Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Lil' Libros- Little Libros for Little Hands

The Lil' Libros series introduce bilingual literature to the youngest readers; newborns to three-year-olds. Patty Rodríguez and Ariana Stein are the creators of this wonderful libritos. For more information visit

La Llorona: Counting Down/Contando Hacia Atrás
Inspired by one of the oldest folktales ever told, this book will introduce your little ones to their first English and Spanish numbers and words. 

Counting With/Contando Con Frida
This biographical bilingual little libro will introduce your little to one to the life of Mexico's most iconic painters, Frida Kahlo , while teaching them their first numbers (1-10) English and Spanish!

Loteria: First Words/Primeras Palabras
Inspired by one of the oldest games of chance, this book will introduce your little reader to their first English and Spanish words!

Zapata: Colors/Colores
This biographical bilingual little libro will teach your little one to their first colors in English and Spanish while introducing them to the life of Emiliano Zapata, a historical figure in Mexico's Revolution history!

Lucha Libre: Anatomy/Anatomia
Inspired by the colorful world of freelance wrestling, this little libro will introduce your little one to the human body in English and Spanish! 

Guadalupe: First Words/Primeras Palabras

Inspired by the story of Our Lady Of Guadalupe, this little libros will introduce your little one to his first words in English and Spanish! 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Casa de Colores Call for Poets. Thanksgiving Give-away Follow-up. December On-line Floricanto. Casa0101 Benefit.

Call for Poets: United States of America Poet Laureate Constructing Una Casa de Colores

Juan Felipe Herrera at Poets Forum of the Academy of American Poets.
Herrera calls on poets to invite three poets to submit to Casa de Colores.
From Juan Felipe Herrera’s Facebook page
Hope you holidays were warm and groovy -- and continue to be so. Here is an update on Casa de Colores - House of Colors online web project I started as part my Laureate work at the Library of Congress:

CASA DE COLORES update & Call:

We collected a good number of poems for the first theme on Family. Thank you so much. I was very inspired by the the bilingual entries! Beautiful and most moving, real poems. The second theme on Migrant Portraits and Friendship was magnificent as well - from so many countries and states in the USA! Please keep them coming!

We have a challenge: There is so much more to say (and for people to hear you):
Casa Pep Talk:

We need many more peoples to enter poems. And more people from more states. By the way we have many from Texas. Hoorah! Come on California, we need you - and Alabama, Montana, Georgia, Florida, Maine, Wisconsin, Indiana, Idaho, Ohio -- Hey Alaska, I am waiting for you. Come on Wyoming.. hand me the baton with your poems in it. More representation from all states. I know we are just on our third theme, third round of poems -- Language Weavers. It is a chance to be your all-out bilingual self - let people hear you, the real you.

If each one of us invites 3 people to enter 1 short poem, we are on our way. 

I am calling on you to be a Casa de Colores - House of Colors Ambassador Recruiter, Mover. Our goal is 10,000 by the end of this year (it is a long- long ways from what we have...I say 10,000 because we can do it -- just invite 2-3 each...Yes).

Read some entries to get your vegetarian menudo cookin' -- La Casa website: (Click the links on the page)

I want to thank you ahead of time -- you are busy. Let's bash on, roll-up your tortillas, unfurl your cilantro - let your voices and the voices of our communities come out, be national and available wherever there is an internet connection, be global. All you gotta do is tap in with your voices - which are Beautiful.

Personal Diary:
I met a mother in Miami a few days ago. She was frustrated. She had no where to run because she was looking for books for her son. Nothing was available, she told me. Very little at best. I told her I was going to do something about it. Casa de Colores is it! This is why I am asking you to write and recruit others: so her son and so many other children and young people and all of us can read the voices of the people - you.
Gracias so much!!!

Casa de Colores -- is for you, for all. Poetry hugs, JFH

Thanksgiving Give-away Follow-up

No, Mr. Carlson, turkeys cannot fly. However, other annual promotions for el día de acción de gracias mean good eating for lucky winners.

Rarely, however, do everyday gente get noted in the news. Instead publics are treated to fotos of celebrities serving down-on-their-opportunity poor and homeless. Thus, La Bloga welcomed a follow-up report from a Southern California news company’s food and fun sharing program.

For newspaper coverage of the events haz klik aquí para Excelsior, and here for Register, and for more fotos of happy gente taking thanksgiving together, here.

December On-line Floricanto
Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas, Jan G. Otterstrom, Lara Gularte, María Dolores Bolívar, Armando Guzman

The Moderators of the Facebook poetry community, Poets Responding to SB 1070: Poetry of Resistance, nominate five poets for this year’s final La Bloga On-line Floricanto.

"Refugee / Syriana" by Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas
"Disquieting" by Jan G. Otterstrom
"Don't Scorn the Dead Who Are Ourselves" by Lara Gularte
"Donaldo Trompas/Donald Trump" por María Dolores Bolívar
“Blood and Bones” by Armando Guzman

Refugee / Syriana
by Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas

Look at his voyage of one million hymns of evacuees;
my brother, trust me; he feels your agony.
To see the olive tree that his father planted collapsing in the vastness.
To wave good bye at the crumbling panorama of his childhood
Would he ever feel the shadow of the tree and the tender song of home?

He mourns quietly with you; under his tent, during his prayer
Looking at his people moving like songs of peace;
some falling prey to the evils of terror and insecurity
away from extreme malice; from blasts, from assaults
along the valley where the God of humans and spirits wept.

To pick the body of his little brother ashore floating likes a small flag
To see the song of his sanctuary destroyed like a resuscitating prayer
To see the famishing eyes of his wife like the eyes of Gods imploring for peace
To see the limping souls of his songs like the future speaking to your humanity
To walk down the street with a beaten hopefulness like rising after too many falls
To look where the sun raises and sets; yearning for a moment in the cycle of peace.

My brother: he has too mourned moments of uncertainty.
Besides the blue shorelines of one thousand prayers
By the white savannas and deserts, gravel and streams
Along the red of excruciating history frozen in his gasp.

My brother: trust me, he feels your agony.
Look with the eyes of your soul
We too, have escaped the malice and the smell of putrefying terror
They are refugees, we are émigrés; tu me comprendes.
We didn’t come for glory; we came to survive
We are here to plant this emblem of harmony…
Nous sommes ici pour planter cet emblème de l'harmonie ...

by Jan G. Otterstrom

Disquieting to think, question
reasons why, politicians talk
of peace a lie, bombs, bullets
industries of bloody destruction
calamity, murder, self-defense
missiles, rockets, ships, subs
electronic gear need demand
to keep factories running, jobs
secure, freedom drones elicit
terrorist response, vicious circle
cycle of terror, fattens moguls
prices for shares, collateral
deaths far from home, sides
justify their crimes, as needed
for peace, monsters, criminals
keep their critics in check
media cheers fear, vengeance
vigilance as widows mourn, bury
their dead, cries drowned out
by promotional rhetoric, displaced
immigrants left with one recourse
take to roads as borders close
innocent casualties of evil men
profiteers drugged, aphrodisiacs
of arrogance, power and greed
kind of men, a world does not need.
© Jan G. Otterstrom F.
November 18, 2015

I am living in Costa Rica since 1989, a retired lawyer but writing poetry all my life. I have 10 published books to my name. Information about them can be found on my page and at

I am 71 years old so I have the accumulated experience necesaary for poetry, also a love of language and the works of my peers in art. In the 1980s I was active in Native American causes in the Northwest. I was also recognized in Cuba where two of my books were published. My book TELAR, a book in spanish is in its second addition in South America. I have a new book ready of about 200 poems in which DISQUIETING is included. I am looking for a new commercial publisher.

Estoy viviendo en Costa Rica desde 1989, un abogado jubilado pero escribir poesía durante toda mi vida. Tengo 10 libros publicados a mi nombre. Información acerca de ellos se puede encontrar en mi página y en soy 71 años, así que tengo la experiencia necesaary acumulada por la poesía, también el amor por la lengua y las obras de mis compañeros en el arte. En la década de 1980 que estaba activo en causas de nativos americanos en el Noroeste. También me reconocí en Cuba, donde se publicaron dos de mis libros. Mi libro TELAR, un libro en español se encuentra en su segunda adición en América del Sur. Tengo un nuevo libro listo de cerca de 200 poemas en los que DISQUIETING (inquietantes) incluido. Estoy buscando un nuevo editor comercial.

by Lara Gularte

Nights I wait for signs of her coming,
a face in half-light, pale tissue of heartbeat.
Perhaps the orb moving past me in the hallway,
the air scented with the dying curl of Jasmine.
I wait for the clock to fall exhausted into dream state,
finally close my eyes in sleep.
A hole of light pours through the ceiling,
and my future visits me, a specter
in a grainy black and white vision.
I stare into her phantom face,
and see myself as I will be.
She slumps into my arms like a limp pieta,
body translucent, cool to touch.
I spread my arms open,
and fall awake.
Years ahead of us move in parallel worlds,
never touching.
Someday, not yet, a crossing over.
First published in “The Bitter Oleander.”

Lara Gularte was featured in the Autumn 2014 issue of The Bitter Oleander with an interview and 18 poems. Her poetic work depicting her Azorean heritage is included in a book of essays called "Imaginários Luso-Americanos e Açorianos" by Vamberto Freitas. Her poems can be found in The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Poetry. Gularte earned an MFA degree from San Jose State University where she was a poetry editor for Reed Magazine, received the Anne Lillis Award for Creative Writing, and several Phelan Awards. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Bitter Oleander, California Quarterly, The Clackamas Review, Evansville Review, Permafrost, The Monserrat Review, The Water-Stone Review, The Fourth River, The Santa Clara Review, and she has been published by many national and regional anthologies. She is an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine.

Donaldo Trompas
por María Dolores Bolívar

Este racista ambicioso
de hispanos se hizo su taco
nos devaluó el mentiroso
mi testimonio destaco…

Un muro piensa erigir
por llanos, desiertos y ríos
no acierta él a colegir
tan tamaño desafío…

Déjenlo que lo construya
digo yo que si conozco
que se chamusque en las dunas
con el pelo hirsuto y hosco

Por los rápidos del Bravo
zozobre tan triste pájaro…
ah qué prole de a centavo
que sigue a tan triste ácaro…

Como táctica asegura
deportará mexicanos…
tremenda tarea se augura
este negociante avaro…

De aprendiz la hacía hace poco
dueño de universidad patito…
el final ay se los debo
pa’ la elección de al ratito…

Las encuestas encabeza
este odioso comediante…
el cabello ya se entiesa
bajo la gorra el magnate…

Y Jorge Ramos ya va
demonios para mi cortejo…
En español lo entrevista
a ese monolingüe viejo…

Hable American Trump increpa
jua, jua, jua, jua, ra, jua, jua…
¡Ya ni a Vespucio respeta!
Juar, juar, juar, jua, rar, juar, juar…

Donald Trump
by María Dolores Bolívar

This determined racist
falsified for might…
Served Mexicans to his guests
my testimony I highlight…

A wall he counts on building
through deserts, rivers and plains…
In details he is failing
such challenge to ascertain…

Let him build that wall
say I knowing the terrain…
In the dunes he’ll see burn
his coarse and bristly hair…

Through the rapids of Rio Grande
I wish this sad bird’s demise…
Little followers of this debutante
are the kind to follow mite…

As a tactic he’s pledged
all Mexicans he will deport…
What a task alleged
for a stingy-businessman’s report

Not long ago an apprentice
owning a university scam…
The great finale still pends
the election not far…

The polls place him on top
this hateful baboon…
His stiff hair will rot
in his role of tycoon…

And Jorge Ramos goes
a demon in the procession…
In Spanish he dialogs
at the monolingual demonstration…

Speak American Trump babbles
Babble, babble, babble, babble…
The name of Vespucci he gabbles!
Gabble, gabble, gabble, gabble….

María Dolores Bolívar is writer, journalist and lecturer of Interpretation and Translation and US Mexican Border Studies. She lives in Southern California. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of California in San Diego. She is the author of Ciudad que se me escapa, De espaldas al mar, Éxodos de ida y vuelta, and La palabra (H)era, 1st place in the 16th Chicano Latino Literary Prize, Unversity of California Irvine. As an essay and chronicle writer she is the author of Zacatecas polvo y luz; and as a script writer she is currently promoting the screenplays Francisca and Rosario–fictionalized stories of Mexican woman born and raised in 19th Century California- and Corral de Tierra, based on the fictionalized account of the outlaw Tiburcio Vázquez.

The style of writing verses in the form of octavillas (or eight syllable lines) is an old tradition that stretches back to the times when people reported events orally, while reciting poems. I wrote this poem in Spanish. Translating words and ideas is no easy task, let alone translating humor and the between-the-line messages that go with complex political issues. I had fun writing this poem/calavera. The times called for me to write one on this Donaldo Trompas/Donald Trump. The word “trompas” is here quipped as having a big mouth, in the figurative sense of using coarse speech, and a baffling lack of diplomacy to express. I also wanted to stress the irony of names –untranslatable- particularly when it comes to “American”, coming from the name of the Florentine Explorer Amerigo Vespucci, and used by Trump and his friend and cohort Sarah Palin, to incorrectly designate the English Language spoken in the US.

Blood and Bones
by Armando Guzman

Nos quieren enterrar.
They want to bury us;
erase any remains,
and deny our birthrights.
Siembran nuestros huesos;
fosas comunes y ocultas.
They plant our bones;
mass graves and silence.
Esta tierra es nuestra libertad.
This land is our liberty.
La sangre derramada no se esconde.
Los ríos corren con lágrimas y sangre..
You can not hide the spilled blood.
The rivers run with tears and blood.
Calaveras. Calacas. La huesuda.
The Calaveras will rise for justice.
Buried skulls will serve as testament;
forgotten bones carry the truth.
Esta tierra es de nosotros.
Este pueblo será unido.
This land is our own.
With blood and bones we will rise.

Armando Guzman is a poet born in Nogales Sonora Mexico. Pueblo entre los cerros that is divided by steel and concrete. He has written "60 Miles From Heroica" and is releasing another chapbook entitled "Burque Soul" with Marcial Delgado of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Contact at

Casa 0101 Hosts December Benefit

Among Boyle Heights' most interesting cultural spots is Josefina Lopez' Casa0101. Featuring professional teatro, Casa0101 sponsors numerous art exhibitions and youth-oriented dance and acting classes, along with some for adults.

Maintaining an active cultural locus is expensive. Admissions in a small house don't cover all the bills. And free or donation-based classes bring in only emotional capital.

To help Casa0101 make ends meet such ambitious programming, Casa is hosting a fundraiser on December 5, 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. around the themes of Prayers From Los Angeles and Our Voices Through Art and Music. The long-range goal is to make the event annual sharing.

In time for holiday buying, the 11:00 opening features an Art Benefit Marketplace/Sale. On display and sale are the art of such luminaries as Margaret Garcia, Heriberto Luna, Shea Stella, Rodrigo D. Manzano, Javier Herrera, Brett Doran Photography, & the Circle of Women Artists of the Stamp Project: Creating Cultural Currency.

The 4:00 p.m. concert spotlights Latin Grammy nominated Demain Galvez of Centavrvs & Los Dorados, Sound Ministry Gurus music production collective w/ Derek O'Brien & Stan Dewitt, Extra Fancy (Acoustic Set) w/ Brian Grillo Songs by Corrina Carter, Nataasja, & glam folk songwriter Jellykka. Production & documentation by Loaded Bomb Records & Productions. Graphic Art by Green Lion Design Studio's Martin Gonzales.

More information here:

Monday, November 30, 2015

Claudia Castro Luna, Seattle’s Civic Poet

Xánath Caraza

Otoño by Xánath Caraza

En mi reciente visita a Seattle tuve el gusto de conocer a Claudia Castro Luna, Seattle’s Civic Poet.  Originaria de El Salvador ha pasado la mayor parte de su vida en el northwest.  Hoy una entrevista a Castro Luna, quien amablemente ha aceptado compartir sus palabras con los lectores de La Bloga.

Claudia Castro Luna (Photo by Carmen Carrion)
Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is Claudia Castro Luna?  How do you define yourself as an author?

Claudia Castro Luna (CCL) is Seattle’s Civic Poet, the recipient of a King County 4Culture grant and a Jack Straw Fellow. Born in El Salvador she came to the United States in 1981. She has an MA in Urban Planning, a teaching certificate and an MFA in poetry from Mills College. She writes because the flesh remembers even when the mind forgets and moving the hand across a page is a measure of resistance. Her poems have appeared in publications such as Riverbabble, the Taos Journal of Poetry and Art and City Arts among others.  She is working on a memoir about her experience escaping the Salvadoran Civil War; an excerpt of it appears in the 2014 Jack Straw Writers Anthology. Living in English and Spanish, Claudia writes and teaches in Seattle where she gardens and keeps chickens with her husband and their three children.


XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading?  Who guided you through your first readings? 

CCL: Both of my parents were teachers in El Salvador. Both of them were also big readers so growing up I was surrounded with books, newspapers and even magazines. My mother taught me to read and write when I was four years old. We had a small school desk at home and every afternoon when she came home from teaching 5th grade, we would do a lesson together. I’d sit at the little desk and practice reading and writing the day’s lesson. I remember clearly the afternoon my father came home with a volume of Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s stories. My mother opened the illustrated book and read from it, El patito feo -- The ugly duckling.  I could not hold back my tears hearing the sufferings of the young goose.


XC: How did you first become a poet?  Where were your first poems written? In which city? When did you start to publish?  And, what impact did seeing your first publications have on you?

CCL: My junior year of college I was an exchange student in France. It was there that I wrote my first formal poems. I worked really hard at them but the words on the page never met up with the ideas I had in my head. Somehow I wasn’t quiet satisfied with them. But I continued writing poems in my journals. After the birth of my second daughter I took writing seriously and enrolled in a poetry class at my local community college -- Laney College in Oakland, CA. It was while at Laney that my first poems were published and that I read them in public. A woman walked up to me after a Laney reading and asked me to sign her copy of the journal that had one of my poems. Her request was completely unexpected and left me feeling strange and invigorated at the same time.

Claudia Castro Luna

XC: Do you have any favorite poems by other authors?  Or stanzas?  Could you share some verses along with your reflection of what drew you toward that poem/these stanzas?

CCL: I have many favorite poets and I read their work over and over again. Pablo Neruda, Gioconda Belli, Wislawa Szymborska, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Sonia Sanchez, Marie Ponsot, Cecilia Vincuña. These authors are teachers and their poetry fills me and inspires me. Here is the opening of Gioconda Belli’s Armar tu vida:


“Armar tu vida.

Irla haciendo como rompe-cabezas.

Conjurar el futuro.

Construir la esperanza.”


XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?  Where do you write?  How often?

CCL: Writing time happens for me when my three kids are at school. I try to sit at my desk four to five times a week. From necessity I have learned to write in the mornings though I am more of a night person.  Sometimes I take advantage of weekend nights and stay up writing well until midnight. I write from home where I’ve set up a desk in a corner of the basement. To my right, a window looks out at the garden and chicken coop, to my left a love seat stands ready to curl up with a book or to re-read my own work. I often start writing by reading and the sofa is the perfect place for that. If I get an idea, I can get up and jot it down quickly at my desk.


XC: When do you know when a text/poem is ready to be read?  How have you developed as a writer/literary critic/poet?

CCL: First I know that a poem is ready when whatever is on the page matches the thought/emotion that engendered it in my mind.  I start with a thought/feeling and as I write my way into it I often end up coming across an unexpected thought, something I had not considered at all at the onset of the writing process. I love it when that happens. Actually it is necessary that a divergent point happen in the writing of the poem. Without that moment, there is no surprise and without a surprise for the writer, there cannot be one for the reader. Wherever I end up at the end of the road, I can always trace my way back to the kernel that first appeared in my mind.

The second thing I do to insure that a poem is complete is to read it out loud. Hearing the work is a great way to edit. Sometimes I record myself and make changes according to what I hear.  Sound is a guiding force. When the poem flows effortlessly from my mouth, I know it is done.

When I first started writing poems I was more driven by content.  One of the main things I took out of my MFA program is the importance of sound: how it informs and guides a poem.  I also pay a lot of attention to form. Finding the form, the vessel, in which to pour the poem is critical. Form is the engine fueling the rest of what takes place within the poem. So much meaning, feeling and force can be conveyed through the physical nature of the poem itself. Tension, alliances, passions, discord, is all conveyed through form. It took me a while to understand and internalize this concept because form can be invisible to the reader. The more poetry I read and write the more I value the role form plays in writing a poem. This is why writing a lot, in journals, notebooks, the back of envelopes, the corner of newspapers, is so important. Most of my poems never make it past an embryonic state. All those writings are experiments are word play. And play is key to developing a poetry muscle and honing a voice.


XC: Could you describe your activities as poet/author?

CCL: Before I became Seattle’s Civic Poet I had a writing and performing routine built around my home life. I wrote mornings while my kids were in school and met with a writing partner every Friday--for the most part. I attended readings around town on a monthly basis and also presented my work in many of the known poetry venues around town.

Since becoming Seattle’s Civic Poet my writing life has changed dramatically.  I’m finding that I have less time to dedicate to my own writing but I am also sharing my poetry and prose across many sectors of the city. This is one of my personal goals as civic poet: to share poetry with as many communities across the city, in locations not traditionally associated with the literary arts and especially to write poems with folks whose voices are not often heard.  So far, I have read at events involving a housing non-profit, a community development agency, a women’s rights organization, an environmental agency to list a few. I have been working with the Seattle Public Library designing a program to reach citizens at the local branches. I have also been in conversation with the Office of Neighborhoods and with other local non-profits with the aim of bringing poetry – writing it, reading it, sharing it – to as many corners of the city as possible. As Civic Poet my activities have become more outwardly focused – and I am blessed and welcome the opportunity – Poetry Matters!

Claudia Castro Luna

XC: Could you comment on your life as a social activist?

CCL: From social work, to union work, working for a Los Angeles City council member, teaching K-12, to doing community development work, all of my professional endeavors have had a social justice dimension. My writing is also political. It is political because as a woman, an immigrant, a person of color I’m embedded in a socio historical context that is political and ruthlessly unequal. I write my reality. In that sense writing moves beyond literary engagement and becomes justice work. Audre Lorde said it best, “For women, then poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence … Poetry is the way we hope give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”


XC: What project/s are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?

CCL: I have several projects that I’m working on. I’m producing a chapbook, Little Rose Garden of the Soul, consisting of a series of interlinked short poems honoring and demanding justice for the murdered women of Juarez. I wrote the poem as a work for multiple voices and had the honor to read it in July at the annual MALCS – Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social -- conference in Albuquerque. I read it with an amazing group at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. MALCS is a national organization of Chicana, Latina and Native American women. I am pursuing a recording of the poem in a professional sound studio to make it accessible as a podcast. The plan is to donate all proceeds from the chapbook sale to an organization working on women’s rights in the city of Juarez, Mexico.

I am also writing a memoir about my experience as a fourteen year old escaping the Salvadoran Civil War. One chapter of the memoir was published and a second one is coming out in an anthology of Salvadoran writers to be published in March, just in time for the AWP in Los Angeles. I also received a grant from 4Culture, the cultural services agency for King County, Washington, to conduct interviews and do research in El Salvador. I’m excited to be travelling there in the early weeks of 2016.

And continue to edit a book length manuscript of poems gathered under the title, This City. These are poems that speak to my fascination with the urban environment, the way in which the city limits and expands, enriches and marginalizes. The way in which we each make the city at the same time that the city shapes us.


XC: What advice do you have for other writers/poets?

CCL: I would tell young and new writers to write and write and write. I have been writing for many years and have kept journals since I was 15 years old. Reading the journals back I have found snippets and beginnings of poems and stories. But I did not trust myself enough to pursue it seriously even when it is what I most wanted to do. I wish I had come out of my shell sooner, perhaps then someone would have also encouraged my writing sooner.

Instead I waited until I was mature enough to encourage myself. I came to understand that nothing, not teaching, not community development work, not urban planning, not political work, nothing, was going to fulfill me as writing would. Once I understood that, I turned to writing with all my heart, fighting inner demons all the way, but staying true to the impulse.  And have since found people that believe and encourage my writing life – that is essential and necessary -- but not more necessary than believing in yourself and in your own need to commit to paper your dreams, fears and hopes.  

So I say write, put your heart down on paper. “Hay que insistir,” said the Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti. I firmly believe that.  Insist in yourself.


XC: What else would you like to share?

CCL: I am including a poem I wrote to explain my relationship with writing poetry – or how is it that I became a poet – or how I came to recognize something about myself that had always been there – or how poetry has been like a dog to me, insisting that I look at it, take notice, embrace it, because she was not about to leave me alone.


Lyric story

She had always been there

trailing me with scent of musk and torn book

take me in, she said one day with a bark

once command and twice seductive plea 

I felt her rough coat, every inch of her wild

her fluorescent eyes giving away nothing,

the fierceness of her canine teeth.

Panic swept me and I leapt

best to hug familiar territory

the way a toddler holds on

to her mother’s skirt

but she followed me up one year, down the next

nipping my ankles, sleeping at my feet

splicing my dreams with her untamed lease

she stayed on until I let her in

I let this dog that walked away from wolf

enter me whole, fur, tail, jaw

she’d long known that I belong to it

-- not the other way around

she nuzzled me away from self pity

“Be animal,” she said and returned me

to the wilderness inside myself

where flowers are words that hang from trees

tortillas are halos, and over moist ground

lyrics grow scattered and unattached.

©Claudia Castro Luna

Seattle by Xánath Caraza

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On Writing and Discovering the Secrets of the Universe: An Interview with Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Olga García Echeverría

If you haven't yet read Benjamin Alire Sáenz' YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I highly recommend it. It's been one of my favorite reads of 2015.
Sáenz' YA novel is a story about two teenage Mexican-American boys, Aristotle and Dante, who are coming of age in the late 1980's and who embark on a friendship that propels them into a journey of self-discovery. What does it mean to be young, brown, and awakening to one's gayness? The question prompts a multiplicity (a universe, perhaps) of possible responses. The secrets Ari and Dante yearn to tap into appear at times to be "out there," somewhere in the abstract universe, viewed from the eye of a telescope, but they are really, as the narrative makes evident, residing inside the body.
The body in this book is brown. It's bilingual. It's in the process of awakening to desires that are pure yet too many times socially/culturally forbidden. Ari and Dante have to figure out how to navigate the internalized shame and silences around their sexualities, but they are not the only characters haunted by shame and silence. Ari's father, a Vietnam veteran, can't seem to talk about the survivor's guilt he carries. And no one in Ari's family wants to talk about the son/brother Bernardo, who is serving a life sentence in prison. The need to "come out" and grapple with truth is not only a necessity of the teenage protagonists in this book but also that of the middle-aged adults who surround them. 

There is much more to say about this book, but I don't want to spoil the plot and its many surprises. Plus, we are honored to have Sáenz with us today at La Bloga, so we'll let him share some of his insights on the novel.

Despite that fact that Benjamin Alire Sáenz drove from New Mexico to California for a family reunion this past week, a sack of dry chile colorado as his driving companion, and despite the fact that upon arrival to his brother's he rolled up his mangas and made a large batch of cuernitos, raw apple cake, and participated in a family tamalada (we know how much work that takes), he still managed to correspond with me via email and Facebook (con cariño y gusto) and answer all my interview questions. Thank you, Ben, for being so generous with your time and words.

Ben Laughing at My Interview Questions (foto pirated from FB)

Welcome to La Bloga, Ben. I never tire of asking authors this initial question. When did you first start writing and why?
I first started writing in junior high (it wasn’t middle school back then). I wrote some story about a cat who found its way back home. The teacher read the story out loud to the students which embarrassed the hell out of me. And then, when I was in the seventh grade, I wrote this speech because I decided to run for Vice-President of Lynn Jr. High. Good speech. I was elected—even when I ran against two of the most popular gringos in our school. I think it was then, I realized that words were really powerful. And maybe there was a little pandering to the Latino vote. We were, after all, the majority.

In high school, I had a teacher who liked to assign us to write stories. She told me I had talent. She also told me I used too many cuss words. The truth is I always felt more comfortable around words than I did around other people. I was something of a fraud. I was miserable in high school—but I don’t think anyone around me would have gotten that vibe from me. It seemed like I was a happy guy. I wasn’t. I had some serious acne going on and some guy called me pizza face once. Who could be happy? I was more or less waiting for my life to begin—and I sure as hell knew that high school was not where life began. I left for college and my acne cleared up and life did in fact begin.

Was reading an early influence as well?

This was the thing: I really liked to read. And I didn’t come from a reading family—and the neighborhood I grew up didn’t value books. I was suspect from the very beginning. That’s why I started smoking. It helped me to fit in. The interesting thing is that I wasn’t all that interested in fitting in. I wanted to be me. But I didn’t know how to go about being me. Not knowing how to be me, I think I read mostly to escape. And then I started running into books that threw me back into the world in a very fierce and beautiful way. So reading went from a place of escape to a place where I could meet the complicated, cruel, and confusing world I lived in. Eventually, I encountered pieces of myself that mattered. I have too many favorite books, but here are a few: A Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, Absalom! Absolom! The Grapes of Wrath, Johnny Got His Gun, Great Expectations, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby . . . okay, I’m going to stop. I won’t mention living writers but there are a lot of great living writers I admire. And I won’t even begin to mention poets. Oh, and my favorite Shakespeare play: A Winter’s Tale. It may be his most flawed play. But it’s so fucking beautiful.

Humor me, what’s your astrological sign?

I’m a Leo. I’m a Leo through and through. I am incredibly loyal. But when I’m hurt, when I’m really, really hurt, well, maybe you don’t want to be in the same room.

Some people know from very young ages that they're queer or sexually different from the "norm." For me, it wasn't like that. I often say I evolved into my queerness (very slowly actually) and in many ways I am still discovering it. Can you share a little about your own journey of self-discovery?

I wasn’t in touch with myself to understand my own sexuality—and wouldn’t be for years. That people know at a young age. I think that is truly great. And if that’s the way it is for some people, well, it saves them a lot of grief. I’ve always managed to take the long road towards anything that really matters. (I didn’t start writing seriously until I was thirty). I think, because of my abuse, I didn’t really want to think about the fact that I had a body. I had an uncanny ability to shut that part of me off. I could write a book about how I finally came to terms with my sexuality—but I won’t. The reflective life is one thing. There’s enough of me in my work already—especially in my poetry.

Oh, you know, I have this thing with “Queer.” Never liked the word. I know our peeps have reclaimed the word as a verbal sign of empowerment. But, well, I’m old school. And really, I’m not pretending to be a gentleman that I’m not. Never went for the gentleman scholar thing. But queer left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it’s a function of my generation. Joto leaves the same bad taste in my mouth. I’m not the least bit offended when younger gay writers use the word. They’re just not words that I often use in my vocabulary and I certainly don’t use those words in reference to me.

Your character Dante seems to know who he is and what he likes (kissing boys), whereas Ari exists in a bit of a neblina; he's in an in-between, feeling his way through a difficult yet transformative time in his life. Can you share the inspiration behind Ari and Dante? Are they completely made up?

Nothing is completely made up. Everything a writer places himself/herself on the page with every word s/he writes. This is inevitable. When I started writing Ari and Dante, I had gone through a very long and painful healing process. I wanted to write a book about a boy who discovered who he was. (I love writing YA books, by the way). And so, I started writing the book. There was no thought of a Dante in the beginning, but that character arrived in my head very soon. When I am writing a book, I don’t think about the fact that part of the impetus for writing it is that I’m healing myself. All I can think about is that I want to write a good book, a book where the characters are believable and that their actions are the plot. What happens in the books I write are always secondary to the characters I create.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Ari and Dante are both me. They are the young men that I wanted to be—and never was. When my comadre, Lynn, read the book, she said, “Awwww, Ben, you wrote a book as a gift to yourself.” She was right—only I didn’t know it at the time I was writing it. How beautiful it would have been for me if I had actually been one of these two characters. I suppose you could say that (at least in my YA books) I write boy characters that are more virtuous versions of me. They are not who I was. They are who I wished I had been. But, again, that’s a reflection after the fact. A therapist once told me I should re-read my own books. I didn’t take his advice. I mean, I have better things to do with my time than to re-read my own books.
Oh, now as I look back, I guess you could say I “came out” with the publication of Ari and Dante and Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. They both won Lambda’s. Isn’t that incredible?

I was interested in your depiction of the parents of both Aristole and Dante in your book because they surprised me in a positive way and they also seem to break a mold. Many times parents (especially Latino ones) are seen as having strong reactions towards gayness. This can sometimes be attributed to "traditional" values, religion, or just plain homophobia. Los padres Latinos, I can hear them saying, "Ni que lo mande Dios!" (My mother actually said this to me). They may guilt trip. They may pull out the, "¿Qué hice para merecer esto?" card. They may kick teens out. They may disown them. Can you share a little about your decision to make these parents different? They are incredibly understanding, loving, and gentle. They seem to have no issues with gayness at all.

Everything you say happens a lot. But it doesn’t happen all the time. And my experience has taught me that a lot of Mexican-American families adjust very, very quickly, no matter what their initial attitudes may have been. Latino’s are so often depicted as being incredibly homophobic—and I’m not going to minimize this bigotry within out community. That said, I think Mexican-Americans in particular understand (if it’s not articulated) the sufferings of discrimination and they are American enough (in the most open sense of American) that, at the very least, we should live and let live. I didn’t want to represent the parents in the expected way that the dominant culture thinks we behave. We are as diverse as any other people. (And on that topic, I didn’t want to represent Mexican-Americans as having only certain kinds of professions. Dante’s parents had totally white collar professions (a little like the author of the book). I’m not into performing my own ethnicity on the page. I don’t have to prove I’m the real thing. I am the real thing. I suppose I could drag out my street creds if I wanted to (Did I tell you I grew up using an outhouse?)—but I want turn myself or my characters into expected folkloric figures who work the fields and come home to home made tortillas (though that’s exactly how I grew up! But hey, I was also went to grad school at Stanford).
Back to the parents. The parents may have had issues, but the book is not told from their point of view. The story is told from Ari’s point of view. And what really matters is that his parent’s already knew what it was like to lose a son (to prison) and they were wise enough to understand that a son was a precious gift. They may not have wished this for their son—but they understood this thing called love. I have lived first-hand the love and acceptance of a family. My parents are dead, now, may they rest in peace. But my brothers and sisters and my nephews and nieces have no issues with me being gay. (My brothers and sisters, by the way are working class people, not college educated and incredibly open minded. Not necessarily what most people think of when they think of our people). We’re real. (Can I say, Fuck Donald Trump here?) Maybe not, I should exert some discipline.

Oh yes, Fuck Donald Trump sentiments are totally permissible here at any time. I think he embodies the true and full meaning of the word "Pendejo." But getting back to your book, it has received several important awards—Lambda Literary Award, Pura Belpré Narrative Medal for Latino Ficiton, Stonewall Book Award, and the Michael L. Printz Award. Felicidades! How do you feel about this?

Can I be a kid here for a moment? Are you kidding? Sweet! It’s really a beautiful thing.

And it has been translated into many languages. Can you help me out here. ¿Cuántas? ¿Cuáles?

The book has been translated into fourteen languages: Swedish, Polish, French, Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish (Spanish!), Hebrew, Italian, German, Czech, Hungarian, Korean, Thai, Turkish and Slovakian. I get fan male from kids about this book to this day and they say incredible things to me. Coming out if never easy and somehow, they tell me, I’ve lightened their journeys. But the most beautiful e-mails come from men who are older than me who tell me I’ve helped to heal the boys inside them that they still carry around. Okay, call me sentimental, but I cry when I read some of these e-mails. (Intellectuals have feelings too). I have the gift of tears. I get that from my mother.

You have published across genres--poetry, fiction, children's books, and now young adult. Do you have a preference?

Actually, poetry remains my favorite genre—though you wouldn’t necessary come to that conclusion from my literary output. (I just finished a new book of poems, by the way). Poetry is the closest I get to arriving at a pure emotionally disciplined and honest art. I’m very conscious of my craft when I write poetry and I love the experience of writing poetry. I never have believed in art for art’s sake—which doesn’t mean that I don’t love art. My house is full of books and art and photographs and Mexican folk art. But, art, to me, is essential to taming our (my) basest instincts. It’s important to be compassionate and kind and generous. It’s important to be forgiving. We have to nurture those beautiful instincts and we have to do that through discipline. For me, that discipline is writing and painting. Writing has changed me. Writing has made me a better man, a better human being. Writing has made me understand that I am part of a universe that is so much larger and vaster than any of us can imagine. Somehow, writing brings makes me aware of my smallness—and that’s a lovely thing. I do love writing fiction and short stories. And writing for young adults is a real challenge and it’s a wonderful thing to reach young people—they are after all, the future. In all of my writing, I try to infuse any sense of nostalgia (though I sometimes fail). Nostalgia makes for bad art and for bad politics. We should, at every turn, endeavor to create a more compassionate future. I know that my work can, at times, be very dark. But the darkness and confusion are not the point. I don’t like the aestheticization of (male) violence. Violence isn’t beautiful. And I don’t want to create an art that’s emotionally anorexic. But neither do I want to be an emotional exhibitionist.

The short answer to your question is that I just love to write. It’s painful work. Sometimes, it really hurts. So what.

What about the memoir genre? Is this something we can expect from you at some point?
No. To say I’ve had an interesting life would be something of an understatement. That said, the memoir is a dangerous genre. It necessitates that the author become the hero of his own narrative. Writers are self-involved already. No thanks. I’ll stick to poetry and fiction. I’m allowed to lie in those genres. And anyway, I’m not honest enough to write an honest memoir.

Photo by Danielle Levitt (from the Out website)
If you look back at your writing career, can you identify any critical shifts or experiences that helped foster your current success as a writer? Can you give us some tips or share some wisdom on keeping the fire burning and building a body of work?
No one is more surprised than me that I’ve become a successful writer. But how do you measure success, anyway? My favorite novel never got published. In fact, I have two unpublished novels. Both rejected by every major publishing houses in the country. (Beautiful rejection letters, by the way). Was I disappointed? I was devastated. What did I do? I kept writing. And what I also did—and what I have always done—is go my own way. I’ve done that in the way I live my life and I’ve done that in my writing. I’ve written through failure and I’ve written through success. Writing through success can be even more challenging than writing through failure. I’ve spent very little time pushing my work, very little time networking. I don’t like hustling. I’m too proud. (Yeah, I know, that’s a sin. But so is being gay). I have a lot of writer friends but I’ve come by those friendships honestly. I didn’t seek them out to further my career. They were just good people that I was attracted to. I won’t name names.

Publishing is punishing, punitive and unforgiving. I have no idea how I’ve survived. It makes me sad that the writing culture forces so many young and talented writers to spend so much time getting themselves “out there.” I never really had to do that. I just figured if I kept writing, I’d eventually write something that was worth publishing. I just write. I write and I write and I write. I get obsessed with a project and I do my damnedest to finish what I start. I commit myself to my writing projects and I see them through. I’m very hard on myself. I expect a great deal of myself. I don’t settle. I don’t write about easy things and I never take the easy way out. I’d rather write an imperfect interesting poem that says something than an easier “successful” poem. I’d rather create a flawed piece of art where I stretch myself than a perfect story where I’m not learning anything about myself or my art or the world around me.

I’m sixty-one years old. And I still feel like a young man. I nurture my curious mind. I take risks. I’ve learned that I don’t create merely to entertain and I don’t create to please anyone (which is not to say that it’s not a lovely thing to make other people happy). I’ve learned how to be vulnerable on the page. And, along the way, I’ve actually learned how to write.

I asked Lorna Dee Cervantes this same question when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. You are having a dinner party and can invite 5 writers/artists of your choosing (alive or deceased). Who do you invite and what do you feed them?
I love this question. I would invite Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlo, June Jordan, Karl Marx, Pablo Casals, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso, Susan B. Anthony and Denise Levertov. That’s ten. I know. I’m cheating. I don’t always like rules. It would be a long evening and I would serve Tortilla soup, but before that, I would serve elotes. We would all stand aroud (no sitting), peel back the husks of the elotes and season them with butter and powdered chile and it would be a little messy but I think these folks would enjoy a “little messy.” The main course would be a made-from-scratch mole, Mexican rice with carrots and peas, and black beans. Hand-made corn tortillas (I’d have to practice). And for dessert: home made sweet tamales: ingredients in the masa: pecans, raisins, cinnamon, pine nuts, brown sugar wrapped around a nice strong cheese. I’d pour cajeta over the warm tamale on each plate. (Can you tell I like to cook). After dinner, James and Denise and June and Neruda would read a poem or two. And then we’d listen to Casals play his cello and we would all cry. The sun would rise with all of us talking politics. I mean, a good political argument is better than a good wine. (Oh, and at dinner, I’d sit next to Einstein. I seriously need to learn something about physics. And I would have to sit across from Denise Levertov because I would give anything to look into her face again). God, doesn’t that sound incredible. It’s like intellectual pornography.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an author of poetry and prose for adults and teens. His books for adults have won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a Stonewall Book Award winner, a Pura Belpré Award winner, a Lambda Literary Award winner, a Printz Honor Book, and was a finalist for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. His first novel for teens, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His second book for teens, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award, the Southwest Book Award, and was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.