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

Monday, September 10, 2012

In Sixty-Four Bars

I live in Washington, DC where, for many years, the local public radio station WAMU has dedicated a few hours every Sunday night to a program called The Big Broadcast which features "old time" radio shows.  While the first few hours feature old radio dramas like Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, and Gunsmoke, the later hours usually include some excruciatingly unfunny old comedy programs like Jack Benny, Fibber McGeeOur Miss Brooks (which is particularly painful as Eve Arden was such an amazing actress).

Anyway, on a recent broadcast they featured an old episode of the Jack Benny Show.  It was recorded at an Army base in Arizona and there were jokes about tans and desert heat.  Then the band and the show's resident singer (whose name I didn't catch) began to sing a tune I later learned was called "Conchita Marquita Lolita Pepita Rosita Juanita Lopez." 

I've never heard this one but it certainly makes for an interesting piece of  Pop Latino history.  I'm not sure how popular the song was at the time but it certainly was successful enough to be recorded by a number of very well known performers (more on that later).

This novelty song was written by the iconic songwriter Jule Styne and the lyricist Herbert Magidsen (who won the first Oscar for Best Original Song in 1934 for the "The Continental").  

"Conchita Marquita Lolita Pepita Rosita Juanita Lopez"'s gimmick is right there in the title:  Conchita's rather long Spanish name.  (One imagines that Conchita at some point, like many Latinas -- my mother included-- had to shorten her name to the American three-name practice). But what's striking is that this song tells a pretty straight-forward story of a cross-cultural love affair: the tale of an "Irish lad" serving in the Army along the Mexican border who falls in love with the "Rose of Juarez."   Mutual love ensues and they soon find themselves living in Hoboken, New Jersey with an ever expanding brood of children with Spanish and Irish names.

The versions I've heard online seem to all trade equally in both Mexican and Irish linguistic and musical stereotypes (and New Jersey stereotypes in the Bing Crosby version above).  But aside from Conchita's long name and the "ethnic" names of their children, the song is very matter-of-fact.  This was certainly born out in the Jack Benny live broadcast where I first discovered the song.  After the band and crooner finished, the crowd erupted in cheers.  And that was it. There were no comments or patter about the song's themes (and the Jack Benny show was nothing if filled with groan-worthy patter).

The Glenn Miller  version features vocals by Tex Beineke and the Modernaires in a pretty swingin' and broguing version of the song.  I was also able to find a version by Dinah Shore that's worth a listen.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Monday, September 3, 2012

On Spanish Naval Heroes

There are many ways that the history of Spanish speaking people disappears from American history. One of the ways is by mispronunciation and respelling.  The names are changed in ways that separate a place or a marker or even a person from it's Spanish source.  Like how the city of Galveston loses it's "z" and it's connection to Bernardo de Galvez, (the forgotten hero of the American Revolutionary War without whose contributions the American rebel colonies would've fallen to the British. More on him some other time, I promise).

Today I'd like to talk about the Spanish-American naval hero David Farragut.  He's one of the navy's greatest figures and perhaps the greatest naval figure of 19th century America -- famous for his (probably apocryphal) command during the Battle of Mobile, "Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!"  I live in Washington, DC and most Washingtonians don't realize that Farragut Square, or the metro stops at Farragut (East and West) are named for a Spanish-American naval hero.  In fact the other day as a friend and I were walking by the square I mentioned his Spanish roots and she replied with some surprise, "Farragut?  That's a Spanish name?"

Well, actually it's a Catalan name.  Not that you'd know it from the way we pronounce it in this country.  His father George Farragut was a navy man too. "George" was born Jordi Farragut in Minorca Spain, son of Antoni Farragut and Joana Mesquida. He changed his name to "George" after he gave up his commission as a Captain in the Spanish Merchant Marines to fight on the American side during the Revolutionary War. He gave up being a Captain to be a Lieutenant in South Carolina's Navy and perhaps Anglicizing his name was the price he had to pay for fitting in.  Although it may have been the exasperation of repeated mispronunciations.  We will never know.  He fought against the British at Savannah and did some cavalry service as well.  After the war he married Elizabeth Stine, settled down and raised a family.

Jordi's son David is the more famous Farragut and his distinguished naval career in the War of 1812 and the American Civil War's the reason so many things bear that name across the United States.  There are monuments to him all over the country.  There are a number of schools from Massachusetts to Puerto Rico named after him.  There's a Farragut, Tennessee, a Farragut, Iowa, and a neighborhood in Brooklyn.   There's even a Starship named after Farragut in the fictional Star Trek universe. But Farragut as a name has become so incorporated into Americana that it's lost any of its Catalan roots.  Any way you slice it, you can't talk about American Navy history without talking about the son of a Spanish immigrant who changed his name to fit into the United States.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Window to Past & Present Ugliness

Yesterday I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History with my friend Kim Roberts.  I wanted to get a second look at their splendid exhibit African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond before it closes next Monday, September 3rd.  After we took in the beautiful artwork, including one last live look at Claude Clark's gorgeous Resting, we decided to explore a few of the other exhibits in that cavernous building.  The Old Patent Office houses both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.  The six-year renovation and redesign a few years back resulted in the intermingling of the two museum's collections and it makes for some smashing juxtapositions.  This is how we found ourselves on the opposite wing of the first floor and the current exhibitions commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Of the many pieces of photography, painting and statuary I was most struck by a small exhibition of the drawings of the Civil War-era artist Adalbert Volck who created some of the most fascinating (and disturbing) political cartoons of the era and seeing them are a window to the Confederate mentality.  According to the Smithsonian's site, Volck was a recent German emigre who savagely attacked the North through this series of cartoons entitled Sketches from the Civil War in North America.  Unlike most recent emigres, Volck chose to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War (he also was said to have served as a courier for Confederate President Jefferson Davis).

Rounding a corner from a series of Mathew Brady portraits, I  came across these drawings and was first struck by their tiny precision.  I came up close to them to take in their beautiful thin-lined detail.  But I don't know how else to describe these illustrations but as racist, pro-slavery, extremist artwork.  They are beautiful illustration in the service of ugly repulsive sentiments.  They are pieces in the service of demagoguing and demonizing almost everything that we now consider just and fair.  One piece entitled "The Worship of the North" really struck me.  Here's the description from the Gettysburg site:
In an elaborate scene of idol worship, Northern leaders are shown sacrificing a white man to a shrine of "The Negro." A black man sits atop this shrine, labeled "Chicago Platform" with carved busts of Lincoln as a serpent carved into its base. Henry Ward Beecher uses a sacrificial knife, Charles Sumner holds a torch, and Horace Greeley holds a censer from which snakes slither. John Brown, with a pike, is represented as St. Ossawatomie. General H.W. Halleck, General Winfield Scott, General David Hunter, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts; and Harriet Beecher Stowe are all present in the crowd.

What the description doesn't mention are the "bricks" forming the "shrine" to "Negro Worship."  They read "Socialism," "Atheism," "Free Love," "Rationalism," "Witch burning," and "Spirit Rapping." I don't know what "witch burning" refers to specifically in this case.  I assume "spirit rapping" is a reference to the popular spiritualism of the time.  But I'm struck at how some of these attacks are still used now by the Republican Party and the right-wing's current (and I guess this artwork reveals continuing) conflation of lies, smears and bogey men.  It's certainly hard not to think of these lasting ugly currents as you pay attention to the words and actions coming from the "festivities" around Tampa's Republican convention this week (those are all separate links there).  There's an irony here of course as it's the Republican party then in power that Volck was attacking with his drawing.

Today's campaign would probably change out some of those "bricks."  I'd imagine a present day Adalbert Volck adding bricks reading "MEXICANS" or "ALIENS", "GAY MARRIAGE," "SOCIALIZED MEDICINE," and "SOCIALIZED MEDICINE" to the "altar."  I highly recommend checking out this exhibit, or at the very least, check out this piece online in it's full size (here).  Volck was a gifted artist who, although relatively new to the country, was quite successful in tapping into an ugly stream of American fear-mongering.  This is American history and it's not pretty. And as this presidential campaign has shown us, it is still very much with us.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What A Difference A Day Makes

Maria Grever
Today's installment's about that old classic standard known by many jazz fans.  It's been recorded by dozens of performers over the years from Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and most recently by the likes of Jamie Cullum.

What most jazz fans probably don't know is the song began as "Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado." The bolero (with radically different lyrics from the English version) was written by María Grever (born Maria Joaquina de la Portilla Torres in Guanajuato).  She's considered the first Mexican woman to find success as a  composer.  Her other great songs include "Jurame" and "Volvere."  "Grever" was her husband's name (she married a rich oil executive who whisked her away to New York City).

The song was later refashioned as "What a Difference A Day Makes" with lyrics by Stanley Adams.  And this is how the song is credited to "Grever/Adams" on all the pressings.
Another bit of trivia about Adams: he also wrote the English lyrics to "La Cucaracha."

Here are videos of the song in the original and English versions.  First the Mexican/Puerto Rican trio Los Panchos iconic version of the original:

And here's the English version recorded by Dinah Washington: