CantoMundo Day 1: Serious Reflection

Five years ago I was in Albuquerque, NM, for the National Poetry Slam. I didn’t participate as a member of a poetry slam team but I did MC one bout, picked judges and handled scoring for another bout, and was on the Rules Committee which means I had a 360° view of what happens at poetry slam on the highest level. Stuff folks don’t normally see when attending a slam and shenanigans that surprised even some slam veterans and enough to confirm that I was ready to move away from slam. Not because I was sour on slam but because I saw what happened when writers decided to invest all of their creative energies towards the purpose of winning a slam (over and over again in some cases).

The good news is that despite the slam drama, I left Albuquerque in total love with poetry. I was surrounded by friends who came for poetic camaraderie and viewed the poetic competition as nothing more than diversion (which is what it really is). We saw some bouts, talked real talk, and shared on every open mic we could find. So that’s the picture you see here. Me going all out on the Latino Poets Showcase open mic, reciting poems from memory, and sending the signals out to the ether.

And here I am, back in ‘burque five years later gathering up those signals not for nostalgia’s sake but to take an honest inventory and see what I can keep from five years ago. It also means discarding the poetic baggage from five years ago: how I talked so much smack about getting published but had only sent out a few submissions; how I kept talking big about getting a book but not really working on a manuscript; how I thought poetry should bring all these things to my door solely because I wanted them. Yeah, to the curb with that.

On the good foot, I do remember a poet who thought a poem could make a change, who looked to gather like minded folks, who was real happy penning a successful line, a poet deeply in love with poetry itself. Five years later, I am still that same poet. Not perfect, still got a lot of work to do (notice the book thing still hasn’t jumped off) but more than anything, I’m more honest with myself about my process. I can identify my faults and am trying every day to be a better person and let the poetry follow.

It feels like I’m in some good company to do that with kind of reflection. CantoMundo, even in the few short hours we’ve been together, feels like it wants to keep an eye on Latin@ poetry’s past by honoring our pioneers and their work, celebrate our present accomplishments, and fuse both visions to create a better future for Latin@ poetics. I like it and feel incredibly blessed to be here at the forefront of necessary conversations with a focus on strong work.

Still, I can’t help but think of Oakland, the city that has taken care of me these last five years, and hope for the best. Right now, anarchists and vandals are tearing apart the Downtown region and moving steady north. Taking a justified anger and misdirecting it towards local merchants and residents. This is not Oakland. Those are not the residents. Not the Oakland I know. Not the one I live in everyday.

And can poetry do anything to stop this? I think not.

Can it change the future? Remind us we’ve fought this battle before and came out with not only our dignity but also a positive lasting change? Yes, poetry can do that.

Poetry can be the past, present and future of a beautiful struggle. At least I hope. That’s my reflection.

The Literary President’s Library Grows

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

At summit, Obama gets friendly with Chavez
By Mark S. Smith

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) — President Barack Obama extended a hand of friendship to America’s hemispheric neighbors on Saturday at a summit where he offered a new beginning for U.S.-Cuba relations and accepted a book about the exploitation of Latin America from Venezuela’s fiery, anti-American leader.

As the first full day of meetings began on the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Obama exchanged handshakes and pats on the back with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who once likened President George W. Bush to the devil. In front of photographers, Chavez gave Obama a copy of “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” a book by Eduardo Galeano, which chronicles U.S. and European economic and political interference in the region.

Later, when a reporter asked Obama what he thought of the book, the president replied: “I thought it was one of Chavez’ books. I was going to give him one of mine.”

Full article can be found here.

Patricia Smith for Inaugural Poet

I just nominated Patricia Smith for Inaugural Poet and I hope you do the same.

You can peep over Ms Smith’s bio page to see her very impressive writing and performance credentials. But in my mind, what really distinguishes Patricia over any other candidate and makes her the best choice for Inaugural Poet is her love for the people and ideals of Chicago, the President-elect’s home base. Chi-town, represent!

You can nominate Patricia (or your favorite poet) over at the Office of the President-elect’s official website contact page.

[Mad props to Emily for coming up with the idea first in her blog.]

It ain’t hard to tell, I excel, then prevail

Originally uploaded by Ferg

I’m loving the reports of the President-elect walking around with a copy of Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems.

I wonder what’s next: Poetry readings in the China Room? Slam in the West Wing? Haiku writing in the Rose Garden?

More facts about Obama (including his status as award-winning spoken word artist!) can be found at Fifty things you might not know about Barack Obama but here are some of the quick literary bits:

• He collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics

• He won a Grammy in 2006 for the audio version of his memoir, Dreams From My Father

• He has read every Harry Potter book

• His favourite book is Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

• He and Michelle made $4.2 million (£2.7 million) last year, with much coming from sales of his books

• He repaid his student loan only four years ago after signing his book deal.

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; 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