Usha Akella and Pramila Venkateswaran present the second collection of poems by Mexican women poets – Ana Belén López, Natalie Toledo, Elsa Cross, Maria Baranda and Mariana Bernardez – held in honour of Matwaala’s 2021 Festival of Poets of Colour series.
Opening Remarks, Mexican Poets
By Usha Akella
Good evening and welcome to the second reading in our poets-of-colour series. Matwaala was created to promote the visibility of South Asian diaspora poets. In a spirit of solidarity emanating from the political and social events of last year we crafted our 2021 festival as a poets-of-color series of readings. We flagged off with five African American poets. Today, we are deeply happy and fortunate to welcome a remarkable panel of respected Mexican poets Maria Baranda, Ana Belén López, Mariana Bernardez, Elsa Cross and Natalia Toledo.* Thank you for honouring our mission and invitation to read so graciously and enthusiastically.
While reading Octavio Paz’s anthology of Mexican poets from the 16th century to the 1930s, I was struck by how poetry for the classical Mexican poet, is intricately tied up with the natural world and the soul as if the very same movements inhabit all of them. There is a very deep sense of life as a self-renewing force best expressed in this verse by Manuel Acuna in his long poem ‘Before a corpse’: The grave holds nothing but a skeleton;/ and life within this mortuary vault/ continues secretly to find its substance.
C. M Bowra, in his introduction to the same anthology, celebrates the high mission of poetry as a civilising force, a conveyor of a national character, and perceives material and mechanical civilisation as a negative impact on poetry.
These words resonated for me, today as we will hear these five voices in Mexican poetry writing past the timeframe of Paz’s anthology. We will bear witness this evening to the brilliant work of these poets who like all of us are shaped by modern civilization that Bowra so bemoans, yet their work will reveal Mexican poetry as a force of reckoning that has the power to shape itself by any time and age, emerging vitalized and alive, bearing the stamp of the forces around it. We shall hear in their poetry, as in the words of Acuna, ‘It receives the clay and it alone, /and, altering its form and destiny,/ ensures that it shall live eternally.’
We are so excited that the session flags off with Jorge Ortega’s introduction to Mexican Poetry.
*Please note, this series originally included poetry and readings by acclaimed poets Fernando Carrera, Manuel Iris, Luis Armenta-Malpica and Jorge Ortega, who have been omitted from this abridged publication because of the nature of the platform. Usha Akella and Pramila Venkateswaran would like to extend their sincerest thanks to these poets for their work, time and vision.
Contemporary Mexican Poetry
By Jorge Ortega
The history of Mexican poetry is the history of its antagonisms around the lighthouse of a tradition. In 1972, Octavio Paz called this phenomenon the tradition of rupture, that is, the dialectical continuity of a chain ‘made of interruptions in which each rupture is a beginning‘. Aesthetic or ideological interruptions? Maybe both. Even if Mexican poetry generally denotes an attachment to the tradition that has been shaped through time and the need to construct and assimilate a poetic canon, the truth is that each generation has tried to write its own history, managing their referents and setting their horizons through their respective resources: magazines, anthologies, collective projects.
Half a century after the assertion of Paz that became popular in the slang of poetry criticism, more can be said today about diversity than about rupture. In fact, unlike Argentine, Chilean or Peruvian poetry, I am not sure that Mexican poetry has been characterized by its vocation of rupture, either with respect to itself or to that which is written in the rest of Latin America. In any case, with some exceptions relating to typographical, acoustic or histrionic experimentation very defined, I see in the different avatars of Mexican poetry a kaleidoscope of variants based on the awareness of a tradition, which have fostered the trait of diversity to which I allude.
Diversity, but also cosmopolitanism. Faced with the accentuated nationalism of Mexican society, the dissidence of Mexican poetry in the Spanish language lies in its openness to other lyric traditions of the world, especially those of the European continent and the Far East. This has been the way to avoid uniformity and monolithism, finding plurality in the heterogeneity of the seeds that have nourished the imagination of Mexican authors, from the northern border, adjacent to the United States, to Chiapas, the door to Central America, passing through the different urban centres of literary production in the country, some of which have constituted real microcosms based on regional idiosyncrasies.
Generally, Mexican poets have followed the attitude of fellow countryman Alfonso Reyes, for whom it is necessary to ‘be generously national and profitable universal‘. Currently, Mexican poetry is in the process of conciliation or reconciliation with the poetry of languages native to Mexico – that of pre-Hispanic roots – which is characterised by a stimulating imaginary that proposes a harmonious dialogue with terrestrial nature and the cosmic abyss. Without this dimension of its genetic and cultural essence, Mexican poetry cannot achieve full unity, its genuine completeness.
If we overturn the dictum of Reyes, we could affirm that it is necessary to find the universality in the local, identifying in the intimate lyricism a simulation on a personal or individual scale of the archetype of the human condition. Such has been, by the way, one of the attributes of Mexican poetry, to have partially in the confessional and reflective tone, in the very circumstance and eccentricity of our excessively human ravings, a point of support to address the world. Poets, novelists or storytellers, which for the case is the same; it happens with Homer, Propertius, Cervantes, Hölderlin, Kafka, Eudora Welty, Rulfo, Anne Sexton, whose work allows us to glimpse the universal in the particular: drama, language, geographical coordinates.
I spoke about diversity. It is impossible to divest this concept of its socio-political connotation, all the more if we consider the achievements of civil society in terms of the delayed recognition of its rights to self-determination. In highlighting the current diversity of Mexican poetry, it is necessary to note the influx of gender content, yes, but underlining that the open and free circulation of this new range of discourse has led to a revolution in the modes of enunciation that has led to a more direct and energetic poetic saying, solitary and communal, dynamic and polychromatic, which, otherwise, gathers the testimony of a time, but above all the commitment of the poetic word to attest to here and now.
In his ‘Introduction to Mexican poetry’, Xavier Villaurrutia highlighted, among other qualities, that the hour of twilight, chamber music, seclusion or solitude, and the pearly color were the relevant notes of Mexican poetry. Without ruling out the validity of these indications of the tradition prior to Villaurrutia, the reality of today’s lyric in Mexico contradicts them for the reasons already stated. This suggests that Mexican poetry is perhaps more than ever a shifting territory in constant reconfiguration, in which related or dissimilar poetics coincide and coexist, and stand out precisely because of the contrast they produce between themselves, as with the poets and poems to be read below.
2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the poet Ramón López-Velarde, whom Hugo Gutiérrez-Vega called the ‘unmarried father of Mexican poetry’, recalling the unmarried life of the poet from Zacatecas and his place as a progenitor of modern Mexican poetry, (according to the verdict of Octavio Paz that with López-Velarde begins the mentioned “tradition of rupture”). A century after his departure, one might wonder in which sense the claims of Paz and Gutiérrez-Vega are also fulfilled, observing the deep roots of Mexican poetry in his own tradition, which has its first stellar level in the baroque lyric of sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Does Mexico not have a patria but a poetic matria? In any case, the effervescent variety of current Mexican poetry exhibits in Sor Juana and in Ramón López Velarde, a mother and father who justify and inspire their solvency.
Translated by Paul Hoover
just a cry
a single cry
to the open air
a cry of porpoise or dolphin
of incandescent fish by the water
a cry of the sea that breaks and repeats
and in the time of salt
says everywhere what it says
a single cry
just a cry
of the blue inconceivable sky
that grazes among the algae
the fetid rumor of the brackish
a providential cry in the voice of air
an unsustainable rhythm
in the throat
A cry that knots itself
in symphonic circles of joy
A terrible cry
that announces the first death
that stands on precarious feet
and dismantles shadows and grumbling
A cry that must choose
for between the walls the liquid deepens
The wall as a cardinal point
an agonizing smile
in the punctual
of the one who is drowning
A cry disbanded
in a garden with thickets
a dream of blue light for the birds
A cry that in itself
is the size of the sea
and lives at the center of rapture
and with each step it yields
to the delirium of a sponge
that inflates in sweat and gives glory
to the time of silent prayers
A cry is the caiman’s vigil
the unleashed whip of an ant
the fan of yes the same immaculate
air of an inhospitable grudge
The cry that smells of salt
a wild beast dry
in the dusky collapse
of your herd
The cry distilled from minutes
marks the world that is world forever
in an open moment where never
passes nothing and everything dissolves
hurling itself to the bottom
Nothingness is reason falling
finally it’s emptiness
its bend in the road most refreshing
when the tree
is erected in delirium
in order to sing from its purgatory
its novice illusions
A cry is sleepless in its dream
faded almost hoarse it stuns itself
like a crippled animal
the cry breathes sleep inside
its eyes and evokes a sacrifice
a dark joy in a spiral of weeping
just a cry
a single cry.
About Maria Baranda
Maria Baranda was born in Mexico City in 1962. She has written several books of poetry. Yale University Press recently published her book The New World Written. Selected Poems.
ANA BELÉN LÓPEZ
When there was no light,
nor water, nor shade because there was no light
nor water, nor sun because there was no moon
nor oceans because there was no water
nor light, nor trees because there was no
birds, nor sky because there was no earth
nor light, because there was no fire
nor heat, because there was no light,
nor water, nor earth nor fire.
There was a dream
waiting for the blue of the sky.
About Ana Belén López
Ana Belén López, (Culiacán, 1961) is the author of the poetry books: Alejandose avanza, Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 1993, Del barandal, Ediciones sin Nombre, 2001, Silencios, Instituto Sinaloense de Cultura, 2009, and Retrato hablado, Andraval Ediciones, 2013. In 2020, the year of the pandemic, she published Ni visible, ni palpable,part of the collection: El Ala del Tigre, from the UNAM (Autonomous University of Mexico). She is a graduate in Latin American Literature with a Masters in Modern Literature.
At the blue house
This poem belongs to Rumor in the mist. (2020). Translation by Juan M. Esquivel and Carolina V. Zapata.
At the blue house
the fountain and the benches
your head rests on my lap
the stillness with its woodbine
is the tamed shadow that stalks
It is February and we flee from the city’s chill
they told us about its smooth trails
and its trees that no longer exist
listening to the running water
I dare to touch the wounds that lurks
In its puncture I have foreseen the fearsome
as if on its frontier the distance had softened
or signs were falling under its sky
I had a Stag that had me
we have each other the fear and I
a Stag that is a fountain
that is not a tree anymore
and tied to my arm the fear clings
when in the blue his head appears
never had a master
and the vintage of the shard left him behind
at the hawthorn at the wasteland at the delay
with his big sad eyes
– of a sadly sadness –
and he cannot soothe a stone
as I do
torn out from me
About Mariana Bernárdez
Mariana Bernárdez, poet and essayist, made post degree studies in Modern Letters and Philosophy. She imparts seminars and workshops in several institutions. Her career entails the academic and editorial with the diverse process of writing poetry. Hers is one of the most singular voices of her generation due to the metaphoric-symbolic conception she has; Ramón Xirau, Dolores Castro, Raúl Renán, Bernardo Ruiz, Antonio Colinas among others have written prologues to her books. Her work has been translated to English, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan and Romanian. Member of the National System of Creators of Art 2018-2021.Some of her recent poetry books are: Wounds of fencing, 2011; The gift of recount, 2012; Nervure of the thunder, 2013; Write me inside the eyes, 2013, (translated to Portuguese by Nuno Judice, 2015); In the well of my eyes, 2015; Breath, 2017, (translated to Portuguese by Nuno Judice, 2018); Rumor in the mist, 2020.
Translation by Susan Ayres, from the book Nadir
we anchored here among the asphodels
Tossing aside temporal burdens
interwoven in those stones,
piercing the layers of the senses
to reach consciousness at last
so it arrived,
in the middle of what could not be said.
like the trembling of the oak
when the oracular breath
unleashes in each leaf the sacred voices,
death eroded in our own voice
those forms of what could not be understood.
It arrived drilling through time,
no different from the shadows sensed
inside a cavern,
a crowd of souls,
thoughts in sorrow.
And the memories returned
staining the sun,
hurrying along the black of the birds
from the high glow of summer.
It arrived, concealing a funerary scaffold
among the flowering narcissus.
About Elsa Cross
Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Elsa Cross is the author of numerous books of poetry, essay and translation. She is the recipient of the National Prize of Arts and Literature, the highest literary award given in Mexico. She has received many other prizes in her country as well as Canada, France, Switzerland, and Italy. Fourteen of her poetry books have appeared abroad; in England, Shearsman Books published her Selected Poems (2009), Beyond the Sea (2016), Amorgos Notebook (2018), and Bomarzo (2019). She has the equivalent degrees of an MA and PhD in Philosophy.
Traducción de mis poemas al inglés: Clare Sullivan.
Red flowers, long and beautiful
grew from my fingers
How to forget the fear that robbed me of all certainty?
I walked with my hands
wedged my body where there was mud.
My eyes filled with fine sand.
They called me the girl of the water lilies
because my root was the water’s surface.
But I was also bitten by a snake mating in the marsh
and became blind. I was Tireseus making his way with no staff.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?
Perhaps, I am the final branch who will speak Zapotec.
My children, homeless birds in the jungle of forgetfulness,
will have to whistle their language.
During all seasons, I am in the south,
a rusted boat dreamt by my eyes of black coco plum:
I will go to smell my land, to dance a son with no one beneath a bower,
I will go to eat two meals,
I will cross the plaza, the North wind will not stop me, will arrive in time
to embrace my grandma before the last star falls.
I will go back to being the girl who wears a yellow petal on her right eyelid,
the girl who cries flower’s milk.
I will go to cure my eyes.
About Natalia Toledo
Natalia Toledo, Zapotec poet and storyteller from Juchitán, Oaxaca has published more than 10 books, among them: The Black Flowers, in the Phonemé. World Literature Today magazine includes this collection of poems among the 75 best translations in the world. Her poetry has been translated into Mazatec, Mayan, Nahuatl, Mixtec, English, Slovenian, Italian, German, and Punjabi. In 2004 she won the Nezahualcóyotl Prize for Literature in Mexican Languages. In 2014 she was a finalist for the PLIA Award, the Indigenous Literature Award of America. She also cooks, designs jewelry and textiles/. She is a member of the Binni Birí-Gente Hormiga Collective, a collective that is dedicated to giving art and creation workshops to the victims of the September earthquakes in Juchitán, Oaxaca.
We are so thankful to all of you for an evening of poetry, poetics, process, scholarship, vision, passion and friendship. We heard poetry birthed in liminal spaces of the souls’ meanderings and peeling. History, and timelessness – lyrical, universal, gender-voiced, melodic, musical, a dance of syllables, imagist, spiritual, symbolic, prayerful, simple, profound, poignant – and finally hopeful.
We are thrilled that Matwaala was able to bring such fine poems by Mexican poets to our audience. It is rare indeed to hear poems like these in the U.S. where craft tends to obliterate emotion. You showed the power of marrying both in your poetry. Your poems in both Spanish and English have the power to dissolve borders.
As a farewell, we wish for all of us in Mariana’s voice all the days of life with poetry as a partner and in Manuel Iris’s reminder for all those who build walls: I am from here
Usha & Pramila
About the Directors of Matwaala
Usha Akella is one of the Creative Writing editors (for Poetry) at Lucy Writers. She earned an MSt. in Creative Writing from Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, in 2018. She has authored four books of poetry, one chapbook and scripted/ produced one musical drama. Recent collections of poetry have been published by Sahitya Akademi, India’s highest literary authority, and Spinifex, for her work I Will Not Bare You Sons (2020). Usha’s work has been included in the Harper Collins Anthology of Indian English Poets; she was selected as a Cultural Ambassador for the City of Austin in 2015, and has read with a group of eminent South Asian Diaspora poets at the House of Lords in 2016. Usha’s work is published widely and she is often invited to international poetry festivals in Trois Riviere, Slovakia, Nicaragua, Macedonia, Colombia, Slovenia, India etc. She is the founder of ‘Matwaala’, the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US. She has won literary prizes and enjoys writing quixotic prose articles and interviewing poets and artists. She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin which has offered several hundreds of poetry readings to those in women’s shelters, senior homes and hospitals. In response the City of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. To contact Usha and find out about the Matwaala Festival, contact her via this address: email@example.com
Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15) and co-director of Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival, is the author of Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008), Draw Me Inmost (Stockport Flats, 2009), Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Thirteen Days to Let Go (Aldrich Press, 2015), Slow Ripening (Local Gems, 2016), and The Singer of Alleppey(Shanti Arts, 2018). She has performed her poetry internationally, including at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Festival Internacional De Poesia De Granada. An award-winning poet, she teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York. Author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction, she is also the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year.
The name Matwaala evokes bonding and bonhomie, fun and funk, creative adventure and freedom, artistic assertiveness and non-conformity. A Hindi/Urdu word, it was the name of a radical literary magazine edited by the poet Nirala from Kolkata a century ago. Matwaala is used for someone who is drunk, but the word is used more often in a transferred sense, for someone who is a free spirit.
Concerned about the visibility of South Asian poets in the American poetry scene, university reading series, and representation in anthologies and syllabi, we were inspired to initiate a collective. Though the core mission may be perceived as idealistic or even somber, Matwaala, materialized in a weirdly magical way in Austin. The idea of a poetry festival emerged after an editorial project we co-edited for www.museindia.com. The issue focused on a project involving Diaspora artists and poets that generated the idea for sustained collaboration and initiatives. A festival was its magnification, and appeared, erected on a shoestring budget propelled by enthusiasm and faith in 2015. The first festival/collective drew to its fold a group of poets, Saleem Peeradina, Pramila Venkateswaran, Ravi Shankar, Sasha Parmasad and Varshs Saraiya Shah. Joie de vivre, friendship and a sense of community have become the hallmark of the festival that seeks to establish a paradigm based not on hierarchies but on solidarity, offering readings by established and emerging poets, youth forums, papers and panel discussions.
In 2019 Matwaala launched its website, branding, and e-anthology, hosted readings in NYU, Hunter College and NCC. It received sponsorship from Poets & Writers and hosted South Asian diaspora poets from the UK.