This interview with Francisco Aragón is the first of a series with Latinx authors. Aragón was one of the Latino Stories 2007 Top Ten “New” Latino Authors to Watch (and Read). Since that time, he has become a prolific poet and an icon for Latino/Latinx poetry.
José B. González: From the opening poem, “Rubén Dario as Prelude” in your first poetry collection, Puerta del Sol, to your latest book, After Rubén, Dario has played a significant role in your writing. As I read After Rubén, I kept thinking about how the influence works as a symphony (to borrow from your and Dario’s poetry) that, among other things, brings nature and surroundings to life. How did your time in Spain contribute to developing this aspect of your poetry?
Francisco Aragón: The first thing I did when I moved to Spain in the summer of 1987 was buy and begin working my way through Ian Gibson’s two-tome biography of Federico García Lorca. I would read the final pages of Lorca’s life the following summer while residing in a hostal in Madrid. As someone who was, in my youth, illiterate in the Spanish language, completing this task was particularly meaningful. There’s a passage in volume one in which Gibson underscores Rubén Darío’s influence on the young poet from Granada. Given the beginning of your question, where you reference “Rubén Dario as Prelude,” it’s worth mentioning that Gibson singles out Darío’s poem, “Lo Fatal”—the Spanish-language source for my poem—as having had a profound effect on Lorca. So much so that Gibson pauses his narrative to quote the entire poem, as I’ll do right now:
Dichoso el árbol que es apenas sensitivo,
y más la piedra dura porque esa ya no siente,
pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo,
ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.
Ser, y no saber nada, y ser sin rumbo cierto,
y el temor de haber sido y un futuro terror…
Y el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto,
y sufrir por la vida y por la sombra y por
lo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,
y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos,
y la tumba que aguarda con sus fúnebres ramos,
¡y no saber adónde vamos,
ni de dónde venimos!…
Up until then, I’d only been reading Darío in what I considered inadequate English translations. But saying this poem aloud to myself in Spanish from the pages of Federico García Lorca’s life felt….I’m searching for the word ….transformative…in a way I didn’t fully comprehend at the time. Which is to say: the encounter with this poem, while living in Spain, was a crucial moment in my developing sensibility as an artist.
González: A book like yours keeps a literary history alive that would otherwise go ignored. What advice would you give to aspiring Latinx poets who might be considering writing about a subject or figure with which audiences in the U.S. may not be entirely familiar?
Aragón: My advice stems from an analogous experience with another Spanish-language poet: Gerardo Diego (1896- 1987)—specifically, translating his book Manual de espumas/Handbook of Foams. The collection consists of thirty poems. I translated twenty of them as part of my thesis for my M.A. in Hispanic Civilization from NYU. But when I decided, as a longer-term project, to finish translating the book, I challenged myself to dig deeper into the archive: to read, and learn about, the various isms that flourished in the first quarter of the 20th century. For example, because Diego’s book emerged from a movement known as creacionismo, I set out to read the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro and the work of Basque poet Juan Larrea, who were both considered creacionistas. I set out to read the work of French “cubist” poet Pierre Reverdy. I set out to read the French poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard and, yes, Louis Aragon, among others. I fell in love with this avant garde work and relished immersing myself in their worlds. And I fell in love with the cubist visual art of Juan Gris, who Diego met and had extensive conversations with, during his stint in Paris in 1922. This work with Gerardo Diego occupied a good portion of my time in Madrid. I would eventually go on to place quite a few of my Diego translations in various journals over the years. Here’s a generous sampling:
But the book project with Diego remains in limbo, though I hope to change that in the coming few years. The advice, then, to get back to your question, is to thoroughly document and internalize the context of the work and period of the subject or figure you want to bring to a U.S. audience. It will make for a more enriching experience and nourish you as an artist.
The advice, then, to get back to your question, is to thoroughly document and internalize the context of the work and period of the subject or figure you want to bring to a U.S. audience. It will make for a more enriching experience and nourish you as an artist.Francisco Aragón
González: The title, After Rubén, can be viewed as having multiple meanings—as literally, after the period of time that follows Rubén’s time, or after Rubén, as in a journey toward his essence. Can you comment on why you chose this title among others you may have considered?
Aragón: An earlier working title was Ernesto Cardenal in Berkeley, the title of one of the poems in the book. Up until the Fall of 2017 I felt pretty good about this title. But one of the items of feedback I received was that the collection’s muse seemed to be Rubén Darío and not Ernesto Cardenal. At the same time, I noticed I’d designated many of my Darío versions as “after Rubén Darío.” When I began to also think about other books that invoked “translation” as a mode of composition—lightning struck. One of my favorite books is Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. It was published in 1957 in San Francisco by White Rabbit Press. I began to see how Spicer’s book was in kinship with mine. His included an introduction penned by Lorca—from the hereafter. Mine includes the epistolary poem in the voice of Darío—from the grave. The end of my poem borrows from After Lorca (“I am / dead, and the dead are very patient.”). Spicer’s book, like mine, includes “translations”—that is, some of his Lorca “translations” are fairly straightforward whiles others are complete fabrications—wonderfully and playfully so. This seemed in sync with what Roberto Tejada and Urayoán Noel have called my Darío “transcreations.” In short, the title After Rubén fell into my lap from heaven!
González: Early in your career, you were involved in chapbook projects. In what ways do chapbooks offer unique opportunities and possibilities?
Aragón: My two years at UC Davis were absolutely crucial on this score. During my stint there (1998 – 2000), I published Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk; I took a course with Sandra McPherson on the chapbook; I took three courses with Gary Snyder, in which the ethos of small press publishing was, in each, a key area of exploration and inculcation; I founded Momotombo Press. The cumulative effect of all of this completely won me over on the chapbook—as a valuable vehicle for a poet to put work into the world before taking the plunge that is a full-length book. For example, McPherson’s course created a space for us to scrutinize, and discuss amongst ourselves, the makings of an effective (and non-effective) chapbook-length manuscript. This was part of the process of starting Swan Scythe Press within the parameters of her seminar. The publication of Light, Yogurt, Strawberry Milk, at Gary Soto’s invitation, offered me a couple of things. First, to form part of a tradition that was the Chicano Chapbook Series. On a more practical level, the chapbook helped me land readings—the most crucial an invitation to present my poems at the annual NAACS conference in the spring of 2000, held in Portland, OR. It was at that gathering, at the bar of the Hilton, that I met Gil Cárdenas—the founding director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. It would not be inaccurate to say that the work I’ve done with Letras Latinas originated with that chance meeting which, in turn, was the result of being at that NAACS conference, which, in turn, was the result of having the “calling card” that was my first chapbook. Shortly afterwards, the Chicano Chapbook Series was discontinued. That was the principal reason I started Momotombo Press, whose mission became to publish a chapbook-length manuscript of poetry or prose by Latinx writers who had yet to publish a full-length book. Being at the helm of Momotombo Press for its ten years offered me the ups and downs of micro press publishing. Among the writers whose work I ushered into print were: Maria Melendez (introduced by Gary Snyder), Brenda Cárdenas (introduced by Maurice Kilwein Guevara), Paul Martínez Pompa (introduced by Luis J. Rodríguez), Michelle Otero (introduced by Lisa D. Chávez), Kevin A. González (introduced by Terrance Hayes), and Octavio R. González (introduced by Rigoberto González), to name six.
González: Throughout the last couple of decades, what would you say have been some particularly noteworthy moments in the Latinx poetry scene?
Aragón: In terms of the recognition that Latinx poets have received in the timeframe you’ve designated, four, among a number of others of course, stand out for me: Andrés Montoya’s Chicano/Latino Literary Prize for the ice worker sings and other poems (Bilingual Press, 1999), Eduardo C. Corral’s Yale Younger Poets Prize for Slow Lightning (Yale University Press, 2012), Elizabeth Acevedo’s National Book Award for her novel-in-verse, The Poet X (Harper Collins, 2017), and Juan Felipe Herrera designation as Poet Laureate of the United States (2015 -2017).
At the time of its publication, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (University of Arizona Press, 2007) gathered, for the first time, poets from what I’ll call the “post-Ray González era.” Ray, born in 1952, was the most prodigious poet-editor of his generation—grouping together such figures as Victor Hernández Cruz, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Martín Espada, and Silvia Curbelo, to name a few. He was a model. My hope was that my effort would spur others to anthologize. I haven’t been disappointed. In addition to your and John Christie’s Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature (Pearson, 2005) (whose essay on Latino poetry I teach to my undergrads), others worth noting have been: ¡Manteca! An Anthology of [email protected] Poets (Arte Público Press, 2017) edited by Melissa Castillo-Garsow; Other Musics: New Latina Poetry (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), edited by Cynthia Cruz; and The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext (Haymarket Books, 2020), edited by Felicia Rose Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo—this latter especially appealing for its generous inclusion of some our most talented younger voices.
But the most ground-breaking volume has been, in my view, Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New [email protected] Writing (Counterpath Press, 2014), edited by Carmen Giménez Smith and John Chavez. This anthology, in tandem with the AKRILICA series at Noemi Press, has carved out a vital space for those Latinx poets who work from our more innovative traditions. For too long, this strand of our poetics has been ignored by editors both outside and inside the Latinx poetry scene.
In 2002 Rigoberto González inaugurated his El Paso Times book column with a review of Francisco X. Alarcón’s From the Other Side of Night: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press). By the time he concluded his column ten years later, he had penned a total of 206 reviews, approximately half of them on books of Latinx poetry. González’s work as a book reviewer, in this regard, has been unparalleled. I discuss this facet of his tireless activism in my piece on Pivotal Voices, Era of Transition: Towards a 21st Century Poetics (University of Michigan Press, 2017), Gonzalez’s book of critical prose: Portrait of the Poet as Critic (& Thinker) by Francisco Aragón.
Other critical touchstones for Latinx poetry have been, in my mind, Urayoán Noel’s In Visible Movement: Nuroyican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (University of Iowa Press, 2014), Michael Dowdy’s Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (University of Arizona Press, 2013) and, most recently, Roberto Tejada’s Still Nowhere in an Empty Vastness (Noemi Press, 2019)
Another gesture that has captivated my attention and which, I think, is a worthy representation of the vigor and vision of our younger voices is the Undocupoets initiative—founded by poets Christopher Soto (aka Loma), Marcelo Hernández Castillo, and Javier Zamora.
Any attempt to portray the Latinx poetry scene of the last couple of decades would be incomplete without mentioning the presence and promise of CantoMundo. Although it’s an organization that’s experiencing some growing pains at the moment, its current process of renewal gives me hope that it will evolve into a project that supports and celebrates all of our poetries—with particular and overdue attention to our Black and indigenous voices.
The son of Nicaraguan immigrants, Francisco Aragón is a native of San Francisco, California and holds degrees in Spanish from UC Berkeley and NYU. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1998 after a decade in Spain, Aragón completed graduate degrees in creative writing from UC Davis and the University of Notre Dame. In 2003 he joined the faculty of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, where he established Letras Latinas. In 2010, he was awarded the “Outstanding Latino/a Cultural Arts, Literary Arts and Publications Award by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education. In 2015 he was awarded a VIDO Award by VIDA, Women in the Literary Arts. In 2017, he was a finalist for Split This Rock’s Freedom Plow Award for poetry and activism. A CantoMundo fellow and a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, Aragón is the author of Puerta del Sol (2005) and Glow of Our Sweat (2010) as well as editor of the anthology, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry. His third book, After Rubén, was published in 2020 with Red Hen Press. His Tongue a Swath of Sky, a limited edition chapbook, his fourth, was released in early 2019. His poems and translations have appeared in various print and online journals, as well as numerous anthologies. He has read his poetry at universities, bookstores, galleries, the Split This Rock Poetry Festival and the Dodge Poetry Festival. He spends the fall semester on the Notre Dame campus where he teaches a literature course on Latinx poetry, and spring in Washington, D.C., where he teaches a poetry workshop featuring the work of local and visiting Latinx poets. For more information, visit: http://franciscoaragon.net