Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Interview with Andrea Assaf, 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, Busboys and Poets, and the Institute for Policy Studies, 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 Andrea Assaf

Andrea Assaf is a poet, performer, director, and cultural organizer. She’s the founding Artistic Director of Art2Action Inc. which creates, develops, produces, and presents original theatre, interdisciplinary performances, performative acts and progressive cultural organizing. Art2Action  supports artists who are women, people of color, queer or trans-identified, and creative allies. Author and director of Eleven Reflections on September—which has toured to La MaMa, The Kennedy Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and internationally— Assaf is a two-time winner of the Princess Grace Award. Her poetry has been published in Mizna in the United States, Scarf Magazine in London, and e in Mexico City, online and more. Assaf is currently Artist-in-Residence at the University of South Florida (USF-Tampa) School of Theatre & Dance. She currently serves on the Board of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA), Alternate ROOTS, and is a member of RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers.


By Danielle Badra

First of all, I want to say congratulations on being a finalist for the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism. Thank you for the important creative and social activism work that you and Art2Action are engaging in! Also, as a fellow queer Arab-American writer and educator, thank you for creating a space for Arab and Arab-American voices to be in conversation with veterans and other marginalized communities.

How did you get started in social action work? How did you get started as a spoken word artist? Which came first? And when did you find these two worlds intersecting?

My first activism was in college, at the height of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. I was in the process of coming out, as a young artist living in New York City, and it was the issue wracking my new-found community. I’ll never forget seeing the AIDS Quilt spread across the National Mall. It was at once devastating and awe-inspiring.

I have always written poetry, for as long as I can remember, and I was studying Acting as an undergraduate at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, but I did not imagine performing my own writing until much later. I think I went to my first open mic around the turn of the millennium, at Bar 13 in the East Village. The funny thing is, I went to support a friend, I wasn’t even planning to read! But once I discovered the world of spoken word, I was moved and drawn to the self-revealing experience of performing my poems.

As I was slow to discover myself as a performance poet, I was even slower to start writing plays. It’s taken me decades to claim these titles, “poet” and “playwright”—perhaps because I don’t have a degree in writing. I am largely self-taught as a writer, although I must give credit to the extraordinary mentorship I received as a member of The Writers’ Roundtable, an all-women intergenerational writing group that I was a part of, every other Wednesday, for nearly a decade.

These two worlds of spoken word and activism began to intertwine, really, as soon as I started to perform my own work. My writing is inseparable from my world view, visions, and experiences. As a woman-identified person who loves women, and an Arab American in a post-9/11 context, my entire identity is politicized—whether I’m writing a love poem, or just trying to get to my next gig. I cannot, or perhaps refuse to, disassociate my internal truths from the external realities in which I live. To do so would be incomplete, dishonest. One of the things I strive for most in my work is honesty—those difficult truths which we may not always want to face, but which will ultimately set us free.

I’m thoroughly impressed with the wide range of productions you’ve written, directed, and performed in. How do you choose the productions you want to work on? What are you working on now? And what work of yours are you most proud of?

Some productions I choose, and some choose me. I never accept a project unless I believe in it, and believe in what the work is ultimately trying to say. I always ask, “Why this now?” And if I don’t have a good answer, I don’t commit to it. Sometimes the “now” comes later. I guess that suggests a sense of urgency is important to me in some way—it has to be relevant.

My advice to younger artists is, don’t wait for work to come to you. Create your own projects, produce your own opportunities. There’s always so much work to be done in the world.

Sometimes a project grows out of relationships, such as Outside the Circle—a play I co-wrote with Samuel Valdez (an artist who has Cerebral Palsy), co-created with director Dora Arreola. This project began with a personal conversation about unrequited love, and the non-normative experience of queerness, from living with a disability to being gender non-conforming or LGBT*.

We were excited by the intersectionality of the concept, the opportunity to make connections across communities, and we found theatres interested in commissioning that work. It was written, produced, premiered, and toured within two years, which is relatively fast. Other projects are labors of love that take many years to materialize and garner support.

I am proud of all my work, in some way. The fact of actually doing it—seeing something to completion and releasing it in the world—always feels like a minor miracle to me. I am also very proud of all the exceptional artists I get to work with; I feel honored by their collaboration. At the same time, I always feel my work is flawed, unfinished. Perfectionism is humbling, I suppose; at least, it keeps me driven. Having said that, I do feel proud of Eleven Reflections on September—perhaps because it’s so close to my heart, perhaps because it keeps evolving.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I’m working on a new project, which I simply call DRONE. I envision it as a high-tech, large-scale, ensemble-based, devised theatre production. I’ve found it extremely hard to fund—as work about war, critical of U.S. policy, often is—so I’ve recently decided to just focus on writing the script. I’m enjoying the writing. I’m also terrified of it. The more research I do on drone warfare, the more terrifying the future seems. Yet that is what I do as an artist: go toward what I most fear, in hope of disarming it.  

What suggestions do you have of ways people can use poetry and writing as acts of resistance, particularly in the next four years under an administration that seems set on defunding arts and eliminating anti-discrimination policies?

Write with people whom you perceive to be very different from you. Create together, collaborate, wrestle through it. Walk into your fear. Explore unexpected intersections. Open to self-examination, and allow yourself to be confronted by difficult truths. Then stand on stage together, share a microphone, and bring your audiences, your communities, into the same room. Let your work be a beginning, a spark, a catalyst, not an end in itself.

I think, in the current political climate, there is a tremendous amount of fear. It is easy, and tempting, to succumb—to hide under the proverbial blanket, and hibernate until this long winter of discontent passes. There are those among us for whom the risks are too great, and we must respect that, and support them. But to the extent that we have any privilege at all, we must leverage that privilege to speak, or forsake it to risk action. We must remember the sage words of Audre Lorde, that our silence will not protect us.

The night after the election, still reeling from the news, I attended an event hosted by my local arts council. The mood in the gallery was thick, and ironically, the central image was an enormous red shark hanging in the middle of the room. As we gathered, somewhat sullenly, our host said, “Well, historically, great art has come from times like these.” A little laughter released the tension in the room, and we couldn’t deny that she was right.

We must look, now, to those times and places in history when artists have been the creators and leaders of resistance, visionaries and partners in vast social movements, and catalysts for change. If we have to go underground, or turn deeper into symbolism, or rise up in the streets, or take risks we’ve only dreamed of or are frightened by—now is the time. Now is the time to create, to be agents of change. I often say that for me, art is the craft of transforming destructive energy into creative energy. Now is the time for transformation.

As Islamophobia steadily increases across this country, and around the world, is there literature or other artistic resources you would suggest to help folks open themselves to  and become educated on the Middle East and Islam?

Read the great Arab and Arab American writers. A few who have influenced me include Kahlil Gibran, Nizar Qabbani, Nawal El Saadawi, Etel Adnan, Mahmoud Darwish, Suheir Hammad, Naomi Shihab Nye, Dunya Mikhail, Heather Raffo, Nadine Touma, Philip Metres and Mohja Kahf. I was introduced to many of the contemporary writers by Mizna, the Arab American literary journal, and RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers. Both organizations are wonderful resources.

Also explore Persian poetry. Rumi is, of course, still unparalleled; and Hafiz—one could spend a lifetime exploring the ecstasies of Sufi poets. There are also tremendous contemporary poets in Iran today, many of whom have not yet been translated into English. Music is a great place to start. We used a piece by Hossein Alizadeh in an earlier version of Eleven Reflections… It’s important to remember that, in many Central and West Asian, Mediterranean and North African traditions, poetry was most often composed, rather than written, sung, or chanted; the separation of poetry from music is relatively recent in human history. 

I also want to mention the importance of Somali poetry. Before war decimated Somalia’s social systems and created the refugee crisis, Somalia was known as the “Nation of Poets”—with an incredible depth, breadth, and wealth of poetic traditions and structures. I’m sure most Americans don’t know that, and poetry is not the first thing they think of when someone mentions Somalia. As with all of our war-torn lands, we must not allow our poetic traditions to be decimated, or lost in the rubble. They must be revived, taught, and practiced. They are also evolving, finding voice in other contemporary forms, such as Hip Hop. The first album of K’Naan, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, for example, had a profound impact on me.

Why did you start Art2Action? What sort of initiatives does your organization engage in?

I originally started to use the name “Art2Action” in 2003, when I produced my first solo show at the NY International Fringe Festival. Years later, in 2010, after various professional incarnations, I decided to start my own non-profit organization. Why? Perhaps because I wanted a certain amount of independence, to follow my own vision and passions.

I founded Art2Action, Inc. in order to support the development of my own work, but also the work of other artists of color, women-identified artists, and LGBTQ artists. Under this umbrella, I create, develop, produce and present original theatre, interdisciplinary performances (including poetry and spoken word events), and progressive cultural organizing.  Art2Action is a very small organization, but I believe we have deep impact.

I generally tour my own work, nationally and internationally; and present the work of other artists in Tampa (where I live now), in partnership with the University of South Florida and community venues. For example, 2014-16, we presented a multi-year series at USF called “THIS Bridge: Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim Artists,” focusing on mostly women artists, mostly based in the U.S., who are creating contemporary work in multiple disciplines. Our local community-based work, on the other hand, is currently focused on veterans, particularly those in recovery from PTSD and other mental health challenges.

When did you decide to start working with Iraq war veterans? What was the impetus for this social action, and what have been some of the impacts of this collaboration?

My first encounter with an Iraq War veteran was through Elia Arce’s multimedia performance, The Fifth Commandment, in 2005. She was collaborating with Matthew Howard, one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). I did a workshop with them, and wrote a monologue that became part of the touring production. I knew that Matt was struggling with something, but I did not have the framework to recognize it as Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) at the time. Years later, in 2011, while I was creating Eleven Reflections on September, I knew I wanted to partner with IVAW. I connected with one of the St. Paul-area field organizers, and he did a couple of events with us. Now, when Eleven Reflections… tours, I always try to reach out to IVAW branches in the area, to see if they want to offer workshops together or participate in post-performance dialogues.

In 2012, I was invited by Linda Parris-Bailey, Executive/Artistic Director and resident playwright of The Carpetbag Theatre, to direct her newest play. The script was still in development at the time, so I was able to participate in the research, as well as early ensemble explorations and dramaturgy. The play, Speed Killed My Cousin, centers on the story of a African American woman, a third-generation soldier, who returns from Iraq and struggles with PTSD, Moral Injury, and her family’s history with vehicular suicide.

In conjunction with this project, Carpetbag Theater offers Story Circle workshops, Digital Storytelling for veterans, and post-show dialogues; as the play tours, we have these creative encounters with U.S. military veterans across the country. Through this work, I developed an on-going relationship with the VA in Tampa. In 2013, I began co-facilitating a weekly performing arts workshop at the PRRC—Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center. Initially, I thought this would be a short-term engagement. But here I am, four years later, and I’m still going every week when I’m not on the road.

I often reflect on what draws me to this work. If someone had told me, shortly after 9/11, that I’d eventually be working with U.S. military veterans, I would have called them crazy. But as soon as I started doing workshops with the veterans at the PRRC, I was hooked. Why? Perhaps because all my assumptions and stereotypes about who veterans are and what they believe were shattered. Perhaps because people who have committed themselves to recovery are no longer hiding, and don’t have energy for falseness. Perhaps because being part of the healing process is so rewarding. Or perhaps because I, too, am broken, and art is the cracked mirror through which we can see ourselves, our society and what we have done, more accurately.

In my playwrighting, for some reason, I often find myself obsessed with the character of the perpetrator, rather than the victim. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it’s because the perpetration of violence is what I’m trying to understand—not so as to justify it, but so that I can learn to stop it, or undo it. I have been researching, and trying to figure out how to represent, trauma for most of my adult life.

I am interested in illuminating the connections among different kinds of trauma, from various intersecting sources, domestic and global. Repetition is elemental in the atomic structure of trauma. All my traumas are bound to yours; they orbit each other like molecules or planets, bound by the gravitational pull of this dark matter that none of us can see, but which affects us all.

I believe that most of us are both—victims and perpetrators, at the same time. Most abusive parents, for example, were abused children themselves. Most homophobes are people who have been so deeply repressed in their own sexuality that they lash out against those who exhibit liberation, or nonconformity.

As an Arab American, I am suffering this era of anti-Arab warmongering, but as a U.S. citizen who pays taxes, I am also responsible for funding these wars. I cannot blame the soldier who holds the gun, without also acknowledging that I helped pay for the gun. Perhaps both of us did so unwillingly, yet we did it.

I’ve been writing about war for over a decade now. Not through my lived experience, but through that mirror we, as artists, hold up to life. As a Lebanese American who grew up in the 1970s-80s, I have been aware of this thing called war since I was in elementary school – not just because I saw it in movies, but because I knew that somehow, it had something to do with me, with my identity. Arab Americans, in my generation, unfortunately, have never had the privilege of being unaware, of simply not thinking about, war. Just as people of color don’t have the privilege of being unaware of racism.

What moves you to continue doing this type of work?

I don’t think most Americans, in the 21st century, have a clue what war is, or what the U.S. military actually does; we only know the mythologies that we have been taught, by politicians and the media. When you hear the real stories of people who have been inside it, something shifts. I know there are many people in the United States, fellow citizens in my own country, who might never come to see my work, simply because I am of Arab descent. They may never walk in the door to hear me speak, or pick up a poem with my name on it.

But those same people might come to hear a veteran. So if we can work together—if I can stand on stage, or even behind the scenes, with veterans who share the same message—then perhaps we can create change. We can reach more people together, from very diverse communities, and inscribe an indelible mark on our collective conscience.

Could you describe the process of composing “Eleven Reflections on September”?

The process of composing—thank you for using that word—Eleven Reflections on September was deeply personal to me. I began writing the poems in 2001, out of sheer emotional necessity. I lived in New York City at the time, less than a mile from the World Trade Center towers.

 At the same time that I was processing the shock of the event, the devastation of my city, I was also confronted with my identity as Arab American in new, accusatory, and alarming ways. Poetry was, for me, as it has always been, the place I go when prosaic words fail, when narrative no longer makes sense—when reality becomes so unintelligible, and emotion so uncontainable, that only poetry can express the grief, or fear, or vastness, to help piece the world together again.

So I wrote some poems, in the moments and years following September 11th, 2001. It wasn’t until 2007 that I began to weave these pieces together into a series, thanks to a writing residency at Hedgebrook. In 2011, with the support of Pangea World Theater and a Princess Grace Award, I had the opportunity to develop the poetry series into a fully-produced, multimedia work of theatre.

Because I was exploring and wrestling with my Arab heritage, as well as the post-9/11 backlash of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, I was curious about the question: What would happen if I set my poems to Middle Eastern music? This was an experiment that I thought might fail, because I had no experience collaborating with Arab or Middle Eastern musicians, let alone any knowledge of the musical forms; I didn’t know if my very American, spoken word, and experimental theatre aesthetics would combine well with the music.

So I invited some musicians to collaborate, and began to explore… And then I fell deeply in love with the music, and the experience of performing with all the exceptional musicians who have been a part of this multi-year touring project. I have learned from them, and they have informed my writing, as well as my understanding of myself as a woman of Middle Eastern descent. I am perpetually grateful for this gift.

Who is your target audience for this necessary meditation on a post 9/11 world?

Eleven Reflections on September has two primary audiences, in my mind. One is Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim people, especially women, for whom I hope this work offers a space of mourning and pride. We are so busy being strong in the face of crisis, that we don’t often have safe spaces to just cry—to grieve, to mourn—especially in public. The theatre can offer that space of personal journey and communal experience. At the same time, the beauty of the music, and perhaps even the tradition of poetry itself, inspires pride in our cultural heritage.

I always offer post-show dialogues with each performance of Eleven Reflections…, because I find that some people really need to talk after this piece; I feel gratified when the Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim audience members feel empowered by the work.

The other equally important audience is members of the American public who have lived through the post-9/11 era without ever, perhaps, hearing the emotional experience of an Arab American expressed, particularly through the intimate voice of poetry. Some of my favorite audience members are those who were unsuspectingly brought by a friend, or who decided to come not knowing what to expect, or who are just on a subscriber list—and suddenly find themselves hearing perspectives and stories they never imagined, or feeling empathy with a people they previously only encountered as sensationalized images on the news.

I don’t want monolithic audiences that already agree with me; I want the work to be experienced by people who imagine themselves to be completely different from me. In that sense, mainstream America is a target audience, because that’s where the work can be most transformative. That’s where meaningful change could happen. Not that live theatre is mainstream, or poetry for that matter; but as much as I love performing in major cities and important venues, I also love bringing this work to places, such as small town theatres or red-state campuses, where people who’ve never talked to an Arab American might come and have an experience that shifts their perspective forever.


Danielle Badra is completing her MFA in Poetry at George Mason University. She is an intern at Split This Rock, and the poetry editor of So To Speak, a feminist literary and arts journal. Her poems have appeared in Outlook Springs, 45th Parallel, and The California Journal of Poetics. Dialogue with the Dead (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is her first chapbook, a collection of contrapuntal poems in dialogue with her deceased sister. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Interview with JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard, 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, Busboys and Poets, and the Institute for Policy Studies, 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!


JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is the author of SAY/MIRROR, a debut poetry collection published by The Operating System (2016, 2nd expanded ed. and 2015, 1st ed) and a chaplet bury your love poems here (Belladonna Collaborative*, 2015). SAY/MIRROR was a 2016 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in the Lesbian Poetry Category. JP is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was selected as a 2016 Judith Markowtiz Emerging Writers Award Winner from Lambda Literary Foundation. She was one of Velvetpark Magazine's Official 25 Queer Women of 2016 and was selected as one of GO Magazine's 2016 "100 Women We Love!"

JP curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers at all levels a monthly venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. The Salon, which has been featured in Poets & Writers Magazine, celebrates a diverse array of women poets and includes a large LGBTQ POC membership.  

JP is a Cave Canem graduate fellow, an alumna of the VONA/Voices Writers Workshop, and a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Queer Voices Anthology, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split This Rock's blog, Nepantla: A Journal for Queer Poets of Color, Muzzle Magazine, Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, The Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias, Mom Egg Review, Talking Writing, Connotation Press and the anthology, Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander. She is Editor-at-Large for Mom Egg Review.

JP holds a BA from Barnard College, a JD from Brooklyn Law School and an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. She resides in New York with her wife and two sons. Her family was proudly featured on a 2014 cover of Gay Parent Magazine.



By Fran McCrae

How would you describe the role of poetry in activism and community building?

As a queer poet of color, I am especially aware and appreciative of the long-standing history of black lesbian poets who have used poetry as a form of activism and as a way to both agitate and empower. Poetry for me is part and parcel of activism and community building. I'm thinking particularly of black lesbian poets, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, and Cheryl Clarke. Discovering their voices while in college helped me to to understand the clear intersection of poetry, activism, and community building. They wrote about racism, feminism, the beauty and sexiness of loving women, and consistently used their poetry to speak truth to power. They made it crystal clear that poetry is political and that poets can and should use poetry to bring community together.

Modern day political movements like #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, follow in the great literary tradition of black activist poets and allow black poets and our allies to use the power of our words to march, chant, write, build, and empower community, both nationally and internationally.

What poets have most influenced you and why?

I grew up in Sugar Hill, Harlem, and as an only child of a single Mama, I spent countless hours afterschool in my local library, the Hamilton Grange Branch of the NY public library. It was really my home away from home.

Early poets who influenced me way back in elementary and middle school include Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez. I discovered The Black Poets Anthology edited by Dudley Randall in the poetry section of my local library and it became my poetry bible. I checked it out of the library so much, that my Mama went out and got me my own copy.

Later on in college, black lesbian activist poets who I mentioned above (Pat Parker, Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke) had the most significant influence on me personally, politically, and socially. They literally gave me the courage to come and stay out of the closet over thirty years ago. I continue to call out their names and celebrate their work. 

What was your defining moment in becoming a poet-activist? 

A poem that I loved and memorized when I was back in elementary school, For My People, by the dynamic sista poet, Margaret Walker, was an early defining moment for me. Her poetry showed me, at a very young age, that a writer could be both a poet and an activist. I may not have had the word “activist” in my vocabulary at that age, but I remember that Walker’s poetry made me feel alive.

For My People educated the reader about African American history (both painful and empowering moments), while simultaneously serving as a call to action for black folks. When I reread For My People, as an adult, I remembered that I had always loved this poem on a visceral level, before I fully understood its power or all its social implications. I was probably no more than nine or ten years old and my Mama would proudly have me recite it each Sunday to the church ladies after church.

Before discovering poetry, I was a painfully shy child. However, that particular poem, really spoke to me and helped me find and share my voice. I loved the rhythm of the words and how strong my voice sounded when I performed it. It made me stand tall because of the force and power of the words. The church ladies would clap each week and I’d smile each time, then run and get a warm slice of sweet potato pie. I still love that final stanza, a call for action, that still speaks true today:

        Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
        bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
        generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
        loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
        healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
        in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
        be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
        rise and take control.

Your collection SAY/MIRROR takes its inspiration from vintage photographs of your mother. How would you describe the potential of poetry to impact collective memory?

Poetry can sometimes be a trigger and here I’m using the word “ trigger” as a tool: poems can get our collective attention, remind us of our history (both political and personal), and encourage political activism.

While there can be collective power and beauty in poetry, there can also be collective pain and mourning. This is particularly true when we remember/honor/start a literal “roll call” of names of our black, brown, and LGBTQ bodies that have been murdered or maimed, seemingly without any justice in sight. Poetry ensures that we don’t forget the growing list of names as we seek justice for our ancestors and our injured, who have been targets of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and discrimination based on immigration status. Poetry forces us to pay attention; to look this sometimes ugly country directly in the eye and call it on its flaws.

Sometimes poetry can give us unexpected hope. Recently I participated in a Poets Vigil for NEA at Trump Tower in New York City organized by my friend Loma (Christopher Soto).  Poets and allies were on the street protesting and local poets shared our poems of protest. A bus driver driving his bus along Fifth Avenue, saw and heard our vigil of protester poets, with our signs, placards, and candles. He pulled his bus over towards us, looked over in our direction from his drivers side window, gave us a big thumbs up and honked his horn loudly in support, while encouraging us to keep it up. Strangers on the street stopped, listened, and many clapped or shared supportive words of solidarity. Ultimately, it was a beautiful and empowering experience (though freezing outside) as we bonded over our shared activist experience; that evening became a part of our collective memory. 

Being a woman, a person of color, and a member of the LGBTQ community, you are able to channel many voices in your work. How do these communities intersect in your writing and what are the challenges of representing them all?

It is basically impossible for these voices/parts of myself, black, queer and woman, not to enter my work or intersect. It frames the lens through which I see and experience the world and it is part and parcel of who I am.

When I am writing poems celebrating or mourning black youth, I am writing as a black lesbian mother of two sons, including one queer teen. When I write political poems, the various parts of myself intersect and inevitably speak up. I want others in the room who may be too shy to speak up, to know that we are here, we queer POC voices exist and we will speak out as long as there is breath in our bodies.

I’m constantly thinking about a quote of one of my favorite poets, the late black, lesbian, activist poet, Pat Parker, who once said: "If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, 'No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome…' The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution."

I am fully aware that all those parts of me (black, queer, woman), all those voices are not welcome in some forums simultaneously, but that never stops me from making my best efforts to bring “all the different parts of me” and to bring my fullest, queerest, blackest, full woman self into the room, onto the page, up on the stage, and in my role as curator and educator.

You curate and nurture the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS). How does this forum support women writers?

WWBPS supports primarily women writers (though we are open to everyone) by hosting monthly writing workshops with a new featured woman poet/writer/author monthly. Each month featured Salon writers are paid honoraria thanks to donations and my Brooklyn Arts Council Grant (BAC), awarded the last four years. Our workshops are pay-what-you-can and there’s no required fee, though donations are always welcome.

The Salons occur on weekends and we have a four to five hour leisurely chunk of time to produce new work, have a featured reading by our visiting author, and a Q & A session with our feature. We wrap up with a multi-genre open mic, open to all participants. We celebrate our powerful voices, while producing new work, thanks to generous women who open their homes to us each month or help me find affordable community spaces. WWBPS literally and figuratively nurtures us; Salons are potluck events and participants bring delicious home-cooked meals.

Women who attend often tell me that the Salons are warm, welcoming, and safe spaces to create new work and to share works-in-progress during the open mic. Recently, some Salon members have been accepted into MFA programs across the country, others are getting their work published in journals, often for the first time, some have their first chapbooks or books published or forthcoming, many are getting accepted into residencies or writing retreats. Some, who were once shy, now perform their poetry in larger venues, after building up their confidence in our open mics.

The Salon has become an extended poetry family, where members support each other on an ongoing basis, even outside of the Salon, networking and building community. We are an incredibly diverse and intergenerational group of writers, many of us are queer POC and allies, as are many of our features. We learn from each other, as well as from our featured authors, who are often dynamic educators. Featured poets are invited to sell their books at each Salon, thereby supporting small, independent presses.

Thanks to my Brooklyn Arts Council grants, I started a traveling Salon poetry library a few years ago. My 2017 BAC Grant allows me to stock the library with new poetry books throughout the year, often from LGBTQ and POC writers, thereby exposing members to diverse, emerging poetic voices.

What has been your most memorable experience within the WWBPS?

One of my most memorable WWBPS experiences was when we performed in front of a full house at the renowned Word for Word Reading Series at Bryant Park in New York City last summer. It was really a dream come true, as that reading series has been one of my favorite series for many years! I was interviewed on behalf of WWBPS, along with Salon member Keisha-Gaye Anderson, and portions of our Bryant Park performances were featured on CUNY-TV’s Study With the Best cable tv show. 

What’s coming up next for you? Any new projects in the works? 

As for my writing, I’m in the early stages of writing my memoir and recently finished taking a memoir writing workshop with the amazing Bushra Rehman, so I have lots of editing to do. I’m editing my poetry chapbook manuscript, “We Beautiful Black Boys.” My literary baby, WWBPS celebrates its Six Year Anniversary on Friday, April 28th with a phenomenal line-up of Salon poets performing! I’ve rented a lovely space and am catering it so I’m super excited.

I’m especially looking forward to some upcoming collaborations with various community and literary organizations. I’m currently the guest editor, with poet Amber Atiya, of a special edition of Sinister Wisdom Journal entitled “Black Lesbians: We Are the Revolution!” (influenced by who else? Pat Parker!) It’s forthcoming in the latter part of 2017; we are busy making final selections and edits.

Apogee Journal and New York Writers Coalition recently received a 2017 Community Arts Grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council to design and facilitate affordable craft-based writing and editing workshops.  I’ve been invited to facilitate one of their generative writing workshops as a teaching artist for this new series. My workshop will use the brilliant texts of Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to help writers create powerful mini-personal essays or narrative, memoir-themed political poems.

I’m partnering with Humanities New York and have been invited to serve as a Readings and Discussions Scholar to create an inaugural Audre Lorde Readings and Discussion statewide program in NY for them. Of course, I’m always busy lining up featured authors for the Salon; some upcoming 2017 featured poets include Antoinette Brim, Donika Kelly, DeLana Dameron, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, Anastacia Renee, and Heather Buchanan, plus others!

What advice would you give to emerging writers from underrepresented groups (people of color, LGBTQ, etc.)? 

I would urge emerging writers from underrepresented groups (folks of colors, LGBTQ, and marginalized writers) to find and build a writing community wherever you are. This can include reaching out to local writers, to friends who are writers or even an online community of writers, particularly for folks in rural communities without easy access to queer POC writers or allies.

I also encourage emerging writers to apply to organizations that specifically support and celebrate their communities, such as Cave Canem, Lambda Literary, VONA/Voices Writing Workshop for Writers of Color, CantoMundo, and Kundiman. Many of those organizations, including Cave Canem, Lambda, and VONA, have really provided a nurturing space for me to grow as a writer throughout the years.

It’s also important to go to readings, meet and hear other poets, and if folks can, attend local affordable writing workshops when offered. Also read everything you can get your hands on! 

Learn more about JP at her website.


Fran McCrae is a poet, advocate for the cooperative model of business, and volunteer for Split This Rock. She hails from the Texas Hill Country and currently lives in Washington, DC. Her work has previously been published in Epigraph Magazine and Burnt Pine Magazine.

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.