A couple of weeks ago, I kissed and made up with my long-time inamorata – poetry. Perhaps Washington DC in mid-February seems a cold place to rekindle the flush of an old love, but this snow-painted city was home-base for “PINTURA:PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis,” and I was invited to attend. Launched by Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, PINTURA/PALABRA assembled 13 poets from DC and around the country for a master ekphrastic workshop and a chance to view & write poem-drafts about “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.”
Back row, l to r: Juan Morales, Valerie Martinez, Carmen Catalayud, Samuel Miranda, John Chavez. Middle row, l to r: E. Carmen Ramos, Maritza Rivera, Yvette Neisser Moreno, Emma Trelles, Elizabeth Acevedo. Front row, l to r: Brenda Cardenas, Carlos Parada Ayala, Francisco Aragon, Dan Vera.
The exhibition, curated by E. Carmen Ramos, originated and is currently on view at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. It will soon travel to Miami, Florida, Sacramento, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Wilmington, Delaware. Letras Latinas is already organizing a PINTURA/PALABRA for Miami, the exhibit’s next stop on its national tour, and additional workshops and programming will follow.
I’m grateful to PINTURA/PALABRA. The creative renewal I experienced during our three days in DC was the perfect anodyne for any writer who has meandered far from her craft, and from the inspiration that can charge it. Work, family, the dull shine of procrastination, or simply staring out the window at the azaleas exploding white along the sidewalk (an essential kind of musing for poets) – any of these divides us, sometimes quite willingly, from writing. Visiting the exhibit, with pen and notebook in hand, I was drawn to a wildly diverse collection of 92 paintings, photographs, sculpture and the like by 72 Latino/a visual artists, and I was able to respond immediately and with little censure or delay.
Camas para Sueños, a gouache on paper made in 1985 by Carmen Lomas Garza, depicts a tender homage to family and the cultural traditions that sustain us. I connected to it immediately, thinking of my younger brother and the hours we spent in the backyard of our childhood home, playing H-O-R-S-E or catching lizards or simply dreaming our own plans for the future.
It’s a time I don’t think about as much anymore, and it felt important to record some of the painting’s intimacy alongside the memories it sparked because my notebooks are the birthplace of so many of my poems.
A small sample of other works I found arresting: Nocturnal(Horizon Line), by Teresita Fernández, a hypnotic landscape layered in horizontal strips of graphite that evoke nighttime and moonlight, and, to me, the shorelines of South Florida, where I was raised and where the artist also lived and studied.
The artwork that pushed me to draft an actual poem (vs. notes) while in DC, however, was Decoy Gang War Victim, by the 1970s/80s Chicano art collective Asco. The photograph resembles a movie still and was part of a conceptual-performance series that protested violence, the war in Vietnam, and the media’s regard of Latinos and their culture as violent and of little value. With its shadowed & haunting blue palette, and a pale body splayed in the street as if about to ascend, the photograph possessed what Yeats called a “terrible beauty.” I was compelled to write about it.
Decoy Gang War Victim, Asco, 1974, printed 2010, chromogenic print.
The members of our workshop inspired me as well, a creatively curious assembly of Latino/a writers with backgrounds in history, journalism, academia, visual arts, and more. PINTURA/PALABRA was created by Francisco Aragon, a poet, editor, and director of Letras Latinas, and the DC program was led by two extraordinary poets and educators: Brenda Cardenas and Valerie Martinez. Both provided us with a wealth of writing prompts and ekphrastic poems to mull over long before we arranged our chairs around a first floor conference room at the museum and began to talk shop.
Cardenas and Martinez kicked things off with a colloquium at the Library of Congress, where they discussed the multitude of paths poets may take during their ekphrastic travels. “To me,” said Martinez. “The artwork is correlative, a place to find resonance. Ekphrasis is a way of arriving to the unexpected when we give ourselves over to language. Because language has its own kind of knowledge.”
The weekend closed with a reading at Busboys & Poets, where Split This Rock’s Sunday Kind of Love series graciously welcomed all of the PINTURA/PALABRA poets to read at its spirited monthly gathering. Here’s “Nexus,” by Brenda Cardenas, a poem she read to a packed house and that she had previously wrote in response to Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series.
(after Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series, earth-body works, 1973-80)
This body always compost—
hair a plot of thin green stems
snowing a shroud of petals,
skin mud-sucked to bark,
trunk only timber isthmusing
river banks, each finger
a dirty uprooting.
How many stones did I have
to swallow before my legs
believed their own weight?
Dropped into silhouette
of thigh and hip, a ridge
of ossicles crushed to fine
white whispers. Offering Cuilapán
their orphaned pleas, one
twin lingers outside the nave, one
cloistered in a vaulted niche,
its ledge of red roses edging
her blood-soaked robes.
Meat, bone—a deer’s skitter
and bolt from the arrow,
an iguana’s severed tail, spiny tracks.
They say we dig our own graves.
I have laid me down
in a Yagul tomb, outlined
my island arms with twig, rock,
blossom, mud. Our pulse with fire,
glass and blood. I’ve raised
myself in the earth’s beds, left
this map, this exiled breath.
Emma Trelles is the author of Little Spells (GOSS183 Press) and Tropicalia (University of Notre Dame Press), winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and a finalist for ForeWord Reviews’ poetry book of the year. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, PoetsArtists, Terrain.org, Best of the Net, The Rumpus, the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, and others. In 2013, she was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship in poetry from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
AWP NEWS: Find her Saturday, March 1, from 1:30 pm – 2:45 pm at the AWP Seattle Conference panel, PUBLISHED! From Poetry Manuscript to First Book (Room 303, Western New England MFA Annex, Level 3) and later that evening at the launch for Kalina: The Theatre Under My Skin, a bilingual collection of contemporary Salvadoran poetry (From 6 pm – 7:30 pm, The Rendezvous Lounge at the Jewelbox Theatre, The Grotto, 2322 2nd Ave., Seattle).