Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Poetry? And What Is Its Role in Our Contemporary Culture?

My friend, Maril Crabtree (a poet herself), is giving a presentation to a regional group of librarians and had asked a few of us for our thoughts on these questions:
Why do you (and others) write poetry?
Why do you (and others) read poetry?
What is poetry's place in contemporary society?
How can libraries promote poetry?

Good questions all. Here are my answers.

Why do I read and write poetry? Because it takes me places I would never otherwise go. I love to enter the imaginative play of a poem, whether reading or writing it, and find out to what unexpected places it will take me. Even or especially when writing a poem, I’m heading off on a journey whose end I can’t see. This is, of course, not what many readers or non-readers of poetry expect or want to hear. They want to think that I had it all plotted out, an interior rhyme 3 lines in, alliteration in lines 5, 7, 11, etc. Of course, I don’t. A poem written that way might be an interesting exercise to try and might even turn out well, much as poems do when the poet uses a traditional form such as a sonnet, which dictate certain rhymes and rhythms on certain arbitrary lines, but the best poems, certainly the best free verse poems, rise organically from the initial idea and the choices the poet makes along the way as s/he develops the idea and all the thoughts that cluster around it and its children, picking and choosing among them with each choice leading to many other choices. I try to explain it to young children by telling them it’s like one of the “choose-your-own-adventure” books or games. Each choice you make takes you down a different road and leads to different choices. That’s why there can be so many excellent but different poems on a topic such as love or birds.

The reader does best if s/he also views each poem as an adventure, wondering where it will take him. Each poem should be approached on its own. Some may be like a walk through the park, pleasant but not thrilling. Some may be like a trek through what s/he knows is familiar ground, but in the night with fog camouflaging everything and making it strange and even scary. Some may be like fighting through an unmapped jungle, sweating, tripping, stumbling, only to finally break through into a clearing that is unearthly in its beauty and total improbability. And these are only three of the multitude of possible adventures the poem can become. But like all adventures, any good poem leaves the reader changed at the end of it, even if others cannot see this in any way. Inside, the reader is a slightly different person for having gone on that adventure and can never quite be the same person who started out on it.

The role of poetry in contemporary society is what it has always been. The first poets were priest(esse)s, and the first poetry was intended to show the way back to the harmony with the natural world and the divine that humans inevitably wander from, to show the ways we have fallen from this wholeness and to show the ways in which we can regain at least a small measure of it. This is what poetry is for. You will tell me that quite a lot of poetry fails at this, and I will nod and say that it always has. What survives from ancient times are the best of works, but I am certain from my own studies of times past that there were more that were almost great or merely good or even quite poor in quality. As Donald Hall says in his famous essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry,” “…you must acknowledge that most poetry is terrible--that most poetry of any moment is terrible.”

As to how libraries can promote poetry, one key way is to buy it and make it available to patrons. It is constantly disturbing to me to go to public libraries and look for books of poetry by acknowledged masters of the art, not highly regarded contemporaries with one or more awards but poets who are anthologized and taught in textbooks, only to find that the library either never had that book or got rid of it during some purge or other and too often to find the books of one of these acknowledged masters at a Friends of the Library sale for pennies when the book cannot be found on the shelves in that library. To be fair, I will point out that this is also a problem with bookstores, but that makes the library’s role even more vital. So the first way libraries can promote poetry is to stock it on their shelves.

Another way would be to review poetry books in the library’s newsletter, blog, website, or other format. More poetry books than ever are published today, but vastly fewer are reviewed. How can the person who wants to learn about poetry but feels unsure of his or her ability to judge it sift through all the titles or even learn of them? A library with a regular poetry review column in some form would be doing this reader a great service. Or a regular article by poets and/or critics that would lead the reader through a deep consideration and discussion of one poem—this would be a great aid also. The schools often have no idea how to teach students how to read a poem, and many people who are drawn to poetry are afraid of it because they don’t know how to read it. All they know is that it takes a different kind of reading skill than a mystery or magazine article and they don’t have it. As Walt Whitman said, “Great poetry needs great audiences…” and knowledgeable readers

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Another Great Writer of Color: Lorraine Lopez and her Gifted Gabaldon Sisters

[This is a review of The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters by Lorraine López that I posted on this blog a while back. I'm bringing it forward into my Books of Interest by Writers of Color series. I will be looking at her newest novel soon also.]

I first met Lorraine López at Con Tinta in Chicago earlier this year at AWP, the national conference of writers and university writing programs. López is one of the organizers of Con Tinta, the annual pachanga of Latino writers and their literary allies from around the country. She is also a veteran of the famous Macondo writing workshop. A professor at Vanderbilt University, López is a charming, soft-spoken woman, whose second book of short stories will be published this fall by BkMk Press at UMKC. [This book, Homicide Survivors' Picnic, was a finalist for the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction, making López the first Latina to become a finalist for that prestigious award.]

López’s first novel, The Gifted Gaboldón Sisters (Grand Central Publishing), raised high expectations since her first short story collection, Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories (Curbstone Press), won the Latino Book Award and other awards, and her young adult novel, Call Me Henri (Curbstone Press), won the Paterson Prize. The Gifted Gaboldón Sisters exceeds those expectations handily. Four young sisters depend on the family’s mysterious and ancient Pueblo servant, Fermina, after their mother’s death. Early in the book, Fermina dies, after promising each girl a gift. Throughout the book, the story of the sisters’ journey to adulthood with the special gifts endowed by Fermina—Bette’s stories, Loretta’s healing, Rita’s cursing, and Sophia’s laughter—alternates with Fermina’s own gripping story of kidnapping and slavery told to a writer long before the girls were born. The two threads come together as the adult sisters, in a time of crisis for each, journey together across the country and into the past to discover who Fermina was and what kind of magic their capricious gifts really came from. López peoples her book with characters so fresh and alive you expect to meet them just around the block. The rich, vivid writing entwines the reader deeply in the lives of the girls, their relatives, and their lovers. Fermina’s story enlightens and interconnects with theirs from the distant past. The book’s theme focuses on the lives of women in the past and present, how the distant past informs their present identities, and how they overcome or make peace with the limitations life hands them. This is a book you will go back to again and again.

[López is one of the most gifted writers of fiction today. She writes from a position of respect and caring for even her most hapless and out-of-control characters, allowing the reader to see through her eyes the possibilities and hope at each one's core.

Her novels are published by a major publisher, and here's the Amazon link. If you'd rather buy Homicide Survivor's Picnic from the small press that published it, here's that link with a video of her reading it, as well. Readers of this blog will know that I always encourage folks to support the small and university presses who publish most of the new writers in this country.]

Back to the usual format of this series on writers of color at the end of the week.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Latino Writers Collective Poetry Anthology Finalist for Another Book Award

All right!! Primera Página: Poetry From the Latino Heartland, the anthology of poetry by the Latino Writers Collective, was named a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Finalist in the category of anthology. The winner will be named at Book Expo America. We were a USA Book News book award finalist earlier this year tambien. So the Latino Writers Collective is celebrating tonight.

Also, I submitted my application for Macondo. Wish me luck, everyone. I'm going to be submitting a spate of applications for writers residencies. I've got this novel to write and I need the uninterrupted time and freedom from interruptions to get it down. So wish me barrels of luck, por favor.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Latino Writers Collective Tercera Página Reading Series Presents Gloria Vando March 27

For the third year, the Latino Writers Collective brings to Kansas Citians local and national Latino writers in the Tercera Página (Third Page) Reading Series, which offers four events in 2009. The second event in the series will take place at The Writers Place, 3607 Pennsylvania, at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, March 27, 2009.

Reading from her work will be nationally known, award-winning poet, Gloria Vando, a Los Angeles resident who has longtime roots in Kansas City. Vando’s most recent book of poems, Shadows and Supposes, won the 2003 Best Poetry Book of the Year Award from the Latino Literary Hall of Fame and the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America. She has won numerous other awards and fellowships. She reads her poem, “Fire,” on the 2007 Grammy-nominated CD collection, Poetry on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work, 1888-2006 (which features Tennyson, Browning, Walt Whitman, who were recorded by Edison when he invented the phonograph). A Puerto Rican born in New York City, Vando has had her poems adapted for the stage and presented at Lincoln Center and Off-Broadway. She is publisher and editor of Helicon Nine Editions, a small press she founded 30 years ago and for which she received the Kansas Governors Arts Award. In 1992, she and her husband, Bill Hickok, founded The Writers Place, a literary center in Kansas City, where they lived for many years. They now live in L.A.

Also reading will be Latino Writers Collective members, Carlos Duarte, Ignacio Carvajal, Miguel Morales, and Sofiana Olivera. The event will also feature the music of Melek Ta’us. RSVP to or 816-333-6349.

Next in the series will be nationally acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., for a reception, reading, and book signing. To be assured a seat, RSVP soon to or 816-333-6349 for this event which is expected to reach capacity early and be closed to reservations.

The series finale will feature Latino Writers Collective members Juanita Salazar Lamb, Jason Biggers, Natalie Olmsted, and Xánath Caraza reading at the launch of the Latino Writers Collective fiction anthology, Cuentos del Centro: Stories From the Latino Heartland at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, May 15, at The Writers Place, 3607 Pennsylvania. RSVP to or 816-333-6349.

The series is co-sponsored by BkMk Press, Guadalupe Centers, Inc., Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City Hispanic News, the Kansas Department of Hispanic and Latino Affairs, Longview Community College, Mattie Rhodes Latino Cultural Arts Division, New Letters, Park University, UMKC College of Arts & Sciences, UMKC Multicultural Student Affairs, and The Writers Place.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Big, Young Audience at "Breaking Piñatas" Last Night

Last night, we kicked off Tercera Página with "Breaking Piñatas"at Pierson Auditorium on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. Over 200 people showed up, many of them high school and college students (or in that age range). The show was high energy, as usual--poetry from talented, young writers (including some first-timers from Alta Vista High School's Poetry Club), comedy from wonderful Chato Villalobos, and dance from El Grupo Folklorico Atotonilco.

Every year, El Grupo does something special for this program. Last year, the dancers in the Viejitos number, while still in their old-man costumes, broke into hip-hop dancing for a number. This year, they came out in jeans and T-shirts to give some lessons on the Guerrero variety of dance and how it developed, then later in the show appeared in full Veracruz costume to dance four numbers, including "La Bruja," which I adore with all the women in their white flowing dresses dancing with lit candles on top of their heads. Mil gracias to the incredible El Grupo, still going strong after 30 years of working with kids and the community and keeping traditions strong!

I was especially happy to see so many young people--and guys, no less--not only attending but fully engaging with the poetry and performers. Too often, audiences for poetry events are basically graying audiences. And a number of these young adults were making reservations for the big Sandra Cisneros events we have coming up in April as part of the series. Most of them stayed after to talk to the poets and performers. A most convivial evening!

Kudos to the Latino Writers Collective's own Jason Biggers, Ignacio Carvajal, and Gustavo Adolfo Aybar, who performed their dynamite poetry. Also, congratulations to the other poets and performers, as well, especially the Alta Vista Poetry Club. And as always, felicitaciones and abrazos to Chato Villalobos, whose brainchild this program is. Chato is dedicated at the deepest levels to finding ways to give youth in the community a culturally relevant outlet in the creative arts, and it was great for these young people who know him as a KCMO cop to see him reciting his poetry, doing stand-up comedy, and dancing with El Grupo. Bravo, Chato!

As promised, photos, courtesy of Stephen Holland-Wemps. Mil gracias, Steve!

From top to bottom:

Some of the ladies of El Grupo prepare to dance La Bruja.

Gustavo Adolfo Aybar and Ignacio Carvajal perform their strong, dramatic poetry.

Jason Biggers and Jessica Ayala read their intense poetry.

Chato and Maria Vasquez Boyd try to dance with El Grupo.

Angie Tinoco reads powerful poetry.

Some of the Alta Vista poets with some of the artwork at the back of the hall in the background.

The Alta Vista Poetry Club with their final group reading.

Mr. Kazar, faculty sponsor, and the Alta Vista Poetry Club.

Chato Villalobos, emcee and general creative genius.

Here I am giving the welcome.

Ben Furnish at book table while audience files in.