I’m out of town next week, and so one of my intrepid TA’s has agreed to be in charge of next week’s class, in which discussion will be based upon the video I talk a LOT about, Juan Felipe Herrera’s “A Natural History of Chicano Literature.” I’ve just watched it again, and am in the process of making notes, important points, issues/ideas relevant to our continued and expanding discussion of the democratization of poetry, and poets of color movements being closely tied to social justice issues and community activism.
The democratization of poetry is interesting to me, in terms of it being much needed, i.e. wresting it away from academic institutions, and expanding the definitions of American Poetry to be more inclusive of poetries that expand genre and use of language, poetries that are inextricable parts of social and political movements. We continue to discuss the importance of having our own physical and intellectual spaces to create new languages and terminology, to create, disseminate, discuss our poetries. I’m operating here on a given (for me) that we are dealing with hybrid and/or hybridized communities and identities, hence hybrid and/or hybridized language and art (as opposed to fractured communities and identities). Hence, Kearny Street Workshop, the Basement Workshop, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the 1973 Floricanto, and the fluidity of these.
Thinking on the need to expand the boundaries of poetry, I’d pointed out yesterday evening that Pietri and Piñero were poets and playwrights. I talked about the live performance, the “spoken word” not as a new thing, but as a continuation of a very old, pre-literature talkstory tradition. In this Herrera video, he says, “We need as many different mediums as possible to express as many realities as possible.” Think about the art of these social and political movements including dance, guerrilla theater, murals, silk screened posters, song, and indeed, poetry that is a rallying cry, a call to action. So the immediacy of our poetry, communicating what is urgent, charging a space and those who inhabit it to feel, to act, and indeed, to pass it on. The audience then as a empowered participant, empowered by a sense of responsibility to DO.
That said, I won’t let go of the book as one important way of documenting our lives, dreams, histories, as one way of our stories growing and traveling beyond our known frames of reference. In Herrera’s talk, he’s brought a stack of chapbooks and books, and in these are so many lives documented, many who would otherwise have been forgotten or overlooked by history, by media. Think of the chapbook and even the book as moment in time, a specific memory — for example, Truong Tran’s very limited edition DIY chapbook dedicated to Itzolin Garcia. Another writer Herrera discusses is Oscar Zeta Acosta, and his story of Robert in The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973), which he read/shared/performed at the 1973 Floricanto. Robert, the young vato suicided by the cops, is remembered, and also important, Oscar Zeta Acosta is remembered, his work, his compassion are remembered. He disappeared one year later. No one knows what happened to him.
I think, we need those who knew him to always talkstory about him, as Herrera does, by reading to us from the book. We need the video recordings of him, perhaps especially as he tells the story of Robert and the autobiographical lawyer character trying to do right by Robert and his family (Video 1 | Video 2 | Video 3 | Video 4). And as I watch these videos, it becomes heart wrenching, to hear what befalls Robert’s body; it becomes heart wrenching to see in this reading, Acosta fight back the urge to weep. This is not affectation or performance, and maybe we wouldn’t see this pain in the text. Still, we need his books, the very words he wrote. I feel like all most folks know of him is Hunter S. Thompson’s version of him, and the more popularized Benicio del Toro version of him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
As I am writing all this, I think of something that’s always coming up in class (and that I am always bringing up in class), especially about these historical movements: the presence of women artists in more balanced numbers, even the prominence of women artists. Why not prominence? I feel like nationalist projects are traditionally treated as the province of men (and conversely, domestic projects the province of women). Beginning the semester with Julia de Burgos, reading (up to this point) Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Lois Griffith, I’d hoped would balance out the gender disparity. But it’s stark, and so do we accept it as indicative of “the times,” or do we attribute it to traditionally male dominated arts and social scenes and even good old fashioned machismo? So that’s one criticism; certainly, social justice movements, those which point out societal wrongs, should ideally also see misogyny as one of these wrongs.
I want to also be critical of the performance space, or the culture of the performance space. While I value it as that democratized incubation space, as a participatory, alive space, it’s necessary for me to point out that our performance spaces are by no means perfect spaces, even in community settings. I know I am always quick to point out when bravado in performance supersedes the quality of the poem. But I realize it’s more clear to state it this way: I always wonder to what end do we continue validating poets whose work refuses to grow because they refuse to hear and/or dialogue with fellow community members of differing beliefs and experiences. I wonder how many individual community members sacrifice their own beliefs and integrity because they need that community approval, because it’s against community spirit to dissent. How should I support those whose politics alienate others by redrawing dividing lines?
I want to think about how my previous sentences are related to traditional heteronormative and masculinist gender roles, and how these can and do manifest themselves in our community performance spaces. How many women earn the praise of their communities for creating and performing work outside of proscribed gender boundaries/expectations/subject matter. Moreover, too often, I hear of or witness women and LGBT folks alienated in these democratized spaces by misogynist or homophobic work and behavior. I am asking these questions, based upon my own experiences in community performance spaces in which I should feel “safe” or welcome, and don’t, or no longer do. I am very sure I am not the only one who feels like this.