Poetry Centered

Urayoán Noel: Radical Imagination

August 12, 2020 University of Arizona Poetry Center Season 1 Episode 4
Poetry Centered
Urayoán Noel: Radical Imagination
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Urayoán Noel introduces recordings of Ai engaging with war through necessary fury (“The Root Eater”), Lehua M. Taitano composing a lifeline to communities living with the legacies of colonialism (“A Love Letter to the Chamoru People in the Twenty-first Century”), Ofelia Zepeda on the untranslatability of song (“Ñeñe'i Ha-ṣa:gid / In the Midst of Songs”), and a fable of radical imagination by Gloria E. Anzaldúa (“Nepantla”). Noel ends the episode with his poem “Molecular Modular,” built around open-ended questions considering virality and modes of community.

Listen to the full recordings of Ai, Taitano, Zepeda, and Anzaldúa reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Ai (1972)
Lehua M. Taitano with the board of Thinking Its Presence (2017)
Ofelia Zepeda (2015)
Gloria E. Anzaldúa (1991)

Listen to a performance by Urayoán Noel on Voca, presented as part of the Thinking Its Presence conference in 2017.

Julie Swarstad Johnson:

Welcome back to Poetry Centered, the show where we invite a guest poet to dive into Voca, the University of Arizona Poetry Center's online audiovisual archive of poetry ranging from 1963 to today. Our guest poet selects and shares recordings from the archive and wraps up the episode with a poem of their own. Our host today is Urayoán Noel, a Puerto Rican poet, critic, performer, and translator. He is an associate professor of English and Spanish at New York University. His most recent book of poetry is Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico. In this episode, Urayoán shares recordings by Ai, Lehua M. Taitano, Ofelia Zepeda, and Gloria Anzaldúa , all of which speak with radical imagination, offering new ways to hear and to think

Urayoán Noel:

My name is Urayoán Noel, and I'm coming to you from the South Bronx, New York City. The first poem I chose is "The Root Eater" by the poet Ai, and it's from 1972. I love the dystopian vision of this poem, which feels somehow appropriate to our present moment. I love that it begins, "The war has begun," and that it maps various wars against our communities, whether wars of land, body, or mind. And I think its short, compressed energy feels like a blast of cleansing, necessary fury in this moment, perhaps an ablution of sorts. And I also love the fabulous opening where Ai admits to rage and getting drunk. Somehow that permission to rage feels very affirming right now. I was also fascinated as a scholar because it's such an early recording. It's a poem that would appear in Ai's book, her first book, Cruelty, in 1973, but this is before the book had come out. When I was invited to do this, I really wanted to go back into the archive. And finally, I find Ai's persona poems so unsettling, but so riveting. And they really feel urgent to me as we reflect on violence and otherness in our own moment.


I meant to announce this before. I usually have to be mad to read, cause I'm really basically shy, and I've been getting angry since Monday. And I got drunk last night and was real nasty at this party. And I threw people out of my house and stuff, so I'm ready. Okay . I don't know the merit of this poem either, but people seem to like it. It's called "The Root Eater." The war has begun and I see the root eater bending, shifting his hands under the soil in search of the arthritic knuckles of trees. I see dazed flower stems pushing themselves back into the ground. I see turnips spinning endlessly on the blunt, bitten off tips of their noses. I see the root eater, going home on his knees, full of the ripe foundations of things, longing to send his seed up through his feet and out into the morning. But the stumps of trees heave themselves forward for the last march, and the root eater waits, knowing he will be shoved rootless under the brown scaly torso of the rock.

Urayoán Noel:

Next up is "A Love Letter to the Chamoru People in the Twenty-first Century." And it's by Lehua M. Taitano. And it's from 2017. I picked this because I've been thinking a lot about my native Puerto Rico and legacies of colonialism and extractivism as they seem to frame our current planetary imbalance. And I've also been thinking that maybe one bright spot is that we've been here before or our ancestors have, and we will be again , and that poetry somehow can let us tap into histories of struggle. I think that's what Taitano lets us do here. This poem is written from a diaspora , but it also imagines a past and a future in this archipelago community. So as I miss my loved ones, I've been also thinking about the epistolary mode. I'm thinking about sending postcards and so on. So this poem also embodies that epistolary impulse. And finally it's a reminder that what happened in small places like Guåhan or Puerto Rico eventually comes for the most vulnerable everywhere. And I can't help, but think of this lockdown, in the largely black and brown neighborhood I'm coming to you from in the South Bronx. So this poem feels like a lifeline in that sense.

Lehua M. Taitano:

This is called "A Love Letter to the Chamoru People in the Twenty-first Century." Dear. I will begin this in the middle since all of my letters have always been to you. Even if you haven't realized it, go back and look, you'll see all of my imaginings, my histories, my deaths, and rebirths, my love and heartbreak. All of my words, my windblown hair, my lemon sticky wrists , my fish bones , slings, feathers, and offerings, my twig fires and heaped mounds of husks, my paint dipped elbows and muddy feet. The bowers I weave into a home scented bowl that might call you to me. The way I can sometimes chant down the sea and coax a wave to carry my heart to you. The salt on my thighs, the clutch of shells I carry in my deepest pockets. They're always for you, addressed to you. So you'll understand, I hope, if I pick up where we last left off, which is always at horizon. Who but a horizon so keenly feels how we are kept at each other's distance, because much more than wind carries so many of us away from our islands, because we are made to consider our oceans as walls. Because we fumbled the jar lid of tongues we've been made to bury, because our sails have been burned, because our grandmothers have been raped and worse, because the bones of our beloved are being paved over and over with layers of poison and dollars that bear faces not our own. Because the news tells us who we are not, because our families are separated, because distance means we cannot always conjure the scent of our auntie's cheek. Because we are visited by our ancestors in dreams, because we are visited by our ancestors in waking life, because our nieces and nephews struggle to remember the last time we visited. Because two more of our sons and daughters have enlisted, because their enlistment might return them whole or in pieces or not at all. Because diabetes has taken another pair of our eyes. Because we cannot tread on pieces of our own land without clearance, because we keep words like clearance and deployment and strategic and stationed in the bowl with our keys by the front door. Because we can, because we can count to a thousand in Spanish, because we can count to the apocalypse in English. Because our crow song has vanished, because our trees are blighted, because our reefs are targets, because we are always in the path of military maneuvers, because I must write to you in English. Because we are trending, because our faces are lit up with the glow of emojis, each shedding a single tear. Because our petitions do not go viral. Because Cara only half jokes about investing in bunker supplies, because Michael is being fitted with a lapel mic for the 20th time today, because Clarissa splits herself open to talk story about Litekyan, because Desiree is trying to ignore the planes flying overhead, because Dåkot-ta is not even going to talk about anything but peace, because Ned wants us to share with the world, because Arielle is still trying to sell her atulai, because Craig debates the value of visibility, because our non-Chamoru friends text us to say, what a shame, but can they also get that kelaguin recipe? Because we're shouting into the Pacific, because our voices are choked in the fumes of B-1 bombers. Because I could not sleep, because I could not eat, because I do not want to get my mind off of things I am writing to you. I close my eyes against the morning sun in my garden, where I reach out to you across space and time. And I hear you. I hear you laughing and loving and crying in despair and resistance, in anguish and abhorrence. What's more, I feel you, the salt in our blood carries droplets of the ocean. No matter where we are, inside us is a liquid web connecting our beating hearts. I am quiet so I can perceive your tugs, the delicate density of your tangles. And I want you to know that I'm always scared, but I am always hopeful. Because I can feel you, I can feel our collective fear. We are proud. So we sometimes deny fear, keep it hidden like a lozenge under the tongue. We are resilient. So we know that it will dissolve. And when it does, we will still be here tending our plants, casting our nets , shaping our canoes, writing our bodies into existence. I am writing to you, mañe'lu, aunties, uncles, nenis, cousins, kin, all of our saina. I'm writing to tell you that I see you. I hear you. I feel you. I love you. And you matter. I hope this letter finds you until we can gaze together upon a horizon full of sails. Lehua.

Urayoán Noel:

Up next is "Ñeñe'i Ha-ṣa:gid / In the Midst of Songs" by Ofelia Zepeda, and it's from 2015. I was interested in how this poem frames the relationship of poetry to song into community and history as well from the perspective of the Tohono O'odham. I was fascinated by Zepeda's story as a translingual poet and translator , and the ways in which she addresses the untranslatability of song. That perhaps what is most crucial to poetry and to a moment as urgent as our own is that which translates the least. So affirming that in this moment makes me want to think of ourselves as also in the midst of songs and able to learn from elders, like Zepeda, and maybe listen in new ways.

Ofelia Zepeda:

Early on when I started writing , one of the inspirations that I had , that I got inspiration from , was from traditional O'odham songs. And I envied my O'odham friends who were all wonderful singers. And they came from families of singers, back then that's how songs were passed on. And now sometimes people learn songs, but not that way, you know, they learn it listening to a recording or something like that. But anyway, so these O'odham women and men would sing beautiful songs. And I never learned to sing, no one in our family was a singer. And so no one back then, and so no one is a singer now. I have been offered by some of the best singers on the reservation to tutor me. But I don't think that that's the right way to do it. So instead, what I do is just listen to their songs and I take as much from it that I can, and then I move it into the form that I'm more comfortable with. And so this next piece, which is also about , I think it's also about rain and our land here. The way that I set it up is to honor the songs, the singers, and of course the land. It's called "Ñeñe'i Ha-ṣa:gid." Ha-ka: ‘ac g ñeñei’i mo ’am kaidaghim. Am kaidaghim taṣ hudñig wui. Am kaidaghim si’alig ta:gio. Am kaidaghim ju:piñ ta:gio. Am kaidaghim wakolim ta:gio. Am ’ac ha’icug ’id ṣa:gid, mo ’am kaidaghim. S-ap ta:hadag ’o g t-i:bdag. S-ape ’o g t-cegǐtodag. S-ape ’o g t-jeweḍga. S-ke:kaj ’o, ñia ’an g ‘i- ñeid. S-ju:jpig ’o, nia ’an g ‘i- ñeid. Ka: ’ac g ka:cim ṣu:dagǐ t-miabǐ ’at. Ka: ’ac g ge’e jegos t-miabǐ ’at. Ka: ’ac g s-ke:g hewel t-miabǐ ’at. Ka: ‘ac g s-ke:g ñeñe’i t-miabǐ ’at. Ka: ‘ac g s-ke:g ñeñe’i t-ai ’at. In the midst of songs. We hear the songs resounding. They are resounding toward the sunset. They are resounding toward the sunrise. They are resounding toward the north. They are resounding toward the south. We are in the midst of songs. Our heart is full of joy. Our mind is good. Our land is good. The land is all beautiful. Take a look. There is a light rain all around. Take a look. We hear the ocean in the distance. It has come near us. We hear the beautiful wind in the distance. It has come near us. We hear the dust storm in the distance. It has come near us. We hear a beautiful song in the distance. It has come near us. We hear a beautiful song in the distance. It has come upon us.

Urayoán Noel:

My last selection is "Nepantla" by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and it's from 1991. And I'm guessing a lot of us know Anzaldúa, but I chose this even though it's the one reading that I was familiar with prior to making my selections, since I've taught this clip a couple of times. I think, as a critic who writes about the performance of poetry, I love how this footage documents Anzaldúa the performer , and how it reminds us of the need to reembody work that has been canonized, but also sometimes trivialized or co-opted or misunderstood. And I never saw Anzaldúa, or Ai for that matter, read while living. So this archive connects me to their work. But I have no illusion that I'm listening to the real Anzaldúa. And I think that ties into the question for me of what is digital presence , especially in a moment like our own when so much of our life is online. And I think this is also question that Anzaldúa began venturing closer to in some of her later writings. I picked this also cause it's a fable that she says she needs help with, one that will be completed in community. And I love that idea. I also loved her description of her writing process and her elucidation of her famous concept of nepantla through this queer speculative fiction that also hints at disability. And I love her self deprecating introduction where she says it's not a very good story, but I actually find it kind of fabulous with the blue skin and the green hair and all the nonhuman poetics, and the guards and the gates and this brilliantly re-imagined borderlands. And I think we need that radical imagination now, as we attempt to get to the other side.

Gloria E. Anzaldúa:

Okay, this is a poem, not a poem. This is a fable that I need help with, I need you to help me with. I'm going to read it to you. And afterwards, when you see me, tell me what you think I should work on. Okay. A lot of times I will start with an image or some words or a mood and that, or a picture of a character, a person, you know, that has some feeling or something that's important for her to say. And I start out with that. But a lot of times, especially since I've been back in graduate school, I start out with a theoretical concept. So there's about six or seven of these stories that start out with the concept. Okay. In this case, the concept is nepantla that I talked about on Monday night, which is between all these worlds that Prietita, Prieta lives in, the world of the writer and the imagination and fantasy , the world of external reality, the spirit world , and you know, there's other ghosts, there's other worlds. Like if you're watching television, you're in this media world, if you're reading a book you're in the world of the text. Your consciousness is somehow in this other world, half of the time, if not totally. If you're reading a good mystery, a romance, a horror , you know, escapist literature, that's the best way to escape out of your head and external reality into this other reality. So, anyway, this book is about all these, going from one world to the other. And when you're in between two worlds, you're in nepantla, you're in this kind of interface, borderland space. So I thought, okay, I want to take nepantla, which is a place of transition, a place of constant change, a place where your feet are always shifting. And I take that and I'm going to concretize it, and I'm going to give it some images. I'm going to give it a setting. I'm going to put characters in there, a little bit of a narrative. And I try to do this with this. And "Nepantla." Not a very successful story yet, but with your help. I arrive at the barrier bridge, the chalk skin perimeter guards look at my papers. What's your name? He asks. Prieta, I say. He asks why I speak in a funny way. I speak with a lisp, I tell him. Are you human? He asks, trying to see through my spray painted on clothes and my deep blue skin. After long seconds, he motions me to go back through the gate. We don't want anyone with green hair here. They don't want anyone with green hair where I come from either, I mutter. I must cross. I had to leave home because the change was hard on my heels. But the cost for crossing is high, for the mordida, the bribe, they want an eye or a leg. So I back off and circle around the perimeter until I come to a group nervously waiting to cross the river. They asked me to cross with them. I squat, I squat beside them saying, each must c ross by herself. Each must find her own community on the other side. I'll need clothes when I get to the other side. I buy clothes off a blue skinned woman about my size. First, she steps out of her pants and hands them to me while I'm stuffing them in a plastic n ap bag. She takes off her camisa. Naked, she sprints into the foliage. I hear the sounds of twigs snapping. Then she emerges clutching the eucalyptus leaves that she's plastered all over her body with clay. The change has caught up with a leaf clothed woman. She's from the other side. For her, this side is the new land. I leave the group and walk t oward the sound of rushing water. I come to the river. I feel compelled t o cross over yet I am afraid. Once I c ross over, I will never be the same, but I want the change. Something in me will terminate if I cross. What? Something else will activate, i t should say something else will come alive. Activate is too abstract, right? I stand by the river's edge for a long time and stare across to the other side, enshrouded in mist and mystery, mist and mystery. I can only discern the vaguest of shapes. I recognize nothing. Holding the bag over my head, I walk into the shadowed part of the river. The water is lukewarm, but I shiver and tremors course down my body. I'm scared. I'm scared. I'm so scared. Fear, not water numbs my body. Head submerged, I sink into layers, but never hit bottom. As I walk out, the wind is cool against my wet chest and thin thighs, and I realize there is no seam between water and air. My feet touched the other side. Lights flash over my head, and I hear dogs barking, a faceless chalk with shiny white boots outlined by the spotlights leans over me. Spotlights pin me from all directions, though I closed my eyes against the intense light, I can sense their eyes on me. The sprayed on clothes have dissolved in the water. I stand there, trembling, covering my nakedness with my hands, and I press my thighs together to hide the trickle going down my legs. They know I have wet myself. They jerk the plastic bag out of my hand, paw me, thrust me onto the wet ground. I lie on my back jerking like a fish, but I cannot escape their hands. They pull off my legs and arms and gouge out, gouge my eyes out. I contract into myself. Thrashing and lashing, I scream and scream, spit brown puke into their faces. When I wake, I am nothing, nadie. I remember that pieces of my body are scattered nearby. I wiggle my torso through the grass, like a worm, like a worm. Grope for my arms and using my mouth, I push them back in their sockets. I find my hands, pick up my eyeballs, rinse them in the river, put them back in my face. I see a new piece of myself I don't recognize, never knew or had forgotten. I press it onto my forehead. I feel alienated from this self that I do not recognize. The landscape shimmers then settles, but not on the same bedrock. The edge of the horizon wobbles, then stills, stills. Stills. Chicanas have problems with the Is and the Es, have you noticed? Some of these sounds do not exist in my native tongue. The rocks take in a breath in unison and subside, unmoving. Everything looks different. I bathe in the river, then sluice the water from my hand, from my body, with my hands. Then I search for the plastic bag and find it still intact, hanging from the branches of a tree. I quickly slip on my camisa and pants. In the distance, I see lights. I lope toward them. Just when my legs are about to crumble, I reached the outskirts of the pueblo. I pace up and down the streets , searching for something familiar. A cup that looks like a cup is at close range, not a cup, only a misshapen object whose reason for being eludes me. I'm beginning to get a glimmer of who I am. I no longer know where I come from, nor where I am. I am no longer the one who crossed the river yet I am still me, only I am more me. Yet I cannot remember what came before the crossing. As dusk approaches, I see lizard-like criaturas with transparent, translucent skin, dragging their feet through the streets. As they get closer, I see that they are not children as I first thought they were, but skeletal creatures. They gather around me speaking sibilant chords, which are welcoming, but at the same time too shrill. I cover my ears, shake my head. As I say back out of the circle, I murmur , sorry, no hablo tu lengua. I catch a glimpse of a face in a store window, watch its color recede, and realize that it is my face. I no longer look the same. Light radiates from me and my body hums. I do not look like those I left behind nor have I become a translucent criatura or a faceless chalk. I don't want to be one of them. I just want to comprehend this world. But the more I enter into it, the more it slips away. Under my feet, the ground shifts and oppressive thickness hangs in the air, too heavy to breathe. I gasp and sway with fatigue. Mal aire. I've inhaled the spirits of the wind. Why am I here in this alien world? En nepantla, el lugar del aislamiento. Confronted by creatures who would threaten me with their strangeness, I am afraid I will forever be alone. Forever unlike others, just like I was before en el otro lugar. En nepantla, el lugar entremedio, the place in between. The sun rises. I hear footsteps behind me on the sidewalk and hear the dogs snarl. I turn around, nothing, no one. Yet from that empty terrain I had crossed earlier and the unexplored land up ahead, I sense eyes watching me draw closer and closer, should I wait and stand my ground or run toward them head-on, try to breach their walls. But I know I can't stay in nepantla. Slapping my thighs hard to give me courage, I sprint toward the eyes far, far ahead of me in the distance. It's very difficult to read. Huh? Is it difficult to hear?

Urayoán Noel:

Thank you so much for listening. I'll leave you with one final poem and it's one of my own, and it's called "Molecular Modular" or "Molecular Modular." And it's built around open ended questions with the letters, starting with the letters, A, C, G and T, which are the letters that could make up a DNA sequence, including the sequence of our current SARS-COVID-2 coronavirus. And so I've been inspired to do this and thinking about the relationship between modularity and virality, right? The ways in which viruses find their way. Right? But also the modular way, right? In which we re - imagine community in all kinds of contexts. And in thinking about this I've been guided by the work of the Mexican poet and book artist Ulises Carrión. Carrión was an important practitioner of mail art. And I'm struck by his vision of mail art, one which went simply beyond sending folks stuff through the mail and really that work tried to reflect on living in a kind of network or in a community. So before the internet , Carrión was sending people stuff and asking them to think about it and their relationship to it. And maybe to reassemble it in modular fashion in a way that made them question their own relationship to a network or to a community. And that feels somehow very profound in our present moment. "Molecular Modular." "Molecular Modular." A. Ah, you remember when things went viral? A. Acuérdaste de aquel sueño viral? C. Can you find lifelines in the death spiral? C. Con vida estás en pírrico espiral? G. Goddess, who'll document your retiral? G. Guerreras, ahogarán al admiral? T. Time yet for the performative eyeroll? T. Tiempo es por fin del guiño neuronal? [bell rings] A. Are silences in lines enough spacing? A. Algo en silencio entre líneas pasa? C. Can writing be no contact with tracing? C. Cuando se escribe sin contacto es traza? G. Graphics matter most when self-erasing? G. Grafía del yo es borradura crasa? T. Too soon, on all fours, to start embracing? T. Tarde es para el que, ñangotao, abraza? [bell rings] A. Are solemn pages ready for their screen? A. Ante pantallas, página es condena? C. Can quatrains somehow rhyme with quarantine? C. Cuarteto rimará con cuarentena? G. Gray skies can sometimes signal the unseen? G. Gris cielo al fin o revelación plena? T. Trauma was always written in between? T. Trauma es lo que el azar desencadena? [bell rings]. A. As digital as a corpse orgasm? A. Ay, digital cadáver, y tu orgasmo? C. Can poetry be both fold and spasm? C. Cuál poesía: de pliegue o de espasmo? G. Gravitas can grow its own sarcasm? G. Gritos de lucha se oyen sin sarcasmo? T. Terrors are holes since everyone has 'em? T. Terrenos del terror, dónde me plasmo? [bell rings] A. Am I ready for a modular song? A. Atento estoy ante el modular canto? C. Can a modular muse ever be wrong? C. Con musa modular cabrá un quebranto? G. Grow molecules into a chain that long? G. Grandes moléculas se aferran tanto? T. Trembling cells will become a voice how strong? T. Tantas células dan voz al espanto? And the poem should end there. And you should be able to remix all those A, C, Gs, and Ts into your favorite structure. For instance, the COVID virus starts A T T A A G G T T T A T C C T T C C and so on, but because y ou a re a special audience, I'll leave you with a specific stanza only for you. And here i t goes. [bell rings] A. Arizona, props to your presenter. A. Arizona, qué onda lo que presento. C. Can it be that poetry h ath no center? C. Centro no tiene la poesía, es viento. G. Glad to give you netherworlds to enter. G. Gracias, desde mitad trigo aposentó. T. Time to d efund every one percenter. T. Tiempo y de cobrarle al uno por ciento. [bell rings]

Julie Swarstad Johnson:

Urayoán, thank you so much. And as always, thank you to you out there for listening. We're grateful to share these poems with you. In two weeks, we'll be back for an episode hosted by Maggie Smith. Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people. Poetry Centered is supported by the work of

Diana Marie Delgado:

Diana Marie Delgado

Tyler Meier:

Tyler Meier

Julie Swarstad Johnson:

And I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.

Ai's "The Root Eater"
Lehua M. Taitano's "A Love Letter to the Chamoru People in the Twenty-first Century"
Ofelia Zepeda's "Ñeñe'i Ha-ṣa:gid / In the Midst of Songs"
Gloria E. Anzaldúa's “Nepantla"
Urayoán Noel performs "Molecular Modular"