Guest post by Francisco Aragón
Over a year ago, in Latino Poetry Review’s inaugural issue, it was Eric Murphy Selinger’s long essay-review that lit the fuse. Sparks flew over his take on a passage in Corky Gonzales’ seminal poem, “I am Joaquín.” They surfaced mostly at Javier Huerta’s blog and Craig Santos Perez’s. When the dust settled, the following comment to Huerta, who was the first to take Selinger to task, seemed to wrap things up:
“Longtime lurker here, first-time commentator... Just wanted to express my appreciation for this discussion, which I've been following with interest for a while now. As a non-Latino reader, I also had mixed feelings about Eric Selinger's Parnassus review, and it's heartening to see him respond to criticisms in an open-minded, non-defensive manner. Javier Huerta, your eloquence and insightfulness pushes this discussion toward ever-expanding spheres of consideration. You are shedding some much-needed light on questions of culture, craft, ethnicity, and intergenerational dialogue that have been swirling around in my mind for a long time. I haven't quite seen anyone else articulate these issues with as much clarity, objectivity, and relevance as you have done here.”
This year, in Latino Poetry Review’s recently launched second issue, it’s been Steven D. Schroeder’s assessment of Richard Vargas’ McLife and American Jesus that has provided this year’s spirited discussion, especially after Vargas himself decided to pen a letter that Schroeder posted on his blog.
Barbara Jane Reyes offered the following comment to Schroeder:
“The bodily functions and body parts, which you discuss in your review, and which Vargas brings up in his letter: whereas your assessment of these brings you to the conclusion that the work is perhaps immature or 'macho,' have you considered Oscar Zeta Acosta's Brown Buffalo, which seems a fair comparison. From what I understand about Zeta Acosta, his writing openly and unrestrained about bodily functions and body parts has much more to do with the body politics of brown men and standards of beauty for brown men in the USA than it has to do with immature boy humor. Body politics seems relegated to the realm of women's writing, but I think it's totally fair to say men of color also must write against mainstream American objectification and commodification, which are both emasculating, and which are major sources of man of color rage….”
Later, Vargas himself responded at Barbara Jane Reyes’ blog, where she contributed a post of her own in the unfolding discussion:
“[M]y real question is for the LPR, and why they thought this guy was on the up and up? what statement does this make about their literary agenda? again, thank you, ms. reyes, for facilitating what i consider to be an open minded and rational approach to this subject. rvargas”
What I have found encouraging about these latest “waves” is that people have been specifically talking about seeking out, acquiring and reading Vargas’ two books. Regardless of how one might feel about Schroeder’s review, would we be talking about Vargas—two years after the latest of his books had been published—if LPR Schroeder's review hadn't appeared, or if LPR hadn't commissioned a review on Vargas to begin with? Vargas himself had this to say in his comment to Reyes:
“…i’ve always written with the belief that if everyone liked my poetry, then i was doing something wrong. i’ve been waiting for someone like schroeder to sit down and “review” me for quite a while. it was due.…”
As far as LPR thinking Schroeder was on “the up and up,” I can only offer this: A couple of years ago, I was giving a poetry reading in Saint Louis, MO. I met Schroeder there. I’d occasionally read his blog and noticed that he sometimes commented on Eduardo C. Corral’s blog. The reading took place in a micro-brewery so a small group of us stuck around for a few beers afterwards. Schroeder and I talked poetry and publishing: he was on the verge of launching Anti-. It was a cordial and engaging interaction. What I don’t recall is if I asked him then and there or if I waited until I got home. But at some point, I asked if he’d write a piece for LPR. He said Yes: I sent him Vargas’ books.
That night I also met Heather Treseler, a doctoral candidate at Notre Dame who was writing a dissertation on American poetry. I made her the same pitch I made to Schroeder; she said Yes: I sent her A Weakness for Boleros by Lidia Torres, and This Side of Skin by Deborah Parédez. It might be worth noting that neither Schroeder nor Treseler are Latino/a. To some that might matter. To LPR, it doesn’t. Vargas asks about LPR’s “literary agenda.” Here’s its mission statement:
Latino Poetry Review (LPR) publishes book reviews, essays, and interviews with an eye towards spurring inquiry and dialogue. LPR recognizes that Latino and Latina poets in the 21st century embrace, and work out of, a multitude of aesthetics. With this in mind, its critical focus is the poem and its poetics.
Perhaps these episodes, these “waves” might also be considered “growing pains.” LPR could have, from the get go, commissioned two reviews on Vargas. This was the case with Roberto Tejada’s book, Mirrors for Gold. LPR #2 published one by poet and editor Carmen Giménez Smith, and another by Notre Dame doctoral candidate, Todd Thorpe. Full disclosure: I presented this option to Schroeder after the fact—that is: getting an additional review on Vargas, and posting them both in LPR #3. I let Schroeder make the call because he had been so patient with LPR’s delay in publication, and because I suspected his review might elicit some of the responses it got. In the end, he opted for having his review published sooner rather than later.
Barbara Jane Reyes got one thread of the discussion started in a post that referenced Schroeder’s claim that Vargas was an “outsider” in the poetry world. Vargas’ letter or, rather, Schroeder’s decision to publish the letter, took the discussion up a notch.
LPR would like to commission another piece on Vargas, if for no other reason than to underscore that its agenda is none other than to give Latino and Latina poets their due in the arena of poetry criticism—something they don’t get in most poetry reviewing venues. It’s the reason LPR exists. This gesture should not, however, be viewed as an expression of regret for publishing Schroeder’s piece. LPR believes that books by Latino and Latina poets should be reviewed from a plethora of perspectives, including Schroeder’s. LPR doesn’t censor. Unless someone writes a piece that is laced with personal attacks, LPR will publish it. There is no aesthetic nor cultural litmus test for a potential LPR contributor. If LPR does have a bias, it might be its inherent interest in reviews and essays that explore how poems are made.
And yet, if a reviewer slips up in the eyes of some readers (i.e. doesn’t bother to do any homework about the work or writer being reviewed or is simply a lazy reader who let’s his/her preconceived notions about “Latinos” have too much sway) well…here’s Eric Selinger on his piece in LPR#1:
“I was told that my glib comment about a particular poet’s lack of artistry showed that I hadn’t read him closely. And guess what? I hadn’t. I’d substituted a flip, offhand remark for actual thinking, and got caught….I don’t call that an 'attack.' I call it 'peer-review.'
In academic journals, it happens before a piece is published. In literary journals, it happens afterwards, in public. It’s not fun, but it’s awfully educational.”
My hope is that discussions generated by the pieces in Latino Poetry Review won’t, however, solely stem from reviews that are perceived as negative. I’ve linked a number of other reviews in the current issue in this guest post. What do readers of La Bloga think about them?
◙ CALL FOR PROPOSALS FOR BOOK PANELS AND PRESENTATIONS:
Preparations for the new and improved 2009 Los Angeles Latino Book & Family Festival are now underway! The festival will take place October 10 & 11 on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles. We are now accepting proposals for panels/presentations on any topic having to do with literature or anything of interest to the Latino community. American Book Award-winner Reyna Grande, author of Across a Hundred Mountains and Dancing with Butterflies, will be in charge of scheduling. Please submit your proposal to Reyna Grande at firstname.lastname@example.org.
◙ THE LATEST ON LATINOLA.COM:
Remembering El Espectador by Agustin Gurza
California is Broke. Why? by Alberto Marrero Salas
La Pistola: Tribute to my Mexican father by Alvaro Huerta
"Descarga" in CityWalk This Summer By Mariluz Gonzalez
Rockin' & Rollin' with the Marines in Reseda by Frankie Firme
These are just a few great stories on LatinoLA. You should drop by and check them out and make it a daily habit. You may also submit essays, reviews, short stories, poems, upcoming event news, etc. Go to LatinoLa.com.
◙ GETTIN' MORE PRESS:
In the new issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the column Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin includes Stephen Gutierrez's new short story collection, Live from Fresno y Los (Bear Star Press). If you missed it, you may read my review of Gutierrez's collection here.
◙ DESPERATELY SEEKING MARISELA:
Marisela Norte, if you're reading this, could you drop me an e-mail at email@example.com please? I don't have your current e-mail. If any La Bloga readers are eavesdropping right now, I might as well remind you that Marisela is a wonderful poet who published her first collection recently, Peeping Tom Tom Girl (San Diego City Works Press, $12.95 paperback). You may read my review of it here.
◙ That’s all for now. So, in the meantime, enjoy the intervening posts from mis compadres y comadres here on La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!