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Voz Presents: Francisco Aragón

March 31, 2018

 

This month, we are happy to present Francisco Aragón with a double feature! We've got poems and prose as well. As always, we have our 'Un Cafecito con..." section at the end.

 

We'd also like to take the time to thank our sister series, Black Voices Series, for paving the ground for voices of color in this journal. Voz wouldn't exist without the labor, effort, and pure talent of  BVS contributors and their editor, Naima Yael Tokunow. Please be sure to check out the monthly BVS publications! 

 

 

 

 

Re-generation

             
     a collage for Andrés Montoya (1968 – 1999)

 

1.

 

I try to sing
I speak to the trash
and the ants who wailed
on white stone
they are afraid of things eternal
of streetlamps and stars
between the dumpsters
they crawled poemlike
stuttering onto the breast of this world

 

2.

 

I stutter past churches
tonight I have nothing
as a boy I was taught
a tender knee kneeling
and wheels and the imagination
nestled in a locked stall
this is like penance
this, now, is how I pray
and my memory is shocked at itself

 

3.

 

sound, the correct vernacular
I speak words forbidden
and grapes, dust and air
written
on the skin
a siren sounds
through the streets
you have spoken
the names of my generation

 


                                       with Andrés Montoya


 


Together we’ll be a song

 

                                    June, 2017


when was it that poems came crawling
from martini glasses and mansions
the streets demand this:

 

you are a bull running in circles
your breath is not sweet like truth
the birth of breath into word—

 

the two words we have for you
and together we’ll be a song
to the beauty of despair

 

to your ridiculous hair
you mango mussolini  
that’s right: mango 

 

mussolini

 


                                        with Andrés Montoya


 

 

GLORIOUS VIEW

           landscapes of memoria
           

Recently, I had the pleasure of breaking bread with a talented young poet from Massachusetts who’d settled in Inverness. She’s one of the co-editors of an eclectic, soulful journal, Inverness Almanac—a magazine vested in the stories from and about this coastal region north of San Francisco. But she’d taken a job in Berkeley and so found herself commuting to, spending significant time in, the East Bay.  As dinner progressed, she expressed the belief that her writing would likely change as a result, even though she preferred the rural landscapes of Northern California she’d grown to love. I understood: our meal took place in Point Reyes Station, where I was spending time at a residency for writers, Mesa Refuge. My second floor room’s wall-sized window looked out onto tidal flats fed by Tomales Bay. Depending on the tides, my balcony had an expansive view of either mudflats or a shimmering estuary. I’d sit and read in the one wooden chair, gazing up from time to time, a fragrant wind moving through the trees, often tinged with the intermittent chattering of birds—not one of which I could identify to save my life! But it sounded and smelled like paradise. Was this because I was a native of San Francisco, whose regions still feel like home?

 

And yet, as a poet, I often write about a place without being in that place. I will call this: accessing deep memory. In other words, I have found that it can take years after I’ve left a place before aspects of that place appear in a poem. I just completed an ekphrastic prose poem that morphed into a vehicle for re-visiting my time in Barcelona in 1987-88—my year abroad in college. So: more than immediate landscapes, this strand of my poetics is rooted in the landscapes of memory. There’s a poem of mine that I consider emblematic in this regard. Here’s how it begins:

 

The path off the West Crescent that turns
briefly into the small                                         
wooden bridge, and above it a canopy of leaves
—crossed and recrossed

 

through the years,

 

From that one time I played hooky in high school (1982)—taking BART across the bay to see and hear the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal—to my fifth and final year in college (1989) when I commuted to class from San Francisco, I absorbed and internalized this bit of geography: the pavement from the Berkeley BART station, up Center Street to the edge of campus bordering Oxford Street, the foot path that forks from the curved west entrance (“The path off the West Crescent”) before shortly arriving at a footbridge that crosses a creek. “Bridge Over Strawberry Creek ” is a poem from my first book, Puerta del Sol (2005). Notice those years: 1982, 1989, 2005. In other words, it took a while. And so this poetics of memory is also a poetics of prolonged gestation. The poem continues:

 

                                     , never pausing once for a peek
over the edge, 

 

For years I never glanced down into that stagnant patch of creek on the fringe of campus, crossing that footbridge time and time again. Or I maybe I did peer over the railing, but what I saw  (“concentric rings it’s /beginning to rain //or water-striders skating”) never registered as compelling enough to include in a poem.  Or rather: compelling enough to be the basis for an entire poem.

 

More fruitful, I find, is when something involuntary occurs: one or more of the five senses is engaged upon in a memorable way. It’s that kind of experience that dislodges a fragment of memoria, causing it to float to the surface of consciousness in a manner that jars—spurring one to take note. This strand of my poetics, then, is a waiting for, being available for, those moments—and attentive enough to know when it’s happening, disciplined enough to record it: a phrase, a word, a syllable. One such moment took place in a classroom in Dwinelle Hall on the Berkeley campus.

 

And when I chose my place that morning
at the open window—redwoods                    

framed against June’s day blue—it wasn’t
the wind in the trees which
if I closed my eyes, had me on a balcony
in Sitges those summer nights

 

listening to the Mediterranean breathe

 

The summer after I graduated from Berkeley, before I returned to Spain to pursue a Masters in Spanish, I took an intensive course of college French—a year’s worth in ten weeks. Our instructor was Madam Boucher. For reasons I don’t precisely recall I was determined to read Paul Éluard en français. Once I got to Madrid, I would add Apollinaire and Pierre Reverdy, and proceed to immerse myself in literary cubism and other manifestations of the European avant garde. I digress.

 

That summer, in French, I would sit in the back, at an open window in order to gaze at campus Sequoias, to listen to the sound leaves make in a breeze: one day, eyes closed, that breeze blew me back to Sitges, a white-washed coastal village south of Barcelona. A friend, in the summer of 1988, had loaned me his beachfront apartment for two weeks while he was away. At night, before and after hitting the bars, I’d sit on the balcony and just listen. But, again, it wasn’t enough to be a catalyst for a complete poem. Which is not to say that it wasn’t deposited into my memory bank. It most certainly was.

 

French class that summer was held daily. And then, one morning, Madam Boucher uttered the words that triggered it—cascade of memoria that prompted the poem I’ve been walking us through, here:

 

but rather the fact
of her voice, Madam Boucher’s—meaning & sound
meshing in a phrase

 

And so it wasn’t a sensory perception per se, but a fragment of language, or rather: how a fragment of language entered and passed through my body. It’s interesting to note that the phrase in question (“…a la belle étoile…” ) came to serve as this poem’s epigraph. It blindsided me. And the way I attempt to convey that force is by how I punctuate this particular line, or rather: the lack of punctuation in that transition from the present (“meshing in a phrase”) to the past (“I’m 12”), in order to mimic the velocity with which the speaker is hurled back to his adolescence:

 

meshing in a phrase I’m 12

 

and lying on a bed of chipped wood, warm
snug in the bag
facing the stars, 

 

Summers, growing up, my mother had to figure out what to do with me when school wasn’t in session. From the age of seven to fifteen, a church day camp was a congenial solution—first as a camper (age seven to twelve), then as a junior camp counselor (age thirteen to fifteen). One of the principal annual outings was a trip, for a few nights, up to the Russian River, our yellow bus crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, venturing into Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. In fact, earlier in my childhood, let’s say from age three to six, I have memories of my family going on vacation to the Russian River. There’s a color snapshot of my older brother and I crouched at the river’s pebbly edge. Our family would live in a wooden cabin for a week. Even so, it was my church-sponsored summer camp trips to the Russian River that held a particular place in my pantheon of memory. We’d sleep outside, arrayed across a large tarp. Our contingent numbered in the dozens, and we’d be divided into various groups according to age, with two counselors in charge of whatever group they were assigned to. I remember often gazing up at the night sky while in my sleeping bag, mesmerized. 

 

And yet: there was something about Madam Boucher’s utterance that summer day during college French. Her voice—the timbre and pitch of her “a la belle étoile”—sparked the memory of something else swirling inside a boy nearing puberty, fixated on the stars:

 

                                      , my head sifting
the day: a morning hike, a dip

 

in the Russian River before lunch, 

 

We had two swimming options: the river, or a pool—which, no surprise, inevitably entailed occupying physical spaces where one would have to change into and out of bathing suits, swimming trunks; where inevitably we took showers with varying degrees of exposure:

 

                                                                         , before
the doorless stalls, the dank
cement on the soles of my feet, the towels
the soap,

 

Lidia Torres, in her book A Weakness for Boleros (Mayapple Press, 2005), has a piece titled “Adrift” that comes to mind right about now. In it a female speaker engages in friendly banter one evening with the male lifeguard of the local community college pool. Here’s a passage in the middle of the poem:

 

Our voices carried over the nearby pool.
Going to the showers, we glimpsed
each other’s bodies. His modest
shrunken penis, my forgotten breasts.

 

Some of my students, in a literature class I teach on Latinx poetry at Notre Dame every Fall, have persuasively written about “Adrift” as a poem of sexual awakening. What I admire about this poem is how it poignantly evokes this theme in a subtle, yet unflinching way—unflinching in how it handles issues to do with the body, gazing at the human body.

 

“Bridge Over Strawberry Creek” includes a shower stall setting, as well, but in a way that only begins to hint at, scratch the surface of, sexual awakening, sexual attraction. The poem concludes:

 

                            , the rich lather

lacing his chest

 

But unlike in Torres’ poem, the two characters in “Bridge Over Strawberry Creek” are of the same gender—male. Also: whereas Torres’ speaker is a young adult (“I was 22.”), my speaker is 12. And although we don’t know a precise age of the male this 12 year-old is gazing at, the speaker notes a “rich lather // lacing his chest,” suggesting, I would argue, chest hair abundant enough to seem interspersed with soapy suds.  What we have here is an adolescent boy staring at an adult hirsute man taking a shower. 

 

In the spring of 2007 after a reading I gave at the College of Santa Fe, I was approached by a faculty member, a man, who expressed something approaching frustration at how “Bridge Over Strawberry Creek” ends. He felt as if he was taken to the cusp of a description of a man whose hairy chest was laced with lathered-up body gel, and then denied that description. In other words, he wanted more. He wanted to be satisfied

 

I have come to be of two minds about this. On the one hand, I acknowledge a certain reticence, on my part, when I have explored the homoerotic in my poems.  I see myself as part of a particular lineage. In that spectrum of forefathers, I am more Cavafy than Ginsberg. On the other hand, I also recognize (I address this in my essay, “Flyer, Closet, Poem” in my second book, Glow of Our Sweat) that it’s entirely possible that when I wrote this poem, and others, there may have been some unconscious “covering:” a not wanting to disclose too much because I wasn’t wholly comfortable in my skin—a sentiment, I would argue, that is also part of this lineage I belong to. 

 

It’s a lineage that includes voices lesser known than Cavafy or Ginsberg. Recently, I discovered one: Dunstan Thompson, whose life and work has been rescued and brought back to us by D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer. But it wasn’t until I read Dana Gioia’s substantive essay on Thompson in The Hudson Review that I began to think of him as a kindred spirit. Specifically, it prompted me to re-examine and deeply consider another strand of my poetics—a strand beyond the poetics of memory we’ve been focusing on, thus far. 

 

Gioia titles his piece “Two Poets Named Dunstan Thompson,” making light of the fact that his admirers typically fall into two camps: those who swear by his first two books and consider him a “pioneering poet of gay experience and sensibility” (books whose homoerotic passages are “elaborately coded”), and those who strongly prefer Thompson’s later work and view him as “one of the important English-language Catholic poets of the twentieth century.”

 

And yet: what I found refreshing about Gioia’s thesis is that both these characteristics—Thompson’s identity as a gay man, Thompson’s identify as Catholic—aren’t, in Gioia’s view, at odds with each other, but rather: they are intricately linked. He writes: “What unites Thompson’s early and later work is his personal identity as both gay and Catholic. The expression of that complicated double identity differs significantly, but it persists as an animating presence.”

 

In February of 2015, at the conference, “The Future of the Catholic Literary  Imagination,” I convened and moderated the panel, “Latino Catholic Writers.” Reading Dunstan Thompson, reading Dana Gioia on Dunstan Thompson, and the experience—in this essay—of walking us through “Bridge Over Strawberry Creek” has complicated how I view my poetics. I’m finally easing into it—jacket of one aspect of my particular lineage: gay Catholic Latinx poet.

 

When I read and re-read the poem today, I hear a string of memories, paradoxically casual and purposeful. Let me call it a rosary of memoria leading to something like a moment of unarticulated truth. I can’t help but feel empathy and tenderness for that boy, away at camp: in his shower stall, gazing into the doorless column of space across the way, secretly exhilarated by the sight, the glorious view.

 

Bridge Over Strawberry Creek

                                 “…a la belle étoile…”

 

The path off the West Crescent that turns
briefly into the small
wooden bridge, and above it a canopy of leaves
—crossed and recrossed

 

through the years, never pausing once for a peek
over the edge, the surface
blooming with concentric rings it’s          
beginning to rain                                

   

or water-striders skating around a stagnant
section of the creek.
And when I chose my place that morning
at the open window—redwoods

 

framed against June’s day blue—it wasn’t
the wind in the trees which
if I closed my eyes, had me on a balcony
in Sitges those summer nights

 

listening to the Mediterranean breathe
but rather the fact
of her voice, Madam Boucher’s—meaning & sound
meshing in a phrase I’m 12

 

and lying on a bed of chipped wood, warm
snug in the bag
facing the stars, my head sifting
the day: a morning hike, a dip

 

in the Russian River before lunch, before
the doorless stalls, the dank
cement on the soles of my feet, the towels
the soap, the rich lather

 

lacing his chest


            from Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press, 2005)

 

Note: 

This essay is slated to appear in 

Latino Poetics: Essays on the Art of Poetry
(University of New Mexico Press, 2018)
Edited by Ruben Quesada

 


 

Un Cafecito con Francisco 

 

VOZ: One of the things I noticed from the get-go is that your poems end in the phrase “with Andres Montoya.” This isn’t a move we often see when writers choose to incorporate like, phrases, or even entire works (and here I’m thinking of something akin to erasure) into what they are attempting to create. Why are you incorporating Andres Montoya, both the person and their work, so actively in your own? What led you to this? 


FRANCISCO: The artistic preoccupation I’m currently immersed in is this notion of one work of art begetting another a work of art. The PINTURA:PALABRA initiative Letras Latinas spearheaded between 2013 and 2017 involved Latinx writing, poetry above all, responding to Latinx art. (a PINTURA:PALABRA anthology is in the works). These Andrés Montoya-inspired poems are another manifestation of that—a work of literary art begetting another work of literary art. The reason my two poems are designated as “with Andrés Montoya” (as opposed to, say, “after Andrés Montoya”) is because they are made up of actual lines of Andrés’ poetry. This method, then, involved curating language. In this regard, I would concur with your idea that they are “akin to erasure”.  But I’ll go a step further: I’m attached to the phrase “with Andrés Montoya” because the process of cobbling these poems together (I worked on them last June at the Community of Writers gathering at Squaw Valley) felt, meaningfully, like a collaboration. The source for my poem, “re-generation,” was Andrés’ nine-part poem “generation,” from A Jury of Trees. I selected one line, verbatim, from each of the nine sections, in succession, to construct each of the three sections of my piece. In my first draft, I came up with five sections. But I decided that only three were worth keeping. The final touch was deciding on a particular order for the poem’s three sections. In other words, I abandoned the idea of keeping them in chronological order and allowed the poem to guide their final order. “Together We’ll Be A Song” is also “with Andrés Montoya” because it takes lines from seven different poems in A Jury of Trees, and splices them with lines of my own in order to construct the poem’s narrative—one which is responding to the political climate we’re currently navigating.  Why Andrés Montoya?  Well, Letras Latinas commissioned the seven winners of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize to write Montoya-inspired poems for the program they will be presenting at the symposium in Fresno on April 13-14, and I decided that I would give myself the same assignment.  


VOZ: You’re very much walking the reader through one of your past poems, bringing in historical and personal context to that individual piece. In fact, I feel like you’re giving the reader a crucial role in the piecing together of this, going outside of both New Criticism and Contextual Criticism (meaning the approaches to literary criticism that were formally accepted) norms. Do you think this, the explicit inclusion of the reader in a text, could be a way to break out of the binary of literary criticism (“Contextual Criticism” and New Criticism)?


FRANCISCO: The essay “Glorious View” was my response to Rubén Quesada’s call for Latino Poetics: Essays on the Art of Poetry, which is slated to be published with University of New Mexico Press in 2018. I was trying to articulate what I now recognize as an early preoccupation of mine: how some of my poems try to re-create how memory can act upon us in jarring ways. That was the “poetics” I was exploring. “Bridge Over Strawberry Creek” is an emblematic poem in this regard, and I set out to take the reader (of the essay) on an annotated journey of sorts. I welcome your take-away, if I’m reading your question correctly—that is, that I seem to assign “the reader a crucial role in the piecing together.” That would be something I wholeheartedly endorse, embrace, and try to convey to my students—both those who are writing about poetry and those who are writing poems of their own. And that is: when we approach a work of art, of whatever genre and medium, we are bringing our lives—our experiences, our obsessions, our baggage, if you will—to the table when we engage with it. Taking this into account when we respond to a work of art seems a perfectly reasonable proposition. I was not thinking about New Criticism and/or Contextual Criticism, per se. But the fact that this is what percolated in your consciousness proves my point: that a reader has something valuable to bring to the table, and whatever that something is is worth exploring. If you and I were in a seminar or having coffee, I’d ask you to flesh out what you mean by Contexual Criticism and how it might relate—for you—to “Glorious View.”


VOZ: As someone involved with the Andres Montoya Symposium, where do you hope to see the event and all it’s components going? I ask this because the event is not just to honor the late poet’s life and work, but also to reach out to the Latinx literary community. What are some of the tangible goals and achievements you want to advocate for?


FRANCISCO: Increasingly, these last several years, I’ve come to consider Andrés Montoya as my generation’s namesake. In the same way that we might hear the phrase “Lorca’s generation” (“la generación del ‘27” was named after the group of Spanish poets who organized a symposium in 1927 in Seville to honor Golden Age baroque poet Luis de Góngora), I’ve come to view Andrés as my generation’s “Lorca”—that is, an immensely talented, big-hearted poet who died much too young, and whose work continues to reverberate in our collective consciousness. Andrés was born in 1968 and died in 1999. My hope is that the upcoming symposium, “Together We’ll Be a Song: A Celebration of Andrés Montoya,” will take things to the next level, starting with Andrés’ visibility and stature in Fresno. I’d love for local media to cover the symposium; I’d love for those in attendance to take to social media and share their particular experience of it with communities outside of Fresno, that sort of thing. In terms of other goals, the seven Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize winners have produced new poems that Letras Latinas will be seeking publication homes for.  I’ve also passed out A Jury of Trees to a number of other Latinx poets, inviting them to riff off Andrés, as well. I’m guest-editing a future issue of The Delaware Poetry Review (online) and I intend to curate a special section of Andrés Montoya-inspired poems in the issue. And, of course, I’d like the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize to continue to play a visible role in launching the careers of new Latinx poets. In that regard, we await with anticipation who Ada Limón will select as our next winner. We plan to make that announcement at the conclusion of National Poetry Month.

 

 

 

A San Francisco native, Francisco Aragón is the son of Nicaraguan immigrants. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1998 after a decade in Spain, Aragón completed graduate degrees in creative writing from UC Davis and the University of Notre Dame. In 2003 he joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS), where he established Letras Latinas. In 2017, he was a finalist for Split This Rock’s Freedom Plow Award for poetry and activism. A CantoMundo fellow and a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, he is the author of, Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press) and, Glow of Our Sweat (Scapegoat Press), as well as editor of, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press). After Rubén, his next full-length book, is slated for publication with Red Hen Press in 2020. 

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