10 Latinx Poets Everyone Should Know About

This article appears on paperbackparis.com:

Writers of Latinx origins have long contributed to the artistic fabric of the United States, irrevocably altering the framework by which we construct our literary canon. At the best of times, a writer of Latinx origins in the United States must contend with several questions of identity. These intersections—from race and language to the way you say our names—have informed the work of Latinx poets from generation to generation.

So many poets deserve to be recognized for their talents. This list is just a biased sampling of writers whose works have become canonical, or, in this age, viral. Each poet captures an essential element of what it means to exist in the liminal space between cultures, to have a view from society’s periphery.

The pain and beauty come from a place in the heart of somewhere else—of lands left behind. These voices are here to tell us what’s been lost, what’s been found, and what’s been created.

1.  Miguel Piñero

miguel pinero
Arlene Gottfried

Puerto Rican poet and playwright, Miguel Piñero, was a leading member of the Nuyorican literary movement and founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café—an influential forum in Alphabet City known as a haven for music, poetry, theater, and comedy.

Piñero migrated from Puerto Rico to Manhattan in 1950. Enmeshed in poverty and abandoned by his father, Piñero began stealing food for his family.  Eventually, he was incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility where he got the inspiration for his groundbreaking play, Short Eyes.  The influential producer and director, Joseph Papp, was so impressed by the play that he moved the production to Broadway—the first play written by a Puerto Rican to make it there.

Though he is best known for his plays and screenwriting, Piñero’s poetry is essential to the mid-century Puerto Rican experience in the United States. At a time when thousands of people were leaving the island for the mainland in search of better opportunities, artists like Piñero accurately depicted the pain of inescapable poverty and institutional racism, set to the beat of an unforgiving city.

So here I am, look at me
I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind
a dweller of prison time
a cancer of Rockefeller’s ghettocide
this concrete tomb is my home
to belong to survive you gotta be strong
you can’t be shy less without request
someone will scatter your ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

– excerpt from “A Lower East Side Poem”

2. Sandra Cisneros

sandra cisneros
Milbert O. Brown for Chicago Tribune

Sandra Cisneros is, perhaps, the most recognizable figure of Chicana literature in the United States, best known for her 1984 novel, The House on Mango Street. Other notable works include Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories and Loose Woman: Poems.

While growing up in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago, Cisneros felt isolated from the rest of her family and found solace in writing.  As she began training in her craft, she realized her particular intersection of race, class, and gender granted her a perspective that her classmates did not have. Her work focuses on navigating the mixing of cultures that characterized her experiences as an adolescent in Chicago, as well as being a woman in male-dominated environments.

Okay, we didn’t work, and all
memories to tell you the truth aren’t good.
But sometimes there were good times.
Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep
beside me and never dreamed afraid.

There should be stars for great wars
like ours. There ought to be awards
and plenty of champagne for the survivors.

After all the years of degradations,
the several holidays of failure,
there should be something
to commemorate the pain.

– excerpt from “One Last Poem for Richard”

3. Lorna Dee Cervantes

lorna dee cervantes
Image Courtesy of Americas Studies

Lorna Dee Cervantes is considered one of the greatest Chicana poets of all time by her contemporaries and has contributed some of the strongest pieces of poetry to the canon of American literature. Born in San Francisco in 1954, Cervantes grew up in a household where English was strictly enforced so that she would not encounter racism in the outside world. This relationship with language and culture shaped her future work. A self-described Chicana, feminist, and political writer, Cervantes’ poems explore themes of identity, language, and womanhood in great depth.

Once I wasn’t always so plain.
I was strewn feathers on a cross
of dune, an expanse of ocean
at my feet, garlands of gulls.
   Sirens and gulls. They couldn’t tame you.
You know as well as they: to be
a dove is to bear the falcon
at your breast, your nights, your seas.
   My fear is simple, heart-faced
above a flare of etchings, a lineage
in letters, my sudden stare. It’s you.
It’s you! sang the heart upon its mantel
pelvis. Blush of my breath, catch
of my see—beautiful bird—It’s you.
– excerpt from “Love of My Flesh, Living Death”

4. Victor Hernández Cruz

Victor Hernández Cruz
Academy of American Poets

Like Piñero, Victor Hernández Cruz is an influential figure in the Nuyorican school of poets, having grown up in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan. In 1981, Life magazine lauded him as one of the greatest American poets to ever write. He was the first Hispanic poet to receive such recognition.

In which everything goes backwards
in time and motion
Palm trees shrink back into the ground
Mangos become seeds
and reappear in the eyes of Indian
The years go back
cement becomes wood
Panama hats are seen upon skeletons
walking the plazas
Of once again wooden benches
The past starts to happen again
I see Columbus’s three boats
going backwards on the sea
Getting smaller
Crossing the Atlantic back to the
ports of Spain Cadiz Dos Palos Huelva
Where the sailors disembark
and go back to their towns
To their homes
They become adolescents again
become children infants
they re-enter the wombs of their mothers
till they become glances
Clutching a pound of bread
through a busy plaza
that becomes the taste
of the sound of church bells
in reverberation.
– excerpt from El Poema de lo Reverso

5. Rigoberto González

Rigoberto Gonzalez
Rutgers-Newark College of Arts & Sciences

Born in California and raised in Michoacán, Mexico, Rigoberto González’s troubled early life informs much of his work, particularly his memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa. His training with writers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto, and Francisco Xavier Alarcon honed his poetry into something fierce and beautiful. He is known for his efforts to assist marginalized artists in getting platforms for their work, and, in 2009, was named one of the 25 most influential LGBT Latinos in the country.

I am not your mother, I will not be moved
by the grief or gratitude of men
who weep like orphans at my door.
I am not a church. I do not answer
prayers but I never turn them down.
Come in and kneel or sit or stand,
the burden of your weight won’t lessen
no matter the length of your admission.
Tell me anything you want, I have to listen
but don’t expect me to respond
when you tell me you have lost your job
or that your wife has found another love
or that your children took their laughter
to another town. You feel alone and empty?
Color me surprised! I didn’t notice they were gone.
– excerpt from “Casa”

6. Aracelis Girmay

Aracelis Girmay
Kalamazoo Poetry Festival

Aracelis Girmay‘s work has influenced countless writers, including Junot Díaz who pointed to her collection Kingdon Animalia as a life-changing piece of literature. In 2011, it was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. She was also a winner of the prestigious Whiting Award for Poetry in 2015.

I want to sleep. I do not want to sleep. See,

one day, not today, not now, we will be gone
from this earth where we know the gladiolas.
My brother, this noise,
some love [you] I loved
with all my brain, & breath,
will be gone; I’ve been told, today, to consider this
as I ride the long tracks out & dream so good

I see a plant in the window of the house
my brother shares with his love, their shoes. & there
he is, asleep in bed
with this same woman whose long skin
covers all of her bones, in a city called Oakland,
& their dreams hang above them
a little like a chandelier, & their teeth
flash in the night, oh, body.

Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
its mouth.

– excerpt from “Kingdom Animalia”

7. Daniel Borzutsky

Daniel Borzutsky
Brooklyn Arts Press

Daniel Borzutsky has garnered critical acclaim for his collection The Performance of Becoming Human, which won the 2016 National Book Award. As the son of Chilean immigrants, his work joins ranks with other Latino writers who explore the pain of diaspora, exploitation of migrant workers, and the politics of immigration.

I love you, she said, as she smacked her child’s head.

I love you for your holes, she said,
not just the holes in your shoes and socks, but the
gaping holes in your personality.

When she asked me if I was uncomfortable,
I told her I wasn’t.
I really was uncomfortable.
What I neglected to say
was that I enjoy being uncomfortable.

Two old friends meet in a café to discuss
mutual funds and stock options. Thus begins a
story that ends with one man slicing off the
other’s neck, and stuffing his mouth with love poems
to Young Werther.

Life is too short to be genuine,
he said, as he stared into her deep
brown eyes. It was the most genuine thing
he’s said all day.

– excerpt from “The Ecstasy of Capitulation”

8. Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo
Courtesy of Un-Ruly / Pictured: Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo is an Afro-Dominican poet best known for her stage presence at renowned venues such as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She was a National Slam Champion and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C. Her collections include Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths and the forthcoming novel, The Poet X.  Her work specifically explores Dominican culture, the Dominican diaspora, and the experience of being Afro-Dominican.

9. Melissa Lozada-Olivo

melissa lozada olivia
Pictured: Melissa Lozada-Olivia

Melissa Lozada-Olivo is a nationally recognized spoken word poet whose work has been heavily featured on Button Poetry. Her debut collection, Peluda, explores the body’s imperfections, writing, “our bodies have always made love to shame.” Known primarily for her stage performances, videos of her have received widespread acclaim.

10.   Denice Frohman

denice frohman
Twitter: (@denicefrohman)

Denice Frohman is an award-winning poet and performer whose work “explores the nuances of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and the ‘in-betweeness’ that exists in us all.” Her exploration of this intersectionality has garnered her recognition from various outlets. As an educator, she also spends time working with young people to develop their abilities with the craft, most notably The Philly Youth Poetry Movement.


From Woolf to O’Hara: Four Authors for Your Anxiety Addled Brain

This article appears on paperbackparis.com:

There are several authors whose work I keep returning to in times of acute anxiety, which is more often than I care to admit these days.

When I’m not thinking about nuclear annihilation, escalating racial tension, hurricanes and natural disasters striking with alarming frequency, and our broken capitalist system, I find myself facing smaller anxieties—the very stuff of my personality. The only reprieve is a set routine that keeps me grounded.

But when faced with simple tasks that enter the wrong side of my wormy brain, I find that I can’t breathe properly; my blood pressure rises; I have to walk around briskly to catch ahold of myself.

Sometimes I think about those larger cataclysms in order to keep my mind off of the smaller ones—the nagging bits of daily life that keep me pinioned to solitude. Little heartbreaks aren’t so bad when I think about the state I live in—and the entire East Coast—being swallowed by the ocean. When I’m feeling especially blue about my crippling social dysfunction, I think about the planes that land at the Air Force Base near my house during odd hours, which 1) make me think of nuclear war, but 2) are actually carrying the bodies of dead soldiers.

Then I think of my parents firmly telling me to pull myself together because people like us have shit to do. My world, after all, was not as tough as theirs.

It’s a lot of give and take.

Many of us have brains that bend towards bleakness naturally, and these unsettling times don’t help. When the above-mentioned periods of recursive, claustrophobic thinking become overwhelming, I turn to the authors who have worked through their own fear, paranoia, and anxiety to construct great essays and pieces of fiction. It’s also helpful to explore the work of writer’s whose concision is so pointed it rearranges the brain’s neurons into an organized stream. Literature has, and always will be, the only real solace we have.

Here are just a few of the authors I’ve been reading:

1. Virginia Woolf

Creative Commons

Much can be said about this giant of the literary canon. Virginia Woolf‘s work is characterized by vibrant prose and the methodical exploration of her character’s lives. Her sentences are so complex, so nuanced, they seem sturdy and tenuous simultaneously. The goal is to show the mind as it is through stream of consciousness, drawing attention to the myriad thoughts that flicker through people on a daily basis. The plot plays second fiddle to her characters’ minds. After all, it doesn’t matter that Mrs. Dalloway is buying the flowers herself; it matters that she is stepping out in search of something.

“You look, eat, smile, are bored, pleased, annoyed — that is all I know. Yet this shadow which has sat by me for an hour or two, this mask from which peep two eyes, has power to drive me back, to pinion me down among all those other faces, to shut me in a hot room; to send me dashing like a moth from candle to candle.” —from The Waves

Woolf’s particular style of writing mirrors the frenzy and passion of an anxious mind because it takes into account every sensory input, every stray thought. Her 1931 novel, The Waves, is a particular favorite of mine. It’s experimentation yields an array of emotion and imagery that soothes my brain to the point where my only functioning thoughts are completely wrapped up in her prose.

2. Lorrie Moore

Credit: Linda Nylind / (Pictured: Lorrie Moore)

Lorrie Moore‘s short stories are so good, they make me blush with envy every time I open one of her collections. When one of my high school English teachers had our class read “How” from her collection Self-Help, it was the end all, be all for me. At that time, I’d only experienced the systematic breakdown of one romance and a whole lot of unrequited pining. These were teenage heartbreaks, of course, but they meant a lot at the time.

At seventeen, “How” felt like the greatest series of truths about love ever put down on paper. That feeling hasn’t faded.

It resonates, perhaps, because the little anxieties Moore highlights in the story are the same ones that keep one from acting like a normal human being in public…which tends to preclude romance. Reading about people who have the same modes of thinking–people who keep love and affection at bay because of their neuroses–casts feelings of solitude in the face of love into perspective, making them slightly less daunting.

“Wake up one morning with a man you had thought you’d spend your life with, and realize, a rock in your gut, that you don’t even like him. Spend a weepy afternoon in his bathroom, not coming out when he knocks. You can no longer trust your affections. People and places you think you love may be people and places you hate.” —from “How”

3. Junot Díaz

Junot Diaz

My obsession with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is no secret. From time to time, I’ll grab it off my bookshelf just to read sections out loud, reminding myself just how powerful the narrative is. These days, I’ve been listening to the Audible narration by Lin—Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo. I’m unashamed to say I’ve listened to it three whole times in the past two months. Driving around and listening to this story of an overweight Dominican nerd who falls in love at the drop of a hat but who has no chance of ever being loved in return hits close to home.

“— Nothing else has any efficacy, I might as well be myself.

— But your yourself sucks!

— It is, lamentably, all I have.” — from Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz‘s narrative speaks to a deeper cultural anxiety. Despite being Dominican on paper–a product of the great Dominican diaspora–Oscar is ostracized for his nerdiness, his unattractiveness, and his complete lack of sexual acuity. (I mean, same here, obviously. That’s why I sit inside and read books all day.) One of the narrator’s friends tells Oscar, “Tu no eres Dominicano.” “You are not Dominican.”

And all he can say is, “Soy Dominicano. Dominicano soy,” hoping people can suspend their disbelief enough to see it.

The concept of feeling “other” is nothing new for most people. We all have those moments of exclusion. But to get rejected from your culture for not being enough of this or that, or lacking some specific quality is a different kind of pain. In addition to feeling uneasy in the world because of the way your brain works, you also have no tribe.

It’s some dark shit to think about, but the novel’s beauty, humor, and complete boundlessness make it all feel less painful.

4. Frank O’Hara

Pictured: Frank O’Hara

I’ve talked about my love for Frank O’Hara in the past, and nothing has changed. I still read from The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara every day, opening the book at random to catch just a little bit of calm before moving on with my day. His great capacity for crafting the smallest details of life into pieces of beauty (with a touch of cheeky humor) make for some amazing poems.

 ” I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it” —from “Having a Coke with You”

To this day, “Having a Coke With You” is the only poem I’ve read that sounds exactly like my brain does when I’m half in love and want to show that person everything I’m obsessed with. Unfiltered enthusiasm is the hallmark of my affection after all.

Reading these poems makes human contact seem less elusive…As if maybe the anxiety-ridden can experience love after all.