A POWERFUL GATHERING OF POETS IN OCHO #15:
Eight poets/teachers/critics respond in writing to the magazine OCHO # 15, presenting a rich composite review. Anne Caston, Merrill Leffler, Grace Cavalieri, Mary F. Morris, Ed Zahnizer, Whitney Smith, Laura Orem, Hope Maxwell-Synder
A Response To Ocho #15 by Anne Caston.
The voice of one, crying in the wilderness. A voice like wild honey shot-through with the burr of locusts. With whatever had come last to the tongue. With whatever was available. A voice of prophecy and foreboding. A desert voice with a bottomwater feel. Salvation and insurrection. Part gospel and part gone-to-hell. A voice that disturbs and delights so palpably that, by the time all is said and done, surely someone’s head will be on a platter.
That voice, which rises again and again, relentlessly, from these pages, new voices from that many-faceted wilderness of what we call “these days” and “our time.” The solitary, singular voice of one, crying in the wilderness, even when that wilderness is populated by many others.
These voices are singular voices, distinctive, voices which have not abandoned the body – its pleasures or distresses – voices which remain ragged at the edges, fraying or unraveling into that thing poets sometimes call a “terrible beauty.” A voice like Lisa Alvarado’s in “Sleepless” and “Grieving.” A voice like Diana Marie Delgado’s in “Told You I Was Haunted” and “I’m Leaving, Wait For Me.” Or a voice like Raina J. León (“Psychomachia”) or Kristin Naca (“Speaking English Is Like”). Or perhaps the voice that rises, slightly unsteady, shaken, from Emily Pérez’ poem, “Encounter:”
I’m calling because it’s three days till my birthday and my doctor says
I should be in pain.
I wasn’t in pain.
Do you have anything for pain?
. . . I’m calling because we live among forces beyond our control.
I’m calling because I don’t know if what I do anymore is kindness or desire.
Do you have anything for desire?
This morning, I am glad I didn’t have to go my whole life without having heard these voices. This morning, I am deeply grateful that some literary magazines are still tuned in to the wilderness and what cries out to us from there.
Anne Caston, author of Flying Out With The Wounded and Judah’s Lion, teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
A Response To Ocho #15 by Merrill Leffler
When the new issue of a poetry magazine I subscribe to arrives in the mail or, like OCHO, that I download from the internet. I open it with a feeling of excited expectation. The nature of that expectation, however, differs from opening a new book of poetry. I might characterize the difference in expectations between a tourist and a traveler. With a book, I am making a commitment, signing on for what could be an intense journey that takes me into unfamiliar country, making demands that I don’t know how to contend with because the landscape and its fauna are so unrecognizable. In starting out, I know I am in for the long haul if I want to get something more than encountering some striking sites, i.e., poems, along the way. What is that “something”? It is impossible to say beforehand — I’ll mention Horace who in his “Ars Poetica” wrote of literature being “sweet and useful” (dulce et utile) and leave it at that.
With a poetry magazine, made up as it is by poems of numerous poets, I feel more the tourist: I’m visiting poems that an editor-guide has found compelling in any number of ways and that he or she is offering. What makes a compelling poem? Again, how can we say beforehand. We know it (maybe) when we encounter one — Emily Dickinson wrote about this to Thoma Wentworth Higginson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. . . .Is there any other way.” The poem may take on subjects or themes in a way I’ve never encountered or in a strikingly original way: “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”); its point of view may be unique, its diction, tropes, diction, structure.
If poems have such qualities (or others that don’t fit under these generalizations) — and if I am attentive enough to recognize them — I put the magazine down richer than I was before. I may carry away poems that will now form part of the constellations in which I live. And it’s likely that I’ll seek other work by the poet, perhaps for the longer journey.
So all this preamble is context for speaking about OCHO #15 in which Francisco Aragón — the editor of The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, published by the University of Arizona Press in 2007 — has brought together 15 young Latino poets, each with three poems. None appear in The Wind Shifts, which includes numbers of poets whose work has been published widely, for instance, Naomi Ayala, Richard Blanco and Sheryl Luna. Aragón writes in his introduction that he was seeking relatively new voices (some of these poets have been publishing widely) and sought those who had not yet published a book.
I didn’t read Aragon’s introduction until writing these paragraphs — I wanted to take the poems on their own terms and not be influenced beforehand by what the editor was after. It wouldn’t have made a difference if I had since he hasn’t tried “to paint a poetic group portrait” as he did in The Wind Shifts. Rather, says Aragón, he wanted these poems “to speak for themselves.” His metaphor is different than my traveler-tourist one. This special issue of OCHO he writes is a “private letter” to us, its readers, “one that offers my particular snapshot — in time — of one thread in a larger strand of American poetry that continues largely under-explored and under-appreciated.” That strand is of poets whose heritage is Hispanic but who are writing in English, a number of whom have advanced degrees and/or MFAs.
So I’ve read the poems in this “private letter” and numbers stay with me, which I’ll list and try to indicate why. I should say at the outset that in singling them out, I was especially interested in how, or if, the Spanish heritage was implicit in ways that “startled” the poetic landscape. This is to say that mine is a private selection from an already private selection (Aragón’s) — there are poems here, for instance poems steeped in memory such as those by Jose B. Gonzalez, that I might read with greater interest in a larger collection of his work.
Xochiquetzal Candelaria: “Esta Palabra” and “Between the House and the Hill”
The first poem, in two-line stanzas, could have been itself a compellingly sensuous poem (“How I slip into it like a hot bath,/ his name at my feet, then thighs// circling each breast”) but it moves into a richer dimension of suggestiveness in such lines as “thousands of tiny tubs in the hollows of my neck, how the wave of its one// brown syllable grows like debt . . . .” and “wailing for milk// and keys, my eyes filling/ with vowels until finally/ I begin forming in my head/ a row of wet-calf words. . . .” The underlined nouns give a sense that the sensuous feeling is itself a creation of language in the process of writing the poem, that the poem is aware (how can a poem be “aware”?) of its own making.
“Between the House and the Hill,” a villanelle, has looser line lengths than the form is “supposed” to demand but that is an aside; the recurring two lines — “This boy lying face down. . . waking me the night he is found” — are striking and though I didn’t feel the lines consistently sustained the provocative, though I much cared for the attempt.
Raina J. Leon: “A (Second) to Consider (Generations).” This poem is continually questioning itself, e.g., “shouldn’t I be praying or cooking/ or smarting from my mother’s slap/ shouldn’t I be fiery or subdued/ shouldn’t I be married already.” This bit of quotation doesn’t get at the movement of the poem, which is riven by the recurring “even when I do not understand.” You have to read it and immerse yourself in its rhythms!
Elena Minor. Here is a poet whose work I would like to read more of. “Appetite” opens with, “Lie beneath zem moons what eat flowers/ for breakfast; devour each petal as/ never the like be bloom again.” Why I loved that I cannot say in a few words, if I can say at all — I was disappointed the poem didn’t carry it on. Take a look at some of Reed Whittemore’s Shaggies for one who does. Here’s an example, “The Sad Committee Shaggy”:
In good ole day ze king need no committee.
him says, them does; him sells, them buys.
But then come big push make king one of guys.
So king buy chairs, say me no king me chairman.
So knocked off paradize.
John Murillo: “The Poet Laureate,” “Love Letter to St. Miguelito.” The first is made up of four eight-line stanzas with a pacing that impels the poem, e.g., “Pushed a wide-bodied Bonneville/ up and down exposition Boulevard,/ dirty dice swinging from the mirror/ when he bent corners, deep leaning/ into leather, half-pint of Jack in his lap.” The alliteration of Bonneville, Boulevard (near-allitration in Pushed) and the d’s — down, dirty dice, deep — let alone the concreteness, here’s a poem that brings you in. Edward Hopper wrote that the job of the artist is to paint what’s outside of himself by what’s inside of himself — and John Murillo has done this with “The Poet Laureate.” I’d say something simlar in “Love Letter to St. Miguelito.”
Ruben Quesada: “Leaving for College After Summer Vacation,” “The Cell.” The first poem starts ordinarily enough, “This time when I left home, pockets filled with gray lint, my hair uncombed. . .” but then comes “and covered in stardust,” followed by, “I didn’t stop/ to look back to show my mother the two comets racing/ out of my brown dwarf colored eyes.” This is not surprise for its own sake — you have to lie to tell the truth; poets do it all the time. Sometimes it seems right, sometimes not. Here it does. You might read this poem and look at the last line: “melt” in “and melt into the arms of morning light” just doesn’t seem right to my ear. What about “slide”? “The Cell” is in prose lines — the “pure clear word” James Wright might have said: “Don’t worry about getting up this morning and finding yourself alone. . . .Go ahead, put your arms around yourself, feel yourself until there is nothing left but your heartbeat in your ears.” Bravo!
Peter Ramos: “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” This begins quietly, with birth, then into one’s twenties: “You might begin and end here,” but we don’t. And the poem slips into a sexual violence and mutilation that I take to be metaphorical. Strange — it’s a poem that caught me off-guard. . . .
Carmen Gimenez Smith: “Hungry Offices.” “I always bore some shame for my mother’s brown/ grease uniform,” Smith writes, and then moves easily into what her mother told her, “that in the lamplight/ entire cities really got managed by custodians/ coming in night after night to correct/ executive mishap.” Whatever successful may mean, I don’t know that this poem is one for the ages, but it is a homage without sentimentality and I salute it.
Rich Villar: “My Mother Responds to the Question, ‘So What Were You Thinking the Day After I Was Born?’” and “Six Attempts to Get My Father to Speak About the Day After My Eleven A.M.” For a minimalist, the titles alone would be poems. Read these — they’re terrific, different, the language itself, without having to say it, reflecting the different worlds of the parents: the hard-experienced mother, “who the hell wants to do this again? Three is plenty,” she says. And “your father wanted one more chance, so he brought me/ roses on Valentine’s Day (he never gives me flowers) / and nine months later, here he comes, tromping into the room/ with his best friend, similing.” In “Six Attempts,” we’re in the father’s view, the first three attempts in Spanish, then comes his English. Here’s Attempt IV: “I go to werk at five. I come back at two./ I no remembeh who call me, I think I’was ju seester./ my fren’ come wi’ me./ he giveh cigar to e’ ri’ body. y bueno, I donno. I go home and wait/ for ju mother.”
Merill Leffler: Books of poetry: Partly Pandemonium, Partly Love; Take Hold; Mark the Music (forthcoming). Publisher of Dryad Press.
A Response To OCHO # 15 by Grace Cavalieri
Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky reminds us that the only record we have of human sensibilities from ancient times is in the poetry left to us. If you want to seriously put that thought to the test, read each page of OCHO 15, founded by publisher DiDi Menendez, and guest edited by Francisco Aragon. Think, if you will, how this will be read in 50 years. We will know more about the hearts and passions, struggles, victories than any document from Congress, any land deal, any letter to the editor. This is the truth in all its lyricism. We honor DiDI Menendez for establishing a platform that did not exist before and we thank Francisco Aragon for his choices, his taste, his selection of poets. Poets: If you think your pain is not my pain, you are deluded. But I need to know the name of what you feel. I need to know the shape and color of it, the separations, the abandonments, the redemption. It is all here. This may be one of the most important collections of the decade. These poets- to the person- is obviously schooled and seasoned as reader and writer. There is not an unformed utterance on any page. I write this from the fervor of a first reading and will supply more responses. Buddha said “May you be awake one moment before you die.” This is the document that will wake you completely to the human circumstance. Poetry seems pallid before these poems were born. We writers sometimes feel “Hope holds no sway;”now I know and believe poetry can change the world with a bridge like this. Read slowly. I certainly will. A reread…one poet a day…to do justice.
Grace Cavalieri, author of Water on the Sun, winner Bordighera Award, Best Books 2006, Pen American Center.
A Response To Ocho #15 by Mary F. Morris
A fascinating introduction by the poet, Francisco Aragon, who serves as editor, begins this issue with, "The full headline on the front page of The New York Times is from November 17, 2007 and reads: In U.S. Name Count, Garcias are Catching Up With the Joneses. The article, early on, reveals: The number of Hispanics living in the United States grew by 58 percent in the 1990s to nearly 13 percent of the total population, and cracking the list of top 10 names suggests just how pervasively Latino migration has permeated everyday American culture. I would include American poetry in that equation. Readers, however, of what some may term 'top tier' publications would not come to that conclusion. Thankfully, there is the world of smaller literary magazines…"
Selecting the work of fifteen gifted Latinos, generally underrepresented in the mainstream, Aragon has chosen a group of seriously overlooked, talented poets in the ever rising population of Latin Americans in the United States.
We are blessed repeatedly by their words, as we enter rich sensuality, often times magical realism, and serious originality. Herein lies the passion from a legacy of a people who carry deep historical ancestry of poetry from their native land generations before. The following are a few lines from the gems of this collected treasure.
Lisa Alvarado, in "Grieving"
I want so much to reach him,
to braid myself to him,
to be palpable beyond sorrow.
But I cannot find my body.
Instead, I cook.
I make steaming plates
of food for him.
There are mounds of squash,
full and voluptuous.
The skin peaks in the middle
like a nipple.
Xochiquetzal Candelaria, in "Esta Palabra"
I dress in the scent of his name
at night, the pepper sweet oil
triggering sweat glands filling
thousands of tiny tubs in the hollows
of my neck, how the wave of its one
brown syllable grows like debt
spans weeks, then years
before it breaks
& slides back to blue.
Leaving Mohave wind
like a thicket of lions
wailing at the heat, the line
of sheets, wailing for milk
and keys, my eyes filling
with vowels until finally
I begin forming in my head
a row of wet-calf words,
Diana Marie, in "Delgado"
..I watched the beating of a man
on the black tongue of a videotape,
and a fossil was found curled inside
an egg like an eyelash. They said it was
the most ancient unborn fossil ever.
Autumn was sweet, was it not? We argued
about God. He should kill everything
Kristin Naca, in "Speaking English is Like"
Brown and beige and blonde tiles set in panels of tile across the
Rich Villar, in "Six Attempts to Get My Father to Speak About the Day After My Birth"
aqui tengo tu poema.
i go to werk at five. i come back at two.
i no remembeh who call me, i think i'was ju seester.
my fren' come wi' me.
he giveh cigar to e' ri' body. y bueno, i donno. i go home and wait
for ju mother"
Reviewed by Mary F. Morris, winner of the 2007 Rita Dove Award
A RESPONSE TO OCHO # 15 by Ed Zahnizer
OCHO 15 gives a rare opportunity to read a very evenly edited sampling of Latino poetry that nearly poem by poem just knocks your socks off. Guest Editor Francisco Aragon writes in his introduction that he has reached outside his editorial comfort zone—for “overlooked terrain where new Latino poetry is concerned:—in selecting this group of poets who have not appeared in his many earlier projects. Not just terrain—here are whole new landscapes, new ecosystems of American poetry by 15 poets, as Aragon writes: without a book. Aragon taps a great patch of the real American poetic quilt. But again, the consistency of good poetry is astounding for such a collection. I’d like to quote the whole of Diana Marie Delgado’s Natural History (page 18), but will go with such lines as “a darkness under our words” from Letter to Tu Fu by Peter Ramos and “Our mothers/their blank faces answering doors in the movies” from Carmen Gimenez Smith’s Hungry Offices. Didi Menendez is to be praised for creating space for this concentrated revelation for those of us without ready access to a wide range of journals.
Ed Zahnizer is the author of several books, most recently, Mall Hopping with the Great I AM.
A Response To OCHO # 15 by Whitney Smith
OCHO #15 is more than a collection of poetry it is a collection of life. Each poet writes directly to the heart of identity and their own human experiences; some with memories of school rooms, childhood games, and hard labor, others with vivid renditions of grief and roaring landscapes.
Simple subjects aside, the intimately charged details and sense of longing for reunification of heritage and current existence, does in fact prove this issue to be as Francisco Aragon claims, a “’private letter,’” a “snapshot-in time.” It might be too mundane to say the issue evokes nostalgic refurbishing, but it does push for hearty rumination of historical identity and new place. Almost each poet in the collection is able to locate the organic interchange between past and present, maintaining reverence toward self and seemingly, toward much of the Latino culture. Perhaps Jose B. Gonzalez best captures this duality in his poem “Fleeing For Work” when exclaiming his desire to “rinse [himself] with drops of mud, & curse the distance between dirt, clean water & our blood.” These chilling lines reverberate throughout the entire issue, enhanced by the truths of Gonzalez’s talented contemporaries.
The stodgy exclusiveness that can often be found in literature is matched beautifully with this issue. With such a fluid melding of heritage and present souls warmed with child-like zeal, new relationships, and first experiences, a sense of comfort and universal beauty are appropriately exposed. The only thing that readers might be left wanting is more.
Whitney Smith is a literary critic who lives and works with words in Vermont.
A Response To Ocho # 15 by Laura Orem
OCHO #15 (January 2008) is an anthology of poems by fifteen Latino writers, compiled by guest editor Francisco Aragon. It is a varied collection that gives voice to the diverse and rich “changing face of a nation,” as Aragon puts it in his introduction, “…Catching Up With the Joneses,” that is “the overlooked terrain where new Latino poetry is concerned.”
The first conclusion a reader comes away with after encountering these poems is that Latino poetry is not a single, homogeneous entity. There are as many kinds of Latino poetry as there are Latino poets, and it serves us well to remember that, just as Belgium is not Germany is not France, neither is El Salvador Mexico, the Dominican Republic, or Puerto Rico, despite white America’s tendency to group all Latinos together in one ethnic pile. The voices in these poems are many things: female and male, angry and amused, compassionate and bitter, nostalgic and contemporary -- diverse within their own diversity.
Take, for example, the first two poets in the collection. Lisa Alvarado’s poems are stark and uncompromising: “Insomnia is a black cat/who buries/his razor teeth in your neck,” she writes in “Sleepless.” In “Grieving,” the speaker struggles to find meaning or, if not meaning, at least some sense of self, in the face of appalling loss: “I want so much to reach him,/to braid myself to him,/to be palpable beyond sorrow./But I cannot find my body.” In contrast, Oscar Bermeo presents an urban world that, while flawed, still provides moments of joy: “We didn’t need tokens to get downtown/Just eagle eyes, quick feet and cold resolve…We all high-five breathless celebration/Blissfully lacking any destination.” Bermeo mythologizes this world in “Praise for Anywhere Avenue” as a place where “ringing alarms and ceaseless sirens” offer “vigilant care;” where “the thunderclap of boomboxes” and “rolling dice and crashing dominoes” provide a soundtrack to the Avenue’s “generous ways.”
And yet, despite the variety of poets presented, what also becomes clear through reading them is the universality of human experience. Here are poems wrestling with what it means to love, trying to come to terms with tarnished family history, dislocation, sexuality, failure, and happiness. They can speak to anyone, Latino or not. They are made of the stuff of being alive.
No poem in the collection emphasizes this more than “A (Second) to Consider (Generations)” by Raina J. Leon. Here, the speaker highlights the pain of living in a world where we define and are defined by race. As the daughter of a black mother and Puerto Rican father, she muses on the difficulty of not being “latina enough,” of being “just a/black girl/with a spanish last name.” Even within her own family, the speaker is not the right ethnic mix. The irony here is doubly powerful in our increasingly xenophobic society. We live in an America that categorizes most Latinos as illegal immigrants and a threat to “our” culture, instead of embracing and celebrating the richness their experiences and voices bring to us. This makes an anthology like OCHO 15 more important than just an interesting collection of Latino poetry; these poems remind us what it means to be part of the human family.
Laura Orem is a poet, artist, and teacher who lives in Red Lion, PA with many animals, one husband, and occasionally one of her two grown sons. She is a Writing Fellow in the Department of English at Goucher College in Baltimore.
A RESPONSE TO OCHO # 15 by Hope Maxwell-Snyder
Those interested in the literary atmosphere of the United States during the 21st century ought to read the #15 issue of Ocho magazine, guest edited by Francisco Aragón. In this issue, readers will find Aragón’s thoughtful commentary and his careful selection of Latino poetry. According to Aragón: “The necessary challenge for an editor is keeping eyes and ears open for the new-including, I would argue, the changing face of a nation.” I believe that as editor of this issue Aragón meets his own challenge. I am grateful to him for opening doors that give me a glimpse of the world of Latino poetry in the United States today.
While many of the poems in this issue tackle the meaning of being a Latino in the US, most authors do not make this the central theme of their poems. We read pieces concerning what it means to be Puerto Rican, a woman, a person of color, an American. For, after all, the poets in this issue write in English about the Latino experience in this country. In their attempts at self definition and perhaps self-understanding, the poets Aragón included in this issue write about religion, race, place of origin, gender, missing fathers, and language. For instance, in “A (Second) to Consider (Generations)” Raina J. León writes: “does this make me not/latina enough/not Puerto Rican enough to pass/ just a black girl with a spanish last name/.” Living in two cultures and being familiar with two languages and the opposite ways in which they often define the world is like having a split personality: one attempts to communicate with an America symbolized by the use of English and the status quo while the other one functions in that other world, with that other language . Aragón has chosen several excellent examples of this dilemma expressed in the poetry of the authors he highlights. For instance, Rich Villar’s poems “My Mother Responds to the Question, ‘So what Were you Thinking the Day After I Was Born?” and “Six Attempts to Get My Father to Speak About the Day After My Birth” give us a slice of two distinct personalities within the family. Here we have not only the contrast between the genders, but also between the cultures within which they exist. I would venture to say that in the second poem Villar records a new language, the spoken language of the Latino immigrant, in a brilliant manner.
To be able to write in English and to question what this language represents is like using clay to make a painting rather than a sculpture. If one succeeds, one has a new way of presenting one’s vision of the world through art. I believe some of the poets chosen by Aragón manage to accomplish this task. In “Immolation” Lisa Alvarado writes: “These words bind my wounds, /like a salve to scorched flesh, / charred but still here /.
Many of the questions raised in the poems in this issue are universal, and therefore should appeal to the world at large. For instance, in “Riders” John Murillo writes: “I don’t remember who, or when, or which. / I couldn’t tell you what the sky was like, / the song the tape deck played. But ask me why, / I’ll tell you: I was seventeen.”
Latinos in the United States come from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, and other countries. They bring different traditions to the table, slightly different values, and different versions of Spanish. While our traditions and our vocabulary may differ slightly, we share the experience of living in a new culture and of employing the English language to communicate our experiences. Aragon’s selection encompasses a wide range of styles and of themes. With editors like him measuring the pulse of our talented Latino writers, we can rest assured that the features of the changing face of this nation will be made more interesting with the passing of time. Francisco Aragón nos invita a imaginar un futuro colmado de poesía.
Hope Maxwell-Snyder was born in Colombia. She is the author of A String of Broken Hearts; Chains; and, The Houdini Chronicles.