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Latino Poets Connect at CantoMundo

A historic heat wave was just beginning to flatten Texas, but poet Vikas Menon remained ebullient. A board member of Kundiman, the New York City–based Asian American poets nonprofit that holds an annual retreat for fellows, Menon was rallying another band of poets as the keynote speaker for this year’s gathering of CantoMundo, a burgeoning Latino poets workshop.

“We’re excited that CantoMundo is in its second year,” he said to the poets assembled at the University of Texas in Austin, speaking on behalf of Kundiman, from which CantoMundo drew some of its inspiration for establishing a yearly workshop. While sharing eight years’ worth of the ups and downs of running a writers retreat, Menon was, in a sense, welcoming CantoMundo into a larger community that includes Kundiman and the fifteen-year-old African American poets collective Cave Canem. The three now form an unofficial triad of organizations aimed at nurturing the work of American poets of color.

“We must make these opportunities for ourselves because no one else is going to,” Menon said, alluding to the reality that compelled the CantoMundo founders—Norma Elia Cantú, Pablo Miguel Martínez, Celeste Guzman Mendoza, Deborah Paredez, and Carmen Tafolla—to ask one another some important questions. What would a workshop addressing the specific preoccupations of Latino poets be like? What would a workshop include when these preoccupations were not ignored or dismissed as they sometimes are in conventional writing workshops and publications? And, perhaps most important: When can there be an organization like Kundiman or Cave Canem for us? Drawing from the programs of its antecedents, the CantoMundo founders designed a four-day event during which Latino writers could discuss the art, craft, poetics, and sociopolitical underpinnings of Latino writing while acknowledging the aesthetic, cultural, linguistic, and historical differences among their fellows.

“Once we dared to dream, it was like the universe opened up to us,” says Paredez of the founders’ early meetings in Cantú’s San Antonio home. A year later, in 2010, the first CantoMundo conference took place at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This year the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas partnered with the nascent organization to host CantoMundo, a relationship that both plan to continue, with the university’s English department set to lend its support in 2012.

Twenty-three poets made up the inaugural group of fellows, including Eduardo C. Corral, who went on to win the 2011 Yale Younger Poets prize for his collection, Border With Violin, and Ire’ne Lara Silva, whose first full-length collection, Furia, was released by Mouthfeel Press in 2010. Ten new fellows, including Diana Marie Delgado, Manuel Paul López, and Carl Marcum, joined this year. Once accepted, fellows may attend three retreats, thereby keeping the participant pool fresh, following a model used by Cave Canem and Kundiman. Master poets (Naomi Ayala and Benjamin Alire Sáenz in 2011) are invited to lead fellows in the generative workshops at the heart of the retreat, and CantoMundo goes public during two evenings of readings—by the fellows one night and the master poets the next. In between there is time for talk: frank, sometimes charged discussion about what it means to be a Latino poet, and, more generally, how to thrive as a poet in America.

“Poets need to be activists for our aesthetics,” Silva said during a discussion of Latino poetics. “But how do we continue as poets if we are not allowed to speak of other things besides our cultural bubbles?”

The application deadline for CantoMundo 2012 is December 30. For detailed guidelines on how to apply, visit www.cantomundo.org.

Belinda Acosta is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, where she is working on her third novel.

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