The Sky is Vast and Bright We Burn:
A Conversation between Poets Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes and Mónica Teresa Ortiz
I show up late to things where one reads. I’ve been low key banned by a Chicana writer because I fell over my reading time limit by three minutes. Sometimes I talk more about politics than I read poems. More often, I like drinking more than I like writing poems. And yet I cannot write poems when I am drinking. For poetry, I must be sober. And in love.
Once, a white man who is an academic read from his translations of Mahmoud Darwish, as if he were the only one who had read Darwish. In a room full of Jewish and Palestinian scholars. After him, I read from a translation of Darwish too, done by a Libyan poet who taught me to love poetry.
Three years in a row, I accepted rejection from the Latino/a run writer’s workshop that is held in my adopted hometown at my alma mater. I stopped applying. The fact is that my hands are never clean. I work on a Mazzer Robur that spits out boulders into a tiny basket, and it is my job to smooth them out. It is not my job to teach anyone anything.
Sometimes, when I feel brave, I offer my words to Mt. Olympus, to that circle of white gods crowned in tunics and adorned with ego. I present myself to them, naked and mortal, shivering from anticipation. They tell me that my prose “reminds [them] very much of Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, which [they] intend to be a huge compliment (since [they] adore them both).” But do I adore them? When I answer that no, I do not adore them, the white gods are surprised! One confesses: “as a white chick myself, sometimes *I* don’t get these implications of what I say. I always want to learn. And if *I* got compared to, say, Louise Gluck, I might be happy– but that’s a different story, now, isn’t it?”
Perhaps they assume I am angry. I leave while they stand around, whispering to each other. I do not have wax wings. Because I do not want to be a god. I do not dream of flying close to the sun. I am not angry. Not about that. When I am angry, I am angry about the affairs of mortals. Like the summer of 2013, when an Austin PD detective investigating a bank robbery, commandeers a citizen’s car, chases down, and then executes a man underneath a bridge on Shoal Creek. His name was Larry Jackson, Jr. The man didn’t rob the bank. His only crime was running from a police man. Detective Charles Kleinart shot Larry Jackson, Jr in the back of the neck. No one saw what happened. Kleinart is not indicted. Larry Jackson, Jr. is still dead.
There are more bodies, lost on streets, left in deserts, and no one is guilty. And so I am angry. Beyond borderlands. Beyond Olympus. Beyond the prairies from where I came. I am from Texas and I write poems no one reads on wrinkled napkins I discover later, pressed between Borges’ teeth, and perhaps, that is where they will remain, somewhere in the dreams of tigers, somewhere burning bright.
from Pariahs: Writing From Outside the Margins (SFA Press 2015)
Heidi Andrea: Your prose-poem “Wax Wings” touches upon an issue you and I have revisited a number of times––that of Latino poetry; what is recognizable as Latino poetry? What is expected of Latino/a/x poets and what we write? Add to that the experience of queerness, and it often feels like we are constantly fighting to manifest ourselves as people, as artists, against what whiteness expects, as well as against normalized forms of Latino identity. It’s a great tragedy of multiculturalism. In the United States liberal forms of resistance remain deeply embedded in an identitarianism—or the effort to locate us within a calcified identity that is deemed the measure of who we are, what we must be, what we must produce, in order to be legitimate at all.
Mónica: Latinx is an umbrella term. There is no fixed identity for that. I consider myself Mexican, but on a form, would have to mark Latinx. And you could identify as Latinx, even though you are also Colombian. Geopolitics of that are often overlooked, dismissed, and erased. And then there is the conversation around ungendering the word Latinx. It is a complex situation.
So if we cannot define a latinx, then how do we say what Latinx poetry is? Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Nicanor Parra, Roque Dalton, Cesar Vallejo, and Alfonsina Stoerni could be considered under this category – but so could Achy Obejas, Martin Espada, Juan Felipe Herrera, Gloria Anzaldua, or Tino Villanueva. One would have to separate them as Latin American – even though they are all from different countries – and U.S. Latinx poets, even though they have different backgrounds and nationalities as well.
As a Queer Mexican from Texas, my writing must be accounted for in a particular kind of category. As if the experience cannot be something other than expected given the most basic parts of my identity. If one comes across a white guy’s writing, does one immediately compare him to David Foster Wallace or Ernest Hemingway? Would he be thrown into a default category that defines him?
Heidi Andrea: Comparison has long been a tool and method for reinscribing hierarchies of legitimacy, to keep the unassimilable or unpalatable on the outskirts of ‘the human’, or in this case, ‘the poet’, ‘the Latinx poet’, etc. You talk about the expectation that we adore Moraga and Anzaldúa, the expectation that, especially as queer Latinxs, our writing emulate theirs in a fashion. I know a lot of people will read this as hating on them, or as anti-feminist.
Mónica: I do not view my statements in that light. In the least. I respect their writing very much and I recognize their importance and contributions—they are founders and revolutionaries. Their voices allowed writers such as you and me to be in our positions. To say that I am dismissing their work is erroneous. I say the opposite.
I take offense to the notion that my writing is measured by theirs. As if it is all I can aspire to be. I don’t think that is hating or anti-feminist. They changed conversations almost 40 years ago, it is 2016. I am a writer from a different place, a different era, and with an identity constructed separately from theirs. I didn’t even read Anzaldua until I was almost 20 or 21. The first book I remember reading was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, which happens to be one of my father’s favorite books. I read it when I was eight or nine years old. I hid in the worlds of Victorian, Southern Gothic, and Science Fiction novels.
Heidi Andrea: What gets missed in the response to such a critique of the glorification of these founders and revolutionary poets is that, as you point out, it is not that we doubt their value or don’t see their work as important in the moment they arose, but that the labor their work performs is not the end-all for feminist, Latinx writing.
Their relevance is situated in a particular time when nobody was having those conversations in a large, public space. They gave voice to the complexities of border existence, to the in-between of this kind, which has been vital in order to refuse certain parameters of legitimacy that were given to us by white feminists, by patriarchal ways of knowing ourselves and each other.
Over time, new measures for our legitimacy as poets, as feminists, as Latinxs, are put in place, and it can often feel as if we do not reflect the versions given to us by these writers—we are not desirable, publishable, or even recognizable at all. It isn’t the fault of those writers, but a sort of collective enforcement that happens in how they are read, revered, and reinterpreted in certain spaces where politics are delimited by identitarianism. It’s this enforcement that needs to be examined and questioned, not the formation of new legitimacies, but an altogether different way of doing the work they did.
The expectations you name also carry proof of a very U.S.-centric relationship to who we are. Their historical influence, whether we know it or not, ignores the immense diversity of voices in the literature and the writerly commitments practiced in the works of Latin American people across the Western Hemisphere. This is one effect of the vast reach of diaspora.
I find it interesting that we know the names of certain Latina writers, and not others. Why have we barely heard of people like Carmen Boullosa, Excilia Saldaña, Gabriela Mistral?—Well, we know why. Even Aracelis Girmay, who is a U.S. award-winning poet, is not a household name in feminist communities.
Certainly race and ethnocentrism have a lot to do with this but, also, because the ethos driving their work does not center itself on identity as the major force of existence or resistance. Latino and Latin American poetry that isn’t centered on identity as a way of legitimizing our Latinidad seems to be relegated to the margin of the margins. It says something larger about the present state of certain U.S.-based social movements.
Mónica: To be honest, if one asked my influences, I would say Eduardo Galeano, Kōbō Abe, Haruki Murikami, Alfonsina Stoerni, Pablo Neruda, Anne Carson, Subcomandante Galeano (formerly Marcos) and Roque Dalton. Do I have a lot in common with them? Absolutely not. But their writing, their ideas, their worlds, and those hands that write are tearing away at a membrane surrounding me, in order to let something out.
To be creative and free but rooted in diaspora. If those who are the gatekeepers of U.S. literature don’t look outside of our country, then we will continue to be excluded from conversations about great writers. It’s no coincidence that the last U.S. writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature was Toni Morrison. Or that Octavia Butler is perhaps one of the best writers not being taught as part of a general curriculum. Fahrenheit 451 is a great dystopian novel, but Parable of the Sower deserves to be a staple in classrooms as well. I just finished reading Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and it’s incredible. Also, I really enjoyed Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Writers and readers must start looking outside of the Canon and must be open to who else is out in the world.
I feel incredibly blessed that my MFA program encompassed Latin American and Spanish literature. Being a young writer and having read voices that were not David Foster Wallace or William Faulkner, and having read poets who were not Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, opened a hole in the universe I had known as literature. Most of my cohorts were either Mexican nationals or from Central or South America. From them, I also learned a great deal about our U.S.-centric viewpoint.
There is great writing beyond the U.S. that is, indeed, beyond the margins. Some of it revolves around identity, geopolitics, trauma, memory, sexuality and/or gender—these are all complex issues. To corral Latinx poetry inside a big fence doesn’t make any sense. We can be grateful for the literary Canon, but we do not have to aspire to be a part of it.
Mónica Teresa Ortiz was born and raised in Texas. Her work has appeared in Bombay Gin, Sinister Wisdom, Huizache, Pilgrimage Magazine, Paso del Rio Grande del Norte, Borderlands, As/US, The Texas Observer, Autostraddle, and Black Girl Dangerous. An honorable mention for the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral prize and a two-time Andres Montoya Letras Latinxs Poetry prize finalist, Ortiz is the Poetry Editor for Raspa Magazine, a Queer Latinx literary art journal.
Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes is a queer, mixed-race, second-generation Colombian immigrant, writer, scholar, artist, and activist. Her work has been seen in a number of publications and exhibitions including As/Us, Feminist Studies Journal, Nepantla, Write Bloody’s We Will Be Shelter, the National Queer Arts Festival, and others. Her chapbook, The Inheritance of Haunting is forthcoming with Raspa. She currently lives in Brooklyn.