Monday, April 3, 2017

Interview with Francisco Aragón, 2017 Freedom Plow Award Finalist!

The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation and co-sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington and Busboys and Poets, recognizes and honors a poet or poetry collective doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 award recipient Mark Nowak, is being given for the third time in 2017. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington for the Award Ceremony!

About Francisco Aragón

Upon his return to the United States in 1998 after a ten-year residence in Spain, Francisco Aragón began a period of activity that has included his own literary output, editing, translating, and curating. In 2003, he joined the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at Notre Dame, where he established the ILS’ literary initiative—Letras Latinas, where he has conceived of and overseen programs for Latino/a poets and writers. His work in this area has led him to serve the literary community at-large, including as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts a number of times, a nominator for various literary distinctions, and as a member of the board (2008-2012) of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). In 2010, he was awarded the “Outstanding Latino/a Cultural Arts, Literary Arts and Publications Award by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education and in 2015 a VIDO Award by VIDA, Women in the Literary Arts. Aragón, a CantoMundo Fellow and a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, is the author of two books of poetry: Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press, 2005) and Glow of Our Sweat (Scapegoat Press, 2010), as well as editor of the anthology, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007), these latter two winners of International Latino Book Awards, respectively. His poems and translations have appeared in various journals and anthologies. New work is forthcoming in Wandering Song: Central Writing in the United States (Tia Chucha Press, 2017). The son of Nicaraguan immigrants and a native of San Francisco, CA, he spends the Fall semester on the Notre Dame campus where he teaches a course on Latino/a poetry, and spring and summer working out of the ILS’ office in Washington, D.C., where he teaches a poetry workshop and oversees a summer internship program.

Split This Rock interviews Francisco Aragón

By Simone Roberts and Tiana Trutna

Letras Latinas publishes poetry, interviews, and more for Latinx poets and writers. It has been one of the great homes and resources for Latinx poetry and poetry itself owes you admiration and honor for your tirelessness in this work. Would you discuss a little how you established Letras Latinas, its scope now, and the scope you imagine it growing toward?

In 2004, shortly after I was hired by Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), I set out to create, from scratch, literary programs, with a particular emphasis on poetry and emerging voices. To kick things off we established the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, which supports a first book and which just published its 7th winner (We hold the prize every other year). Other early initiatives included Momotombo Press, a chapbook series supporting emerging Latino/a voices. Another was the NEA-funded, multi-year initiative, “POETAS Y PINTORES: Artists Conversing With Verse,” which involved Latino/a visual artists producing original art inspired by Latino/a poetry.

“Letras Latinas” is the “umbrella” term I coined, under which these various programs reside. From the beginning, there have been on-going projects, such as our two national poetry book prizes, but also finite initiatives, including our current “big ticket” project, PINTURA : PALABRA, an ekphrastic initiative in tandem with the Smithsonian exhibit, “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art.” Another on-going activity is public events. On-campus events that engage our students and curriculum is a cornerstone. But we’ve also strived to establish events off-campus. In 2007, for example, Letras Latinas established a hub in Washington, D.C. and we embarked on a series of partnerships that resulted in events at the Library of Congress, the Folger Library, Busboys and Poets, and various Smithsonian institutions. Also in 2007 we launched Letras Latinas Blog, which has evolved into what I’ll call a mission-driven space to illuminate emerging Latino/a voices, particularly via author interviews. In terms of the future, striving to maintain and nourish what we have is plenty, which necessarily requires remaining nimble and creative in terms of fundraising. In short, more than expanding our scope, I’m trying to refine and sustain what’s already on our plate, which sometimes feels like it’s in a constant state of overflow!

In the introductory essay for PINTURA : PALABRA with Poetry magazine, you said that at the 2010 Latino Art Now! conference in Los Angeles, you had a nagging feeling that Latino artists and poets weren’t aware of each other and that began your impetus to start “PINTURA : PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis.” In what ways (if any) has the project and its impact surprised you? Do you have any future plans for this project?

More than “surprise,” what I found myself responding to were aspects of the initiative that felt particularly meaningful—namely, the processes that led to the ekphrastic portfolios and public events affiliated with the Our America exhibit. For example, part of Letras Latinas’ mission is to “foster a sense of community among writers.” I decided to commission the poets Valerie Martínez and Brenda Cárdenas to join forces to design the workshop—specifically for this exhibit. It was immensely gratifying to hear from them, afterwards, how much they enjoyed working together to bring the inaugural DC workshop to fruition. Another phase was the actual curation of the DC workshop cohort. I met with local poets, one-on-one, to explain the project and to gauge their interest before officially extending an invitation for them to participate. I also invited three visiting poets, and it was one of these who made the second workshop—the Miami workshop—possible, which leads to the most gratifying aspect of this project: the sense of community that was forged with each successive workshop cohort. 

We’d start with a Friday night meet-and-greet reception, followed by a day-long session on Saturday at the museum, followed by sharing a meal and/or social time Saturday evening, followed by a second day of workshop on Sunday, followed by a public event for the community on Sunday evening. It may sound like a sentimental cliché, but I say this as the person who attended and witnessed all four workshops in Washington, D.C. (led by Valerie and Brenda), Miami, FL (led by Emma Trelles), Sacramento, CA (led by the late Francisco X. Alarcón), and Salt Lake City, UT (led by Fred Arroyo), respectively: Letras Latinas was carrying out one of its missions by bringing writers together to nourish one another. The published portfolios were great, don’t get me wrong, but they were the icing. The cake was the lived and experienced communities forged during those four weekends.

In terms of future plans, here’s what’s on the horizon, if all goes as planned: Letras Latinas will be commissioning a distinguished critic to write a substantive essay on the six portfolios in Poet Lore, Notre Dame Review, POETRY magazine, The Los Angeles Review, The Packinghouse Review, and Western Humanities Review, respectively. This essay will be turned into a limited edition chapbook. Concurrently, Letras Latinas will be commissioning the creation of 40 artistic “boxes” to house, in each, the six journals that contain the portfolios, as well as the chapbook essay. These 40 “box sets” will then be sold to library special collections and collectors interested in book arts. In other words, and this should come as no surprise to anyone who works in this field: we’d like to raise some crucial funds so that Letras Latinas can keep doing what it does.

For those not familiar with the project, can you tell us a bit about PINTURA : PALABRA's focus on ekphrasis through the lense of Latinx artists? Is that a mode that you felt excluded the Latinx community, or wasn’t explored by writers as much as it needed to be?

Earlier I alluded to a Letras Latinas initiative that also involved Latino/a art, “POETAS Y PINTORES: Artists Conversing with Verse.” In that project, we commissioned 12 visual artists to each read and engage with the work of a Latino/a poet and create an original piece. Then we asked each artist to select one, and only one, poem to represent their poet. The result, in the 24-piece traveling exhibit, were 12 pairings: a framed original work of visual art hanging beside, if you will, the framed poetry that inspired it.

And so, years later, when I learned that the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (SAAM) was in the process of organizing a major exhibit of Latino/a art, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity that Letras Latinas simply couldn’t pass up. I had to devise a way to do the opposite of what we did with POETAS Y PINTORES: to commission Latino/a poets to engage with the work of Latino/a visual and plastic artists. That was the impetus.

In terms of addressing the idea of exclusion, I’d like to share how the principal art critic for The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott, chose to frame his review of “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art.”  He opens his piece this way: “One begins to wonder if it’s even possible to organize a major art exhibition devoted to an ethnic or minority group.” A bit further on, he writes: “Latino art, today, is a meaningless category.” One can well imagine the reaction of some Latino/a artists to this review. To his credit, Kennicott invited one of those artists, Alex Rivera, to engage in a public dialogue that was published in the Post several days later. Rivera opens up the dialogue like this:

Can you explain why you used your review of this show to make a pronouncement about the entire concept of "Latino art"?.....It seems to happen over and over again: when a group show like this one is mounted, critics attack the fundamental notion of looking at the work as a group. Why? The problem is that, while critics raise doubts about categories like "Latino art," there’s never any discussion of the absence of that work in show after show that keeps groups like Latinos on the margins or excluded entirely from the American conversation. For example, the 2012 Whitney Biennial featured exactly zero Latino artists. How can that be a survey of "American Art"? Where is the questioning of that absence in publications like The Post? It seems like the absence of Latino artists is normal, not newsworthy, but the organizing of our presence causes questions about our existence.

The Freedom Plow Award highlights poets working at the intersection of poetry and social activism. Could you tell us how you've come to connect poetry and activism?

Let me allude to Alex Rivera’s statement, quoted above, and say that one could easily substitute the term “Latino poet” for “Latino artist,” and the results would be strikingly similar. One of the anecdotes I often recount, for a conversation such as this one, is that the same year that I began working for the Institute for Latino Studies (2003), a new editor assumed the helm of POETRY magazine. For the purposes of this conversation, POETRY magazine is a stand-in for what I’ll term the “poetry establishment.” I decided to do a little experiment: I began tracking how many books by Latino/a poets POETRY would review in their monthly publication. Back in those days, in one way or another, each issue would include something in the neighborhood of 5 book reviews. Between the years 2003 and 2010, POETRY magazine published a grand total of zero reviews of books by Latino/a poets. Do the math: that’s 8 years times 12 issues times, let’s say, 5 reviews per issue. So we’re talking 480 reviews and not a single one was of a book by a Latino/a poet.  Although this particular case study is especially egregious, it’s but one example from my earlier years as a literary arts administrator. One could point to other venues and come up with similar numbers. THAT was the context into which I entered this field as a literary arts administrator.

So, from my particular perch, “poetry and activism” meant trying to figure out ways to combat the virtual invisibility of Latino/a poetry in “establishment” spaces. To be fair, things at POETRY magazine have certainly improved in the last few years, to be sure. The PINTURA : PALABRA portfolio that appeared in the March issue of POETRY last year would have been unthinkable under the previous regime.

In what particular ways (if any) do you see poetry playing a role in social activism for the Latinx community? Are there new directions you imagine for poetry in activism?

Within a Latino/a community context, this question can be addressed in a plethora of ways, each as vital as the next. In other words, there’s a lot of great work being done out there, starting, for example, with Freedom Plow co-finalist Christopher Soto and his work with Undocupoets and Nepantla. And, of course, the definition of “social activism” can take many shapes. In terms of my work with Letras Latinas, one aspect of it is related to the notion that the personal can be political. When you’re confronted with your community being rendered invisible to the culture-at-large, a mission as straightforward as nurturing and promoting your community’s storytellers can, in my view, be viewed as a form of activism. Another, if one works in a context like mine, is exposing one’s students to the work of your community’s poets and writers. 

For four years now, every fall, I’ve had the privilege of teaching an undergraduate literature course on Latino/a poetry at Notre Dame. It’s a course for non-English majors and so I get an interesting mix of students—from business school majors to student-athletes who have had little, if any, exposure to poetry, let alone Latino/a poetry. One year, a Notre Dame offensive lineman (i.e. a football player) from Kentucky approached me at the end of the course and told me how much he enjoyed the course and how much he learned, through poetry, about a community he knew little about.  Another year, a student who was a Spanish major and who was about to spend the following semester in Spain, expressed deep appreciation for being able to read, study, and analyze poetry in English by Hispanic heritage writers. Both students were non-Latino/a. And so it’s my way of seeking to break down walls and build bridges, one individual at a time.

How do you view the traditions of queer Latinx poetry in the context of the larger Latinx tradition? What are your thoughts on the importance and contribution of these writers?

Last December, over the holiday break, I penned a piece about Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Walking (Tenochtitlan, DF) with Francisco X. Alarcón, 1978.” I published it at Letras Latinas Blog as part of a collaboration with CantoMundo on the Poetry Coalition’s initiative, “Because We Come from Everything: Poetry & Migration.” In one passage, towards the end, I write: 

Herrera, with his mention of Nandino’s “amor oscuro” at the beginning of the poem, and his mention of Alarcón’s “love alone world” with its “intensity” and “fire”—in short, his “real stuff”—seems to be urging Alarcón not to mute those aspects of himself that may not have been acceptable in the Chicano literary canon of the time. There’s a certain poetic justice in this thought: one of the “real” and enduring subjects of Juan Felipe Herrera’s oeuvre has been the Chicano Movement and its communities. It’s heartening, therefore, to see that in 1978 Herrera fully embraced the notion of his fellow poet friend not mincing or parsing his words when it came to writing about being an openly gay Chicano poet. 
Part of Francisco X. Alarcón’s legacy was having adopted Elias Nandino’s unapologetic stance, where homoeroticism was concerned. One of the results was that Alarcón, in turn, became a mentor and role model to the next generation of gay Chicano/Latino poets, including, for the example, the poets he convened and introduced in the spring of 2002 in New Orleans at the AWP reading, “Boca a Boca,” which included Rigoberto González, the late Rane Arroyo, Eduardo C. Corral, and myself.

Key, then, to this subject of “queer Latinx poetry in the context of the larger Latinx tradition,” is, on the one hand, the importance of mentorship; but also, on the other, the role of allies. What I found particularly moving, but also relevant to this discussion, about Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, is its indelible portrait of literary relationships, literary friendships. The poem is a mosaic portrait of this phenomenon and yet, in what I think is the poem’s key passage, it’s also a portrait of a straight ally saying to his beloved GLBTQ writer/friend: “speak your truth no matter what.”

In the work that you're currently doing, what issue do you feel most personally passionate about and why?

To continue: years ago, I encountered a poem that’s been working on me—which I’ve been internalizing for some time now. It’s by the DC-based, Cuban American poet Dan Vera. It’s titled, “For Some Executors of Gay Writers.” These are the first five lines:

       For the manuscript you kept locked up in a wall safe,
       For the diaries you made sure would not be discovered,
       For the letters from lovers you burned in the furnace,
       For the measures you took to tear out their tongues,
       For all the ways you straightened the record,

Some time after that, Arizona State University (ASU) acquired a sizable archive of some 900 manuscript pages by the Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío, which included 9 letters addressed to the Mexican poet, Amado Nervo. The letters point to, for the first time, an intimate relationship between Darío and Nervo. Shortly thereafter, the Nicaraguan novelist, Sergio Ramirez—a writer whose work I love and have written about—penned an online piece renouncing the letters as fake. A few months after that, the Darío scholar Alberto Acereda wrote an exhaustive, airtight article detailing the reasons why the documents in the archive acquired by ASU were authentic. I contributed to this “conversation” with an epistolary poem in the voice of Darío (from the grave) addressed to Sergio Ramirez, “authenticating” his relationship to Nervo. In addition to appearing both in print journals and online (at Beltway Poetry Quarterly), I’m happy to report that the poem, titled “January 21, 2013,” will have a particularly meaningful home in the soon to be released, Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States (Tia Chucha Press, 2017).

So, in terms of an issue I feel personally passionate about these days, I’d say this is one. In other words, reading and engaging with Dan Vera’s poem, writing “January 21, 2013” and, for that matter, publishing my book Glow of Our Sweat—all these things are part of my work at resisting and combating efforts by others to erase our GLBTQ histories, our LGBTQ lives; it has become part of my literary DNA. This may be another manifestation, depending on one’s point of view, where the personal is political. In this current political climate we are navigating, with the current occupant in the White House being exhibit A for this “post-truth” phenomena, it feels political, and that’s fine.

Do you have any exciting projects or events coming up in your own poetic work, with Letras Latinas, or other projects that our readers should know about?

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), on May 12, will be inaugurating the exhibit, “Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography,” featuring ten Latino/a photographers, including Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas, and Camilo José Vergara.

Letras Latinas is partnering with SAAM to present, on May 12, three poets who will be sharing poems in response to this exhibit:  Martín Espada, Naomi Ayala, and Samuel Miranda.

Read more about Aragón at his website.


Photo collage of Simone Roberts on the left and Tiana Trutna on the right

Simone Roberts
is the Poetry & Social Justice Fellow for Split This Rock.

Tiana Trutna is Split This Rock's part-time Programs and Administrative Associate.

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