If you are an emerging Latino/a poet, to limit yourself to reading five books at the outset of your career is akin to learning music theory by only studying Nineteenth Century Spanish guitar music. Sure it’s all fun, but it is merely a start.
You’ll notice this list is anthology-heavy. It should be. Anthologies, even recent ones, help you to consider yourself as part of a continuum. You’ll read, you’ll read again, you’ll see what you respond to, and you’ll place yourself within the context of a certain artistic tradition, or theme, or location, or time period. Or, you may decide you are the one and only iconoclast of your writing tribe. The point is, you won’t be alone. And you won’t have to locate your “Latinness” or your ethnicity in one particular region of the country–if you even choose to continue identifying as Latino at all.
I’ve chosen five books that will hopefully break open your expectations of what Latino/a writers are capable of doing, what YOU are capable of doing, what genre(s) you work in. Diving into these books, you’ll discover your likes and dislikes, writers you absolutely love, imagery that is complex; with any luck, you’ll find yourself talking back to them, and finding your own voice.
Please note: I have also left out every poet from classical antiquity to the 20th Century that every writing professor worth his or her tenure would probably tell you to read. Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, et cetera, ad nauseum. They didn’t make my list because, frankly, they make every other list. Every day. And it’s a little tiring.
Don’t think for one second this means you shouldn’t read them. Because Shakespeare basically invented the language you are currently writing in. And because Yeats wrote THIS: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.
C’mon son. You’ve seen that last line quoted on Facebook. But never quite like that.
I can’t stress enough: don’t stop here. The more you read, the more you will push back as you write, and the more facets of your own voice and stories you will find.
Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, edited by Rigoberto Gonzalez.
For the emergent Latino/a poet, this anthology will give you as broad an introduction as possible to your peers in 2014: from the authors who are currently publishing to the elders who are still doing it, from every region in the States, from every ethnicity that claims the Latino/a designator. This is an anthology of fifteen years of published work from the University of Arizona’s Camino Del Sol series. Their catalog is wicked. You should check that, too.
Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, edited by Miguel Algarín and Bob Holman
This book gives us insight into the poetry that was moving the Nuyorican from the founders to the early days of the slam, right before Def Poetry hit and spoken word became sexy. In addition to the Latinos who lit up the stage, the book is a good overview of the poets of that era who largely influenced the spoken and written word (and who show where the lines drawn between them are largely false). Look out for “earlier” work by Patricia Smith, Willie Perdomo, Maggie Estep, and Xavier Cavazos.
Aracelis Girmay is one of the most dynamic younger voices writing today. You’ll read these poems and wander across emotional terrain as wide and varied as the geography she takes you through: California, Eritrea, New York, Puerto Rico. Girmay worked for many years as a teaching artist with Community Word Project in New York City, and her poetry is just as visually stunning as the murals she helped her children create. In fact, one of her well-known poems is dedicated to one of those students, at PS 132 in Washington Heights: “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me A Card.”
The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, edited by S.A. Griffin and Alan Kaufman
You remember that reading list from grad school? You’re not gonna find them in here, either. It’s important to remember that the poetry of “marginalized” groups also have a long history of finding each other, bouncing ideas off each other, making the invisible visible for ALL kinds of crazy ideas, people, and places. So yes, you’ll find Latino poets in here, but you’ll also find James Dean, Hunter S. Thompson, Diane di Prima, Ishmael Reed, Sapphire, Amiri Baraka, and dozens more. It’s a big book. Worth every penny.
Canto General, by Pablo Neruda. Translation by Jack Schmitt.
Yes, Neruda is that poet. Lush images, big ideas, breathtaking vistas and histories. But this book, in particular, is a throwback to a time when poets were not merely lyrical. It’s a book of the history of the South American continent, a book of witness and advocacy, and the literal and metaphorical journey of a poet from the ground to the mountaintop. Best of all, though, Neruda turns everyday people like you and me, campesino to albañil, into the subjects of an epic poem worthy of canonization alongside The Iliad and The Odyssey. Schmitt’s translation of the entire book is pretty good. But the poet Tomas Morín has also undertaken a translation of the book’s central section, “The Heights of Machu Picchu.” Of course, you could just do yourself a favor and read that joint in Spanish.
Papiros de Babel: Antología de la Poesía Puertorriqueña en Nueva York, edited by Pedro López Adorno
If you can find this book, own this book. Puerto Rican poetry in New York did not begin and end with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Our national poet, Julia de Burgos, lived and died in New York. Clemente Soto Velez spent time here too. As did a host of Boricua poets, chronicled in this volume from 1898-1991. It’s in Spanish. Read it. Or let somebody read it to you. It’s your history, and it’s worth it just to read Soto Velez saying that the purpose of the poet is the set fire to humanity and to make it glow. (While you’re at it, pick up Puerto Rican Poetry, edited by Roberto Márquez, which picks up the history from before Columbus.)
Okay. Ya tu sabes. Five books. Which kinda turned into seven books. Eight.
BUY THESE BOOKS NOW…
I’m not sorry!