Interview with Francisco Aragón: Latino Poetry From All Its Perspectives
Writer Michael Nava said reading Francisco Aragón’s poetry was like “taking a bite of a perfectly ripened apple—a fresh, sensual…experience.” The sensuality of Aragón’s two poetry collections, Puerta del Sol and Glow of Our Sweat, is derived from his lavish attention to and precise description of the world around him. In “Torso,” his tribute to German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Aragón writes,
of shoulder glints
like a sinewy beast
of prey, whose edges blink
like stars—that torso:
gazing on its own.
Aragón is also a tireless promoter of literature, with a particular focus on raising the visibility of Latino writers. He’s the director of Letras Latinas, the literary program of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) and the publisher of Momotombo Press. His anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry earned first place in the Poetry in English category at International Latino Book Awards 2008.
Sampsonia Way managing editor Silvia Duarte interviewed Aragón in July, when he came to the North Side to read with poet Brenda Cárdenas. The event was sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh in partnership with Cave Canem and Letras Latinas.
Here he talks about his work with Letras Latinas and his love of translation, and offers some advice to young poets hungry to publish.
In Glow Of Our Sweat your translations of Rubén Darío and Federico García Lorca are “free translations,” meaning they are more invested in the spirit of the poems than their literal meaning. Why did you decide to translate these poems?
Rubén Darío was a very popular poet from Nicaragua, where my family is from. I remember my mother talking about him. When I became interested in poetry, I couldn’t read Spanish so I only knew his work through translations.
Then I went to Spain to study Spanish formally. There I read Ian Gibson’s biography of García Lorca. Gibson writes that Darío is one of the poets who deeply influenced Lorca. So I was really curious to read more by him, but the translations I read didn’t satisfy me, nor did the translations of Lorca!
But I really got interested in translation through a poem that I translate in Glow of Our Sweat, “The Other Day I Ran Into García Lorca” by Francisco X. Alarcón. [Alarcón was born in California, but raised in Mexico and writes in Spanish.]
That poem has a starting image: “I spotted him / the slim bow tie / those lips / those eyes / olive-colored.” I imagine it must be very challenging to try to capture the quality of his images in English. What is your translation process like?
When I started to make translations I was just doing it intuitively, and my tendency was to stick to the original as much as possible. Then I gained more confidence in my own poetry and my own writing and I began to become less concerned about being strictly faithful to the original and more concerned with producing a good poem in English.
What I have often found—especially in the translations that are done by scholars—is that they’re very faithful to the content of the original language, but in English they don’t really sound that good as poems.
As an editor, you’ve been credited with introducing new and exciting Latino voices to a wider audience. Is there an anthology or project you are most proud of?
I would say I’m most proud of my anthology The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry because it is the first anthology that gathers Latino poets of my generation. In the 1990s there were a number of anthologies that included poets like Victor Hernández Cruz, Gary Soto, and other names of the previous generation of Latino poetry. The Wind Shifts is the first to represent the younger generation.
Can you tell me about the process of choosing the writers that go into an anthology?
In The Wind Shifts my criteria was that the poets had to be emerging writers, they couldn’t have more than one book in print. I included poets of different ethnicities, not only Mexican American or Chicano poets, but also Cuban American, Puerto Rican, etc. In the anthology, there’s a California-based poet named Adela Najarro who is of Nicaraguan descent. There’s also a poet of Bolivian descent named Vanesa Fuentes. I tried to include poets from different geographical regions – that’s how I discovered Brenda Cárdenas. She edited a book of Latina poets in the Midwest. Brenda’s from Milwaukee.
I wanted to limit the anthology to 25 poets and feature a generous sampling of their work – ten pages for each. In the back I added an appendix with the names of other poets and their books so people can easily find them.
What did you learn from this process? In the future, would you approach editing a compilation of this kind differently?
The anthology is not as aesthetically diverse as it could be. At that time I wasn’t aware of more experimental poets like Roberto Harrison and Carmen Giménez Smith. If I had to do the anthology again, it would probably be more balanced in that sense.
You are in charge of the program Letras Latinas at the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at the University of Notre Dame. How did you become involved in that program?
In 2001, I came to Notre Dame as a graduate student, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. When I finished my master’s in 2003, Gilberto Cardenas hired me to work for the Institute for Latino Studies. I was in charge of creating a program that included initiatives for Latino literature. The first one was the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, which was a national competition for Latino poets to publish a first book with the University of Notre Dame Press. As I began to develop more initiatives such as a fellowship and workshops for young Latino writers, we decided to call everything Letras Latinas.
Momotombo Press, which is named after a volcano in Nicaragua, is also one of your projects.
I started Momotombo Press in California, before I came to Notre Dame. In the beginning it was a chapbook press for young poets. In 2004, I decided to bring Momotombo Press to Notre Dame and to focus on young Latino writers, both poetry and prose.
In the beginning, I was the person who chose all the work, but now, I am just the publisher. The poet Maria Melendez is the acquisitions editor.
You seem to work as hard on publishing and promoting others as on your own work! Why is that so important to you?
When my chapbook Light, Yoghurt, Strawberry Milk was published in Gary Soto’s chapbook series, it was my first significant publication and it felt very empowering. It was nice to have something to give away or to sell at readings, and two of the poems from that chapbook were accepted and published in anthologies later. I wanted to do that for other people and that’s why I started Momotombo Press.
What is the market like for Latino poets?
I do think Latino poetry is becoming more prevalent now that it is included in some school curriculums. Ten or 15 years ago anthologies or textbooks taught in the U.S. didn’t include Latino poets. Now you will find some Latino poets in those anthologies.
As far as the market, I think Latino poets are in the same situation as all poets. It’s a very difficult market, the readership is very small.
What advice would you give to a Latino poet who wants to publish a book?
The advice to any young poet is to embrace your freedom and not feel constrained to write in one particular way or only about one particular topic. If they’re Latino poets, I would encourage them not only to read widely, but also to read Latino poetry, to familiarize themselves with their particular tradition within American literature.
As far as publishing, the advice I would give any young poet is not be in a big rush to publish too soon, don’t make publication the most important goal. The most important goal is to become the best writer you can become. And I would also encourage them to keep an open mind about the various publishing options that exist, including the small press. Sometimes young poets are only interested in publishing a book with a big famous press and they don’t realize, particularly in Latino poetry, that we have a tradition of small press publishing.
Read Silvia’s bio.