Visible Dissent

Visible Dissent explores the role  small publishing houses and poetry festivals play in making dissent public.  The ”teaser” is posted here: see the comments.

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  1. Teresa Longo

     /  September 7, 2008

    A decade ago, I was writing about the Central American poet, Claribel Alegría. I was interested in the dissenting nature of her work, as well as its beauty. I wanted to meet her. I wanted my students to meet her. I wanted to compile and annotate an edition of the last thirty-five years of her poetry and publish it in the United States. In 1999, Claribel Alegría spent a semester at the College of William and Mary. She taught creative writing to our undergraduates. She gave a public lecture and an exquisite poetry reading at the Williamsburg Public Library. She launched the book Sorrow, newly released by Curbstone Press. When Claribel Alegría read her poetry at the Williamsburg Public Library a decade ago, Curbstone’s founder and publisher, Alexander (Sandy) Taylor, flew from Connecticut to Virginia to attend the reading. He had, of course, already attended her poetry readings many times over the years. He came to Virginia because this is how they maintained their professional relationship, on a human level. The night of Claribel Alegría’s reading, Sandy Taylor told me that they had met about twenty years earlier on a bus in Central America. He told me a story I am sure he had told many times before. It was a good story, and it changed my research agenda. The two of them were on a bus. He had a typewriter. She had some poems. They exchanged them, the typewriter for the poems. Since the mid- 1980s Claribel Alegría’s work has found its way to U.S. readers largely through Curbstone press. Sandy Taylor’s story stuck with me and ultimately generated the following questions: If poetry of dissent can become public because two people on a bus agree to make it so, then isn’t a culture of dissent more possible, more close at hand than many of us might imagine? If a progressive poet and her publisher can make dissent visible can’t a scholar do the same? After Claribel Alegría left William and Mary, I published an article about her work in the Peace Review but I did not compile and annotate thirty-five years of her poetry. Instead, I began investigating literature of dissent in the Americas and the role of publishers and scholars in making that literature known.

    Claribel Alegría had already published her poetry in Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and Spain when she met Sandy Taylor on a bus in war-torn Central America in the 1980s. Clearly, she did not really need that typewriter to make her dissent visible in Latin America. However, Claribel Alegría did need Sandy Taylor’s tools to make the crisis of U.S. intervention public in the United States. In turn, the United States needed and needs the critical dissent. I am interested in the positions held by U.S. Latino and Latin American writers on the defining issues of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, issues like war, censorship and resistance. I am interested in the venues poets and other intellectuals employ to address these issues. It goes without saying that not all U.S. Latino and Latin American writers voice dissent or concern themselves with social change, but many do. Their names include Dorfman, Espada, Poniatowska, Marcos, Taibo and Rendón. Most of the writers whose names I mention here publish in small U.S. based presses like Curbstone, Seven Stories or City Lights. Others make their work known in the progressive Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Still others make their work public at festivals like the International Poetry Festival in Medellín, Colombia. Visible Dissent is structured with these venues in mind.

    The first part of the book is called “Visibility and the Art of Imagining.” It explores the work of two small U.S. presses, Curbstone and Seven Stories. It emphasizes their connections to Latin America. As the Alegría-Taylor story indicates, Curbstone not only publishes Latin American writers, it maintains close ties with them. Moreover, Latin American perspectives have informed the Curbstone mission. A quote by the renowned Latin American dissenter, Eduardo Galeano, is featured prominently on the Curbstone website. His ideas about literature help explain the work of the press and why the kind of literature published there matters. These are Galeano’s comments: “A literature … deeply immersed in the risks and events of its time can … throw light on the signs along the road. To claim that literature on its own is going to change reality would be an act of madness or arrogance. It seems to me no less foolish to deny that it can aid in making this change.” ( Galeano’s statement applies to the Seven Stories publishing agenda as well. Both Curbstone and Seven Stories share a commitment to publishing writers, like Ariel Dorfman and Martín Espada, who imagine progressive social change. Both Curbstone and Seven Stories draw on the Latin American literary tradition in order to voice dissent, imagine change and render humanity visible in the Americas.

    The second part of the book, “Small Pockets / Deep Roots,” begins with a study of the Mexican paper La Jornada and ends with a discussion of City Lights Press in San Francisco. La Jornada was founded in Mexico City in the 1980s. It was founded, in part, as a response to the repression and state violence of 1968. La Jornada is now a major newspaper, distributed in print in Mexico and electronically throughout the world. La Jornada publishes editorials on topics such as the crisis of NAFTA, the relationship between immigration policies and human rights violations, and the war in Iraq. It is important to note, however, that my interest in La Jornada is not based (just) on its dissenting editorial positions, but on the fact that it publishes literature. Galeano, Poniatowska and Taibo make their work public in this global newspaper. So does Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the Mexican poet-philosopher and spokesperson for the Zapatista National Liberation Movement. I am interested in Marcos’ profound ties to La Jornada, the ways in which his writing echoes the discourse of 1968 and the story of the paper’s founding. I am also interested in the ways in which Marcos’ public persona moved North, from La Jornada to the United States. City Lights Press played an important role in the process. They published Marcos’ The Speed of Dreams and The Other Campaign. Consequently, Marcos’ global presence is tied to the work of this small press. In turn, the work of the press is tied to Marcos.

    The third part of Visible Dissent is called “The Poetics of Advocacy.” It begins with a study of poetry written by the prisoners at Guantánamo and concludes with an analysis of the International Poetry Festival in Medellín, Colombia. Every year thousands of people travel to Medellín from Asia, Africa, North and South America to read poetry and to hear and see the reading of poetry. Festival participants include famous poets like Fernando Rendón and Juan Gelman. They also include less recognized figures like Luz Cordero and Yorlady Ruiz. The poets speak against prisons, hunger, environmental degradation and war. They voice dissent and imagine social change. Their work embodies an idea articulated by Martín Espada in “Poets of the Political Imagination.” Before it can be enacted in society, progressive social change needs to be imagined first in literature and art (Poetry Like Bread 16). I approach the analysis of the Medellín Festival from an Espada-inspired perspective and with an eye toward the relationship between poetic imagery and poetic acts. The Festival’s poems imagine change. The presence of the poets on the Festival’s stage says change can be publicly enacted. Sam Hamill is among the U.S. poets who participate in the International Poetry Festival in Medellín. Hamill is a prolific poet and he is well regarded in the United States. He is also the founder of an organization called Poets against the War. In 2005, along with poets from South America, Asia, Europe and Africa, Hamill travelled to Medellín. Hamill’s poems imagine an end to war. His appearance with other poets on the Festival stage enacted “a peace more active than all the wars.” His journeys South matter as much as Alegría’s journey North.

    I wrote this book at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. I wrote aware that some things changed between the time Sandy Taylor, typewriter in hand, met Claribel Alegría on a bus in Central America and the time Sam Hamill travelled to the International Poetry Festival in Medellín. Twenty-first-century poets write on laptops. Publishers work on line. I posted the first pages of Visible Dissent on my blog before I sent the book to a publisher. These small facts are, of course, mere indicators of the vast political, economic and cultural shifts associated with the most recent wave of globalization. This book is not about globalization per se. However, it is a study of literature’s response to significant events in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Globalization may well be the event that has shaped all the others. I wrote Visible Dissent with this basic premise in mind. Moreover, I wrote from a perspective informed by the work of scholars who not only critique globalization but also envision alternative forms of it. Consequently, the language I bring to my analysis is a language I share with scholars, writers, activists and theorists engaged in the alter-globalization movement, beginning with John Berger. IIn 2001, Berger published a book called The Shape of a Pocket. What he said there and in subsequent publications stuck with me almost as much as Sandy Taylor’s account of the typewriter-for-poetry exchange. According to Berger, the contemporary world-picture, like Bosch’s terrifying Millennium Triptych¸ is a puzzle consisting mostly of pieces that don’t fit: triangles, scribbles, circles and rectangles depicting economic and physical repression (210). But the puzzle, according to Berger, also includes a piece “in the shape of a pocket” in which smaller heterogeneous pockets of resistance form and become visible (213). Visible Dissent asserts that the theoretical pockets referred to by Berger are real. They have names like Curbstone Press, La Jornada and the Medellín Poetry Festival. On occasion, I have wondered whether certain U.S. universities might be included among the pockets. I am somewhat hesitant on that front. Nevertheless, I am inclined to assert at least this: the University is not disconnected from the marketplace; it is not disconnected from global concerns. It may be worthwhile, then, to contemplate certain aspects of the American university in Berger’s terms: “A pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement … against the inhumanity of the new world … order.” Writing Visible Dissent, I imagined an audience of university students, their families, their friends and their professors. I wrote this book hoping they would find dissent necessary as they address the risks and events of our time. I wrote believing they would find dissent productive as they imagine and enact change.

    Teresa Longo
    The College of William and Mary

    Material published here may not be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.

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