Poetry Centered

Anthony Cody: Necessary Discomfort

February 02, 2022 University of Arizona Poetry Center Season 5 Episode 2
Poetry Centered
Anthony Cody: Necessary Discomfort
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Anthony Cody selects poems that ask hard questions about war, borders, gender, power, US history, and ourselves—questions asked in order to remind us of the discomfort necessary for change on individual and collective levels. Cody shares Pat Mora’s inversion of relationships between speaker and audience, pursuer and pursued (“La Migra”), Michael S. Harper’s use of staccato repetition to sear atrocity into memory (“A White Friend Flies in from the Coast”), and Diana García’s revelation of truths that span generations (Excerpts from “Serpentine Voices”). Cody closes with his translation of Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Dudo las Luces / I Question the Lights,” which draws attention to the forgotten in our political landscape.

You can find the full recordings of Mora, Harper, and García reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Pat Mora (1996)
Michael S. Harper (1973)
Diana García (2002)

[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:03.29] You're listening to Poetry Centered, the show that brings you recordings of poets reading their work from 1963 to today. Curated and introduced by contemporary poets, these recordings come to you from Voca, the online audiovisual archive of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, here to welcome you and get us started. Today, we're welcoming Anthony Cody, a poet and editor. His first book, Borderland Apocrypha, won a 2021 American Book Award and was also a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry among many other honors. 

[00:00:40.74] Anthony is a poetry editor for Omnidawn and associate poetry editor for Noemi Press. In this episode, Anthony introduces poems by Pat Mora, Michael S. Harper, and Diana Garcia, as well as his own translation of work by Juan Felipe Herrera. These poems are all imbued with sonic urgency as they remind listeners of uncomfortable realities in order to prompt change and growth. Anthony, thank you so much for being our host today. 

Anthony Cody:
[00:01:11.28] Hi, this is Anthony Cody coming to you today from Fresno, California. And I have the opportunity to share with you a series of poems that I gathered from the archives at the Poetry Center. These poems ask hard questions and face the difficult truths about war, about borders, about gender, about power, about ourselves, and about US history. How each of these poems create unnecessary discomfort to bring us toward acknowledging and dismantling empire and excavating identity, but ultimately, leading us toward action. Perhaps then these poems sit in their discomfort to allow us a chance to seek a new healing. 

[00:02:02.00] The first poem I want to share with you today is titled La Migra, by Pat Mora. It was recorded at the Poetry Center on Wednesday, March 27, 1996. What drew me into this poem is the opening where Mora speaks to the audience before she's even begun the poem. She says, "I'm taking a long look at you." 

[00:02:27.58] Suddenly, before she's even started a poem about the border and border crossers, she's inverted another relationship. The relationship between the speaker and the audience. The audience can no longer be comfortable. They're the ones being viewed, being assessed, being judged. This relationship shift mimics the poem itself. 

[00:02:54.43] She says, "let's play a game. It's titled La Migra." And suddenly she's exploring the relationship between border patrol agent and the person being apprehended in this case a Mexican maid. And later, the relationship between the border patrol agent trapped and weighed down by empire in the middle of the desert while a border crosser in this case a Mexican woman attempts to cross. 

[00:03:23.31] She subverts what we think is happening towards the end of the poem. Suddenly the speaker says, "Oh, I'm not alone. You hear us singing and laughing with the wind." This ultimately leaves the border patrol agent hearing the song that Mora breaks into about water. 

[00:03:48.70] They're in the desert, only one of them knows the way forward, only one of them knows the land, and she closes succinctly. Again, in that same playfulness, the meaning now entirely shifted, get ready. So here is Pat Mora reading La Migra. 

[00:04:11.76] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Pat Mora:
[00:04:15.05] I'm taking a long look at you because I have a big debate to make about which poems to do tonight. And that's one of the hardest things about a reading is try to figure out what would be the right match for this audience. As most of you know who have read much of my work, I am both madly smitten by this landscape, and deeply frustrated by its history and what still goes on in the present. A couple of years ago, I happened to see an article in the Christian Science Monitor about the border. I'm always fascinated at descriptions of the border when you're from there and you're far away. 

[00:05:05.50] And the comment in the article was that La migra-- and of course, it went on to define La Migra for people not from the border. The Immigration Services from Mexico refer to it as La Migra, people along the border refer to it as La Migra. That this struggle between the forces of the immigration service and the people trying to come into this country for various reasons, had become a struggle in the way that once cowboys and Indians were a struggle. And the reporter said, "In fact, now on the border, you might expect to see children playing instead of cowboys and Indians immigration officer and the person trying to flee." 

[00:06:01.22] So I started thinking about what those voices might sound like. La Migra. One, let's play La Migra. I'll be the border patrol, you be the Mexican maid. I get the badge and sunglasses. You can hide and run, but you can't get away because I have a Jeep. 

[00:06:33.61] I can take you wherever I want but don't ask questions because I don't speak Spanish. I can touch you wherever I want but don't complain too much because I've got boots and kick if I have to. And I have handcuffs, oh, and a gun. Get ready, get set, run. 

[00:07:04.52] Two, let's play La Migra. You be the border patrol, I'll be the Mexican woman. Your Jeep has a flat and you have been spotted by the sun. 

[00:07:25.60] All you have is heavy, hat, glasses, badge, shoes, gun. I know this desert, where to rest, where to drink, oh, I am not alone. You hear her singing and laughing with the wind. (SINGING) Agua dulce brota aqui, aqui, aqui. But since you can't speak Spanish, you do not understand. Get ready. 

[00:08:06.61] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Anthony Cody:
[00:08:14.08] The second poem I want to share with you is titled, A White Friend Flies In from the Coast by Michael S. Harper. It was recorded at the Poetry Center on Wednesday April 4, 1973. And the recording begins with an all too familiar sound, a sound that many of us have long forgotten because of the pandemic and our inability to gather in person and hear a live poetry reading. And that's the sound of the poet there on stage shuffling through the pages of their book looking for the next poem they're about to read except there's an urgency in Harper's turning of pages, it's as if he's acknowledging that what he is about to read is sonically different from the poems that preceded this poem and the poems that would follow replacing a musicality with a staccato repetition of the word burn. 

[00:09:14.16] In fact, it doesn't do it justice. He repeats each line with the word burned, burned, burned, burned, burned. He's rupturing each line searing into our memory the atrocities of the US war in Vietnam. This is not a looking back, this is 1973. 

[00:09:43.62] The war is raging. He understands the racial implications of who gets to fight, who is told to fight, and who dies. He is there calling out, calling forth the horrors and the traumas that we will live with for decades to come. It is maddening. He wants to know what is owed, who is owed, and he closes the poem with the homonyms of here and here. 

[00:10:29.51] He wants you to listen, he wants you to start here, to look closer. So here in this poem is Michael S. Harper reading A White Friend Flies In from the Coast. 

[00:10:48.88] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Michael S. Harper:
[00:10:55.33] Then the other part that I'll read from this section is called A White Friend Flies In from the Coast. Burned-- black by birth, burned-- with 45, burned-- submachine gun, burned-- STAC hunted VC, burned-- killing 5 to 20, burned-- nobody knows for sure, burned-- out of ammo, burned-- killed one with gun-stock, burned-- VCA AK-47 jammed, burned-- kill faceless VC, burned-- over and over, burned-- STAC subdued by 3 men, burned-- three shots morphine, burned-- tried killing prisoners, burned-- taken to Pleiku, burned-- held down straitjacket, burned-- whites owe him, here? Burned-- I owe him here. 

Anthony Cody:
[00:12:03.97] The final recording I want to share with you today is from the Serpentine Voices sequence of poems. Their titles are From Silence, Huelga, The Farm Workers Daughters, and The Girlfriends, all by Diana Garcia. The recording happened at the Poetry Center on Wednesday, February 27, 2002. I was immediately drawn in when I saw her name, Diana Garcia from the Fresno area, except she's one of the less recognized voices from this valley. Funny how that happens when you're not white, when you're not male. 

[00:12:53.97] She herself won an American Book Award. I remember finding her book in the libraries here in the valley, voices that sounded like my tías, my abuela, the campesinos that I come from. So seeing her name here was incredibly meaningful. And I want to share these poems that span generations, that span histories, that unfurl class and even raise questions that we all run into when writing the poem. Is the speaker me, am I the speaker, do I have to be the speaker? 

[00:13:38.88] But more than the mechanics of the poem, she reveals the truths that span decades from this valley, the work, the labor, the struggles in gender, to identify the ways that we can carve a path forward. She even talks about doing research and more learning to interrogate the ideas of colonization, and language, and identity. The necessary work that we all must undertake when understanding who we are so we can better understand who we can be. 

[00:14:23.29] So here is Diana Garcia reading from her poetry sequence Serpentine Voices the poems From Silence, Huelga, The Farm Workers Daughters, and The Girlfriends. 

Diana Garcia:
[00:14:44.05] I'm going to-- I'll read a couple of excerpts from a sequence, a series, a sequence poem called Serpentine Voices. What I've tried to do in this book is document the struggles of three generations, approximately 3, 4, or 5 generations of people who have worked in the fields, following them from the point of immigration to the fields and then leaving the fields behind, and then ultimately circling back and going to demonstrate with the United Farm Workers at the edges of those same fields. Right now I have the privilege of having a student in my office, a student in one of my classes whose father owns one of the tomato fields I didn't pick in. So it always seems to come back full circle from silence. 

[00:15:36.38] I think it's important to understand this title too. That part of my own education included taking several courses in graduate level Spanish. Spent Spanish graduate courses in Latin American Women's Literature because I felt there was this gap in my own understanding of my own cultural identity. That there was more I needed to know to understand how it was at the process of colonization and decolonization influenced the kind of character that developed in the '70s and '80s in the United States. These women's voices coming not just from the United States but from all of the Latin American world, the Spanish speaking world. 

[00:16:22.43] And one of the-- I've been using the term now ovarian works, I read was a novella by Maria Luisa Bombal titled, La última niebla in which for the first time, imagine this little over 20-year-old Chilean woman of the upper class sitting at Pablo Neruda's kitchen table writing a book in which she documents the struggles to discover a sense of identity outside of being someone's wife and someone's daughter. And the terms she used were in silencio, meaning the silence, and el vacío, meaning the void. And so both those terms come into play in this particular poem. 

[00:16:57.41] From Silence. How many voices can I plumb in this poem, tricky poem? Sometimes in the first person I, as in sometimes the story is mine, as in me the author, the first person narrator, and at times the voice becomes third person we. Plural not imperial because sometimes we were all voice girlfriends, mis amigas, de parte de. On behalf of all of us voices drowning out that choking silencio, that pestilence, marshland of a vacío because we were something. God, we were something else. 

[00:17:41.78] Huelga. Fresno slumps late summer. Raisin grapes dry on paper trays. Crepe Myrtle purple plum burnish the college campus, student body twice the size of my hometown. Winemaking meets a general education mode. Professors serve finals at the Gallo Winery. 

[00:18:02.15] Agriculture majors milk cows at dawn, saunter back to plates of thick bacon, butter basted eggs. Some become lawyers, others shoulder family farms. Still others sell the family farms to local speculators. We never knew their names but sun red and neckish, their faces grimace from across the barricades as we chant "Huelga, huelga, huelga." And then two more pieces. 

[00:18:31.76] The farm workers daughters. Khaki, everywhere khaki, not us, boy. Our dads wear khaki in the fields. Khaki cruddy with suck plums and peaches. Khaki topped with white dress shirts pressed by mouthy daughters who ironed their hair so it lies like banners over shoulders. Daughters who swear to wear miniskirts and tight, tight dresses when we're out of sight. We'll be so out of sight. 

[00:19:00.40] [LAUGHTER] 

[00:19:03.47] And the last one from the series I'll read, "The Girlfriends". 

[00:19:08.03] Rosie, I got pregnant. Her, my lover swore it wasn't his their fault. It was Cinco de Mayo, 16 de septiembre and I, we, she, he, they broke loose. Lose hips whipping through cumbias, ankling through rancheras. Hips grinding through night long sets of lovemaking, the intensity of a rolling tent revival. Rosie, I, had a miscarriage, a baby. Rosie, I thought I, she, was lucky. 

[00:19:42.06] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Anthony Cody:
[00:19:50.25] This is a recent translation of Juan Felipe Herrera's Dudo Las Luces from his collection Akrilica. I question the lights. For Sal. I question the lights of the president and his mill of illustrators and magisteriums. I question the lights between pillars of cough and bone blood palm. 

[00:20:16.16] If the highway is bursting with ants and on the curve a black umbrella, a faculty of widows meandering in the afternoon masked and hooded babbling with concrete. If the coyote is the only one who knows the outcomes of the clouds, the blank passages spiraling in the suits of the Congressional table. They're constructing a vast tunnel into space. The spine of smoke from a blind monolith each night there's debate over the scalding of its cylinders. 

[00:20:50.80] What, what, what, what, what of the hands of the elder Pedro who disappeared in his studio? What, what, what, what, what, what of Maria Martinez meningitis at 13 in Texas? What, what, what, what, what of the gangrene nine in the muck and the tin cans carving hope? 

[00:21:16.72] What, what, what, what, what, what of the voice of Salvador Mercado nodded in the gloves of the Ku Klux Klan? I question, I question, I question. I question the lights of the governor and their congregation of engineers and mods who burn the candles, fingernails that punctuate the laws. An insomnia of laughter, wounds, and wires. 

[00:21:51.01] [MUSIC PLAYING] 

Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:21:59.63] Thank you so much, Anthony for highlighting these voices and the questions that they ask. Listeners, thank you for sharing your time with us. Two weeks from today, we hope you'll come back for an episode hosted by Chet’la Sebree. If you're enjoying the show consider leaving us a review or sharing us with a friend. And visit poetry.arizona.edu to see more of what's going on at the Poetry Center. Thank you again for listening. 

Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:22:27.00] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of the 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 the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson with support from-- 

Sarah Gzemski:
[00:22:57.21] Sarah Gzemski. 

Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:22:58.59] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu. 

Pat Mora's "La Migra"
Michael S. Harper's "A White Friend Flies in from the Coast"
Diana García's excerpts from "The Serpentine Voices"
Anthony Cody reads his translation of Juan Felipe Herrera's "Dudo las Luces / I Question the Lights"