Monday, February 16, 2009

In praise of the chapbook

Independent press excels at creating small poetry samplers

By Daniel A. Olivas

[This piece first appeared in the El Paso Times]

You might have seen them at a library, in a classroom or perhaps at your local coffee shop. They're small, maybe 50 pages in length, with unexpected titles and edgy artwork.

Welcome to the world of the chapbook, mini-collections of poetry, fiction or essays that can whet the appetite of adventurous readers at a reasonable cost. You usually cannot buy a chapbook from a traditional bookstore, but they are readily available from the publishers' Web sites.

One publisher of these little literary gems is Momotombo Press, founded by the poet Francisco Aragón. Its 13 titles released since the beginning of this decade are on view at http://www.momotombopress.com/. It distributes its chapbooks through a partnership with Tianguis Books, http://www.tianguis.biz/.

Two titles have sold out, which demonstrates the success of this literary venture.

Early in its life, Momotombo Press was dedicated to publishing only poets who had not yet had a first book. The press published four titles during 2001-03 beginning with the anthology Mark My Words: Five Emerging Poets.

In 2003, the press narrowed its mission to focus on Latino and Latina writers, to follow more faithfully in the footsteps of the famous Chicano Chapbook Series.

Though most titles are poetry collections, the press has ventured into prose, including last year's provocative short-story collection From Here You Can Almost See the End of the Desert by Aaron Michael Morales.

The press plans to publish one title a year. Assisting Aragón are authors María Meléndez and Richard Yañez, who serve as the contributing editors.

The newest poetry chapbook is Dear Jack ($10 paperback) by Scott Inguito. This experimental collection takes the form of letter-poems to the late poet Jack Spicer, who died at age 40 in 1965. Openly gay, Spicer developed "poetry as dictation," which led to his first collection, After Lorca, published in 1957.

In the editor's note to Dear Jack, Aragón acknowledged that he had developed a deep appreciation for both Lorca and Spicer, so it was a "happy coincidence" to discover Inguito's poetry.

Aragón observes that Inguito "is among a particular group of writers who are enlarging the canvas of Latino poetry." Indeed, the poems in Dear Jack come at the reader in various forms, sometimes resembling "traditional" verse, other times looking like journal entries.

Inguito's witty yet seditious poems can come in small packages, as in this untitled missive:

It takes concentration to make this heavy bed. I take
for a dark sound a clattering of grins. I am beat up
every day, the children of the universe sing gospel in a
triumphant strain. Are you flirting with the opposition?
I don't know how to deal with that.

Inguito's imagery is dense, dizzying, distressing. He offers lines such as "In skinless sunlight, sulfurous, / I smoke / under the fluffy bushes of honeysuckle." Or these: "Soft candy, chocolate, coconut. Choice of speech is / choice of these."

Inguito allows us to eavesdrop as he communicates with the ghost of the late Spicer (as Spicer himself wrote to Lorca's spirit), but because these "letters" are, by nature, deeply personal, we must, at times, strain to capture Inguito's meaning. But this is not a deficiency. Poems, particularly those that are experimental in form, can require one to reread and ponder each line in order to grasp the entire piece's meaning and power.

In many ways, this is the beauty of the chapbook form. For a modest fee, we can explore new writing by up-and-coming authors.

Dear Jack is one chapbook that should be enjoyed by inquisitive readers.

◙ Still trying to warm up after an amazing trip to Chicago for the AWP Conference where I moderated a panel on Latinos in Lotusland and participated in a poetry reading at the Jazz Showcase. I hope to post some pictures and a mini-report next Monday (if I can get it all put together in time). If you participated in or attended either of these two events and would like to share any photos, please e-mail them to me at olivasdan@aol.com and be clear who is depicted in the photos.

Rigoberto González, an award-winning writer living in New York City, reviews John Olivares Espinoza’s debut full-length poetry collection, The Date Fruit Elegies (Bilingual Press, $9 paperback), which is “largely inspired by the lives of independent landscapers in southern California.” He notes, in part:

Espinoza's touching book is roughly structured as a coming-of-age story. The opening poems feature a young man painfully aware that he lives "in the city of date fruits and bullet wounds," where a hard day's work is rewarded with "flat TV dinners & more work to do" at home. He's embarrassed by the sight of his mother redeeming cans at the market on Saturdays, so he watches from a distance for the "pour of metal rain inside a small slot."

***

John Olivares Espinoza has written a fine book of love poems to a way of life that goes frequently overlooked. The gardeners of earth's Edens are presented here as complex individuals whose hands bleed, pray, build, sculpt and even usher an intuitive but slightly troubled young man toward a productive adulthood.

To read the entire book review, go here.

◙ Stand-up comedian Bill Santiago will be giving a performance, based on his new book, Pardon My Spanglish (Quirk Publishing), at Pomona College in “Dom's Lounge” Smith Campus Center, at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 2. Free of charge and open to the public. For more information, contact Susana Chávez-Silverman at (909) 621-8938 or Anne Tessier at (909) 607-2348.

◙ That’s all for this week. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!

2 comments:

Linda Rodriguez said...

Daniel,

Nice post. So good to see Momotombo getting the recognition it deserves.

I enjoyed your reading at the AWP Palabra Pura Friday night. Wonderful event! And not coincidentally, the catalyst for both Momotombo and Palabra Pura, among many other wonderful things, is that good angel, Francisco Aragon.

Linda

Daniel Olivas said...

Linda,

Mil gracias for you comments. And yes, our good angel, Francisco, deserves much credit for promoting and nurturing Latino/a writers.

Abrazos,

Daniel