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Published on July 18th, 2016

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Too Didactic? Poetry Anthology Subverts Mainstream Conventions.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice
Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez , eds.
University of Arizona Press, 2016
216 pp
 

Chicano/a activists who enter into a traditional MFA program may be told that their poetry is too didactic.

At least that’s what they told Andrés Montoya and me when we first started to write poetry at the university.

“Montoya, you’re poetry is too didactic! It’s a political manifesto.”

His first response, of course, was to be offended.

He got into his cholo stance and said, “I ain’t no didactic. I’m a Chicano.”

Albeit, at the time, we didn’t know what the word meant, but that wouldn’t be the first time we would hear it. It means to be preachy, politically speaking.

One of the deeper definitions is “to write in the manner of a teacher, particularly so as to treat someone in a patronizing way.”

It was as if our white professors thought we were yelling out to them, “Hey, white people! You’re going to hear this whether you like it or not!”

It wasn’t that we were trying to preach; it was that our communal and ethnic identity was inseparable from our ars poetica.

We were being told that poetry with a strong political message wasn’t worth much, but that didn’t make sense to us.

Speaking out was our initial impulse to start writing. We wanted to make a statement about injustices, to support the movement that represents a progressive, inclusive society.

What I love about Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, edited by the late Francisco X. Alarcón and the poet-activist Odilia Galván Rodríguez is that it is an abashedly didactic anthology, unapologetically political, and its powerful poems are impeccable on the level of craft.

Alarcón’s “Invocation” sings,

we first form a circle
hands holding hands
warming each other
 
under a cold drizzle
wanting to turn Winter
into a Spring Solidarity
 

These are precise words of an excellent craftsman.

“We first form a circle” of course has the Fs playing against each other, and then the alliteration is enhanced with the three Hs in “hands holding hands”, but the language also forms a chain itself, as if the hands reach across the line and make the unity even stronger. A threefold chord is hard to break.

Also, Alarcón makes sure the word “Winter” is capitalized, suggesting that the seasons are sacred, invoking not only all four of them, but the four directions as well, the indigenous invocation to a ceremony. He wrote this poem to be read on the steps of the capital in Washington, at a protest of Arizona’s SB 1070.

Our current US poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera contributes his whimsical, improvisational jazz-like syntax not only in the Forward of the anthology, but also in the powerful poem called “Arizona Green (Manifesto #1070).”

His language makes the reader want to get up and move to the drumming of his words. In imagining Arizona going “green”, he writes,

Yes Arizona went absolutely green
Chile verde green
Celery and lechuga green
Jalapeno green serrano green
Broccoli green artichoke green green grape green
All those campesino greens all those greens
 

To understand Alarcón’s and Galván Rodriguez’ impulse behind this important collection, all you need is to read their introduction. In Arizona some, shall we say, conservative right-wing types (write it: racists!) introduced bill, SB #1070, a proposed law that would deprive Mexicans of their rights and virtually make it legal to discriminate against Latinos.

This book is a response to that bill, a poetic phenomenon that started with a grass roots movement led by, among others, Alarcón and Galván Rodríguez.

What’s amazing about the poems is not just how good they are, but also how representative they are of the community, not just the Latino/a community, but of all People of Conscience: Asians, Native-Americans, African-Americans, whites. One of my favorite pieces is the well-crafted poem by Andre Yang, a Hmong poet from Fresno.

In the poem “Why I Feel The Way I Do About SB 1070” he expresses himself with a rhythmic syntax that betrays his maturity and skill as a poet.

He opposes #1070 because,

. . . I have not forgotten
what it means to “love thy neighbor”. Because
My cousin, Virus, never acquired
citizenship, was convicted of manslaughter
after a gang fight, spent six years in
an Arizona prison, and is on parole release
pending deportation once U.S.-Laos relations improve.
 

Yang’s poem represents an aspect of this collection that makes it extraordinary, the fact that the poets, in responding to an unjust situation and participating in a political act, are writing very personal poems. We cannot help but to care about people, feelings, and images in poetry, and these poems go from the personal to the political effortlessly and organically.

Nancy Aidé González writes,

I come from a long line of women
tough as nails,
hard as steel.
soft like velvet. . .
 
They are my foremothers,
. . .
they are ones who live on
 

This goes beyond the abuela motif in Chicano/a poetry by allowing the images to respond to #1070. They are “tough as nails,” an image we’re all familiar with, but they are also Aidé González herself, speaking out against racism and injustice. Grandma not only makes tortillas, she is responsible for the generational struggles that put food in our mouths in the first place, and there’s no way she’s going to let anyone take it away, not even some people in Arizona.

If things couldn’t get better for the book, it includes a stunning poem by the maestra Lorna Dee Cervantes. “Olemcan Eyes” goes into the poet herself, but it also delves deeper into the indigenous antepasados, a fundamental theme in Xicana poetry.

 The blood of
The People surging still beneath
the pursed lips, the pierced tongue,
the sudden pulse. We are The People
 
still.
 

 Not only does the poem emphasize the struggle, claiming it as an indigenous fight, but it also plays with language as only a great poet can do. Look at the line, “the people surging still beneath.” On its own, it has two meanings, the enjambment causing the first read to be still, that is, non moving, the silence before the explosion. But with the next line the still collapses into another meaning, that is, we still fight, even today, after generations of struggle. Still also begins the subsequent stanza.

The way Cervantes appropriates “We the People” subverts the conventional meaning.

Another rhythmic delight is the poem “Hoy Mujeres y Hombres” by Xánath Caraza. She is a cotemporary poet known for the music of her language, how she reaches into the depths of culture and spirit through incantation and beat.

In this reflective poem, she leaves ordinary time-space for a larger vision of our selves.

 Ya no hay niños inocentes
Ni adolescents rebeldes
No hubo tiempo
Sólo mujeres y hombres forzados a crecer
 

 For those of us who remember when the bill was proposed, we thought how ludicrous it was, yet it hurt us, because we knew it was really happening. It pained us.

In many ways this collection is painful, but like any political resistance, it’s necessary. It gives us hope.

Editor Galván Rodrigues writes in her amazing triptych of poems,

 no choice
but to speak out—
loud about injustice
those who must hide have no voice, just
slashed tongues.
 

For Galván this anthology must have been a work of love, not only for the “slashed tongues” of poetry, but for Francisco Alarcón, who tragically died before the book came out.

Galván Rodriguez and Alarcón present us with poets of conscience from diverse backgrounds. It includes not only poets whom I have admired over the years, like Abel Salas, Devreaux Baker, Susan Deer Cloud, Francisco Aragón, Genny Lim, Luis Alberto Urrea, Martín Espada, Alma Luz Villanueva and so many more, but it also introduces me to poets I’m hearing for the first time.

Poetry of Resistance sends a message to those Arizonans who want to have Latinos imprisoned in their cultural mindset, i.e., it sends a statement to the racists. It shouts out to them, and even though we know they’re not listening, perhaps a satisfying revenge is that this powerful collection is made possible by the University of Arizona Press.

In fact, U of Arizona Press is one of today’s best publishers of Latino/a literature, and to me that smells like the sprit of poetic justice.

Arizona, like this country, belongs to us.

Or as Melinda Palacio writes in her poem “Outlaw Zone,”

 Arizona,
Don’t forget which country you come from.
 

I wish this collection had been around when Montoya and I were in graduate school.

 

Daniel Chacón.

 

 

 

 


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