Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

Sheryl Luna: What were some of the reasons the CantoMundo founders had for starting the organization? Does the banning of books by Chicano/a authors in Arizona affect CantoMundo’s goals and purpose in any way?

 

 

Norma E. Cantú: The reasons we felt that CM needed to exist are many: some are selfish (at least for me) as they speak to our individual need to come together with like-minded poets where we can speak our languages and do our work without being judged or silenced. In broader terms, we felt that it was high time that a Cave Canem kind of organization exist for Latina/o poets. Macondo is great, but it is not JUST poets; it includes other genres–fiction, essay, and even drama. The banning of our books in Arizona affects all of us who write.

 

Celeste Guzman Mendoza: The primary reason that I decided to become a co-founder was because I believed, and still believe, that Latino writers need a space where they can convene and be 100% themselves as writers and as gente, a space where they and their writing, no matter the style, could be accepted and supported unconditionally. I strongly believe that when we as writers have this center, this support, we create much stronger work, both in terms of its own emotional core and craft. The banning of books in Arizona only reaffirms why communities like CantoMundo are so important.

 

Deborah Paredez: I was invited by Pablo, Norma, Carmen, and Celeste after they had had a series of encounters wherein they wondered aloud, “Where is the Latina/o Cave Canem or Kundiman?” I answered the call because I believe that ideas of aesthetics and “professional success” are invariably racialized and gendered and that by creating this space for Latina/o poets, we could collectively identify and intervene in the prevailing (and troubling) assumptions that often undergird these issues in the poetry world.  I also was thrilled by the idea of being part of a community made up of the diverse array of Latina/o poets with whom I could learn so much and have some of the necessary hard conversations that can’t always be had in “mixed” company.

Luna: How do you feel CantoMundo can help Latina poets in particular, now and in the future?

Mendoza: Think I answered this in my reasoning for becoming a co-founder. I think I’ll add that when we feel supported we begin to feel more confident in our work and voice. We submit our writings to more contests, we enter our work into anthologies, we go out and look for opportunities…ultimately, the strength of the group helps us challenge ourselves. It is not the same for everyone but I do feel that for many of us it challenges us to improve every aspect of our “game” so to speak. We bring it in a way that is much stronger after we are in one another’s orbit.

Paredez: I think the particular challenges that female poets face in this historical moment (as opposed to even 25 years ago when I was just beginning my “adult” life as a poet) is the pervasive and insidious notion that we should be past or “post” any number of important aesthetic, generic, or theoretical categories: post-feminist, post-confessional, post-sincerity, post-race, post-narrative, post-language…post-nauseum.  This sort of teleological thinking is especially detrimental to women of color who are simultaneously (and systematically) excluded from publication venues or taxonomies of aesthetic value while being told that race/gender/etc. has nothing to do with the terms of their exclusion because we are all so over that.  CM provides a space to name this beast and encourages Latina poets to gather together to fashion the weapons to slay it.  We also insist on a feminist mode of engagement at our workshops: everyone is accountable and respectful and encouraged to examine the implications of the power dynamics in which we may be invested. Not a safe space—that is too facile—but a place of productive risk.  We are lucky that our co-founders include Norma Cantú and Carmen Tafolla who were instrumental participants in  Latina writers’ efforts as part of the second wave feminist movements.  This living historical memory insists we keep our eye on the long view rather than being distracted for too long by the mirage of post- anything except maybe the post office or the particular struggles a post-partum poet might face.

Cantú: CantoMundo can help Latina poets in three specific ways: 1.  networking so that the Latina poet doesn’t feel all alone—knowing that there are others out there supporting and believing in your work can be transformative. 2.  Offering a place to try out new work, to expose oneself to the scrutiny of other poets who will tell it like it is, who will be kind, but most of all will be HONEST about your work. And 3. By providing a space where we can leave our families and our daily demands behind and come and just be a POET.  In the future, I think CM can also grow and become an oasis for Latina poets who may be in a desert out there where there are no other Latinas writing—mostly here I am speaking of those of us in academia who may end up in geographical and cultural isolation.

Luna: What has CantoMundo already done to foster its mission?

Mendoza: I believe that the community of poets who have come and shared themselves and their work are benefitting greatly from one another in various ways, whether it is simply finding like-minded writers or being challenged to write differently, or helping one another get reading gigs, etc. I also feel that when we participate in the workshops themselves we delve deep and write from an emotional center that is very strong and shows in the work.

Cantú : The most important thing CM has done to foster its mission is to exist! Given the dire financial straits of the arts and arts organizations, we have been very lucky to have the funding from UT Austin to make the summer workshops happen. So, the workshops are number one—that is how most of our mission our goals are met.  I also think that having the readings and inviting major figures in Latino/a poetry as faculty and as readers has also been a fulfillment of our mission.

Paredez: Because we started out as a collective of founders, we are accustomed to the (often fraught) process of collaboration.  Each year, we’ve taken seriously the valuable feedback from our fellows and faculty to improve our ability to create an emotionally nurturing and creatively challenging space for Latina/o poets.  We work closely with our fiscal sponsors, The Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, to endeavor every year to keep costs down for fellows and to share with them the resources an institution like the university can provide. We are also really proud of the ways the fellows have taken ownership of CantoMundo by curating regional CantoMundo readings and events beyond the workshop space.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of CantoMundo?

Cantú: My own vision for CM focuses on a pivotal point: growth and maturity. As the organization continues to grow and mature, CM will become as well-known as Cave Canem or Kundiman. At five years old, we are probably still at the childhood level. We are not yet teenagers, but we have the energy and vision of youth. As CM ages, it will come into its own by developing the goals we have for the next 5, 10, and 20 years including publishing books, awarding prizes, and holding academic conferences on the subject of Latina/o poetry.

Mendoza: I envision CantoMundo continuing to be a space for Latina/o poets to convene and create community however we see fit at that time. My primary goal is for us to perfect as best we can the workshop experience. If we do other things like a publication or some other offshoot that will be exciting and new but our core is the workshop and supporting the fellows’ in their work.

Paredez: I envision CM taking part in cultivating a larger trend of Latina/o poets mentoring one another (imagine!) as more and more Latina/o poets achieve professional success and standing both within and beyond the traditional spaces within the poetry world.  Other goals and dreams include sponsoring a book prize and residencies and innovative outreach programming with Latina/o communities who’ve not yet had the opportunity to imagine themselves as poets.

 

Luna: What are some of the ways being a CantoMundo fellow has helped you as a poet?

Gloria Amescua: My poetic world exploded—in a good way, of course. I worked for years in isolation and then in small groups. CantoMundo unlocked countless doors for myself and others. I have grown from the supportive environment and the wonderful workshops led by invited poets and fellows.  Not having gone through a formal creative writing program, I was unaware of the many blogs, writing residencies, conferences and many other resources available for writers. The postings in CantoMundo Charla and elsewhere are extremely valuable. Fellows in this network share leads to amazing poems, books, interviews, and poetry readings. As a result, I’m tuned in to the changing literary world. I am in constant learning mode, trying out different styles, subjects, and forms as I access the diverse poetry of my CantoMundo fellows and those poets they admire. More than ever, I am motivated to write, send out work for publication, enter contests and be involved in various networks of poets. The organization encourages lively interactive discussions about Latin@ poetics, which I value highly. CantoMundo really has been transformational. I treasure the intellectual stimulation of this community of learned people and their willingness to share from their abundance. One vital aspect is being able to experience the poetry of CantoMundo fellows. The diversity and honesty of their poetry has pushed me to dig even deeper and to challenge myself. My writing has definitely improved as a result, and I am working on my first manuscript.  I feel that I am in the midst of an intellectual, artistic and literary revolution in poetry. CantoMundo has definitely been the experience of a lifetime.

ire’ne lara silva: CantoMundo helped me to remember that I am a poet and that I would always be one–even if several years of writing prose had made me start to believe that there was very little poetry left in me. It introduced me to writers I have long admired–as Fellows and as Faculty–and to new poets that have changed how I see the work of making poems, how we approach language, and how we weave our histories and identities into our work. CantoMundo made me part of a loving and supportive community and created a space for lasting friendships and artistic collaborations.

Luna: How do you feel about CantoMundo’s fostering of Latina poets?

Amescua: Since I became a fellow in CantoMundo, my circle of supportive Latina poets has expanded exponentially from the local community. I am so honored to be part of a national network, which includes incredible Latina poets. I communicate through email or Facebook with several Latina poets and have reviewed their poems and/or manuscripts, and they have given me feedback as well. I discovered Hedgebrook’s Writing Residency for women through Amalia Leticia Ortiz, whom I met during the inaugural workshop. She not only encouraged and helped me with my application, but several other CantoMundo poets have also applied and been accepted as a result. This is just one example of support for one another. We promote each other’s works, interviews and readings. I was motivated to organize a Southwest Regional CantoMundo Poetry Reading for the community in San Antonio, Texas. We have had several regional readings across the U.S. in 2012-2013.  As I’m sure many others do, I share many of the ideas and information I get from CantoMundo. I especially do that with Mujeres Morenas, my local writing group of Latinas. CantoMundo and its network expands beyond the fellows, which is especially helpful to Latina poets. I’m thrilled with my fellow CantoMundistas for their publications and their awards. I can see the tremendous output of my fellow Latinas and am encouraged by their success, not only for myself but also for other Latina writers.

silva:  I think that the very structure of CantoMundo lends itself to women poets. Beginning with the four-day schedule (Thursday evening-Sunday morning) which is more likely to allow women with children, other caregiving responsibilities, multiple jobs, or with fewer economic resources to participate. The organizational emphasis on respectful exchange, ‘checking in one’s ego,’ giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak as well the community’s acceptance of personal stories, emotional openness, and speaking in varying registers (from academic to performative to familial) makes a space for women to speak ‘from the heart’ and without having to downplay their wisdom or intellect.

It’s interesting to me to see how CM’s insistence on gender parity also works to support Latina poets. For one, it introduces us to male poets that we might not ever have met as part of a life-changing, art-affirming, close-knit communal experience. As poets living our individual lives, what keeps us persistently writing and continually developing are the networks we create. The more multi-faceted and unique they are, the better. And the bonds built during CantoMundo– at the retreat and year-round–are indispensable, whether between women, between men, or between women and men.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of this organization?

silva: In my vision, CantoMundo is still growing and developing decades from now–bringing Latin@ poets together and creating opportunities for connection and dialogue. I wish for CantoMundo all of the things that will provide more publishing and networking opportunities for its Fellows: CM book publication prizes, grants, and a literary review; a website that promotes CM poets; and cross-country readings and reunions for current and graduated Fellows.

Amescua: The founders of CantoMundo had a magnificent vision for this organization, and they have seen their vision embodied in the five years since its founding through their hard work. They have devoted time, energy and love to support and serve Latin@ poets. The promise of CantoMundo as a community will multiply as more fellows graduate. I envision an increased network of CantoMundo fellows who continue to promote the work of Latin@s and are increasingly recognized for their poetry.  I would like to see an increased web presence, more opportunities for instruction and publications by our organization—anthologies, single works, or media versions of readings. This past year we had several regional readings, and I can see these expanding and evolving into more than just readings, perhaps involving workshops for local communities, so that the learning doesn’t just stay within the CantoMundo circle. CantoMundo is an amazing force. I feel fortunate to be a part of the outreach to the community, where we are all planting seeds beyond the CantoMundo fields. The harvest: Latin@ poets empowering themselves and each other

 

CantoMundo Founders

Norma E. Cantú currently serves as Professor of Latina/o Studies and English at the University of Missouri in Kansas City; she is Professor Emerita at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her PhD in English from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and has taught at Texas A&M International University, the University of California, Santa Barbara,  and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

As editor of a book series, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo: Borderlands Culture and Tradition, at Texas A&M University Press, and Literatures of the Americas at Palgrave  she promotes the publication of research on borderlands culture. Author of the award-winning Canícula Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, and co-editor of Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change (2002),Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001) and Dancing Across Borders: Danzas y Bailes Mexicanos (2009) and of Inside the Latin@ Experience: A Latin@ Studies Reader (2010) and El Mundo Zurdo: Selected Works from the Meetings of the Society for the  Study of Gloria Anzaldúa 2007 & 2009 (2010),  she is currently working on a novel tentatively titled: Champú, or Hair Matters/Champú: Asuntos de pelos, and an ethnography of the Matachines de la Santa Cruz, a religious dance drama from Laredo, Texas. She is founder and Director of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa and co-founder of the group of Latina/o poets, CantoMundo as well as a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.

Deborah Paredez is the author of the poetry collection, This Side of Skin (2002) and the critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Mandorla, Palabra, Poet Lore and elsewhere. Her honors include an Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Paredez is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latina/o poets, and she is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin where she teaches in the New Writers School MFA program.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza is a Macondista, Hedgebrook resident, and co-founder of CantoMundo, a master writer’s workshop for Latina/o poets. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various anthologies published by Penguin, Calaca Press, Eakin Press and Wings Press. Her first, full-length poetry manuscript, Beneath the Halo, is due out in Spring 2013 by Wings Press. Her chapbook, Cande te estoy llamando, won the Poesia Tejana Prize in 1999. A performer and playwright, Mendoza’s plays have been produced in Austin and San Antonio. She is at work on a second poetry manuscript, and lives in Austin with her husband and three cats.

 

CantoMundo Fellows

Gloria Amescua is an inaugural member of CantoMundo, a national Latino poetry community. Gloria has been published in a variety of journals, including several di-verse-city anthologies, Kweli Journal, Generations Literary Journal, Texas Poetry Calendar, Acentos Review, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Pilgrimage. A workshop presenter for youth and adults, Gloria is an alumna of Hedgebrook’s Writers-in-Residence program. She recently won first place in both the Austin International Poetry Festival Contest and the Austin Poetry Society Award.

ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, and is the author of two chapbooks:  ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Her first collection of short stories, flesh to bone, will be published by Aunt Lute Press in 2013. ire’ne is the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo Workshop member, and a CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow.  She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

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Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows