What You Put In Your Mouth
Apr 7, 2016
15 Min read time
A new anthology creates a new canon of innovative Latin@ writing
"El Quipu Menstrual" by Cecilia Vicuña (2006). Photo: Flickr/ajisabel
Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing
edited by Carmen Giménez Smith and John Chávez
Counterpath Press, $35 (paper)
“IN THE TREMBLING MOMENT OF OUR FIRST / EMBRACE I’LL KISS YOU SO I CAN UNDERSTAND / . . . . BUT I’LL REALLY BE TRYING TO EAT YOU,” writes Colombian-American poet Jennifer Tamayo. Tamayo’s poem “Epilogue” pivots at the destructive edge of erotic intimacy, infantile mouthing, and Freudian incorporation, but it also flirts with cannibalism, invoking numerous works in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese that use the cannibal as a figure of postcolonial resistance. Tamayo’s poem is viscerally engaging, formally daring, political. Like much of the poetry and prose collected in Angels of the Americlypse, it seeks to embrace the reader, but also, sometimes, to devour her.
The selections in Angels of the Americlypse play on dynamics of intake and expulsion as they test the boundaries between body and world, body and language, self and others. These U.S. Latin@ authors imagine an assembly of creatures that constitute the self, a composite of diverse affiliations: the “mongrel-monster,” as Tamayo has it. (“Latin@” is gender-inclusive shorthand for “Latino/Latina.”) They write about colonialism and capitalism, property and possession—what passes through us and what we retain—as they imagine how systems encroach on bodies and bodies upon systems. Daniel Borzutzky, a poet of Chilean descent, writes in “The Book of Non-Writing”:
Words smashed out of the sky and from the mouths and off the pages and from the flesh and blood of the bodies and the words hit the readers and were destroyed like more bodies and the fields of the nation were littered with bodies and dead. Carcass love, they called it. Carcass economy, they called it. . . . The readers grovel in the pages and find themselves in ditches with the carcasses but they do not know the rules of the false carcass economy. In this book the readers can feel their feet being removed.
Just so, the reader of Angels may find her limbs rearranged. Provocative in the best sense, its contents stir and disturb. It offers a “counterdiscourse,” the term John Chávez uses to describe how Edwin Torres “writes against the margins of English and Spanish” and code-switches not just linguistically, but also aesthetically, jumping between spoken rhythms, lyric flights, incisive wordplay, and page-based constellations of words.
The age-old comparison of reading with ingestion and nourishment is apt. Angels offers a smorgasbord of savory and pungent modes, from Juan Felipe Herrera’s vivid articulation of Chicano experience to Cecilia Vicuña’s early erotic poems, from Mónica de la Torre’s bilingual wordplay to Elena Minor’s rhythmic, hard-hitting prose syntax, and from Edwin Torres’s torrents of speech-driven poems to Michael Mejia’s prose experiments combusting with imagery. Some selections are written exclusively in English. A slender few were originally written in Spanish. Many combine English and Spanish in varying proportions. The anthology inverts the usual, unfortunate conventions by including fourteen poets and seven fiction writers, and featuring twelve women and nine men. It showcases some of the most electrifying Latin@ writers at work today.
• • •
The national recognition of Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera, recently named the poet laureate of the United States—the first Latin@ to hold that post—is part of a sea change in the prevailing vision of what United States literature is and should be, beginning with the language it is written in. Herrera’s poetry, which combines a dynamic vernacular with a sharp political conscience, slips between Spanish and English. He is often critical of U.S. policies and treatment of Latin@s: “You must be new! ¿Hablas la lengua o-que? ¿La migra te mochó la tripa, eres mojao’? Did the border patrol carve out your tongue, dude?”
The field of Latin@ Studies is burgeoning; the first Latin@ association conference was held at Northwestern University in 2014. Major new works of Latin@ literary criticism have recently appeared, including John Alba Cutler’s The Ends of Assimilation: The Formation of Chicano Literature, Urayoán Noel’s In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam,and Michael Dowdy’s Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization. CantoMundo, a Latin@ writing workshop modeled on the culturally based workshops of Cave Canem and Kundiman, has been thriving since 2010. Some of the writers who appear in Angels helped launch CantoMundo (Norma E. Cantú) or have attended it (J. Michael Martinez). All the writers anthologized are currently performing and publishing prolifically.
These writers ask pointedly political questions about race and national belonging.
Activist groups and collectives such as the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (an anonymous collective seeking to “target white supremacy and colonization”) and the Undocupoets (which advocates for undocumented writers) have received attention for their interventions. This spring, Undocupoets coordinated a successful campaign that spurred numerous first-book contests and grant-giving institutions to change the language of their guidelines so they no longer discriminate against undocumented writers. Instead of requiring applicants to provide proof of U.S. citizenship or permanent residency, Yale University Press, the Poetry Foundation, and others now stipulate, as Persea Books does, that applicants be U.S. citizens “and/or currently residing in the United States.”
Cresting this tide, the Angels editors want to challenge “the expectation of Latin@ otherness” and the obligation that some Latin@ poets have felt to write abuelita (grandmother) poems or sentimentalized poems about the “old ways,” as Rigoberto González explains. Minority authors are often pressured to serve as translators or native informants: “cultural attachés,” as the editors describe them, who tell “ancestral tales of our colorful otherness.” Instead, Angels enacts multi-directional crossings both literal and figurative, not only across the Mexico-U.S. border, but also across non-geographical borderlands where identities and languages touch. The editors write that border crossing “may be considered a universal quality of the innovative Latin@ writer who struggles to be a single self in a world that calls out ‘other.’” Or as Chicano poet J. Michael Martinez writes in an aesthetic statement on the crisscrossing of gender and sexuality, ethnic and racial identity:
To step into, not selflessness, but subjectivity exceeding the self, negating self because it is the inexhaustible. To enter into intimacy with negating plenitude. . . . To enter that garden so that contradiction may be bled and swallowed. Where the “@” of the Latin@ is engendered. To enter that excessive vacuum of endless becoming by virtue of the written word.
The title Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing invites us into these issues through its charged title. “Americlypse” is taken from a piece by Rodrigo Toscano, excerpted within, which mixes poetry and drama, Spanish and English. Toscano’s neologism invokes a force of nature, reminiscent of the “snowpocalypses” and “snowmaggeddons” of recent years. But as the political stakes of the anthology come into view, the “Americlypse” may also be the apocalypse that the United States exports through its neoliberal policies. (America might even “eclipse” or be eclipsed by other nations.) The “angels” themselves seem to be the writers collected here (angels not anglos; writers working at angles?), darkly prophesizing and heralding a new epoch in U.S. history and new directions in its literary tradition.
The question of what makes a writer “Latin@” is not abstract. It is deeply rooted in the body, its pleasures, its suffering, how it leaps and how it leaks. The writers of Angels are invested in thinking about how the body is tethered to ideas about it. They offer a set of pointedly political questions about race and national belonging—about the ideas projected onto one’s body that determine the social and political limits of one’s existence. This is an urgent inquiry for a range of authors who identify as Latin@ and find their bodies and voices marked as “other” against a norm of whiteness.
But why another anthology of Latin@ writing when we already have Ilan Stavans’s Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010), which clocks in at 2,489 pages and extends from Bartolomé de las Casas to Ricky Martin? One of Angels’s virtues is that itis more portable (340 pages), more up-to-date (focusing on writers born after 1965), and more in tune with the tides of experiment. What’s more, the Norton is organized along a triumphal trajectory that moves from “Colonization,” “Acculturation,” and “Upheaval” to assimilation, “Into the Mainstream: 1980—Present.” If Stavans presents the institutionalized version of the history of Latin@ letters, Angels offers an alternate view that critiques this seamless assimilation narrative.
Is the literature collected here “new?” Yes and no. Angels is canny in showcasing established writers of varying aesthetic tendencies and backgrounds. More established writers such as Herrera, Cuban-American fiction writer Achy Obejas, Nuyorican poet Edwin Torres, and Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña are united with younger writers who have been dubbed “Avant-Latino” by David A. Colón: Rosa Alcalá, J. Michael Martinez, and Rodrigo Toscano. Some work is new because it is newly translated, such as Vicuña’s poems from the late 1960s and early 1970s, expertly rendered into English by Alcalá.
Giménez and Chávez note that conversations about avant-garde poetry often forget innovative writing from Latin America that grew out of modernismo, the Latin American vanguard and Surrealism, and antipoesía. They underscore that Latin@ poetry has been excluded from the history of the avant-garde, an exclusion that urgently needs to be rectified by the inclusion of influential innovators such as Herrera, Alurista, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Pedro Pietri.
But this is not what Angels does. Instead of placing in proximity avant-garde work of many stripes, it creates a new canon of innovative Latin@ writing. It aspires for this new canon to be read alongside and in conversation with traditional canons. In one sense, it is not at all surprising that the anthology makes this move. Since the sixties, Latin@ anthologies have tended to claim to present “new” work and seek to supplement and ultimately supplant previous anthologies. Raphael Dalleo and Elena Machado Sáez point this out in their essay “The Formation of a Latino/a Canon,” asserting that the one constant is precisely the “counter-canon impulse.” They attribute this to the desire of Latin@ writers and editors to remedy the systematic exclusion of Latin@ writing. For example, there were no writers of Latin@ heritage included in the Norton Anthology of Literature until 1989, when just three were added. Thus, in the sixties and seventies, Chicano and Nuyorican anthologies adopted the lexicon and tone of the civil rights struggles with which they were associated. Later feminist and queer anthologies maintained the counter-cultural impulse of correcting previous canons. In this context, Angels is of a piece with other Latin@ anthologies published during the past six decades.
The embrace of multiple perspectives is reflected in the anthology’s structure. It contains tripartite entries in which a poet or fiction writer’s work is introduced by another writer or critic, and followed by an aesthetic statement (a format reminiscent of the Wesleyan Contemporary Poetry Series). Not all of the introductions are written by Latin@ writers: Lily Hoang, Craig Dworkin, and Johannes Göransson also appear.
In her provocative “Aesthetic Statement,” which takes the form of a numbered list, Mónica de la Torre acknowledges the difficulties of addressing a reader based on shared language and culture. She is committed to a “poetics of incompleteness,” she writes, which results “from the discrepancy between the language of the patriarchy (Spanish, the law of the father) and the mother tongue (English, the language of empire).”
3) And from their mutual negations and their respective turning each other into an Other.
4) Among the different possible alterities: a gringa mother tongue, a Latino Spanish,
5) In which each statement produces a counterstatement.
6) And the possibility of not appropriating is nil, since voice necessarily ventriloquizes, necessarily voices. . . .
As Fred Moten notes, Angels demonstrates “the ground and flood and breath of hemispheric experiment.” Demographic changes over the past thirty years mean that the variety of backgrounds represented by the category Latin@ is strikingly broader today. Core populations of Puerto Rican or Mexican heritage have been joined by significant numbers of Central and South Americans. Several writers whose work appears in Angels have pluri-national affiliations, including de la Torre, Cecilia Vicuña, and Daniel Borzutzky, whose work converses with multiple national literary traditions.
This collection of eclectic texts is united by a shared sensitivity to the continuum of violence that ties the United States to the rest of the world. Norma E. Cantú writes of “historical and cultural genocide,” and poet Cynthia Cruz says, “I want my poems to attempt to catalogue the chaos and trauma of our time.” These writers are all participating in what Ramón Saldívar calls the Latin@ “transnational imaginary,” as they attempt to understand the real through the imagination. Their practices aim to destabilize received ideas about the cohesive, nationally and linguistically rooted singular self, and insist on South-North connections.
The anthology does not quarantine concerns with politics and social justice from aesthetic experimentation. Quite the contrary. It abounds with formal experiments that uncover the complications of multilingual communication—overhearing, mishearing, misinterpreting, difficulties in deciphering what’s happening, what’s not being said—and reveals how English and Spanish echo each other in unexpected ways. Listen to this vibrant bilingual wordplay and the echoes of the word adiós in the last lines of Michael Mejia’s story, “Coyote Takes Us Home.”
we’re flying. It’s the way the chicken flies to the pot. Which came first: the fire or the flame? We are flying: feathered and boned to you, querida Mamá, naked and new, Papá, sin entrails y contrails, la raza limpia, raza pirata. Oscuro? How do you say? Deportesation? No. It’s the way ESPN flies to Fox. Satellite eyes. You’re beautiful. Something small on a wind crossing over. But before we forget.
Adipose. Otiose. Adidas. A radio. Game over.
“This poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound of my voice, and, luckily, I am a native speaker,” begins Rosa Alcalá’s poem “Voice Activation.” “Luckily, I have no accent and you can understand perfectly what I am saying to you via this poem.” In another poem, “Paramour,” she writes:
English is dirty. Polyamorous. English
wants me. . . . English has rules
but accepts dates last minute. English makes
booty-calls. English makes me want it.
Alcalá’s poems underline some of the anthology’s motifs: violence, sexuality, and politics, as well as speech, language mixing, language acquisition, and translation.
Consider five translations of a poem written in Spanish by de la Torre, a Mexican-American poet who writes in both Spanish and English. One translation was made by feeding the text into Google Translate; another by someone with high-school level Spanish; a third is a homophonic translation by someone with no Spanish; the last two were generated by a Spanish speaker and a non-Spanish speaker each reading the original into Google’s Translate app. Comparing the versions reveals some hilarious juxtapositions. How did Google arrive at “And if you ask five times / What I am doing here, burning your bed, / let it burn and go,” when someone with high-school level Spanish translated the same passage as “I’m sensing that the person whom the poem is addressed to / is as distracted as I am right now. / Someone isn’t listening to something”? Ultimately, these lines are equally insightful about the translation process and the experience of living in two languages. Conspicuously, de la Torre doesn’t include the original or her own translation of the poem, so we can’t know how a native speaker would render it. There are only incomplete, “unfaithful” versions created under imperfect conditions, which the reader can only partially, imperfectly receive. Communication is not impossible but it is flawed, even as it sometimes ushers in glimpses of beauty and humor.
Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña likewise writes of the complications of communication in “Clepsydra”:
From the very beginning
I relied on my stupidity
and general lack of talent.
Always I shipwrecked among
nouns and verbs.
I continue to feel I am
a preacher of disgust:
I enlighten no one
more than me.
The inclusion of Vicuña in Angels stems from the editors’ desire to expand the definition of who qualifies as Latin@. In some circles Vicuña is considered primarily a Latin American artist, even though she has resided in the United States for several decades (the term Latin@ being reserved for those born in the U.S.). In this sense, Angels follows the path of de la Torre and Cristián Gómez Olivares’s anthology Malditos latinos, malditos sudacas (2009), which features an unusual mix of fourteen authors of diverse Latin American heritage who have lived or still live in the U.S. and write in Spanish, English, and/or Spanglish. The Malditos Latinos editors insist that while Chican@ poetry, Latin@ poetry, and Hispanophone poetry written in the U.S. do not form the same body of literature, they are nonetheless “intimately intertwined.”
The anthology’s editors argue that Latin@ writing that does not directly address themes, imagery, or expectations of Latinidad is nonetheless engaged in thinking about Latinidad. On one hand, they want to hold onto identity as a value (otherwise no borders could be “crossed”), but on the other hand, they argue that ethnicity is a socio-political construction. This tension reflects an ongoing debate about Latinidad and how ethnic and racial identities are constituted more broadly. Angels doesn’t solve this problem, but its equal emphasis on both politics and aesthetics is tremendously relevant to debates in the U.S. about “identity” poetics and “avant-garde” poetics today.
The cover of Angels of the Americlypse features a photograph of Vicuña’s “Quipu menstrual,” an installation in Santiago, Chile from 2006. The quipu is an ancient Andean semiotic system that uses knotted strings to count and spell. It is a frequent trope in Vicuña’s work. She creates sculptural and site-based installations that elaborate indigenous motifs and make feminist critiques. Language yields to non-linguistic visual representation—following a tendency among twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary avant-gardes of many stripes, as some writers have believed the expressive power of language is too quickly exhausted in the face of the experiences it attempts to convey. The anthology’s cover communicates an interest in recovering pre-Columbian systems of signification that were long trivialized because they were misunderstood. Featuring a quipu is one way of reimagining the many languages of the Americas. Defying the book’s own rubrics, the quipu is neither “new” nor necessarily “Latin@.” Yet if you read the letters shadowed on the cover of Angels of the Americas, the phrase GET HERS emerges. It sounds like a provocation that could be made by any of the writers featured in the anthology. She will consume, she will devour. She will get hers.
April 07, 2016
15 Min read time