Friday, June 30, 2017

Antonio López: a New Voice in Poetry and Winner at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference

Melinda Palacio

Antonio López, winner of the Poetry Prize at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2017

Last week, was the 45th gathering of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Once in a while a student comes along whose talent shines through. Back in the nineties, it was Michele Serros, who wore a simple name tag that said, 'Girl Writer.' This year, I am pleased to introduce Antonio López. Remember the name, he will be rocking your book shelves in the very near future. He won First Prize in Poetry at the conference. Honorable Mentions for the 2017 Poetry Prize include Steve Braff and Claire Hsu Accomando I mentioned to Antonio that the last time a Chicano or Latinx or Person of Color won First Prize in Poetry was myself in 2003. La Bloga is pleased to offer this thoughtful interview with rising literary star, Antonio López. As you'll read from the interview, the 23-year-old poet has a promising career in both literary arts and law. 

East Beach across the street from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference

Melinda Palacio
1. When did you start writing poetry? 

Antonio López
1. I started writing poetry in high school. I started when I wrote a short story for my girlfriend at the time (lasted like 3 months but it was one of the catalysts). It opened up the prospect of "Huh, I'm kinda good at this, and I enjoy getting caught up in my mind, making a story and so forth." In class, we were reading The Scarlet Letter, so a lot of my lines were overwrought, the images were over the top, and probably mixed with each other in confusing ways. But after submitting one story, my teacher, Ms. Gertmenian got back to me and said her work reminded her of Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude was the probably the first Latino author I remember reading.

But as I wrote more stories, I realized I loved, even obsessed, over certain lines and details. I'd be walking the street, using cumbias and rap and sonideros to help induce the image out the mind's womb. After writing my first personal statements for college, then outpoured the stories of all the things I saw grow up--the guns that sounded like fireworks, the slang that I suddenly stopped at my high school prep, the chisme and dirty jokes 8th grade boys say to each other like prayers. the struggle for self-worth at an almost-white school. I encountered my culture on the page, and it lit my world.

2. You are a student at Duke, off to Law School ? Will poetry continue to be a part of your life? Who are some of your influences? 

2. I actually graduated from Duke in 2016, and am now a rising 2nd year MFA student at Rutgers University at Newark, NJ. Law school is an idea that at first, I was toying with, but recently I was accepted into a prep program called the UCLA Law Fellows, an initiative, now in its 20th year, that creates a pipeline for minority students to pursue the profession. Their classes on precedents, their inspiring speakers (many of them alumni of the program), and their scholarship to take an LSAT class in the fall, have made me realized how much support God has laid to follow my dreams. Namely, to represent undocumented migrants while also writing their stories (whether nonfiction or fictionalized). 

As influences, I read Anzaldua my freshman year in college, and I thought both her theoretical understanding of what I was living (the psychic borderlands) along with her bilingual poetry, were just stunning. I also loved watching, and re-watching, the old school Def Poetry Jam where Mos Def would be the emcee. There, I learned of poets like Saul Williams, Louis Reyes Rivera, Victor Hernandez Cruz. From early on, Spoken Word was a genre that drew me. Its energy, its political posture, the way language can pack un golpe, and if you're lucky, un putazo. 

But these usherings of musc came from specific people. Growing up, I burned CD's with my cousin Miguel Angel, and he'd introduce me to Nas, Common, KRS-One, Rakim, as well as some contemporary rappers. When I was 15 or so, a woman at the Boys and Girls Club put on me onto Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets. Education scholar Jason Mendez gave a presentation that interspersed Pedro Pietri's "Puerto Rican Obituary" with Wu Tan Clan's "I Can't Sleep." I swallowed these beats like water. My mentor in college, Nathaniel Mackey, further added to my list Juan Felipe Herrera and Lorna Dee Cervantes. It's an ongoing list of mentor and predecessor. These muses, or maybe better put, duendistas, all walk with me as I put word to page.

3. I see you are attending several conferences this summer, including the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, where you impressed a whole conference with your poetry, where are you off to next? I think you mentioned Squaw Valley? Is the SBWC your first conference or have you been to others? If so which ones and how were they different? 
Congratulations on winning first place in poetry. (I wasn't there for the ceremony, were there runners up, honorable mentions?) 

3. a. I am indeed in Squaw Valley right now. Strictly within writing, I've also attended the Yale Writers' Conference, Santa Barbara of course, and AWP this year. I believe our beloved friend, Claire, received the honorable mention for the Santa Barbara competition. 

3.b What are some of the other poetry awards you have received and when? Did you receive a full scholarship for Squaw Valley?

b. Here at Squaw, I'm grateful to have received the Lucille Clifton Memorial Scholarship, which covers tuition and housing. Other awards I've won is AWP's Open Mic & Old School Poetry Slam Competition this past February. I was also a finalist for the 9th Annual Nazim Hikmet Poetry Competition (also this year). And in 2016, I was the inaugural winner for the William Rosati Creative Writing Award at Duke University.

4. At Duke, you study with Aracelis Girmay? Can you describe the mentorship and which courses you've taken with her? Is this for your MFA at Rutgers? You mentioned, I think, also going to Law School?

4. At Duke, I studied with the likes of Nate Mackey and Peter Moore. But poetry is a fairly recent endeavor as a career path. Before that, I heavily studied Cultural Studies with Wahneema Lubiano, Antonio Viego, Walter Mignolo, William Darity, and in the field of African-American Studies, the late, brilliant Raymond Gavins. At Rutgers, I'm blessed to have the mentorship of Rigoberto Gonzalez and Brenda Shaughnessy. I've taken workshops with both, where they've always provided a critical, but nurturing space for all us poets. I should also say that while a Fiction professor, Alice Dark is a person who has moved (both in the physical and sentimental sense) me to expand my craft. I am working on a memoir, Bajo Otra Luna, and it'd be a disservice to her work if I din't mention that the first few chapters came from her "Writers at Newark" class.

5. Do you also study history. From the few poems I've read you seem well versed in Aztec culture and Meso American history. Can you talk about your use of juxtaposing the ancient cultura with current times and how you started putting the two together in your poems? Did you also minor in Spanish or have you formally studied Spanish? It's impressive how seamlessly your poems switch between Spanish and English. 

5.  History was my first love. I remember taking World History in high school, and learning about different civilizations and wars felt empowering in Menlo School, a place where I was often the only Latino in my classrooms. In college, the very first class I took was one on the US-Mexico Border with Sarah Deutsch. In my spare time, I watched and re-watched PBS' Chicano: A History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement. There, I learned of the '68 Walkouts (which made me realize that what we were doing for the Day Without an Immigrant Protests were the same), the Moratorium, Sal Castro, Reis Lopez Tijerina, but most importantly, Corky Gonzalez's "Yo Soy Joaquin." This encouraged my continual private interest in studying Aztec mythology. 

History (and study) is a huge marker for me. As an undergrad, I became obsessed with radical left philosophy (anarchism), then moved to studying political dissidents (Angela Davis, George Jackson, Leonard Peltier), and now I've settled into a religious mythology phase (Sufist poetry, Aztec myths, the Naat devotional songs to the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the South Asian qawwali form [songs to God] and studying the Qur'an. I think reciting the Qur'an has affected and heavily influenced my penchant for the anaphora.  

5. b. Maybe you have other poems that reveal different identities. I only heard two of your poems. Can you talk a little more about how you identify yourself and what is the cultural background of your family/parents, is it different from yours? 

b. We need more myths, because that's how we remember we come from greatness. That we too speak of rivers, called chinampas, called El Rio Bravo, etc. Incorporating ancient culture gives the present moment (whether it be immigration, deportations, poverty, discrimination) more perspective. It makes us richer, more powerful. If we just caught up in the present, then we lose sight of our longevity as a people. As the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional) said, as their opening words to the NAFTA-sparked uprising of 1994, "We are the product of 500 years of struggle."

With regards to my use of billingualism, that's just how we as Latinxs live. In poems like "Moscatero" for instance, you'll hear Mexican slang because it is an absolute necessity to tell this literary world, "This are the people I live, love, dream, and fight about, and in their own words."  Of course, in a largely monolingual canon, I have to always negotiate this code-switching, which is a different act from translation. The latter says I'm ostensibly of another place, whereas this Spanglish is, as Anzaldua said, "a forked de aqui ni de alla." This is a different world, yet one uttered, sung, lamented, and praised by millions of people in this country, every second, every day., every latido, every suspiro. Behind restaurant kitchens, atop broken shingles, inside maquilladoras, inside misas. I've had several folks say, "I don't understand what the speaker's saying," as if that were negative connotations. I want to tell them, "You know how many of my generation and background wish they can talk back to their bosses, who wished they could fight for their rights? Will all due respect, your discomfort pales (often literal on a racial level) with their experience." I want my readers to struggle, to sweat, because that's exactly their , and our, way(s) of living. 

Last little note, when I hear the word frijoles, plumes of smoke in the cocina just burst in my mind. So many recuerdos and fights and flavors and "te sirvo mas mi'jo," and queso cotija falling on my plate like the first snow el barrio's ever seen, and so forth. But if I said beans, it sounds dull, stripped of its sharp. I hear Bush's Best commercials and tacky Westerns of dirt-lathered Anglos roasting a can over a bonfire. These aren't my memories. My mother, my grandmother, my father, even my little brother, all say frijoles, and so that's how it'll exist on the page.

6. Where are you originally from? Did you experience any type of culture shock going to college in the East coast? 

6. I was born and raised in East Palo Alto, once an inner city in the middle of the SF Bay Area, but has in recent years been heavily gentrified by Facebook, and now, Amazon. Culture shock did hit me at the Duke's campus itself, but Durham itself was and is experiencing a huge influx of Latino migrants (almost 300% in the last decade), so I felt I had my people nearby. But again, within the Gothic Wonderland, I hadn't ever seen so much wealth in my life. I experienced this weird twilight zone of PoC mobility, where I had a food points account larger than what my parents made over a month.

Being in Newark, New Jersey, for my MFA has forced me to expand my sense of Latinidad. As a Mexican, I hold the hegemony of being immediately associated with Latino in US public discourse, along with the stereotypical foods, mannerisms, sayings that go with it. Here though, I regularly meet and chat with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Trinidadians, Brazilians, and folks with multiple origins of descent. I truly believe it's enriched my music on the page, the way I hear Boricua cut through words, like if they're in a hurry, a mini-seminar on elision when I hear them drop the 's' in Moises, to give just one example. 

7. Are there any other poets, storytellers in your family?

7. You know, so much of being called a poet has a class element to it, where you have the luxury of saying, out of the top priorities of one's vocation, "I am a poet." So while I don't have any "writers" in my immediate family-- I do have a couple primas who write for themselves (Shout out to Berenice Silva and Mari Mendez). Because of the demand of full time, they largely don't have a space to carve out their voice textually. 

That said though, my family has some phenomenal storytellers. I always tell people, you can gather volumes of rich commentary just hearing a dinner table. When after the chiquillos are asleep, and papa gets out of a nightshift, and he and his hermana share their lamentos del dia. I consider my tia Carmelita to be an amazing orator, her voice brimming with humor and grace. And to me, that's what inspired my honors thesis at my undergraduate years, titled ethnopoetics, a term inspired by Anzauldua and Chela Sandoval's Methodology of the Oppressed, which attempts to describe our naturally poetic ability to navigate struggle. To me, that's the heart of all Latinidades, and by extension, marginalities. 

8. You don't have a book of poems out yet, but it sounds like you are well on your way to putting a book together. Tell us some of the places that have published your work. Do you only write poetry or are you published in other genres? 


8. Correct, I don't technically have a book, but stay tuned I suppose insha'Allah (ojala). So far, I've been published in Teenink, Acentos Review (Shout out to Raina Leon), Hispanecdotes, PEN/America, Sinking City Press, and this summer, I'll have pieces in Gramma Press, Eclectica, Permafrost, By & By, and Track//Four.  

But I've published other genres outside of poetry. My very first publication in Teenink talked about the hard-hitting jump from an inner city K-8 to being a token at predominately white, affluent college prep. I've published a number of nonfiction pieces at Duke's newspaper, The Chronicle, while a student. All these articles centered on identity politics as a 1st generation Mexican-American, responding to issues of social justice, including the noose incident, and covering the successful boycott of our own Latino Student Recruitment Weekend in order to pressure administration to fund a Latinx Center, now called La Casa. Most recently, I published a piece in PEN/America on what it's like to be a Latino Muslim. And right now, I am working on a memoir, Bajo Otra Luna

9. We spoke briefly of identity and names. Did you have a stronger sense of self after writing and discovering poetry? 

9. Absolutely! Mil veces si. As a Muslim, I understand God has given me this language to touch others. There's a lovely verse in the Qur'an in surat Al-Nisa (The Women), which goes, " ...Allah knows what is in their hearts, so turn away from them but admonish them and speak to them a far-reaching word."  (4:63) The root word of far-reaching, baligh, can also translate to eloquence, that which can penetrate deeply. To me, this elucidates the power of poetry, and expression generally, to touch others, to the effect of steering them in a better direction. 

In poetry, I can put together La Virgen Guadalupe and Khadijah, I can denounce the racist legislation of Texas' Senate Bill 4, I can praise raspado vendors who post their Venmo accounts on splintered carts, I can laugh in a poem, this public document, at las jorobitas of passing abuelas. To me, poetry is just testimony in its highest form, songs of gratitude for being alive and brown. 

10. Gacias, Antonio. Thank you for taking time out of your retreat at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley this week to talk with La Bloga. Your generous responses are much appreciated. I look forward to bragging and bloging about your future books. I can say I knew you when. Is there anything else you'd like to share with La Bloga? 


10. Just extreme appreciation for the opportunity to express my love for this weird thing we do called writing, especially to say these words at my hometurf of fellows Chicanxs and Latinxs. 

I am huge believer for paying it forward, so if there's anyone aspiring writers reading this, don't hesitate hitting me up, or asking me any, any questions--on identity, writing, family, etc. As cliche as it seems, we're here to help each other. Otherwise, how do we expect outside communities to coalition with us?

Here's is Antonio López's prize-winning poem. This post will also end with Antonio reading his poem at the conference's awards banquet.
Antonio flanked by SBWC Poetry Workshop Leaders
Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Antonio López, Perie Longo
photo by Marla Miller, SBWC Marketing the Muse Workshop

The murder of a teenage Muslim girl beaten and killed by a bat-wielding motorist near a Virginia mosque was likely a "road rage incident", not a hate crime, US police said, prompting outrage from many who say the teen was targeted because of her religion. Darwin Martinez Torres, 22, has been arrested and charged with Nabra Hassanen's murder in an incident police say began as a road dispute with a male teenager who was among Hassanen's group. – Al Jazeera, June 20, 2017

Which Cobija Feels Most Comfy?: A Letter to Sister Nabra
by Antonio López

As-Salaamu Alaykum Sister.

All is know
is that my brother
killed you

with a baseball bat. The same palo
slammed against birthday piñatas,
chased you out of a Fairfax highway.
Paper maché tapestries that bursted
with dulce and confetti stuffing,
now weaves into a hijab.

The slurs crosshaired.

All I know
is that my             brother                         grabbed your bo-
grabbed             your             bod-            bo-

the papers said “dump,”
like your body was kitchen sink sewage,
the weight of chicken bones
and peeled carrots.

They said “road rage”—
your death as no more taxing
than a busted taillight

like when they said
Deah, Yusor, and Razan
were a “parking dispute.”

Ay hermanita,
I’ve spent the past four days
whispering your name
with hands             cut by the blades
of grass that pillowed your hair

with hands             willowed in dua,
but my palmlines fled
to trace their ancestry elsewhere,

across the Atlantic, to the Birth of a Nation’s
Nation, where the ghoulish white hood
of a van drove into Finsbury park
shouting “All Muslims!
I want to kill             all Muslims!”

And for the first time,
I saw             an Islamic extremist—
Imam Mohamed Mahmoud
protects the suspect from the mob,
and issues the anti-Western fatwa
“We pushed people away,…
until he was safely taken
by police….”

because John Wayne
and all those aging saloonistas
who hawk a one-lunged Malboro
would’ve shot the sucker in a tacky catchline
that would’ve earned 24% on Rotten Tomatoes.’

Imam Mahmoud!
Imam Mahmoud who professed to Sky News
“I am no hero,”
but then who is ours?

Ya Allah, I beamed for a DC comic adhan
to call for a sunnah superhero.

But there’s no star-spangled shield
to guard your glasses and Jannah-gated smile
because Captain America wasn’t made for you.

No Wonder Woman to sway her jiggling thighs,
half-naked feminism, to deflect blind-eyed
bat swings with an 8 karat belt buckle,
20% off a Macy’s rack.

Sister Nabra, let me make wudu
for you, and pluck from your hair,
the highway-thickets
of sound bites.

Sister, let me still pay
for next year’s prom dress—
a mermaid lavender,

so after iftar, I’ll sip chai
and hear the fiqh disputes
of uncles slamming
their hairy-knuckled

“Istirgfilillah, there’ll be boys, drinking,”
your father will interrupt,
“and me.”

Let me stand
over the Mexican minarets
of Univisión and Telemundo
and la pinta and the bus stop
and la clínica, and the good bench at recess
and tell el pueblo, mi pueblo
to enshroud you in our finest cobijas—
those linens not even hawked at flea markets

and quietly clean tu cuerpo,
over my grandmother’s pila
and wipe away the darkened bloodstains
with our finest jabón

over el agua nacida de la barranca,
the river mountaintops to see the heights
my people could’ve soared for you.

Let my apolog—
take a lifetime,
take my lifeline—
hang on the word,             ‘y?’

Why             must this land learn Arabic names
at the eight o’ clock news?

Why             must sister Aydin write a Facebook post
warning her muslimina girls to travel
in groups, even in broad daylight?

Why couldn’t you just finish Ramadan first?!


Dear. Sister. Nabra,
All I know
is that every Muslim in America,
before Monday’s fajr, became an atheist
to American Progress.

Antonio López can be reached through email, Facebook, and Twitter @barrioscribe.

No comments: