Francisco Aragón (continued):
“I suggest writing non-autobiographical poems.”
I remember having a conversation with the poet Francisco X. Alarcón years ago, and somehow we got onto the subject of the first person lyric and its use among Chicano/Latino poets. From his perspective (and I’m paraphrasing here) he said that the use of a device like the first person “I” by a writer from a community that has suffered and suffers various forms of marginalization in U.S. society can be an empowering, meaningful and moving act. In other words, it would be over simplistic to somehow equate all uses of the first person “I” when we take into consideration the contexts in which such a strategy is employed.
J. Michael Martinez, in his co-authored essay, “A Poetics of Suspicion: Chicana/o Poetry and the New”—or at least what I got out of the essay—brings to light this notion of how ironically convenient it is to dismiss or sweepingly disparage the use of the first person lyric at precisely the point when poets of color (particularly Chicana/o poets) have gained a certain amount of access to certain modes of visibility and publication:
[…] Goldsmith’s essay is troubling for the Chicana/o poet for claims it makes about identity. Chicana/os still lack a viable social and political self. And though Chicana/o identity is, in many ways, a question—even “up for grabs”—the culture and society in which the Chicana/o lives, works, and breathes, too easily solidifies and essentializes that identity by denying the Chicana/o a voice. Expression matters in the current social and political climate for the Chicano. To say—to express—matters. For the ethnic-racialized subject whose very subjectivity is invested in terminologies of identity (“Latino,” “Chicano,” “Hispanic,”), language is vital. Thus, to dictate a teleological aim for language, to posit that our poetries progressively move forward in a narrative that requires newness, is to offer a colonial dictation for the ethnic-racialized subject’s ontological and national status.”
One of the things I remember during my years of graduate school was how easily certain kinds of poetry were dismissed as inferior or slight (the term of choice seemed to be “bland”) because they weren’t advanced or “innovative.” Mind you, I’m saying this as someone who came to poetry in the mid-eighties and who grew to love Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein and others who might be identified from that strand. One of the things I have often felt grateful for was that the San Francisco/Bay Area offered a plethora of poetic models to explore and appreciate. But I also developed a taste for Victor Hernandez Cruz, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alberto Ríos, Juan Felipe Herrera, and others. I liked and like to approach a poet and a poem on its own terms and then decide if I like it or not. I won’t dismiss a poem outright because it seems to be coming from a place (aesthetic or otherwise) that I’m not overly familiar with, which is just a fancy of saying: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
What does this have to do with race?
Well, certain postures and attitudes (such as those by those reviewers who refused to even consider reviewing The Wind Shifts) result in what I’m going to call implicit forms of racism—where the result, though not intentional, can be racist. Racism with a lazy smile. “I’m not qualified to review that kind of book.” The outcome, in practical terms?: our most prominent national poetry publication (a monthly) reviewed a grand total of 0 books by Latino/a poets between the years 2003 to 2010!