Review: Primera Pagina. Poetry from the Latino Heartland.
Kansas City, MO: 2008
A few weeks ago, at the National Latino Writers Conference, I had the pleasure of hearing several of the women read their work included in this welcome anthology coming to us out of Kansas City, Missouri. These are effective, competent voices that fit well into the encompassing genre of "Chicana Chicano" arts.
"Latino" in the subtitle lets the collection cover a lot of ground, but principally this collection features Chicana Chicano poets. Which is to say, the poems reflect many of the themes and images that have populated poesía chicana over the years.
Among the preponderant themes echoed in this collection is the "lost and ruined homeland" that evokes places like barrios or Aztlán. Here, the subtitle, "from the Latino Heartland" places all the works into that geographic perspective. We may write in Kansas, the theme suggests, but we're from someplace else, the same place as the rest of you, the rest of us.
One expression of place is Gabriela N. Lemmons' "Kansas," where the poet declares, "I know when they harvest winter wheat,/ when corn needs to be planted, and how/ close to God people think they are. / But I don't know one multi-tongued latino, / where I can buy pumpkin empanadas, / dulce de leche and De La Rosa Mazapán. / Whether La Llorona roams in white or black /in these parts and what creeks she frequents? / I cannot remember how/ a wetback smells anymore, / soon after he crosses el Río Grande-- / the vein of my roots meandering / in hues of azul."
Lemmons adopts a tactic of footnoting all her Spanish phrases for the English-only reader. Empanadas (italicized in the note, not in the poem) are pies; dulce de leche is caramel; mazapan (sans diacritic) is peanut butter candy; La Llorona is the legendary wailing woman (Mexican Tale); azul is blue.
Another commonly read theme, the Anglo as devil, the exploitation of gente by officialdom, comes in for an interesting twist in Chato Villalobos' "Brown Eyes in Blue". The twist is the poet writes in the voice of a police officer who believes his presence brings security and justice to his pueblo. Aware of the contradiction, the poet writes, "I hesitate before looking in the mirror / That's when visions of Malinche appear / Because nothing really looks out of place / Until I see the brown skin of my own face." Pride of position overcomes fear of contradiction as the poem resolves with the thought, "The barrio calls for me I can't refuse / 'Cause I know they'll be safe with brown eyes in blues."
Not every writer attempts to put an ethnic or cultural gloss on their work. For instance, José Faus' work covers 28 pages of work that defies its placement in a "Latina Latino" collection. In contrast, Xánath Caraza writes facing-page bilingual poems. Speaking of language, English is the mode of expression for these pages.
Primera Página is a delightful collection of relatively new voices--the opening poet is San Diego's Taco Shop Poet, Tomas Riley. Aside from the pleasure of finding promising new poets, I found an excellent approach to these poets is reading the women first, then the men. An opportunity for dialog emerges from this approach. Some women expose the brutality of abusive men, as when Linda Rodriguez' "P.O.W." recounts the savagery of sexual abuse of a 9-year old girl by her father. The men are oblivious to these charges. To them, women are objects for play and seduction, as in Andrés Rodriguez' "Chronicle of a Salvadorian Girl," whose saving grace is the man and woman are clueless together. I would think the follow-up volume will bring these disparate points of view into confrontation. Since the anthology is product of a collective, I hope they'll do this and let us see what emerges.
One Bit: Printmaking and BBQ in Highland Parque.
Sunday, June 22, 2008 @ 5:00 pm
Sonia Romero’s Printmaking Studio
Museum of Traffic, LLC
Launching of community partner LACommons’s website (www.lacommons.org)
Sunday, June 22, 2008 starting at 5:00 pm
Please join us for a barbeque/barbacoa afternoon as we celebrate the new at the Avenue 50 Studio
Food ~ Music ~ Art
Plus, a demonstration of printmaking by Sonia Romero
We invite you to join us and bring a refreshment or food in celebration
Avenue 50 Studio(s), Inc.
131-135 No. Avenue 50
Highland Park, CA
Bit Two: Latinos in Lotusland reading and book signing.
Among the major independent booksellers on the eastside of the Los Angeles basin is Vroman's, in Pasadena. The two locations don't stock a lot of Chicana Chicano literature, so it was a pleasant surprise to read that the store was to host an evening of writers featured in the Daniel Olivas-edited anthology.
It was a pleasantly full house of readers and writers who attended to enjoy some stimulating presentations. Most encouraging was the energetic jostle after the readings and Q&A. Vroman's must have sold a goodly number of the increasingly popular title. I hope the attendance and sales persuade Vroman's to host more Chicana Chicano Latina Latino writers.
Sandra Ramos O’Briant. Lana Turner Slept Here.
O'Briant clearly practiced her reading, plus she's an effective reader. But beyond that, O'Briant went to the extra effort to pare her story down to what she felt was a manageable time, and read from a typescript rather than the book. Two strangers in a chance encounter share painful marriage stories and learn that caring for others has a price, and it's probably worth it.
Victorio Barragán. Daylight Dreams.
Barragan shared his first published work, a tale of bitter irony and crashing expectations. A shy man has admired a cute woman who rides his bus. He's worked up a romantic fantasy about the stranger. Today he will talk to her. In his dreams she will instantly respond and a long, happy relationship will come of it. Dashed. A slick jerk steals his woman from him and the bus pulls away with the woman happily flirting with the other guy. Carpe diem, loverboy.
Conrad Romo. The Cement God.
Romo's powerful voice enhances this gem of a boy-fatherhood story. Capturing small details of a boy's front stoop conversation with his grandfather, a master cement finisher, the tale sparkles with genuine warmth. The story favorably evokes the powerful cement-pouring scene from Richard Vasquez' novel, Chicano. In fact, Olivas has included that scene as the final entry of the anthology.
Lisa Alvarez. Sweet Time.
Alvarez' mother-daughter-stepsister story carries the tension of a mother's final stay in the hospital. The writer successfully conveys the distance that grows between families split apart by serial monogamy and alcoholism. Alvarez' dry humor gives the story added zest, transforming what could be a dreary tale of regret into something positive.
Daniel Olivas. Bender.
Olivas' metaphorical critter story has a lot of sexuality packed into such a tight space. Reprinted from his collection Devil Talk, it's a gem of perplexity that will have readers going back to page one to reassure themselves they've grasped what the writer told them. "Bender," as the other stories read that evening, is a delight.
I'd like to encourage authors to develop fuller eye contact with the house. O'Briant's strategy of practicing and using a typescript allow her the luxury of pulling eyes off the page and looking out at her listeners. Too often a reader briefly glances up--I wonder if they even see what's before them--then glues the eyes to the page. Lecterns are unfriendly instruments. The slanted desktop makes it difficult to display the book. Any photo of an author reading will benefit from including the cover in the shot.
A Sadness in This Piece.
This email comes from Oscar Garza, Editor In Chief of Tu Ciudad Magazine.
Friends, sorry for the mass e-mail, but I have a lot of people to reach out to. If you have the June/July issue of Tu Ciudad—our third anniversary issue—hang on to it: it's the last one that will be published. Last Thursday, Emmis Communications announced that it is "suspending" publication of the magazine, which means that they're pulling the plug. Emmis is not to be blamed because, in fact, the company went far beyond the financial commitment they originally made to Ciudad. We simply couldn't sell enough advertising to succeed. For the past 14 months our Founder/Publisher, Jaime Gamboa, has been seeking additional investors, but his efforts—which continued even until last week—have been unsuccessful.
The media business is undergoing a revolution. Print, in particular, is in trouble (e.g., Los Angeles Times). The notion of killing trees to print words and pictures is increasingly archaic and expensive—as is the cost of mailing a magazine, which we were doing (for free) to 85,000 households.
That said, I am proud of what we produced at Ciudad and for the contribution we made to Latino cultural history. The most common response I heard from readers was: "Finally! I've been waiting for a magazine like this for a long time." And it was especially touching and bittersweet to hear such sentiments during the past few weeks while knowing that our possible demise was imminent.
My own future is undetermined at the moment. I have a few options and I'll let you know where I land. (This e-mail address will be operable until June 20. After that you can reach me at: email@example.com.) But the first thing I'm going to do is wean myself off Tylenol PM, which I got hooked on to combat sleepness nights of magazine-related worry. (Maybe you'll see me on VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab.”)
One of my favorite magazines is No Depression, which celebrates all styles of American roots music. Coincidentally, it just published its final issue—a victim of two industries that are in flux. That magazine took its title from the Carter Family song, "No Depression in Heaven." And I too will take my cue from the song: there's no depression in the closing of Ciudad, only pride and gratitude.
Thanks to all of you for being loyal readers and supporters.
That's it for June's third Tuesday. Next week, I'll be looking at Akashic's Trinidad Noir, another in the publisher's growing noir series. So far, so good, but then, I've just started it.
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