On CantoMundo and Action Steps

Poem written at first CantoMundo retreat.

I have deleted CantoMundo from my main bio and in the future will not be including it in any of my bios because of the lack of action by the CantoMundo leadership regarding their initiatives regarding inclusion of Afro-Latinx voices.

I recognize the announcement CantoMundo made recently regarding Black Lives Matter and some of their action steps. I was also in a forum with other CantoMundistas giving feedback on that announcement. The actions detailed would be positive and necessary steps for Poets of Color in the United States and especially for Afro-Latinx writers.

I also feel that the statement in itself is just a starting point and that the follow up, if any, is happening in closed spaces. This act of centralizing power and a  delay of action aligns more closely with practices of White Dominant Culture than CantoMundo’s statement of “latinidades in conversation with each other… representing diverse poetic styles and heritages.”

I hope that CantoMundo, as an organization, strives to be more transparent and inclusive around their actions to support Black Lives Matter and other issues in solidarity with Black and Brown writers.

The issue of transparency and inclusion is the reason I am making this statement public. I believe deeply that writers of color have an important and necessary role in positive change making and shifts in public policy to better serve our communities of color.  This change will not happen in silence or by simply deleting/muting/unfriending an account or contradictory opinion. Poets have power in their choice of words, venue, and affiliation.  Just as we come to these spaces with intention to be heard, we should also come with the mandate to listen. Right now, I am not hearing very much from CantoMundo.

All poets are political. We are political by our noise and by our silence. I do not regard the label “political” as especially helpful in determining what is going to happen in the poems. When a poet writes racist poetry, she is being political. When a poet writes about trees, he is being political both by what he chooses to write about and what he chooses not to write about.

Kwame Dawes

In 2010 I got word of an opportunity to attend a weekend-long workshop with Martín Espada in Albuquerque. I was excited for this chance to share space with one of my poetic heroes and inspirations. I was also eager to return to ‘Burque, the site of the 2005 National Poetry Slam, a place where I said goodbye to Slam Poetry in the presence of the Acentos, louderARTS, Bowery, Nuyorican, and a host of other members of the Slam family.

I applied and was accepted as one of the inaugural CantoMundo fellows. The course of that first weekend was exciting and also challenging as that same weekend, the killer of Oscar Grant was publicly exonerated and the streets of Oakland responded with anger.  Righteous anger over the system letting the police kill Oscar Grant with no justice for the Grant family or for Black Oakland. The subsequent demonstrations across the United States and the spotlight of the medis did not change that outcome for the Grant family.  I felt attached and detached from my community in Oakland but was thankful for the company of writers of color especially Latinx poetas.

From there I have made some enduring friendships thanks to CantoMundo. My third retreat coincided with the painful death of a Bronx poeta and I was held and supported by CantoMundistas. This is the solidarity and love that I will hold on to and share first and foremost when speaking of CantoMundo. 

I want to thank Deborah Paradez and Celeste Guzman Mendoza as two of the founders of CantoMundo who always emanated a sense of compassion, integrity, and professionalism in every interaction I had with them.  They both made me feel instantly at home even though I rarely feel welcome in spaces of competitive poetry even after being “accepted.”  I will again emphasize their balance of holding both the relational and technical aspects of co-designing and implementing a poetry retreat. They both did so with a high level of grace, humor, and joy.

Deborah and Celeste were not the only organizers but they were the ones who spent the most time getting to know me as a person and hearing my warm/cool feedback on the retreats.  Shouts and love to all other organizers and especially every poeta who I was able to laugh with and who shared their words with me.

My deepest hope is that CantoMundo can be a beacon of inclusivity for Afro-Latinx and all writers in Latinidad. I will support any public action that moves CantoMundo into a place of open words and shared dialogue pa todos.

FLORICANTO IN DC: A Multicultural Reading in Response to SB 1070

Join us as over twenty poets lend their energy and language to a group reading in response to Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and in resistance to the atmosphere of national xenophobia under which the bill (and its emerging counterparts) were created.

Confirmed readers include: Francisco X. Alarcon, Tara Betts, Sarah Browning, Regie Cabico, Carmen Calatayud, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Susan Deer Cloud, Martín Espada, Odilia Galvan Rodriguez, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Aracelis Girmay, Randall Horton, Juan Felipe Herrera, Dorianne Laux, Marilyn Nelson, Mark Nowak, Barbara Jane Reyes, Abel Salas, Sonia Sanchez, Craig Santos Perez, Hedy Trevino, Pam Uschuk, Dan Vera, Rich Villar, and Andre Yang.

Co-sponsored and presented by the Acentos Foundation, Split This Rock, and the Poets Responding to SB 1070 Facebook group.

Hosted by Rich Villar.

TIME: Friday, February 4 · 6:00pm – 9:00pm

PLACE: True Reformer Building, 1200 U Street NW, Washington, DC

EVENT: AWP 2011

RSVP: Facebook Event Page

Acknowledgement: Poets Responding to SB1070 & La Bloga On-Line Floricanto


Hate Fee Zone
Originally uploaded by xomiele

Many thanks to Francisco X. Alarcón and all the editors at Facebook’s Poets Responding to SB 1070 for including my poem “By the Time I Get to Arizona” in their online anthology. It’s an honor to be included in such a diverse and populous list of voices who continue to speak up against the terror legislation of Gov Jan Brewer. Even as key parts of the law are being struck down by the Federal government, the fight against SB 1070 goes on and the voices continue to ring.

Speaking of a multitude of voices, La Bloga’s On-Line Floricanto is reprinting select poems from the Facebook anthology and are also including my work. Mil gracias to Michael Sedano and all the gente at La Bloga for providing another opportunity to declare our hope that Arizona can take care of all her children equally and justly.

An extra shout out to Francisco Aragón for passing on my poem to Señor Alarcón and helping creating more poetry bridges.

By the Time I Get To Arizona (2)

Even though U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton has blocked most of the provisions in SB 1070, the law is still in effect. For activists, this means there is little time to celebrate this victory since folks like Sheriff Joe Arpaio are all set to put as much of the law into effect. With Sheriff Joe’s record, that means he’ll probably go past the letter and spirit of the law and continue his efforts to make Arizona a police state where brown folks are the siege targets.

I can’t think of a more prophetic poem than Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans.” I remember reading this poem back in 2001 and loving the directness of the poem. In fact, the directness of the poem is so jarring that the end of the poem completely took me off guard and for years it was a great poetic mystery for me. Where was the metaphor? Where was the open ended ambiguous mystery of poetry? What, no gift wrapping and shiny bow at the end to summarize the poem for me?

I’m not sure when I finally got it but when this poem finally clicked for me, it was like a hammer upside my head and cemented a key concept of poetry for me—the purpose of poetic language isn’t to dance around a touchy subject with smart line breaks and clever simile. No, the purpose of poetic language is to lure people into uncomfortable situations and show them the truth in the world around them.

In this case, it’s the after effects of short sighted policies like SB 1070 and other legislation that seeks to demonize any segment of US society. The end of his poem eschews flowery language and transforms directly into the voice of Sheriff Joe with all his vitriol and hypocrisy in full display for the reader to judge.

And like SB1070, the readers judge in all kinds of ways. I’ve heard as much praise for this poem as I’ve heard disdain. I’ve heard this poem called racist, that it paints all gringos in a negative light, and outrage that the poet uses the word gringo. And, in the name of poetic dialogue, these are all good things. It’s better to know what is in the heart of people around you and nothing brings that heart out faster than a good poem.

So Mexicans are Taking Jobs from Americans

O Yes? Do they come on horses
with rifles, and say,
Ese gringo, gimmee your job?

And do you, gringo, take off your ring,
drop your wallet into a blanket
spread over the ground, and walk away?

I hear Mexicans are taking your jobs away.
Do they sneak into town at night,
and as you’re walking home with a whore,
do they mug you, a knife at your throat,
saying, I want your job?

Even on TV, an asthmatic leader
crawls turtle heavy, leaning on an assistant,
and from a nest of wrinkles on his face,
a tongue paddles through flashing waves
of lightbulbs, of cameramen, rasping
“They’re taking our jobs away.”

Well, I’ve gone about trying to find them,
asking just where the hell are these fighters.

The rifles I hear sound in the night
are white farmers shooting blacks and browns
whose ribs I see jutting out
and starving children,
I see the poor marching for a little work,
I see small white farmers selling out
to clean-suited farmers living in New York,
who’ve never been on a farm,
don’t know the look of a hoof or the smell
of a woman’s body bending all day long in fields.

I see this, and I hear only a few people
got all the money in this world, the rest
count their pennies to buy bread and butter.

Below that cool green sea of money,
millions and millions of people fight to live,
search for pearls in the darkest depths
of their dreams, hold their breath for years
trying to cross poverty to just having something.

The children are dead already. We are killing them,
that is what America should be saying;
on TV, in the streets, in offices, should be saying,
“We aren’t giving the children a chance to live.”

Mexicans are taking our jobs, they say instead.
What they really say is, let them die,
and the children too.

© Jimmy Santiago Baca
Reprinted with permission of the author.

Poetry and Politics: Kevin Powell for Congress

NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYNby Kevin Powell; Soft Skull Press, 2008.

Poetry and politics. Politics and poetry. Where do the two meet? Should they meet? Who is the most political poet? Who is the most poetic politician? It feels like I hear these kinds of questions all around poetry e-world and, more often than not, the resulting answer seems to be: Let’s throw a round table discussion around it!

Whack.

Especially when there are poets who are able to shift seamlessly between the two worlds. Maybe because they realize that there are two worlds and the way you interact in each should be based upon what end product you wish to see. I think back to the elections of 2008 and how I saw writer Helen Zia out in front of an Oakland Chinatown polling station with a “Say No to Prop 8” sign. No metaphor, no simile, no conceit. Just the citizen and her opinion in clear terms.

This brings me to poet Kevin Powell and his run for political office. This is Powell’s third attempt to represent the people of Brooklyn in Congress and he does so in very concrete and articulate terms as you can read for yourself at his website.

This isn’t an endorsement of Powell. I am not a resident of Brooklyn and would be hard pressed to tell anyone living there who they should and shouldn’t vote for. Again, check Powell’s record and agenda for yourself.

This is an endorsement for political/poetry with the divide firmly between the two because every poet must be a citizen of some state. Even if you don’t wish to make it a geographic center point, there must still be some origin point for your poetics and, hopefully, an end point in the horizon where you wish your words to be heard, read and felt. If that end point is to create a shift in the political consciousness of the United States of America, more power to you. If that end point is to create a shift in the political workings of the United States of America, then the pen and pad is not enough, the stage and microphone is not enough, a press and distribution is not enough—you need to actually move and shake the system itself.

Props to writers like Kevin Powell, Helen Zia, and everyone else who knows the distinction, can step outside of the writing world, and ventures to take that intense political risk.