the road to a holiday video poem

The Light Between Us – José Angel Araguz

Before learning to read,
words are darkness.
What’s there
feels unseeable;
paper and ink, sure,
but nothing you feel
a part of.

The world around us
feels like this at times,
like darkness.
A harsh word, violence, pain—
we can’t read these things easily,
must wait for the darkness
to make sense.

Yet, we wait in light.
The same light
around each dark word
surges around us.

In light, we begin to hear
possibility, meaning.

A voice comes
in the light between us,
and we are surprised to learn

it is our own voice
that reads the darkness away.

*

The above was written as a first attempt at a poem to accompany a holiday video being put together by Travis McGuire, Kevin Curry, and Jeff Kennel of Linfield College’s Communications and Marketing department. I had been given a brief description of the project to serve as a prompt: To visualize a crowd of people holding either phones or candles gathering, with a planned overhead shot at the end. I was also given “light” and “darkness” as key words. I worked out the above draft with this in mind.

While I can’t speak to the merits of the above, I can say that I see why I was asked for a revision. The above, while delving into some of the prompt concepts, remains very individual, the turn at the end being a gesture towards revelation, but a personal, intimate one. In further correspondence and talks with Travis, Kevin, and Jeff, it became clear that there was a sense of community missing from the original poem, something that I kept in mind as I drafted further versions.

One of the aspects of this revision process that I enjoyed was working out a sense of “poem as script.” Behind each word choice and turn of phrase, I considered what this would be like performed as a voiceover. This consideration took me into a performance mindframe, similar to how I prepare for readings as well as to the writing process I had during my years of writing slam poetry. With performance in mind in any capacity, one is thinking about how the word lands in two ways, on the air and on the page.

Below is the final draft of the poem as well as the holiday video itself. I am proud to have collaborated with the good folks from Communications and Marketing as well as student Antoine Johnson ’19 who read the poem for the video. As the year wraps up, I feel that the message of this poem and the lessons learned between drafts are worth considering moving forward.

Thank you, as always, for reading!

Holiday Poem – José Angel Araguz

The world around us
is dark at times.

Harsh words,
violence,
pain
leave us feeling alone,
isolated.

Stars, too, are isolated.
Each hangs in its own light.

The night, then, is darkness,

but when the light
from these separate,
distinct points
comes together…

When new understanding
brightens our lives,
darkness recedes.

When we come together,
we shine bright enough
to see tomorrow.

 

José Antonio Rodriguez’s House Built on Ashes

house built on ashesThis week I had the distinct pleasure of having poet and essayist José Antonio Rodriguez video-conference into my current creative nonfiction class here at Linfield College. We discussed his memoir House Built on Ashes (Oklahoma University Press),  a collection of lyrical essays that delves into his childhood memories, interrogating them for the stories and insights behind them. The essays range in topics from the intersection of the immigrant experience and borderland culture to sexual identity and social class dynamics. What makes the collection richly compelling, however, is how Rodriguez’s writing makes such complex topics human and intimate.

In class discussion before Rodriguez’s virtual visit, I shared the following excerpt from an interview with Rodriguez on the Letras Latinas Blog:

[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode…How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?

[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.

What Rodriguez says here about using ambiguity as a way to remain in uncertainty and, thus, subvert society’s expectation to move away from uncertainty and have things end neatly is a powerful lesson in how to have art and politics meet without one sacrificing the other. This move also invites the reader closer to the experience of the text and provides a space to dwell on complex feelings rather than turn away from them, a turning away that in creative nonfiction can read as false or simplistic.

I also made sure to note the moment in the interview excerpt above where a series of statements by Rodriguez about “the narrator” of his essays is interrupted with the shorter statement “To me.” This brief acknowledgement of self is a lived out example of what is at stake in creative nonfiction and the work one must do in writing it. To speak of a narrator-who-is-you and thus frame a piece this way can establish distance between the raw material and your own self at risk and alive with feelings. In this space, aesthetic moves can be made and revisions considered that lead to illuminations not afforded in real life.

In the piece below, “Open House,” one can see some of these ideas at work. The narrative of an elementary school open house braids the two worlds of the child narrator together, that of his family life and that of his education. The split across language and culture, home and aspirations, is charged by Rodriguez’s use of the present tense. The reader is brought right into the action and thoughts that propel the story. By the end, the meeting of two worlds becomes a blurring of them, to the point that the open house – which itself is an event where others go and see a place – becomes a site where the narrator himself feels the weight of being seen.

*

Open House
By José Antonio Rodriguez

It is a strange sight, the school at night, aglow with light emanating from all its open doors. Amá, Luis, Yara, and I walk toward it, together. Amá begins to lag behind. We slow our pace and she catches up but eventually lags behind again, like she prefers to walk one step behind us.

In every room, we find a corner to stand in, Amá wringing her hands like she owes the room money. I tell her about how crowded the school is, built for half the number of students that now live a third of their lives in it. The teacher walks to us. In every room I translate for the teacher. In every room I translate for Amá. In every room I am a gran estudiante. The Spanish reminds me of church. The Spanish sounds foreign—talk of literature, talk of math, talk of science. In every room the white students marvel at my perfect Spanish, my Spanish without an accent, avert their eyes from my mother’s lack of English.

In every room they harbor the suspicion, hear the language, my first tongue, the telling sign that I could not be from here, that I could not be American. How they look at me, see someone they didn’t imagine.

*

from House Built on Ashes (University of Oklahoma Press)

Watch a clip of this piece being read here.

worlding with Valerie Martinez

ddm4This week found me conducting two separate poetry workshops, one in Spanish and one in English, focused on Día de los Muertos / Day of the Dead. At this workshop, we went over some of the history of the holiday, from its indigenous roots and variations to contemporary observances. While I had students write recuerdos / poems of remembrance, I also shared examples of calaveras (short, satirical poems that are also at times political) and descanso poems.

This week’s poem, “World to World” by Valerie Martinez, is an example of a descanso poem, a tradition that combines elegy and narrative. In his introduction to Camino Del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, editor and poet Rigoberto González describes the descanso poem as “a word version of an altar to the dead,” and cites Martinez’s poem as an example.

ddm3Reading through the poem, one can see the altar-like spirit of the poem in the way the narrative collects its details while at the same braiding the human and the natural world. When “the dead come” in the poem, for example, they come with “mouths silent as under-earth.” This metaphor pairing “mouths” with “under-earth” builds off the idea of the dead engaging with the living world and gives an exactness of feeling. The “silence” described here is tied to the absence of words. The speaker then shares that “We needn’t have any words, / the dead and I,” and continues in its details, leading us from the earth to the sky through graceful turns of enjambment and phrasing. The ending then takes a poem that is about exploring layers of outer existence and notes how these layers resemble the ones we live with inside ourselves.

Since my workshops were in two languages, I went ahead and translated Martinez’s poem. I’m sharing the translation below as well. Enjoy!

World to World – Valerie Martinez
for Tim Trujillo 1951-1991

I discover the Buddha in the backyard,
black paint on wood, head titled,
smile so tranquil. Then the dead come,
over the grass, the garden stones,
a bed of wildflowers, without sound,
mouths silent as under-earth.
We needn’t have any words,
the dead and I, just holy imagery,
the message, they come, the secret
passage under the wall, the creature
who climbs through, the sky
over the clouds over the air over the earth,
world to world, this afternoon
someone I am someone I knew,
the layers beneath the layers.

Mundo a Mundo – Valerie Martinez
traducido por José Angel Araguz, Ph.D.

for Tim Trujillo 1951-1991

Descubro al Buda en el patio trasero,
pintura negra sobre madera, cabeza inclinada,
una sonrisa tan tranquila. Luego vienen los muertos,
sobre la hierba, las piedras del jardín,
una cama de flores silvestres, sin sonido,
bocas calladas como la tierra.
No necesitamos ninguna palabra,
los muertos y yo, sólo imágenes santas,
el mensaje, ellos vienen, el paseo
secreto bajo la pared, la criatura
quien sube, el cielo
sobre las nubes sobre el aire sobre la tierra,
mundo a mundo, esta tarde
alguien que soy alguien que conocí,
los estratos debajo los estratos.

*

The original poem is from Valerie Martinez’s collection World to World (University of Arizona Press). To learn more about Martinez’s work, check out her site.

recap of my recent Linfield College reading!

IMG_20180911_235840_429*

Just a quick note to share this thoughtful recap of my recent poetry reading at Linfield College up at Medium!

I read on September 11th as part of the Readings at the Nick series held at Linfield’s Nicholson Library. Here’s “Alabanza” by Martín Espada, the poem I read to start things off.

Thank you to Ryan O’Dowd for this engaging detailing of the reading!

— José

new essay at Medium!

Just a quick post to share that my short essay, “The Speaking Up Mantra,” was recently published at Medium! Read it here.

This essay came about as part of a series of activities Linfield College put together to  welcome new students to campus and help them as they transition into college culture. I was asked to think of advice that would help new students, especially first generation students as they enter and try to navigate the world of the college classroom. As a first generation faculty, I find this subject fruitful and important. Even now, I still find it hard to speak up and find myself putting some of my own advice to use.

Special thanks to Travis McGuire, Director of Social Media for Linfield College, for the invite to write and share some of the insights gained throughout my first gen student and teaching experience!

— José

featured video: Bilingual Poetry Night reading!

This week I’m happy to share a recording of last month’s Bilingual Poetry Night held at The Gallery at Ten Oaks here in McMinnville, Oregon. I had the distinct of honor of being asked to do a featured reading.

As I explain in the clip, I curated my reading selections for the event, choosing poems from my books Everything We Think We Hear, Small Fires, and Until We Are Level Again that had me working in both English and Spanish. I also read a few poems from an unpublished manuscript of poems all in Spanish. My thinking was to weave a brief narrative within the poems that showcased some of the experiences that have led to me openly writing in two languages. This themed selection also allowed me to have a conversation around the poems, unpacking some of the journey that I still find myself on sharing stories I can’t tell without rolling my R’s.

The poem I start the reading off sets the tone and serves as a guide into this conversation:

My history with the Spanish language – José Angel Araguz

Something is offered up when we speak, and something is fed. Mi familia es mi historia. So it is that when I speak with family now, I take the time and say each word aware of how I may come across: a child making communion with all he knows.

I feel this effort at communion is at the heart of all my work, on and off the page.

Please enjoy the clip below. My own reading starts at 3:42 and goes on for about twenty-five minutes, with a small Q&A afterwards. Also on this clip is the open mic featuring some great local writers from the community.

Special thanks to Courtney Terry from the McMinnville Public Library for the invitation to be the featured reader. A huge thanks as well to Nancy & Dan Morrow, owners of The Gallery at Ten Oaks, for hosting the event. Finally, thank you to everyone who attended the reading – and to everyone of you attending it by watching below!

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raining with Martorell & Pizarnik

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to do a small reading at Linfield College’s Miller Fine Arts Center. The Linfield Gallery is in its last week of hosting Antonio Martorell’s solo exhibit “Rain/Lluvia.” In talking about the origins of the exhibit, Martorell told Linfield Gallery: “When the opportunity came my way to bring an exhibition to Oregon, a place that I had never visited before, I candidly asked: ‘¿Qué pasa en Oregon?’ (What happens in Oregon?) I received an equally candid answer: ‘It rains every day.’”

Antonio-Martorell-Linfield-06_webIn this spirit, I selected poems from my own work that dealt with rain in one way or another, in Oregon and rains elsewhere as well. Along with “Thinking About the Poet Larry Levis One Afternoon in Late May” by Charles Wright, I read two poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, both in the original Spanish and in English translations I did specifically for this reading. I share both poems and translations below as well as a clip of my reading of “L’obscurité des eaux.” Pizarnik’s work felt appropriate for the space as it interrogates the ways meaning is made, engaging with the ephemeral nature of words.

Rain works with a similar ephemerality. There is only something we can call rain when water is in motion between sky and earth; similarly, poetry lives in the space between set words and the motion of reading.

Special thanks to Brian Winkenweder for the invitation to read and to all those who attended!

*

Despedida – Alejandra Pizarnik

Mata su luz un fuego abandonado.
Sube su canto un pájaro enamorado.
Tantas criaturas ávidas en mi silencio
y esta pequeña lluvia que me acompaña.

*

Farewell
— translated by José Angel Araguz

An abandoned fire kills its light.
A bird in love raises its song.
So many avid creatures in my silence
and this little rain that accompanies me.

umbrella2

 

L’obscurité des eaux – Alejandra Pizarnik

Escucho resonar el agua que cae en mi sueño.
Las palabras caen como el agua yo caigo. Dibujo
en mis ojos la forma de mis ojos, nado en mis
aguas, me digo mis silencios. Toda la noche
espero que mi lenguaje logre configurarme. Y
pienso en el viento que viene a mí, permanece
en mí. Toda la noche he caminado bajo la lluvia
desconocida. A mí me han dado un silencio
pleno de formas y visiones (dices). Y corres desolada
como el único pájaro en el viento.

*

The darkness of the waters
— translated by José Angel Araguz

I hear the water that falls in my dream resound.
The words fall like water I fall. I draw
in my eyes the shape of my eyes, I swim in my
waters, I tell myself my silences. All night
I hope my language manages to configure me. And
I think about the wind that comes to me, remains
in me. All night I walked in the unknown rain.
I have been given a silence
full of forms and visions (you say). And you run desolate
as the only bird in the wind.

*

photo credit: Linfield Gallery

futuring with julio cortázar

two personal notes

I want to first acknowledge and show my support for anyone suffering and struggling due to Hurricane Harvey. In my world, I have been checking in with my family in Corpus Christi since last Thursday. Everyone is safe there; struggled without power from last Friday to Wednesday, but safe. I have done my best to reach out to my Texas friends and other family, and only wish I had more hours in the day. Thank you to everyone who has reached out and shown me and my family support! It means a lot to come together in the face of such disaster. I spent a lot of time thinking of the various hurricanes I lived through as a child and teenager in Corpus, evacuations and refuge sought.

In the midst of the stress and tension of the above, I also participated in my first convocation as a professor at Linfield College as well as my first week of teaching. It was also my birthday last week – so, y’know, things were interesting, ha. I spent the eve of my birthday cleaning house, sweeping and mopping through midnight, the whole time worried about my family.

AerialCorpusChristi
corpus, my corpus

*

This quick paraphrase of the fraught mix of light and dark times that have been my last few weeks is mirrored, in a way, in this week’s poem by Julio Cortázar. In “El Futuro/The Future,” Cortázar does a great job of creating a poem of love and affection that also acknowledges the tenuous and mortal circumstances through which love is found between people. In considering a world without their “you,” the speaker creates a space of presence. By the end, the poem stands as a testament to the feelings and meaning that the missing always leave us with.

The Future – Julio Cortázar

And I know full well you won’t be there.
You won’t be in the street, in the hum that buzzes
from the arc lamps at night, nor in the gesture
of selecting from the menu, nor in the smile
that lightens people packed into the subway,
nor in the borrowed books, nor in the see-you-tomorrow.

You won’t be in my dreams,
in my words’ first destination,
nor will you be in a telephone number
or in the color of a pair of gloves or a blouse.
I’ll get angry, love, without it being on account of you,
and I’ll buy chocolates but not for you,
I’ll stop at the corner you’ll never come to,
and I’ll say the words that are said
and I’ll eat the things that are eaten
and I’ll dream the dreams that are dreamed
and I know full well you won’t be there,
nor here inside, in the prison where I still hold you,
nor there outside, in this river of streets and bridges.
You won’t be there at all, you won’t even be a memory,
and when I think of you I’ll be thinking a thought
that’s obscurely trying to recall you.

translated by Stephen Kessler in Save Twilight: Selected Poems (City Lights Books)

El Futuro – Julio Cortázar

Y sé muy bien que no estarás.
No estarás en la calle, en el murmullo que brota de noche
de los postes de alumbrado, ni en el gesto
de elegir el menú, ni en la sonrisa
que alivia los completos en los subtes,
ni en los libros prestados ni en el hasta mañana.

No estarás en mis sueños,
en el destino original de mis palabras,
ni en una cifra telefónica estarás
o en el color de un par de guantes o una blusa.
Me enojaré, amor mío, sin que sea por ti,
y compraré bombones pero no para ti,
me pararé en la esquina a la que no vendrás,
y diré las palabras que se dicen
y comeré las cosas que se comen
y soñaré los sueños que se sueñan
y sé muy bien que no estarás,
ni aquí adentro, la cárcel donde aún te retengo,
ni allí fuera, este río de calles y de puentes.
No estarás para nada, no serás ni recuerdo,
y cuando piense en ti pensaré un pensamiento
que oscuramente trata de acordarse de ti.

*

Happy futuring!

José