aren’t viable categorizations, for all of Anzaldúa’s best efforts.) Sure, we’re encouraged to make a suggestion if we “disagree with this poet’s categorization,” but although we’re glad to help, really that shouldn’t be our job!

Keeping in mind Audre Lorde’s distinction between a facile diversity managed from above and a difference that’s difficult and necessarily negotiated from within, we can ask that the Poetry Foundation’s fortune do more than just “diversify” poetry (ugh! versify or die!), and that it engage with the modes of difference that poets such as Anzaldúa present. Have the Poetry Foundation folks read Anzaldúa’s poetry and do they think it demands a new Borderlands category? Then they should create it! It would be cool to see, say, Rodrigo Toscano, a poet from the Borderlands of California currently listed as a “U.S., Mid-Atlantic” (?) poet, sharing a region with Anzaldúa, who was from the Rio Grande Valley. Poets aren’t just from places, they create spaces.

I’m grateful for the monumental undertaking that is the Poetry Foundation website as an archive of contemporary poetry in the U.S., and I’ve used it many times and will continue to use it in my classes, but I’m also concerned by its hegemonic might. Given its algorithmic weight, the Poetry Foundation page is typically among the first results when one searches for a given poet, and for deceased poets or poets who can’t, for any number of reasons, curate their web presence, the Poetry Foundation page becomes all the more important, as do its thoroughness and accuracy. What criteria determine the choice of content for these pages? How can individual poets and communities participate in the process beyond reporting “a problem” with a biography or disagreeing with a poet’s categorization? What about creating new categorizations, even ones that might make the Poetry Foundation question its own taxonomies? The shift from the taxonomy to the folksonomy, from the expert-generated to the community-generated, is the whole point of Web. 2.0 after all. Without it what we have is the illusion of participation.

That’s one of the lessons that I learned at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, that poetry is lived community, and that approaches to poetry that don’t make room for the messiness and beauty of that living, and for the difficulties that come with it, are just diversity without difference, the purely managerial tokenism of the status quo. And if we don’t demand more from the Poetry Foundation’s millions, then rooting for Poetry magazine is no different from rooting for Citigroup or the DNC, for hegemonic and top-down liberal do-goodism, no matter who’s editing or how cool the new table of contents is. I’m not (much of?) a hater, so I’m not rooting against. I’m happy poets I love and admire are getting published and I’m happy that the 2016 version of Poetry is making Tía Harriet proud by doing what it should’ve been doing all along, but what do you want from me? Una cuki? Brown-y points? (Sorry!) I have a blog post to finish.

The 1980s brings with it the institutional visibility of Latinx literature and the rise of Latinx poets with MFAs, a number of them featured in Poetry. Standouts include Gary Soto, who appears numerous times and as early as May 1974 with work from what would become his debut The Elements of San Joaquin (1977), a classic of Chicano poetics of place. Another is Julia Alvarez, who although best known for her later novels, is well represented with poems such as “Heroics” (May 1982), a characteristically elegant lyric full of transnational feminist resonances: “Once, revolution / in the third world. / Now it’s love.” Alvarez’s work is especially important given the paucity of explicitly Latina feminist work, as well as the continuing invisibility of Dominican American poetry. Still, I was surprised not to come across work by some leading Latinx poets of the 1980s and 1990s, including Ray Gonzalez, Virgil Suárez, Carmen Tafolla, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and, among the Diasporican poets, Aurora Levins Morales, Judith Ortiz Cofer, (de Burgos translator) Jack Agüeros, and (Williams scholar) Julio Marzán. A more recent glaring omission is Rigoberto González, a leading poet and critic who has arguably done more than anybody else for Latinx literature over the past 15 years.

Nonetheless, the past decade has seen an increased Latinx presence in the pages of Poetry, first under the editorship of Christian Wiman, and especially since 2013 with Don Share at the helm. The past few years of Poetry have featured some established poets such as Ricardo Pau-Llosa (February 2013), but especially encouraging has been Share’s inclusion of an exciting range of newer voices such as Cynthia Cruz (May 2014, October 2015), Orlando Ricardo Menes (March 2016), David Tomas Martinez (June 2015), Rodrigo Toscano (May 2014), J. Michael Martinez (May 2014), Aracelis Girmay (April 2016), and Eduardo Corral (December 2011, April 2012, March 2014, March and September 2016). Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of poets with roots and routes in Central and South America, who are remapping the contours of Latinidad beyond Chicano, Diasporican, and Cuban American imaginaries (Javier Zamora, November 2015, January 2016; Jennifer Tamayo, May 2014). I hope this trend continues.

Along the way, there were pleasant surprises. I discovered poets such as Engracia Melendez, whose “In Berkeley” (December 1923) beautifully reflects on how the speaker can only sing of Jalisco “In the coolness, the dampness— / Here in the north.” I also came across the work of Brazilian Canadian poet Ricardo Sternberg (November 1978), which challenges the limits of Latinidad, as if translating Bishop’s translations of Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I also enjoyed some stiff translations of Lorca (often considered an honorary Latinx) published shortly after his murder (April 1937), as well as a short and wonderfully weird youthful poem called “Umbrella” (December 1924) by future architect of the Puerto Rican “commonwealth” Luis Muñoz Marín, who wrote in English and lived in New York during the 1920s. Lastly, I appreciated coming across several poems by Rhina P. Espaillat, a Dominican American poet whose work remains unjustly neglected in Latinx contexts, perhaps because its elegant formalism is seen as passé in a post-1960s socioaesthetic context which equates formal liberation with political liberation. While, sadly, none of Espaillat’s bilingual or translingual poems are featured, a poem such as “Changeling”  (August 1991) haunts me with its authoethnographic music: “I want to tell myself she is not you, / this sullen woman wearing Mama’s eyes.”

Speaking of transligual poems, it’s wonderful to see recent issues of Poetry feature poets such as Toscano and Barbara Jane Reyes (May 2014) and Craig Santos Perez (July/August 2016), who allow us to imagine what Doris Sommer calls a “nonmonolingual” public sphere that can “irritate” the state, especially since many of the older poets who are foundational to Sommer’s and my own nonmonolingual aesthetic (Anzaldúa, Tato Laviera, Victor Hernández Cruz) never made it into the pages of Poetry. (A review of Cruz’s debut Snaps appears in the May 1970 issue, and he’s fortunately still around.)

Similarly, it’s thrilling to read a poet like Douglas Kearney (December 2013) mine the lyric, social, and verbivocovisual possibilities of rap in a journal that seemed to proceed as if hip-hop had never happened. Kearney’s poem ironically embodies a point made by the late and sorely missed Amiri Baraka in a memorable review essay published in Poetry a few months earlier, that mainstream poetry venues can still get away with claiming to represent the vitality of contemporary work by poets of color while showing “little evidence of the appearance of spoken word and rap.” (Note to self: Poetry’s home city of Chicago is also home to the poetry slam and the Young Lords.)

In that same essay, Baraka argues that Cave Canem “has energized us poetry by claiming a space for Afro-American poetry, but at the same time presents a group portrait of Afro-American poets as mfa recipients.” This is a crucial challenge. As much as 23-year-old me would probably have liked the 2016 version of Poetry, and maybe even subscribed, it remains, like the bulk of Poetrilandia, largely MFA-centric and removed from other forms of poetry community. Maybe that’s not Poetry’s job, as it can afford to concern itself with publishing the “best” poetry, but it’s an issue for those of us thinking about poetry communities more generally.

In the wake of my own (beautiful, transformative) experience as a CantoMundo fellow, I have often asked myself and some of my fellow cantomundistas whether CantoMundo and its peer organizations can afford to be farm systems for Poetry. What happens when the editorial team changes, or the political climate? And what of all the poets on the outside, who have no shot (statistically and aesthetically) of ever being published in its pages, poets perhaps too raw or inelegant but who sustain poetry as a social and community practice, or who publish in community-oriented journals as daring and essential as PALABRA and The Acentos Review?

I know that CantoMundo, to its credit, has been moving toward allowing prospective fellows to establish eligibility in ways other than publication, including through a history of poetry readings and performances. Still, there’s a tension for me between the dream of (a living) poetry and the dream of (publishing in) Poetry, and I can’t imagine a version of Latinx poetics or U.S. poetics that didn’t properly account for that living poetry, something the Poetry Foundation website, with all its millions and media might, could do much better if it wanted to. So if I roll my eyes, it’s because I’m thinking back to the Poetry that wasn’t, to the poets that didn’t see its pages. Forget poetry foundations; you’re the foundation. You’re all beautiful. I’m sure Tía Harriet would dig you.

Originally Published: September 30th, 2016
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Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Urayoán Noel is the author of the poetry collections Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection; Hi-Density Politics (2010), a National Book Critics Circle Small Press Highlights selection; Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005), an El Nuevo Día Book of the...