Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Maggie Smith

Thanks to Maggie Smith, author of Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005) and The List of Dangers (Kent State University Press, 2010), for tagging me in this self-interview series that's been making the internet rounds the last few months.  We met a few years ago at a residency in Virginia and I was delighted to be asked to participate in such a clever project.

What is the working title of your book?

Speaking Wiri Wiri.
What genre does it fall under?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea for the book came out of an obsession to record personal and cultural history.  So some of this comes through as retelling or adapting stories through poetry.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A historical meditation on the challenges of multiple identities, ethnicity, geographies of migration, familial displacement, and popular history which finds poetry in the mundane and the monumental, the hidden lives of iconic television and film stars and the alternate and accidental histories of Latinos in the United States.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The bulk of the book was completed during a month-long residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 2011.  My goal in writing a second book was to meet the deadline for a book prize.  In this case it was the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize.  There were some bumps along the way, but that month at VCCA was clarifying for me and by the time I got home I had a manuscript I had to rework for the book prize deadline about a week later.
Who or what inspired you to write it?

It was partly inspired by family stories and by history that hasn't been represented as much in popular culture.  In many ways it's an attempt to answer questions I've had for awhile about my own identity.  Those answers can't be answered without wrestling with some difficult history.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm elated to report that the manuscript won the prize and will be published in March by Red Hen Press.
What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?
Specific works are hard to talk about.  But certainly I'm influenced by the work of other poets.  Many of the poems in the book are cliophrastic [see update below] in the vein of Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada's work.  Their work has meant a lot to me in its ability to record history while grounding it in a larger American tradition. I'm interested in the power of a poetry in the service of social and political commentary, so Nikky Finney and Naomi Shihab Nye's work have served as guideposts.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Hmm..interesting question.  There are different figures in the book and though I don't know of a book of poetry ever being made into a movie, I love the conceit of seeing this book as a series of cinematic vignettes.  I've never thought of particular actors playing these roles, but appreciate the excuse to fantasize a little.  So...
La Lupe played by Zoe Saldaña?
I'd love to see Zoe Saldaña play La Lupe in "How La Lupe Defeated the Alien Invasion of 1968", which would make a pretty insane alternate-universe Science-Fiction movie.  Not to mention that it would probably produce one of the most kickin' soundtracks in recent memory.
Danny Trejo
Danny Trejo would be great as the title character in the poem "Mr. Guzman Plays the Fool."  I'd love to have him deliver that fiery big of dialogue in the Kansas jail cell.

Ralph Fiennes
as Nabokov?
I could see the poem about Nabokov being a little silent movie with Ralph Fiennes as the author visiting Washington, DC. I'd watch that.
Andy Garcia as
Cesar Romero?
Andy Garcia seems an obvious choice for Cesar Romero playing the Joker in the Batman TV show ("Tall, Dark and Handsome Slums in Gotham City").  Both Cuban-American actors with nice careers in film in their youth.  Garcia's gone on to direct and still gets roles.  But I'd love to see him play a job-thin Romero in 1960s Hollywood, having to play the Joker.  He's about the same age Romero was when he played on TV.
Carmen Miranda played
by Sandra Corveloni?
As for Carmen Miranda, I'm not up on my Brazilian cinema, so my suggestions will probably be hilarious to devotees.  Sonia Braga is a bit old for the role of Carmen Miranda (who died at 46).  The Brazilian actress Sandra Corveloni would be astounding as Miranda. She's the right age and was amazing in the movie Linha de Passe (in a completely different role) that proves she's got serious chops. I'd love a biopic about Carmen Miranda -- does this exist in any language?  It should.  Get crackin' Hollywood.
Lastly, I think the poem about the very real Latinos who played key parts in the American Revolutionary War, "Purifying America’s Textbooks of Ethnic Studies," would make a kick-ass movie epic with sea battles, cavalry battles, diplomatic intrigues, fancy dress balls, period set pieces in Madrid, Havana, Mexico City, Charleston and New York City (I'm looking at you Steven Spielberg, Selma Hayek, and Guillermo Arriaga).  And dream-casting for the roles of Bernardo de Galvez, José Moñino y Redondo, Fernando de Leyba, and Francisco Saavédra de Sangronis could include Gael García Bernal, Edward James Olmos, Benicio del Toro, Dario Grandinetti, Pepe Serna, Javier Bardem..and that's just the male Latino roles (Washington and Jefferson would figure).  This is history that's utterly unknown by most Americans and most people in Latin America.
Edward James Olmos, Dario Grandinetti, Esai Morales,
Benicio del Toro, Pepe Serna, Gael Garcia Bernal.

What else about your manuscript might pique the reader’s interest?

I believe humor can allow us drop our guard and ask some difficult questions.  The contest judge talked about my being "haunted by memory."  That may be true, but it's a humorous haunting at times.  If the stories in the book, the real, the embellished and fantastical, help expand the consciousness of what it means to be Latino in the United States, I'd be quite happy.

Next week, expect self-interviews from these poets:

*UPDATE: a friend alerted me to "cliophrastic" being a googlewhack (there's my new word for the day!).  Cliophrastic was coined by me and my friend Kim Roberts. We were sitting around talking about the need for a word to describe poems based on a historical figure or a historical event.  There are a lot of poems like these but no term to describe them.  It's a play on the word ekphrastic (poems based on a work of art) and created out of the Greek words Clio (the muse of history) and phrasis (speaking).  According to Google, this is the first documented usage of the term.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Whitman on Latinos

Walt Whitman circa 1881
Courtesy, Walt Whitman Archive
The New York Times published an interesting blog post on Walt Whitman's letter to the organizers of the 333 Birthday of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It's an eye-popping reminder of the poet's forward thinking stance regarding what is "America" and "American identity."   Certainly some of the concepts, world-view, and language are dated.  But one can read through some of that and see at the heart of it, a clear openness to the possibilities of other cultures bringing something to the building of a national culture.

Also the fourth paragraph is nothing less than stunning as a repudiation of the anti-Spanish stance that still pervades our dialogue -- a stance that erased Spanish involvement in the American Revolutionary War and that became the dominant American narrative toward Latino culture after the "Mexican-American" and "Spanish-American" wars.

Here's the letter from 1883, in full.   Would love your responses.


Walt Whitman sent the following letter to the managers of the tertio-millenial celebration in Santa Fé, New-Mexico:

                      Camden, N.J., July 20, 1883
 To Messrs, Griffin, Martinez, Prince, and other Gentlemen at Santa Fé:
  DEAR SIRS: Your kind invitation to visit you and deliver a poem for the three hundred and thirty-third anniversary of founding Santa Fé has reached me so late that I have to decline with sincere regret.  But I will say a few words off hand. 
  We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents and sort them, to unify them.  They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources.  Thus far, impressed by New-England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashioned from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only--which is a very great mistake.  Many leading traits for our future national personality, and some of the best ones, will certainly prove to have originated from other than British stock.  As it is, the British and German, valuable as they are in the concrete, already threaten excess.  Or rather, I should say, they have certainly reached that excess.  To-day something outside of them and to counterbalance them is seriously needed.
  The seething materialistic and business vortices of the United States, in their present devouring relations, controlling and belittling everything else, are, in my opinon, but a vast and indispensable stage in the New World's development and are certainly to be followed by something entirely different, at least by immense modifications.  Character, literature, a society worthy the name, are yet to be established, through a nationality of noblest spiritual, heroic and democratic attributes--not one of which at present definitely exists--entirely different from the past, though unerringly founded on it and to justify it.
  To that composite American identity of the future Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts.  No stock shows a grander historic retrospect--grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity, and honor.  It is time to dismiss utterly the illusion-compound, half raw-head-and-bloody-bones and hait.  Mysteries-of-Udolpho, inherited from the English writers of the past 200 years.  It is time to realize--for it is certainly true--that there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, superstition, &c(etc) in the resumé of past Spanish history than in the corresponding resumé of Anglo-Norman history.  Nay, I think there will not be found so much.
  Then another point, relating to American ethnology, past and to come.  I will here touch upon at a venture.  As to our aboriginal or Indian population--the Aztec in the South and many a tribe in the North and West--I know it seems to be agreed that they must gradually dwindle as time rolls on, and in a few generations more leave only a reminiscence, a blank.  But I am not at all clear about that.  As America, from its many far back sources and current supplies, develops, adapts, entwines, faithfully identifies its own, are we to see it cheerfully accepting and using all the contributions of foreign lands from the whole outside globe, and then rejecting the only ones distinctively its own--the autochthonic ones?
  As to the Spanish stock of our South-west, it is certain to me that we do not begin to appreciate the splendor and sterling value of its race element. Who knows but that element, like the course of some subterranean river, dipping invisibly for a hundred or two years, is now to emerge in broadest flow and permanent action? 
  If I might assume to do so, I would like to send you the most cordial, heartfelt congratulations of your American fellow-countrymen here.  You have more friends in the Northen and Atlantic regions than you suppose, and they are deeply interested in the development of the great Southwestern interior, and in what your festival would arouse to public attention. 
Very respectfully, &c, 

Published in the New York Times,
August 7, 1883