North

by William Archila

…los que nunca sabe nadie de donde son/…/
los que fueron cocidos a balazos al cruzar la frontera/…/
los eternos indocumentados/…/

…the ones no one ever knows where they’re from/… /
The ones burned by bullets when they crossed the border/… /
the eternally undocumented/…/

Roque Dalton, Poema de Amor
May 14, 1935 – May 10, 1975

Back in the fall of 2010, while strolling around Echo Park Lake in Southern California, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a reporter for KPCC, an affiliate of NPR, asked me after the interview, “Do you know of any other published Salvadoran poets writing in English?” I was stunned. I quickly scrabbled the bottom of my brain for a face, an image, some sort of anecdote that could lead me to a name, but I had none. My lack of response said more about my knowledge and isolation than the presence of Salvadoran poets in this country. I mean I’m not on FACEBOOK. I don’t even have a Twitter account. I knew they were out there teaching, getting their MFAs, taking care of their families, but I just didn’t have the contacts.

This changed in 2014 when Kalina produced the anthology Theatre Under My Skin which collects not only the work of poets that reside in El Salvador and write in Spanish, but also the work of poets that have emigrated to the United States and write in the language of their adopted country. After receiving my contributor’s copy, I immediately sent Adolfo a copy and began not only to guttle the anthology but also to read the debut collections of some of these poets: José B. González, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, Javier Zamora, and others not included in the anthology like Harold Terezon and Cynthia Guardado. I could go on, but there’s no point because the list will always exclude someone.

I found tremendous strength in these poems. They crossed the borders of diaspora; religious, political, war and migration stories that sometimes braid the dual language or the performative aesthetic. They underscore the experiences of Salvadoran identities caught between cultures and languages.

Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Javier Zamora, a poet whose experiences as a Salvadoran immigrant living in the U.S. is central to his poems. His first full-length poetry collection, Unaccompanied (Copper Canyon Press 2017), describes his experiences with border crossing.

El Salvador

Salvador, if I return on a summer day, so humid my thumb
will clean your beard of  salt, and if  I touch your volcanic face,

kiss your pumice breath, please don’t let cops say: he’s gangster.
Don’t let gangsters say: he’s wrong barrio. Your barrios

stain you with pollen. Every day cops and gangsters pick at you
with their metallic beaks, and presidents, guilty.

Dad swears he’ll never return, Mom wants to see her mom,
and in the news: black bags, more and more of us leave.

The poem personifies the country and begins a conversation that addresses the intricacies of the speaker’s relationship to his native land. It reminds me of the conversations we all have with our own countries; our countries as death, God, or our lover—a possible, pocketsize Canto General for El Salvador.

Here’s another excerpt, this one a quasi-sonnet, by Alexandra Lytton Regalado, a poet whose debut collection Matria, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), is a poetic sequence based on the Salvadoran Lotería.

La Cachiporrista

…the man’s hooded eyes, as he watches from behind the wire
diamonds of chain-link, the whirling wrists of a teenage girl
in a majorette skirt fashioned out of half-inch-thick strips
of cut newsprint, the fringe swaying with her hips
as she twirls a baton of broken broomstick
in circles, wrist over wrist, and tosses it high as she
turns to catch it fanning behind her back…

Regalado’s poem is a snapshot of everyday El Salvador. It’s one long sentence and in its form the piece comes across almost like a postcard poem; concise, imagistic and direct in the way it engages all our senses. It captures a measure of humanity, displaying the beauty and violence that resides in such a small country.

So why the sudden rush of Salvadoran poets? Back in the nineties finding another Salvadoran poet was like hitting the lottery. You couldn’t believe your eyes that there was such a thing as a Salvadoran poet standing in front of you. It was a rare thing. Unfortunately it takes the current Central American immigrant issue and the unaccompanied minors narrative that brings these poets to the surface. Now it seems it’s all about timing and accessibility. As the new administration in the White House threaten to end TPS, a humanitarian program that has allowed nearly 200,000 Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., the work of these poets seems more relevant than ever. After all, if you want to understand a culture and its people, you go to the poets. You don’t go to their politicians or generals, or businessmen. You read their poets.

Although the foundation of Salvadoran poetry is deeply rooted in the history and culture of the country, the poets who emigrated and write in English have contributed their own experiences and styles to the art form as well. This contribution is a new branch to the Salvadoran tree of poetry. At the same time, but most important of all, these poets are producing quality work with a fresh look on our current political climate. They are establishing a presence in contemporary American poetry, especially at the local and state literary cultures and movements. They are also complicating the definition of a Latino poet. When I started reading Latino poetry back in the early nineties I fell in love with their words. When I started writing, for a long time, I felt I had to write the type of poems that I could not find in journals or magazines. There was no such a thing as a poem about the complexities of the Salvadoran experience. And now I get to sit down with their work and read of and about my experience. I love the fact that these poems are the firsts of their kind. They are the first of the Mohicans. These Salvi poets are perhaps the first known Salvadoran poets of the United States.

Now I know there are more Salvadoran poets whose fine work has appeared in various literary journals, chapbooks and anthologies, such as The Wandering Song; Central American Writing in the United States, the first-ever comprehensive literary survey of the Central American diaspora. However, it’s a fact I should have known back in Echo Park Lake when Adolfo posed the question. After all, it is a common saying or knowledge that El Salvador is a land of poets and volcanoes. These poets have not only spread that knowledge, but have kept it burning.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Advertisements

Mine Own Neruda

by William Archila

I was ten and my father was gone, already living here in the States, when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to listen to a strange voice coming out of the transistor radio. It was Pablo Neruda reciting his love poems while violins and guitars played in the background. For two years I fell asleep to the voice of Neruda rising and falling like waves in the distance, like seagulls swooping down, my head filling with poetry.

The broadcast was interrupted in November, 1980, when I fled El Salvador and the war that was tearing my country apart. I was twelve years old. I arrived in Los Angeles, California, with many questions unanswered, conversations unfinished and years of my young life unfulfilled. I gave up much of my national culture and Spanish language to learn a new culture and language. My English was full of street vernacular and strong raw accents—my words squashed, shredded, forced to dance a Shakespearian rag. I became part of the growing immigrant community, speaking ghetto Spanish. “Go back to your country” echoed throughout these years. Ahead a long road stretched into darkness.

In high school I began writing long before I read any poetry that excited me. My writings were fragments—verses and scribbles not meant to be taken seriously or shared. I pursued this calling in secret, writing only for myself. In college I tried to read the masters of the English language: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, but none of them spoke to me—or maybe I wasn’t ready to listen. It wasn’t until I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” that I was amazed to discover I was not the only young man who saw the best minds of his generation destroyed.

In 1992, after a peace treaty was signed, I returned to El Salvador hoping to find a home, but instead found a war-torn country full of poverty, death, illiteracy, and crime. All my friends and family members were gone, especially those who were capable of changing a society. I was searching for something that no longer existed—a quality remembered from childhood, a sense of belonging to a country and a language. But these had changed. And I had changed. I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

I returned to California and bounced between LA and San Francisco, feeling rootless and without home. Yet that yearning for a sense of home—for union with my country, my family, for other Central American immigrants—grew deep inside me. To cope with these feelings of exile, I needed to write what I could not voice. That’s when I consciously began to write poems.

Within a year of discovering Ginsberg, I rediscovered Pablo Neruda. From poems such as “Walking Alone,” I learned to take the pencil and run across the pages, like a horse galloping across Latin America. I could remember the tree outside my childhood window, the fragile eggs boxed in my mother’s store, the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and the moon bending over the neighborhood. I could go outside, feel the cracks of the street and remember my small country of El Salvador.

Neruda demanded more breadth, more precision, more memory of home in my reading and writing. I became interested in writers who sense home as a source of identity more than as a refuge: Pessoa’s Portugal, Neruda’s Chile, Rushdie’s India, Levine’s Detroit, Whitman’s American soil, and Roethke’s North America.

Neruda’s “Residence on Earth” helped me understand that the identity of the exile writer is homelessness and its attendant loneliness. As an exile writer you try to recreate your home in your work. Of course, you never can. You create fictions instead. But in this trajectory, in this country, I never travel alone. I travel with Neruda.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, AGNl, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry, and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.