POETRY AROUND US – SUSAN AZAR PORTERFIELD TALKS WITH CARMEN TAFOLLA

POETRY AROUND US

SUSAN AZAR PORTERFIELD TALKS WITH CARMEN TAFOLLA

Carmen Tafolla is the author of more than thirty books, seven screenplays, and more than two hundred short stories, poems, and articles in journals, magazines, college textbooks, high school American literature textbooks, Kindergarten “Big Books,” public art sculptures, and even city buses. Called by Rigoberto Gonzales “the Zora Neale Hurston of the Chicano Community” and by Alex Haley “a world-class writer,” Tafolla has performed her one-woman theatrical show in England, Spain, Germany, Norway, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and throughout the United States. In 1999, Tafolla received the Art of Peace Award for work that contributes to peace, justice, and human understanding. She was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2009 and the Texas Literary Hall of Fame in 2016. In 2012, she became the first City Poet Laureate of San Antonio, and during her two-year term there presented more than three hundred programs at schools, colleges, cultural arts centers, and community events. She was named State Poet Laureate of Texas in 2015 and President of the Texas Institute of Letters in 2018.

Dr. Tafolla’s latest poetry books include Carmen Tafolla: New and Selected Poems (TCU Press); Rebozos, winner of three First Prize International Latino Book Awards; This River Here: Poems of San Antonio; and Curandera, a thirtieth anniversary edition, which was banned in Arizona during the banning of ethnic studies by the Arizona State Board of Education.

Her numerous awards include the prestigious Americas Award, presented to her at the Library of Congress in 2010; five International Latino Book Awards; two Tomas Rivera Book Awards; three ALA Notable Books; the Art of Peace Award; and Top Ten Books for Babies. She has been recognized by the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies for work that “gives voice to the peoples and cultures of this land.”

She is currently at work on the adult biography of noted 1930s civil rights leader Emma Tenayuca, and on a series of short videos aimed at the self-concept and cultural pride of young Chicanas. For more about Carmen Tafolla, visit www.salsa.net.

SUSAN AZAR PORTERFIELD

Fifth Wednesday Journal: Would you address your perceptions of and experience with the intersection between art and activism, between the personal and the public? The debate about the purpose or purposes of art is ongoing, with some claiming a more hermetic intention for art, while others see it as the perfect venue to explore social themes and issues.

Carmen Tafolla: For many decades, I have insisted that the artist is the prophet of society, in the Old Testament sense of the word prophet, that is — not a magic, crystal-ball predictor of future prophecies, but a clear-eyed and sensitive see-er of the present, someone who can see what is going on all around us and declare or denounce it openly. Psychologist Rollo May analyzes the courage to create by saying that the artist is the early-warning system of a society, feeling, sensing, and expressing the injustices, the anxieties, the joys and beauty of what is going on around us. Picasso’s Guernica was the perfect visual expression to describe the destructive, mutated chaos of the twentieth century, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz expressed in perfectly ironic verse the irrationality of the sexism of the sixteenth century, and her comments still ring true today. This is the natural purpose of art — to express and reflect the human condition. If we even pretend to be non-political, to exclude social issues from our work, then we are limiting and insulating our art away from the human condition that surrounds us, and thereby being untrue to our art. This does not mean that every artistic creation has an explicit connection with current social issues, but the totality of our art has to do with every aspect of our human existence, including the political struggle against injustice, and the activism that gives solidity to our stated beliefs.

 

FWJ: Could you say something about your interest in Emma Tenayuca? Maybe how it began, why she, in particular, intrigues you.

CT: From the moment most young Chicanas and Chicanos in the 1970s first saw that famous photograph of Emma with her fist raised in front of City Hall, mouth open and voice loudly inspiring the poor who gathered around her, we were struck with her courage and her strength. This was a young woman our age who — despite social norms saying Mexicans weren’t supposed to speak up, women weren’t supposed to speak up, the young and the poor weren’t supposed to speak up — opened her eloquent mouth and blasted the prejudices and the injustices of her times, broke open barriers and asserted the economic and political rights of our people thirty years before Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta. And she bore the pain of its consequences as well — blacklisted, exiled, threatened, jailed, ridiculed.

But for me, Emma’s greatest victory lay in the fact that she never stopped searching for that way to make society more fair to the disenfranchised. She was totally without fear for the consequences to herself. As she told me years later, when I was interviewing her in the late 1970s and asked didn’t she fear being killed when the KKK came after her, she answered matter-of-factly, “I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.” This was a woman whose hunger for justice never was bought or compromised. That kind of single-minded courage is something to emulate, something to preserve on paper, as best we can. So in the 1990s, her niece and I began the job of researching her life and work by talking to the very people she had sought to save — the poor and the illiterate, the workers at the bottom of society, those to whom she had given hope. They were the ones who no one else had interviewed. And this was the history that had been erased from our accounts. Now, we are in the final stages of putting those stories together, and reclaiming our history, and the tale of a young woman who thought in terms of justice.

 

FWJ: You write for many different venues and in various genres — screenplays, fiction, poetry, nonfiction — and for many different audiences; how do you decide which audience and which genre or venue at any given time?

CT: As an artist, I listen to my intuitive passions. Sometimes, you are filled with a knowledge that now is the right time for this story or this statement, this work of beauty, or this unusual event to be told in whatever form it appears. Sometimes, a story appears in different forms. Emma’s biography, while we were deeply entrenched in researching the adult book, suddenly came to us in a children’s picture book format. People said to us, “How can you tell this horrible story of a person being hated, called names, jailed, and pecan-shellers starving and working eighteen-hour days to feed their children? Kids won’t understand the concept of social injustice.” And we answered, they understand things not being fair. And in 2008 we published That’s Not Fair: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice, which kids responded to so enthusiastically, and which is this fall being re-published and distributed in Scholastic Book Fairs at schools throughout the nation. I think Emma, who later became a teacher of migrant children, would be especially happy that we made the story available first to them, and then, for adults.

 

FWJ: Do you see a link between storytelling and poetry? If so, would you elaborate on the nature of that link?

CT: I grew up in an oral tradition. My greatest writing teachers were the elderly people of my barrio, some of them illiterate, but all of them so eloquent in the polishing of their tales. I also grew up following the old Latino tradition of declamación, where children from four years old on up were taught to declaim poetry, most of which we would never in our lives see in written form. This was a way of maintaining heritage, despite acculturation and cultural conquest, despite schools that punished us for speaking our languages, or books that excluded us and made us disappear from the histories of our own lands. Our answer to that was to preserve our histories in our songs and declaimed poems, in our stories and oral literature. There were no artificial boundaries between these genres. Poetry mixed with dramatic performance. Historical fiction mixed with plays. Jokes told of our political quandaries, or played a punch line into our bilingualism and our code-switching. So it seemed the most natural thing in the world during the early Chicano Movement, when we writers were re-inventing ourselves and re-empowering ourselves, to indulge in artistic language play and invent new forms, blend old forms, experiment, perform “whale poetry” and “sound poetry” and “voice poetry.” The poems we wrote became ballads, telling our stories. The stories we told became more poetic in the way each word and each sense captured an ambiente of context and symbolism for the story. This was not unique to the Chicano Movement. It has been at the essence of every people’s struggle to tell their story, and often the most efficient way to tell a story is to capture the images, the gestures, the inflections, and the passions of poetry.

 

FWJ: You seem comfortable creating various kinds of art, but does one genre have your heart?

CT: It seems odd that while I have been most renowned for my poetry, been named the first City Poet Laureate of San Antonio and three years later, the State Poet Laureate of Texas, the old power of storytelling, the original oral literature of my childhood, has re-surfaced in my spoken word performance, and in the potent brevity of short story. I can’t say which of those two I love more, but my guess is it’s in the dramatic performance of those stories and those characters. When I’m on stage, I’m connecting with my audiences in the same stream of humanity that captivated me with the power of story six decades ago, when, as a tiny child, I listened to the magic tales from centuries ago, passed on by mouth and, of course, by soul. It becomes an intimate experience between the person passing the story on, and the person receiving it in their hands and in their heart. It connects me to all my ancestors — which, if we’re honest about it, means all of humanity.

 

FWJ: Please say something about your experiences with dramatic performances and screenplays. How did you get involved with this? (Occupation None is so great!)

CT: Writing screenplays came naturally to me because, in essence, that’s what all those storytellers had been acting out, by themselves, on the stage of our backyards, our kitchen tables, and our campfires. Is it any surprise that I ended up doing one-woman theatrical shows for the last thirty years? In the 1980s, I did a poetry reading with Nikki Giovanni at Cal State Fresno, to a standing ovation, and one of my poet friends, Alurista, said, “Carmen, you do something with your voice. It’s like, suddenly, we’re hearing a six-year-old kid, and then suddenly, we’re hearing an old man. You DO something,” he said. “With your voice!” I knew that when I read my poetry or short stories, there was a dramatic element to it, and something started rolling around in my head until finally, in 1990, while at a conference for the Nevada Association of Hispanic Educators in Las Vegas, I decided to throw caution to the wind and do the keynote I wanted to do. Not a conventional speech with maybe a poem to end it, but something totally different, using simple costumes and props, and blending numerous dramatic monologues together into a dramatic experience to share with the audience. So instead of meeting ME, or hearing me, they met nine different characters, from the first-grader whose name gets changed and “corrected” to the high-school about-to-be-a-dropout who finds her name, finally, in a book in the library, to the retired GI, to the elderly black janitor, to the final character, the conference presenter (me). They loved it. Soon I was being asked to perform everywhere — to teachers, social workers, financial aid advisors, healthcare workers, medical students, graduate students, drug counselors — a medley of voices originally called “With Our Very Own Names” and later, “My Heart Speaks a Different Language.” And then I began to tailor-make characters for the audience: a young Latina engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, a young child living with Gramma for the Arizona Grandparents Raising Grandchildren . . . It is when I perform the voices that I write, when I take the characters off the page and onto the stage, or even onto the podium to read them with full inflection and body language, that I feel I am doing what my soul is called to do. I am allowing myself to be the medium that expresses the voice of those whose voices have not been heard.

 

FWJ: What drew you to want to write for children?

CT: There is probably not a more oppressed group in America than the children of the poor and of the linguistic and cultural minorities. Add to that, in today’s vicious world, the children of the undocumented and the refugee. And nobody had been reflecting these children in the children’s literature when I was growing up. We searched for our reflection in books and found nothing. What little we began to find was stereotypic and distorted. It was like finally finding a mirror in order to see yourself, and it was the carnival funhouse warped mirror, in which your body and your face appeared in strange distortions of reality. I began to write for Latinx children because I saw their responses when I even read a story that has Spanish words or Spanish names in it. They would giggle in delight and stare at each other in total surprise. (And often, some teacher would walk by, slapping their hands if they laughed at a funny story, or if they perked up in interest when I wrote about a Latino character.) I began to write children’s stories and poems and share them with classes anytime I was asked to speak at a school. Eventually, we found a few publishers who would stick their necks out and publish a story aimed at Latinx children, or a press that didn’t ask us to change the names from Enrique to Henry. When I started writing with a bilingual children’s sitcom series in 1978, I felt a special sense of mission, and soon became head writer, but it wasn’t till after the shows began to be broadcast on TV throughout the nation that I saw how children were impacted, and how even their body language changed from the beginning of the show to the end. They had finally seen a positive reflection of themselves on TV. I’ve presented to university presidents, doctors, lawyers, writers, mayors, and engineers, but children and young adults are probably the most important audience for whom I’ve ever written.

 

FWJ: “Right in One Language,” uses code-switching and allows readers to experience the importance of that technique first-hand, but is there anything, any sentiment or observation, that you can say (or think) in Spanish but not in English and vice-versa?

CT: Even the thought of making a list of all the Spanish-language expressions that can’t be said in English leaves me exhausted! Languages don’t translate exactly because there are cultural concepts expressed in each that don’t have equivalent expressions in other languages. And then, when you add the extra dimension of code-switching, of combining the two languages in different ways, you add levels of humor and surprise, formality and playfulness that one language alone can’t express. Asco has no English translation — neither nausea nor disgust is strong enough, not to mention the onomatopoeic power of this word that sounds like sputum on its way up the larynx! Acurrucar is another one of those words that nestles and nurtures and curls up enroscado inside the sound of a lullaby. The joys of bilingualism, and in the case of my native language, Tex-Mex, the joys of that interlanguage that so eloquently expresses the nuances of a bicultural existence, provide a vehicle of expression and esthetic pleasure that does so much more than just the English language itself could do. Why do you think that English has had to adopt so many “loan words” from other languages? We have had to enrich our English with the gusto of salsa, the desperados and renegades on the sierra and the patio, the aficionados of rodeo and the stampede of wild broncos, the savvy of guerilla warfare and the military junta, and the barbeque being served in the cafeteria. Smart languages grow by borrowing useful words from each other, and when they learn these new words, they learn new concepts that go with them. And English itself is a Tex-Mex blend of two languages: Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. Chaucer was a code-switcher!

 

FWJ: Have you read translations other than your own of your own work, from Spanish into English/English to Spanish?

CT: Yes, and sometimes they have made hilarious boo-boos because of their unfamiliarity with the South Texas dialects of Spanish. In one anthology, which had a full Spanish and a full English version of each entry, translators were hired to make the collection a balanced dual-language volume, and I was the only author in the book that they had to translate from English to Spanish for one piece and from Spanish to English for another. They should have just asked me to give them an equivalent telling in the other language.

I think one of the best but funniest translations I ever saw, though, was the three-language German translation of Sonnets to Human Beings, which kept the original English, Spanish, or Tex-Mex on the left, and the German translation on the right. It was hilarious to see fajitas translated as Mexicanisch Fleishgericht!

 

FWJ: You frequently end a poem with a one-word or two-word line — can you comment on that?

CT: It’s not a pattern I think about, but perhaps it’s a rhythm that fits the way I like to get the reader to focus on one entry point to the poem at the beginning, a door, so to speak, and then, at the end, to re-focus on an endpoint, a word to remember, a word that has enough power that nothing else will interfere with it, or clutter its meaning . . . It’s not something I try to do. But perhaps it’s a musical step-style that my soul dances to, and to which I hope the reader will dance . . . I also see spacing and line breaks as a tool of poetry, and when one word is strong enough to hold the entire attention on its own, it calls the reader to feel the full weight of that word.

 

FWJ: If a poem you’re writing is not going well, what do you do?

CT: Set it aside. Let it ferment. Come back on a different day and reread it. I focus on those lines that have most power for me, and ask myself to be honest — what do I really want to say, and why am I cluttering the poem with all those other lines if they’re not relevant, or if they’re a few degrees off-base? I challenge each word in it, and find out what’s not resonating for me as human voice. Leopold Sedar Sengkor said poetry is song and story and human voice . . . So if this line doesn’t sound right in my head, or it doesn’t sound like a real human voice, then it gets ditched and I scratch it out and try to hear the real voice of the human speaking through the poem.

 

FWJ: “La Malinche” — Tell me about this poem. Why did you feel compelled to write it?

CT: It was the mid-70s, and the stereotypes were all around us. Both my culture and my gender were being viewed in such rigid and limited terms. I felt that all of the foremothers we had in our heritage were painted so shallowly in history books, and I felt that the women always got the blame. We were either Virgin Mother or Whore. So here is this brilliant young quadrilingual indigenous woman — already a minority ethnic group under the Aztecs, and she gets sold to the Mayans as a slave, and later “gifted” to these strange white-skinned guys on tall, maned, funny-looking deer. Cortez gives each of the young female “gifts” to one of his captains, but later, when he realizes how brilliant a translator she is, and how she has now picked up Spanish as well, he sends the officer back to Spain and keeps her for himself, as interpreter, advisor, and lover. Then, men for the next five centuries call her a traitor and blame the conquest of indigenous Mexico all on her. Somebody was going to have to tell her story, so in 1975, I wrote a dramatic monologue poem, looking at this clash of civilizations from her point of view. That poem has now been discussed and referenced in countless books and articles about Chicana feminism.

 

FWJ: Why sonnets? Poems in New and Selected Poems — the new ones — seem less formally structured; do you still see sonnets as viable or pertinent for you?

CT: Sure. I always say that growing up bilingual spoiled me. It taught me that there’s more than one way to say things, more than one way to see things, more than one way to do things. And this awareness of different options, different “tracks” also challenged me to explore different forms of writing, different patterns and options. Sonnets to Human Beings was written because I got so tired of the idea that a sonnet was only written to a beloved, or something lovely — a flower, an urn, a songbird, a beautiful attractive young person, a hero. I felt very strongly that the time had come in which we needed to be writing sonnets to the whole human race, the entirety of our existence and of our known world. Sonnets are not only viable, they can be versatile — they can be written to a zoot suiter or Pachuco, or to a child dying of hunger in the midst of a world that throws away food. One can write in Shakespearean sonnets, or Italian sonnets, or Chicano sonnets, which cross smoothly from one language to another in the middle of a poem. But one can also write poetry in free verse or in haiku, in ballad form, or in rhyme, in poetic flash fiction or in theatrical monologues, or in new forms not yet invented. Creativity has no bounds. At least once a year, I invent some new form. I think all poets do. It is the nature of poets to build structures, to strain against them, and to deconstruct those structures and invent new ones in new shapes and sounds.

 

FWJ: How is the process of writing for you?

CT: I think each writer has their own step-style, and mine is often like a mule’s. I dig in my heels and much as the carrot is dangled in front of my nose, I bray and refuse to go forward. Then, when I have expressed my rebellion against the very possibility of moving forward, I suddenly jump up and run to the finish line. I guess, during that period of resistance, I am subconsciously arranging the parts of the creation in my brain, and then suddenly it comes together in a flash and I can think of nothing else but grabbing it all at once, impatiently. Yes, there are versions and versions and versions of edited drafts, and I study it and work at it repeatedly (usually, and not surprisingly, repeating the words out loud, hearing them in my own voice, before I can say if they have captured the esthetic sound I want in the poem or in the telling of the story). And sometimes they come to me all at once in the middle of the night, and I jump up and write it all down. But much as these sound like two different patterns, in actuality, it’s just two expressions by the same mule. I fight and mumble and struggle to get the creation, and then I run to create it all at once, after the subconscious has done its work. One of my favorite descriptions of writing is Gene Fowler’s famous “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until little drops of blood form on your forehead.” Sometimes, inspiration appears to hit all at once, but in actuality, much subconscious work has been going on to prepare the soil for this beautiful tree to grow. Writing is hard work, and very lonely, because only you can really inform you if you said what you were trying to say.

 

FWJ: Would you talk about your future literary projects or aspirations?

CT: I’m pretty frustrated with my to-do list/backlog right now, because these last five or eight years have been so filled with interruptions of the creative process. Sometimes those interruptions even came in the form of “successes” and distinctions that required their own attention given to speeches and travel, etc. In addition, five years ago, I had cancer, right after I was named City Poet Laureate! Cancer really steps right in front of your path and says, “Hey! I don’t care where you were going or what was due today. You are going to have to follow me and drop everything else right now. So I did. And I healed. And I experienced a beautiful outpouring of love and support from my family and from my community. And I was able to not only do justice to the position, but to set a high bar, presenting more than three hundred programs and readings in the two years of my tenure. But right after that, I experienced three huge losses, each seven months after the previous, as my mother, my husband, and my only remaining sibling all died. For those fifteen months of funerals, I felt like my entire reality was between the funeral home and the nursing home. So now, I find I have about seven different books, all in the “Almost Done” category. My number one priority right now is getting some of those back logger books done and out.

Then, I’d like to devote some more time to historical fiction, as well as to memoirs set in the time period of the Chicano Movement, and maybe more recently as well. Whether they will be for adults or children or young adults, I’ll have to wait and see. Remember, I always ask my characters what they want to do and say. And then my most important job is to learn how to listen to them carefully. Maybe it would benefit us all to learn how to listen more carefully and more analytically. There are so many beautiful and important voices around us that we as writers will always have a job to do, sharing the human experience, urging the reader to listen deeply and to understand herself and others.

 

___________________

Susan Azar Porterfield is the author of three books of poetry — In the Garden of Our Spines, Kibbe, and Dirt, Root, Silk, which won the Cider Press Review Editor’s Prize. She is the editor of Zen, Poetry, the Art of Lucien Stryk and has written on poetical matters for Poets & Writers, AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and elsewhere.

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