to Holy Bronx


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I’m getting ready for my feature at Writers with Drinks tonight and I can’t remember the last time I was so nervous for a feature.

If you’ve been to a Writers with Drinks, then you know what I’m talking about. The energy is incredibly kinetic and the caliber of writers is always top notch so I’m feeling some serious pressure on what I should read. I can go with the set that I’ve been used to doing the last couple of readings or go with all new stuff. The way I’m talking about this, you’d think I was doing these same poems for five years or sumthin.

Segue: Watching the National Poetry Slam finals recently through live internet stream was a nice experience cuz even if I didn’t like the poems per se, I do appreciate the spirit of competition. What I didn’t appreciate was the asshattery in the chat room. Way too many internet jerks saying things you know they would never say in real life. But, one comment did crack me up, as a poet came up and did a poem they’ve been doing in competition for a long time, and one of the commentators types “This is their Stairway to Heaven!” And as someone who used to have his own Stairway to Heaven I cracked up. End segue.

Ok, time to really get ready and I do want to try to add at least one really new poem to the mix because I don’t ever want to be that poet that does all the same things at all the same places. Been there, when I was younger, and done with it. I know all the reasons poets do the “hits” all the time but I really don’t care if there is “at least one person” in the room who has never heard that poem before. You know, that poem guaranteed to change lives. What I most care about is that the only way I can write that poem—the one that if I’m extremely lucky might get remembered 100 years from now—is by writing new stuff.

Speaking of new stuff. Here’s the latest revision of a poem I started at Martín Espada’s CantoMundo workshop. There’s at least three good stories behind this poem but that’ll have to wait for latah. See ya at the Make Out Room!

The Neighborhood and Tenant Association of Tremont Avenue, The Bronx, Gather to Erect a Statue for Robert Moses

[Poem was here. Can now be found at CrossBronx.]

Martín Espada reads Pablo Neruda’s “General Franco in Hell”

¡Feliz cumpleaño, Pablo Neruda!

I can’t think of any better way to celebrate el maestro’s birthday than by sharing this video of Martín Espada reading “General Franco in Hell” at the CantoMundo retreat.

Before we get to the poem, let’s think a second about recitation and craft. As Martín reminded us before reading the poem: Neruda’s poem of damnation and public scorn walks a thin tightrope between personal anger, Neruda’s grief over the assassination of his dear friend, Federico García Lorca; human outrage, being witness to not only war, but a civil war—seeing brother attack brother; and the toughest battle of all, converting this horror into poetic art.

Espada’s recitation of this poem is proof of Neruda’s genius. His ability to simultaneously denounce Franco’s acts with proper vitrioil and elevate the human spirit who challenges and survives these atrocities with a language that serenades the reader in both Spanish and English.

No smoke and mirrors here. Neruda names the harm, making sure all of Franco’s barbarity is documented, and sets his darkest poetic imagination free, reviling Franco’s legacy to the enduring eye of commoner judgment.

Likewise, Espada doesn’t hold back in his reading and sets the sonic quality of this curse poem free without resorting to yelling or arm waving. What for? The power is in the words and in the form. It’s a poem operating on all cylinders thanks to the poet’s eye for detail, ear for language, and faith in the power of verse to elevate the downtrodden and overthrow dictators.

Sadly, as Espada noted before reading the poem, Neruda would not live to see his poem come to pass. Franco outlived him as he did so many others. But Franco did not leave a poem behind for the ages and so Neruda gets to laugh from the heavens while Franco continually burns in literary effigy.

We join this poem in media res, the first part is below in Neruda’s Spanish. Espada continues from there reading the first section in Spanish and the majority of the poem in English. Again, a wonderful read and reminder that a poet’s legacy can be as eternal as the simple desire to call injustice by its proper name.

El general Franco en los infiernos

Desventurado, ni el fuego ni el vinagre caliente
en un nido de brujas volcánicas, ni el hielo devorante,
ni la tortuga pútrida que ladrando y llorando con voz
de mujer muerta te escarbe la barriga
buscando una sortija nupcial y un juguete de niño
degollado,
serán para ti nada sino una puerta oscura
arrasada.

En efecto:
De infierno a infierno, que hay? En el aullido
de tus legiones, en la santa leche
de las madres de España, en la leche y los senos
pisoteados
por los caminos, hay una aldea más, un silencio más,
una puerta rota

Aquí estás…

CantoMundo Day 3: Real Talk

I’m up way too late typing this out but if I don’t do it now it might never come out.  So much positive information about not only being a Latino poet but also a reminder about the power of the word, community and friendship.

Today started with the fellows sharing a poem they wrote the night before.  Yes, CantoMundo bringin the new shit.  As a fan of first drafts I was really happy this developed and plan to keep it going on.

So why bring a first draft? Why not a poem in progress? How about just workshopping a nearly done poem?  For me, it revolves around trust and vulnerability.  We are all CantoMundo fellows, we all applied and were accepted on the strength of our work; we don’t need to prove anything.  But we can share in the process of building a poem and say the things we didn’t think we would say.  We can risk not being perfect in front of each other and celebrate that risk.  If we can’t do it amongst peers, then where are we gonna do it?

After the first draft readings, we met back up at to talk about Latin@ poetics, politics and everything in between.  It was honest and open with a broad number of topics put on the table.  No one seeking immediate answers but sharing out the things outside of poetry that we feel affect our writing.  Or, to put it bluntly, real talk.  I appreciated all the opinions and reflections and feel that getting all the things we normally talk about privately out into an open space built up a huge amount of respect in the room.  It also confirmed that CantoMundo has the potential to be more than just a workshop, it can be a place where we can initiate serious poetic activism.

Lunch followed and I was lucky enough to break bread with one of my literary heroes, Jimmy Santiago Baca.  Jimmy is super busy so I appreciated the time he spent with me, Barbara and (new CantoMundo friend) Luivette.  We are all fans of Jimmy’s work and it was great to share our appreciation for his work and his company.

Note to literature fans: Take the time to thank your literary idols. Even if its just a “I really liked your book” comment at a busy book signing.  Trust me, the artist appreciates it.  Word.

Back to work with CantoMundo and workshop with Martín Espada.  After a super informative reading of poems, we were sent off to work out the poetic idea and craft it into poem.  The work from all the fellows was top-notch and I got out a poem I’ve been meaning to write for a long time.  Good time.

On the reflection tip, I took a similar workshop with Martín about six years ago.  Back then, I was more interested in how I sounded and if I was projecting the right things in my poetry.  Now, I was more interested in how the people in my poem sounded and if I was honoring their history with my words.  It’s good to feel that poetic growth in me.

Next came Rigoberto González talking to us about the importance of community and individual activism.  Rigo talked the real talk as he went over how too many poets make the same mistakes over and over again, never learning from past mistakes.  Simple to the point and inspirational.  Rigo reminded us that there is never a community of one and either we pool our resources together or else we put ourselves in the dominant culture’s hands.

To cap off the day, Martin and Demetria had an open reading.  I’m happy to say the ‘burque folks came through and the place was packed.  Martín read classic, recent and brand new poems that show he is a master of reinvention.  Just when you think you got his poems figured out, Martín makes new leaps and takes serious risk to keep pushing himself farther.  Demetria also read a variety of work that highlighted the fact that the struggle is a long one, the system we are up against is massive and, in return, our poetry must be greater.

The real talk seems to be this:  You gotta make it happen.  Not tomorrow, or soon, or in a second; no, it has to happen in the right now.  The only way poetry can change the world is in the now, if the poetry is “near forming” then we risk the world “near change.”

Now I have to write  a new first draft for tomorrow. It’s gonna be tough but I’m willing to take the risk and share the real talk.

Around the Way: Martín Espada

• Rich Villar recounts Martín Espada’s visit to the Acentos Writers Workshop over at Letras Latina.

On the walls hung 112 photos of headstones from St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. Martín’s workshop revolved around Edgar Lee Masters’ SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, a book of persona poems in the voices of the dead. Masters took the names from the headstones of Spoon River Cemetery. The Acentos workshop was about to do the same for St. Raymond’s.

Espada started with a half-hour lecture on the life of Edgar Lee Masters, along with a reading of poems from the book itself. Some of the poems were in conversation with other poems. Most of them were highly speculative about the dead person’s occupation, demeanor, relations, and relationships to the other dead people. So, taking from these cues, and keeping in mind things like birth dates and death dates, names, proximity to other headstones, and a large dose of speculation, 78 workshoppers (Attrition! Where is thy blush?) were sent wandering around the room in search of personae to write about, and through.

Complete report here.

• Espada is also quoted over at The Nation regarding baseball, steroids and how the players are held to blame for the greed of the owners and the demands of the fans.

As baseball fan and poet Martin Espada told me, “Baseball is the Main Street of sports. (Think Cooperstown.) It’s full of history and nostalgia, and paved with the bricks of hypocrisy. Now it’s the rhetoric of the ‘drug war,’ handed down from the Nixon White House forty years ago to MLB and ESPN today.”

He is absolutely correct. We are supposed to tsk-tsk at players who are supposed to “just say no” to their addictions to fitness and monster stats, when their success at the park is our addiction as well. We also have yet to truly take owners to task for their addictions to public money and send them to detox.

Complete article here.

• Jean Feraca interviews Espada at Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders. (RealPlayer required)

Espada: “What I consider despicable is silence.”

X-Post: Seven Years Later, Impact of 9/11 Still Resonates

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer takes a look back at the impact of 9/11 with a diverse panel that includes Martín Espada. Martín’s comments on how 9/11 has impacted language and politics are spot on but my favorite quote is when he is asked what the U.S. government should do with its enemies, “I also think we need to sit down and start talking to those enemies.”

Seven Years Later, Impact of 9/11 Still Resonates

Seven years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a panel of writers and scholars examines the event’s continuing impact on American life and on the world.

JIM LEHRER: And now we explore the impact of 9/11 on American life with Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, John Ridley, author, award-winning director and screenwriter, Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter for Townhall.com; and Martin Espada, poet, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

And, Martin Espada, to you first.

How do you read the impact 9/11 has had on Americans?

MARTIN ESPADA, Poet: Well, as a poet, I would have to say that 9/11 has changed the language.

First of all, there’s the phrase 9/11 itself. It’s a big abstraction. And we who remember what happened that day have to do whatever we can to make that big abstraction as concrete as possible, so that we truly remember those who were murdered that day, so this does not turn into a memorial by rote, like so many others. And, this way, the dead can truly be honored.

There is another way, however, in which I think 9/11 changed the language. In the name of 9/11, in the name of the war on terror, phrases like weapons of mass destruction and enhanced interrogation have entered our political vocabulary.

These phrases, for me, divorce language from meaning. And, thus, they divorce action from consequence. If you are engaged in enhanced interrogation, you are not engaged in torture. And, thus, we as a society come to embrace torture in the name of security.

I think we have to do whatever we can to combat this tendency in the language. The fact is that this language is used to foster a culture of fear, so that people will, in turn, act against their own interests. And that’s why we’re now embroiled in two wars without end.

Full Transcript
MP3