New collections to make life more lyrical.
The seductive call of the familiar is powerful in both poetry and immigrant diasporas. The constant refrain to writers at any stage is to write the personal to achieve the universal, and even the smallest image gently (or not so gently) enfolded into a poem can evoke a sense memory so powerful, you’re swept into the stormy depths of your own life.
How wondrous is that?
A masterful poet can use both imagery and syntax to pull that response from you. Others can read those same poems aloud and, with only the cadence of their voice shaped around the words, flay you alive in the best way. Sometimes, a single poet can do all those things. That’s when you know you’ve encountered something truly special.
To be a storyteller is both a calling and a responsibility. In times past, storytellers were healers, shamans, and leaders in their communities. They carried the history of our people to pass down so we can remember where we came from and who we are. In modern society, many of us who come from similar cultures have had these traditions and histories erased through centuries of forced assimilation. And many, always being told to look ahead, have forgotten how to look back.
We are in a moment of great crisis in which a minority seeks to snuff out the voices they don’t believe should be heard. It is the storytellers they’re gunning for, literally and figuratively, evidenced by the tidal wave of book bannings (mostly of titles from Black, brown, LGBTQIA+, and progressive authors) happening in libraries across the country.
It’s a dangerous time to be a gender-nonconforming Latinx writer, and I am aware of this truth every day. It’s what makes me, like others, so determined to continue writing and continue resisting with my words, my body, and my being. So, I take particular comfort in this month’s featured collections, each of which celebrates ancestral and familial lands and histories in their own stunning, powerful ways.
I’m friends with many poets, but I try to maintain a level of professionalism when choosing what to review and so don’t often select friends’ work. But this month, I embrace both the familiar and the strange.
I’ve been friends with Mike Soto since graduate school and have followed his work with anticipation because it embraces the fascinatingly surreal, haunting realms of poetry, drama, and visual art. So, I was surprised to see that his latest project is translating the work of Ignacio Ruiz-Pérez, a Mexican diaspora poet whom I had not encountered before but am now utterly entranced by.
Ruiz-Pérez’s Isles of Firm Ground (Deep Vellum) reads like a lifetime of collected poems. Its seemingly disparate sections, each focused on a specific subject, open up a particular topic like a flower slowly unfurling its petals in the sun. I imagine that’s also how Soto viewed it; I felt incredibly comfortable within the English, which is not always the case when I read Spanish translations. I was struck by the literary allusions and references that populate the first section, “Litoral” (or “Coast”), especially the continued invocation of one of my all-time favorite poems, William Blake’s “The Tyger,” with its eternal fire, in “Notes on a Poem by William Blake” and “Song of the Wounded Deer.”
As if translating Blake’s poetry into his own, subverting predator to prey, Ruiz-Pérez writes, “A wounded deer: how many times have I not dreamed/that burning image.” The vulnerability, the elusiveness of the deer is anathema to the tiger’s fierceness but somehow calls for a similar yet unique image.
The poems from the third section, “Islas de tierra firme,” from which the book takes its title, draw you in like the tide. You want to be peacefully dragged out to sea with them. Ruiz-Pérez transports me back to my own memories, as when my mother took us to Panama for the first time and arranged a private visit to the San Blas Islands, the Kuna Indigenous people’s land.
We stayed on one of the tiny islands, with only two huts, and were left completely alone except for meals. After swimming, I would sit at the water’s edge and stare into what seemed like a blue forever until dusk fell. Ruiz-Pérez takes me right back to the comfort yet wildness of these places with the poem “(limbo)”:
“the gesture in the water and weeds
the habit of sleeping
the breath of the aimless waves
after the splash
the crashes of foam in the splendor”
Speaking of friends, I was excited to see the African diaspora anthology Diaspora Café: D.C. (Day Eight), edited by DMV poets Jeffrey Banks and Maritza Rivera, with its beautiful cover art by the multitalented Sami Miranda, a poet/artist whose tireless work and advocacy in the local poetry community is awe-inspiring. Miranda is chair and curator of the American Poetry Museum at the Brookland Arts Walk, and I invite you to check out their terrific programming.
As for the anthology itself, it includes a wonderful arrangement of poems by our community’s poets from the African diaspora and touches on topics from celebrating Caribbean beats on DC streets to the struggle of anti-Blackness and racism from both white people and also from within African-American and Afro-Latinx communities.
These are never simple Twitter sound-bite issues, especially within the Latinx community. Latinidad cannot exist without Blackness, and if it is expressed through only whiteness, then it ceases to be valuable. However, those of us who are light skinned have massive white privilege and must both acknowledge and learn from that. To demand we erase our African and Indigenous ancestry and only center the European is a type of white-supremacist violence.
It’s a topic I ponder frequently, so it was refreshing to see so many poets here grapple with variations of the same issues. As Nick Leininger writes simply but powerfully in the haiku “Passing”:
“They think that I’m white
The truth is that I am white.
But I’m also black”
Banks and Rivera have artfully arranged the anthology like a conversation among family convening during Carnaval to drink, eat, dance, and talk through the late afternoon and into the night. This vibrant vibe is carried from the islands to the pavement of DC, as our city teems with different cultures and nationalities. Such a buoyant feeling is embraced in Joy Alfred’s poem “Caribbean Girl”:
“The Caribbean girl
Walks down the street
The eyes of all those she meets
Greet her with smiles
For she is their sister
With ancestors from
Echoed in the book’s refrain is how we are all a part of each other; our cultures and our identities spill over and into one another. When I think of DC, this is what rings most true. I once had a conversation with Sami Miranda about how Washington is a powerful city of collaboration, and I know if I had started Duende District anywhere else in the world, it would not be the same beautiful, weird, collaborative thing it is today.
Here, we work together and make each other stronger, the individuals empowering the collective. As Hermond Palmer writes in “I Am Joaquin,” “We/are Joaquin/and what we are is/different, but the same/and together/that makes us/beautiful.”
Angela María Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and you can find her most recent poems in Muzzle Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Pilgrimage, PANK, Rust + Moth, Radar Poetry, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her essays and reviews are at Catapult, Lit Hub, and Tor.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua.