Monica Wendel for Word for Word Poetry, July 2nd, 2013
This past Tuesday, the Bryant Park
Reading Room welcomed CantoMundo, an organization
dedicated to supporting and developing Latino poets and poetry. The three poets
– Norma Cantú, Anthony Cody, and Urayoán Noel – had recently returned from a CantoMundo, workshop over the weekend, and perhaps this accounted for their ease
with each other and comfort onstage. That congenial atmosphere continued after
the reading, when audience members and readers took shelter from the rain
outside and continued an informal discussion of poetry under the Bryant Park
Featuring the poets of CantoMundo
Norma Cantú, one of the founders of CantoMundo, began the evening with poems that reflected on borders. Born in Nuevo Lardeo, Tamaulipas, and raised in Laredo, Texas, Cantú’s poems swarmed with ghosts. “I want to tell you of the many who have died,” she said after thanking “the spirits who join us.” In her work, the border between the living and the dead is unsecured, shifting like a river changing course.
Her poem “Border Triptych” followed the trail of migrants from El Salvador, to Mexico, to Texas. But instead of defining people by their nations (a boundary that feels artificial in the world her work created), these poems simply called out, “We are.” After all, “In the valley the river runs dry. Governments will fade,” and it is the people who remain. An earlier poem described how the border “is not a scar, it is a wound that still bleeds.”
Anthony Cody took the stage next. While Cantú is a noted scholar and professor at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, Cody is a newer poet whose work has not yet been widely published. (Hopefully that won’t be the case for long – his poems were intimate and lyrical.) Cody hails from Fresno, where he worked with the Southeast Asian community in Central Valley, CA. Many of his poems were about childhood and growing up, the struggle of surviving.
Memory has weight, and Cody’s poems used tangible objects: a lemon, squeezed and stirred with salt; an aluminum baseball bat; a bouquet beside a headstone; the meat cleaver of a butcher; river stones deaf to dreams. Cody’s penultimate poem, “Returning Home,” was written to speak out for peace in honor of a friend who went to war, and this poem provided the flip side of memory: forgetting. What are we to make of a war that leaves “no trace of human suffering”? The poet steps in here and leaves a record.
Urayoán Noel jumped into the reading without introductory remarks, allowing the poems to speak for themselves. The way he used different voices for different characters, and his song-like cadence, resembled storytelling. Just as Cantú explored physical borders, Noel’s work explored theoretical and literary boundaries, pushing the limits of translation. For example, his poem “United States” was composed using an anagram smartphone app. Noel then rearranged these anagrams:
state untied …
Does this make him a writer? An editor? A creator? A DJ remixing tracks? He asked these questions himself, and his next poem was a line by line homophonic translation of a Spanish-language poem. Homophonic translation resembles the children’s game of “Telephone.” Noel “wrote” the poem by reading a line (in Spanish) into a voice transcriber, but leaving the language on English. The mechanical transcriber then “translated” the line in Spanish into English based on the sounds of the words rather than the meaning.Does this sound esoteric, or overly experimental? The result was neither. Instead, the poem was funny and profound, bringing up questions of how we create meaning and understand language, which in turn reflected on how we understand each other. During his final poem, Noel said that “when I speak I am not faithful.” I wondered if he meant faithful to the original text in a translation, or faithful to himself, or faithful to the audience. But the audience was there with him, as he read in Spanish, and English, following the poem into the “complementary strangeness where beauty comes from.” By the end of the night, I was reminded of the rivers that wove through Norma Cantú’s poems – how the water shapes the banks, and how the banks shape the water. In that space where substances and languages meet, things not only change: they come alive.
Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review, 2013) and the chapbook Call it a WIndow (Midwest Writing Center, 2012). She holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU, where she was awarded both Goldwater and Starworks teaching fellowships. Her poetry has appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Lamba Literary Review, Nimrod, and other journals. The former writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando, Florida, she currently lives in Brooklyn and works as a visiting instructor of composition at St. Thomas Aquinas College.