One of the elements that makes Latinx poetry so rich is the many cultures that come together in a single poem. The convergence of cultures can take on many forms, and for Latinx poets, who come from a wide range of backgrounds, the results are endlessly varied.
In the forthcoming Poem(a)s Studio: Reading Contemporary Latinx Poets, one of the topics that touches upon this characteristic is one I consider close to my own practice. As a Latinx poet myself, I often find that writing about a single culture and in a single language does not allow me to fully express a thought or experience due to the constant bridging and mixing I do in my daily life.
In part, this is why in my poetry, as well as in that of other Latinx poets, two languages sometimes come into contact in verse. Most often Latinx writers will combine Spanish and English, though some will even bring indigenous languages, such as Nahuatl, into the mix. Take the following two examples by well known Latinx poets Juan Felipe Herrera and Sandra Cisneros:
Excerpt from ‘Arturito the Amazing Baby Olmec Who is Mine by Way of Water’ by Sandra Cisneros
Arturito, when you were born
the hospital gasped when
they fished you from your fist of sleep,
a rude welcome you didn’t like a bit,
and I don’t blame you. The world’s a mess.
You inherited the family sleepiness and overslept.
And in that sea the days were nacre.
When you arrived on Mexican time,
you were a wonder, a splendor, a plunder,
more royal than any Olmec
and as mysterious and grand.
And everyone said “¡Ay!”
or “Oh!” depending on their native tongue.
In Cisneros’ poem, the birth of a Latinx child, one who resembles his Olmec ancestors, inspires a bilingual reaction. The reader can glean that the people present at the child’s debut into the world are Spanish and English native speakers, choosing innately between exclamations of wonder based on their “native tongue”. The use of both expressions illustrates not only that the infant Arturito belongs to a family that belongs to more than one culture, but also that the child is being born into a beautifully “messy” world that is not easily expressed in a single language. The two tongues, like his Olmec roots and “family sleepiness”, are thus part of his inheritance.
Excerpt from ‘Borderbus‘ by Juan Felipe Herrera
A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is going to come
A dónde vamos where are we going
Speak in English or the guard is gonna get us hermana
Pero qué hicimos but what did we do
Speak in English come on
Nomás sé unas pocas palabras I just know a few words
Herrera combines both languages in a number of ways in this poem to better illustrate the experience of migrants on a bus at the U.S.-Mexico border. Beginning in Spanish, the poem immediately starts to interpret Spanish speech into English in the first line. This serves the purpose of amplifying the first speaker’s reach by repeating her speech in the language spoken in the country she now finds herself in. Herrera is also providing readers who speak only one of the two languages a key to understanding what is being said.
However, in the second line we see the imperative “Speak in English” which is followed by the threat of a looming guard. The English language then becomes a survival tool, whereas Spanish takes on a new, ominous meaning. In the the third line, Spanish and English come together in a different way, with the word hermana, meaning “sister”, slipping into a sentence in English. This combination of Spanish and English is often referred to as Spanglish. The elision of the two languages as well as the alternation between them also reveals the liminality of the border experience, where people often straddle two cultures, two countries, two languages, and go back and forth between the two either by choice or by force.
These are the voices and experiences that I seek to highlight in my upcoming course in order not only to introduce poets to writers they may not be familiar with, but to help them explore how to combine cultures, languages, and experiences in their own work in novel ways.
Reinvigorate your poems with the rhythms of Latinx poetry, on Natasha Hakimi’s Poem(a)s Studio: Reading Contemporary Latinx Poets. Book online or ring us on (0)20 7582 1679.