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Come Together

Latino poets building a community at CantoMundo

By Belinda Acosta, Fri., July 1, 2011

Benjamin Sáenz
Benjamin Sáenz

When Deborah Paredez was a graduate student, she lived in Chicago's north side, directly across the street from a fire station and a large billboard advertising liquor. "The sights and sounds of emergency were all around," she recalled during a recent interview at the University of Texas Club in Austin. Because she is a writer, she often found herself wondering, instead of a liquor ad, "How would my life be different if there was a poem on that billboard?"

Poems? On billboards? Who else but a poet would consider such a thing? And as a Latina poet, she had other concerns. Why, for example, were billboards advertising liquor so prevalent in the working-class, ethnically diverse Rogers Park neighborhood she called home? Now a UT-Austin professor specializing in performance as a public practice, Paredez still ponders the role of poetry in the everyday, how being a socially engaged Latina informs her work, and the aesthetics of poetry in general – and for a Latina poet in particular. And she isn't alone. Native Texas poets Celeste Mendoza, Norma Cantú, Pablo Miguel Martínez, and Carmen Tafolla had similar preoccupations not addressed by the writers' workshops or programs they'd attended. In 2009, Cantú invited them all to gather around her dining-room table and envision the possibilities of a Latino poets' collective that would embrace both their cultural underpinnings and their genre-specific needs. The result of that meeting is CantoMundo, a member organization of 31 Latino/a poets from throughout the nation that will hold its second annual gathering July 7-10 in Austin.

The literal translation of CantoMundo is "song world," evocative of the musicality of poetry. It's also an indirect nod to Flor y Canto ("flower and song"), the reference to poetry and literature in ancient Mexican cultures as well as to the Flor y Canto gatherings that occurred in concert with Chicano activism during the civil rights movement. Patterned after Cave Canem and Kundiman (African-American and Asian-American poetry collectives, respectively), CantoMundo is culturally rooted in and deeply indebted to its organizational predecessors. Cave Canem co-founder Toi Derricotte was the featured speaker at last year's inaugural CantoMundo, held at the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico, where she outlined the history of her group and inspired CantoMundo to make its own path.

But it's not all talk. Master poets lead generative and craft workshops for members and participate in public readings. This year's master poets include award-winning writers Benjamin Sáenz and Naomi Ayala. (Previously announced speaker Judith Ortíz Cofer had to bow out due to a family emergency). Sáenz is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Lannan Poetry Fellow whose first collection of poetry, Calendar of Dust (1992), won an American Book Award. The D.C.-based Ayala is the author of two books of poetry, Wild Animals on the Moon and This Side of Early, with a third book of poems, Calling Home: Praise Songs and Incantations, forthcoming from Bilingual Review Press.

"CantoMundo emerges from a tradition of wanting to claim a rightful place for the work created by literary artists of color, within American letters: in this case, Latinos and Latinas who want to write poetry," said Francisco Aragón by email. A 2010 CantoMundo fellow, Aragón is also director of Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. "In the Latino Literary community, poetry's time has finally arrived," he added, pointing out that CantoMundo member Eduardo C. Corral recently won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, while J. Michael Martínez was the 2009 recipient of the Walt Whitman Award. "Think about that: In the last two years, two of America's most prestigious first book awards have gone to CantoMundo Fellows!" Aragón wrote.

Two chances to hear the work of new and established CantoMundo poets will occur at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (600 River). The first is a reading featuring the 2011 CantoMundo fellows on Friday, July 8, at 7:30pm. The second is a reading and booksigning by featured poets Naomi Ayala and Benjamin Sáenz, on Saturday, July 9, at 7pm. Both events are free and open to the public.


For more information, see www.cantomundo.org.

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