By mónica teresa ortiz
I live in Austin, where the annual Texas Book Festival is held. I applaud the organizers of the festival. Putting together such a large and free public event is not an easy task. Promoting books and literature is a necessary undertaking in a state where sports franchises are worth millions of dollars but we can cut funding for schools.
I was asked to look out for new books by women for our raza readers, so with due diligence, I searched the schedule and planned out what panels might interest me and also what filled my mission. There were 300 authors at the 20th anniversary event, held during October 17th-18th in downtown Austin. I could identify by name, just 30 writers of the 300, and 25 of the writers I had read or heard of, are writers of color. I admit fault for not reading more modern writers and thus not recognizing more names at the festival, but I do make it a habit to avoid falling into the white as default area known as US literature.
There were Latinx writers and poets speaking at the festival whose names I did recognize and have read, including Carmen Tafolla, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, Tomás Q. Morin, Luis Alberto Urrea, Gwendolyn Zepeda, and well of course… Sandra Cisneros. I looked forward to hearing Margaret Atwood, Gregory Pardlo, and Saeed Jones. And of course, I would have liked there to be even more Latinx writers and poets represented. Poets Enrique Fierro and Ida Vitale, two of the Generation 45 poets from Uruguay, live in Austin. Ida recently won the Queen Sofia Poetry Award, which is widely considered the Cervantes Award of Poetry. Both are incredibly influential and important Latin American poets. Even pop culture site Remezcla put together a list of emerging Latinx poets, a list that honorably mentioned Rigoberto González but well, we all know he is canon. Surprisingly, he hasn’t been to Austin to read.
Perhaps I am a little bit more sensitive in 2015. Perhaps Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of “The Body of Michael Brown” as conceptual poetry made me more sensitive. Perhaps Vanessa Place tweeting quotes from Gone with the Wind made me more sensitive. Perhaps Red Hen Press’s Kate Gale’s now vanished Huffington Post op-ed made me more sensitive. Perhaps Janet Maslin’s reading list in the New York Times made me sensitive. Michael Derrick Hudson definitely made me more sensitive - if not outright pissed off.
When I woke up on the Saturday morning of the Texas Book Festival, I could not be certain which emotion it was. Saturday was my one day off work, and all I wanted to do was listen to Johnny Cash and read poetry in the grass. I wanted to go and support and listen to fellow latinx writers and poets, as well as the other writers of color who would be presenting, who would be visible at the Texas Book Festival.
But as I dressed and prepared for the day, as I walked out of my house, I sat inside my car. Johnny Cash was already playing on my radio, and I decided not to go. I decided not to go to the Texas Book Festival. I didn’t make Sandra Cisneros’ appearance inside the Central Presbyterian Church. Her memoir, “A House of My Own; Stories of My Life,” came out recently. I saw Cisneros speak 13 years ago, at the first Texas Book Festival I attended in 2002, also her first appearance there since Laura Bush started it in 1995. Cisneros was still living in the purple house in San Anto, and had just published “Caramelo.” She appeared on a panel with two other legacies, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Dagoberto Gilb, on a panel titled “At the Crossroads: Mexican-American Literature.” Witnessing three of the biggest living influences on Chicanx literature in a room together did not disappoint.
But in 2015, I want more. I want book festivals, AWP, publishers and presses to reflect the changing demographics of US literature. One of the richest literary prizes in the world, the Kirkus Prize, announced on the eve of the Texas Book Festival in a ceremony in Austin, was awarded to Hanya Yanagihara, Ta- Nehisi Coates, and Pam Muñoz Ryan. Yanagihara and Coates are on the finalist list for 2015 National Book of the Year awards. Hell, check out Digest, Pardlo’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems. Writers of color are putting out really good shit right now. We can do this.
Want to read some recent great books by latinxs? Try Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade. Ire’ne Lara Silva’s new book Blood Sugar Canto will be out soon or check out Ana of California by Andi Teran, a modern version of Anne of Green Gables.
By the time I turned the key in the ignition, it was 2:30 pm. I didn’t want to squeeze inside the church, even though I wanted to hear La Sandra. I had already read a great interview of "the patron saint of chingonas" written by Tina Vasquez. The Witliff Collections at Texas State University in nearby San Marcos recently acquired Cisneros’ archives. Besides the Benson Latin American Library, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s archives also recently arrived at the University of Texas as part of the Harry Ransom Center. I enjoy access to a lot of great latinx literature. And I had San Anto native and 2016 Texas poet laureate Laurie Anne Guerrero’s third book of poetry A Crown for Gumecindo (published by Texas based Aztlan Press) in the back seat of my car.
It was 82 degrees outside. I called the day a wash and skipped the book festival because I live in Austin, where the sun is almost perpetual and where I took that beautiful book of sonnets (with incredible illustrations by Maceo Montoya), and found a quiet spot underneath a sycamore tree in a park near my house, and celebrated Texas and books by reading Guerrero, one of my favorite contemporary poets. I called the day a wash because I don’t want “second class houses, second class schools,” or second class status in literature. I believe “the world is big...and it’s full of folks like me who are/Black, Yellow, Beige, and Brown.” And we are writing some really really good shit. The author list of latinxs at the 2015 Texas Book Festival demonstrated a portion of that. But we want more. After all, “what do you think I got to lose?" Nothing. We have nothing to lose. We aren't going anywhere. We ain’t "the one [that] will have the blues... not [us]-- Wait and see!"
Her work has appeared in Bombay Gin, Sinister Wisdom, Huizache, Pilgrimage Magazine, Paso del Rio Grande del Norte, Borderlands, As/US, The Texas Observer, Autostraddle, and Black Girl Dangerous.
A two-time Andres Montoya Letras Latinxs Poetry prize finalist, Ortiz is the Poetry Editor for Raspa Magazine, a Queer Latinx literary art journal
Editor's Note: La Bloga's Michael Sedano reviewed Gracias in April 2015. It's a pleasure to share another reader's enthusiasm for the wonderful collection by novelist poet Alma Luz Villanueva.
Review of Gracias New Poems by Alma Luz Villanueva. Wings Press, 2015
By Stephanie Little Wolf
Through songs and memories, the story of life and dreams, the laughter of children and whispers of Elders, the ancient cycles of life and the language of our ancestors live vividly in this collection of bright and colorful poems. Hopi language titles, Mayan terms, Yaqui grandmother, singing flowers twirl like skirts through my inner landscape as I reopen Alma’s newest journey of poetry with its cover of dancing skeletons, and a moon and cactus looking on.
This desert is alive, these skeletons juggle stars and flowers and knives, the sky is a deep and dreamlike blue, at their feet is a skeleton dog and a grave in the sandy desert.
This is La Vida at its most intense truth. This is a woman who meets her true self in dreams and words and in the journey.
Randomly, I open to the poem, Tuwanasavi, a Hopi word meaning Center of the Universe. I take a deep breath. Como No!! The poem begins with
Today I am happy for no
I dance for no reason
I breathe for no
I sing for
no reason today
Tuwanasavi, Center of the Universe.
Later in the poem Alma writes
These two feet remember baby feet.
These two hands remember baby hands
This joy remembers baby joy
and instantly the poem reminds me of the Energy Child spirit character who lovingly haunts Alma’s recent novel, Song Of The Golden Scorpion.
Indeed, several poems reveal the novel’s coming characters and how they were born, how they will live, their future brewing and dreaming. After reading the novel, it’s a slice of magic, Alma showing us how these characters came to her.
This hidden essence of the sacred dance is characteristic of Alma’s process as she takes us to this spacious present moment of childhood and elder in the same instant. I find it is a joyous place where we all can meet. For when we are in the center of who we really are, in the present moment, where we are joy, as we live through all ages and times, then we are the light that attracts the light of all.
There is no reason necessary, no need to defend our beingness. This joy is our birthright! This poem brings us to that center; indeed, the book brings us to that center, and speaks to the words of Crazy Horse perfectly:
Upon suffering beyond suffering; the red nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations. A world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole earth will become one circle again. In that day there will be those among the Lakota who will carry this knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things, and the young white ones will come to those of my people and asks for this wisdom. I, salute the light within your eyes where the whole universe dwells. For when you are at that center within you and I am at that place within me, we shall be as one.
This is where the poems in this book really reside, in that sacred center where we can all know each other truly. They are living truth poems that draw us into them, poems as living entities, whether it be kicking and fighting or willingly and seeking – we must come to the center to live in this book.
As the ageless eternal beings we are, we follow the scent of roses and the soft brush of eagle feathers. They beckon us to become the true human beings we are destined to be, lonely and abandoned, or cherished and loved.
We can slip into this dream as whirlwind warriors chasing the sun and experience the center, a life revealed in her words and traveling; we can journey back to her Yaqui roots, to her grandmother’s beautiful Mexico.
Alma’s poems are songs of grace, the grace of flowers, the grace of music, the grace of children raised, and the mix of cultures – they reveal a belief in herself that is volcanic.
As Alma writes, she is the Woman who found her words, her books of poetry, novels, stories. She asks herself, What I must sacrifice to meet the beloved stranger, my true self?
One of my favorite passages is Everywhere / The beauty of goodbye as Alma writes of traveling from her casita in Mexico to Costa Rica, as her memories tell the stories of her life, we find such beauty in the moment of remembrance, this poem brings us along, lifting, centering always as:
Light leaps into darkness,
Glittering with furious
Life, a salmon remembering
Her way home, full
Of fury, memory, birth. This
Is how we live, I think,
Waiting for my plane in Mexico,
If we are fully awake,
Darkness into light (I glance down from the shuttle, small Ribbon of light, pure white
Crane sipping sun light, a man
Sitting, dark earth, Awake, witnessing The fury of Beauty)
Now we are captured by Alma’s light, sucked into the vortex of languages and meanings and the joy that brings us to the center of the universe.
The poems are earthy, a noisy street of celebration, a plane lifting into the sky, immediate, and sudden, inviting us to be who we truly are, to meet our stranger within, to see everything as beauty before us.
It’s a gift to read this treasure of images so beautifully preserved as poetry; it’s a musical journey, where native worlds sing in their own tongues and flowers are abundant and yet name horrors.
I love the perspective, the reality of our world – it’s an invitation to the dance of life and the sharing of lifetimes. It’s a challenge and inspiration to come to our own dream. It is how we live, or should, this book of poems is a true sharing!
The Cycle has begun, I feel it. This is how we’ll know each other in the sixth world, Nakwach!
Thank you Alma Luz, gracias por las poemas y la vida!!
Stephanie Little Wolf is a Lakota woman, and a a writer who has lived in Alaska for many years with her therapeutic sled dogs.
She raises beautiful Alaskan Village dogs for joy and for healing in her youth at risk outreach program, mushing through the Alaskan snow.
Stephanie works with the Alaska Native Population, and has been a foster parent for many years.
In addition to her work with dogs and kids, Stephanie is a singer-songwriter and poet. She also is an artist and sculpts wool with a needle felting technique.