Why This Class?

Up until a few years ago I thought I had to choose between being a “Puerto Rican poet” and being an “experimental poet.”

Puerto Rican poets write about things like their abuela, or El Morro, o la isla, o salsa, o Nuevayork, o cualquier cosa. It probably didn’t help that the only Puerto Rican poet writing in English I knew, knew of, or had ever heard of was Martín Espada, whose work is exceptional and beautiful and extremely lyrical and more or less working within the mainstream dominant discourses of poetics. Martín is a mentor of mine, and knowing him as an undergraduate was important to my formation as a poet, but still I knew that I wasn’t a poet like Martín is a poet, and I wasn’t a poet like the white lyrical confessionalists were poets, and so I thought I was just no good or maybe just not a poet.

What happened to start to change this was during first year of my MFA in literary translation, where I was struggling with all sorts of other identity issues surrounding hybridity, and the quest for authenticity; aka mixed girls never feel at home anywhere / are at home everywhere / or the most Puerto Rican thing about me is my hips. I was struggling with all this, and was working with two white poets and translators who are still dear friends and colleagues, and who published as editors of the translation journal there a piece of experimental translation by Puerto Rican poet Urayoen Noel. Not only did working with them help me feel like I feel like I found a home in experimental poetry — here I could do the poetry that interested me and it was at least recognizable as poetry — but with the experimental poets of color writing today.

My formal education in experimental poetry at that point was esserntially non-existant, and so I took a course on Latin American avant-gardes. At the same time I took a course on avant-garde poetry in English. So on the one hand I had experimental latinx writers writing in Spanish, and on the other the canonical all-white parade of experimental writers writing in English, and again in neither place anyone recognizably like me. I knew they were out there, because I had started to read them on my own. But during my formal education I struggled to find that lineage, and that community. In large part it’s because I didn’t know how to ask the right questions then. I didn’t know that I felt alienated by the white experimental canon, for the same reasons I felt alienated by the Spanish-language latinx vanguardista.

So that’s primarily why I wanted to teach this course. I don’t have answers, but at least now I know a bit better what questions to ask and of whom. I hope in this course we’ll be asking questions together, and most urgently developing a poetics and language for talking about how race and poetics (among other things) work in these poetries. It’s important to say, too, that these readings and selections are meant as a starting place — from here real inquiry can and will be done by us together. It’s not comprehensive, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. But it maybe is also a signpost, or a welcoming, or an indicator. How deep and rich these poets’ work are, and how much we are depriving ourselves of when we don’t read them with all the nuance and complexity and care they require.

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About Erica Mena

Erica Mena is a poet, translator, and book artist.
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