Tuesday, January 17, 2006
TINO VILLANUEVA: AN OVERVIEW
The article is written by Hugh Fox; a poet/archaeologist who has taught at Michigan State University since 1968. Author of 66 books, he is a major figure in the U.S. small press world, serving as editor of Ghost Dance: the International Quarterly of Experimental Poetry from 1968-1995. Ibbetson Street published his "Angel of Death," and "Boston: A Long Poem." I consider Hugh a friend and a mentor. He definitely thinks "outside the box." He makes me feel like my fly is perpetually down, a good thing I think!-- Doug Holder
Born on December 11, 1941 in San Marcos, Texas, Tino Villanueva worked as a migrant worker, assembly-line worker, and an army supply clerk. He is the founder of Imagine Publishers, Inc., and editor of Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal. Author of the book length poem Scene from the Movie GIANT (Curbstone, 1993) Villanueva has published three other volumes of poetry, Hay Otra Voz Poems, Shaking Off the Dark and Chronicle of My Worst Years/ Crónica de mis años peores. Villanueva won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for Scene from the Movie GIANT in 1994. He teaches at Boston University.
TINO VILLANUEVA: AN OVERVIEW
Tino Villanueva is perhaps the biggest fake on the current literary scene. I mean he comes on primarily as Mr. Poor Chicano from San Marcos, Texas, but look again and there he is, Doctor Professor teaching in Boston University (where he got his Ph.D.), a master’s from SUNY-Buffalo, and before that a graduate (in letters) from Southwest Texas State University. And if that’s not enough, he’s also a painter, kind of cubistic, Picasso-ish, very impressive. When he start reading his work, does he sound like some kind of border Chicano slurring through his Spanish? More like Cervantes, or, in more modern terms, Pablo Neruda. His Chronicle of My Worst Years published by Northwestern University/TriQuarterly Books in Evanston, just north of Chicago in 1994, OK, so he talks about his early years suffering as a prejudiced-against Chicano in Texas, but even here, although the message gets across, you’re still in the presence of Doctor Literato. I’ll give the translation here, but put the Spanish in just to show those who know about these things just how literary Dr. Villanueva is:
2. I give more thought now to how prison like that childhood was in the abhorrent world of cotton-field work. Who gave the order in the ‘40s the furrows had to be so long, and the time that dragged in picking them should slaver to devour me?
(“Promised Lands,” p. 67)
(con más razón ahora considero,/cuán presa estuvo aquella infancia/en el dominio aborrecible/de las labores de algodón./Quién mandó que en los 40/fueran tan largos los surcos,/y que el tiempo/que/que tardé en piscarlos/fuera voraz para mi vida?, p.66)
He’s very careful here, isn’t he, to stick in a little “Chicanismo,” using cuán instead of cuánto, in order to capture the real peasant-slang of the workers, but....pure affectation, n’est pas? And when we move to another book of his Primera Causa/ First Cause, (Cross Cultural Communications, Merrick NY 2004), where are we but in the depths of Jungian caverns trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of existence:
In memory is my beginning, and so, here am I, face to face with this page and this predicament., with this vice that is a virtue the whole afternoon. Oh quest for distant memory and this equidistant longing with words. Finally, in the end, I write down what I’ve seen and all that is true. (I. “Memory That Never Ends,” p. 7) 3.(En el recuerdo se encuentra mi comienzo,/por eso heme aquí/ante un papel con este apuro,/con este vicio que es virtud toda la tarde./Oh costumbre del recuero/y el equidistante deseo con palabras./Por ültimo y al cabo” pongo lo que he visto y todo lo veraz, p. 6) Sometimes Doctor Villanueva Scholar pulls you out of the twentieth century altogether and brings you back into 17th century neoclassicism, like in this poem about Mnemosyne, the Goddess of Memory: Now, Mnemosyne, I’ve got you, and what pure pleasure to caress your name, to savor it, letter by letter, between my lips. I say it over and again and get swept into life because I’m me and my word and it’s autumn and with you I can be what I please. (p.27)
And the English translation by Lisa Horowitz is good, but somehow it lacks the antique flavor of the original Spanish: “Ahora aquí te tengo, Mnemosina,/y es hermoso acariciar tu nombre,/deletrearlo letra a letra entre los labios. Lo vuelvo a repetir/ y ya estoy viviendo,/porque soy yo y mi palabra y es otoño/y contigo me hago a mi manera.” The translation is accurate, but the original isn’t twentieth centuryish (much less “Chicanoish”) at all, more like a piece encountered in an ancient notebook in some antique collection in the national library in Madrid. What makes Villanueva even more challenging is that he can also jump totally into the twentieth century and write experimental poetry that is very much like his experimental cubist art.
4. There’s one book of his, Escena de la Película GIGANTE , originally published by Curbstone Press in Connecticut in 1993 and translated into Spanish and published by the Editorial Catriel in Marid in 2005, which is pure, beautiful experimentation, a long “meditation” on the gringo American film Giant, a 1956 film starring Rock Hudson, all about the huge gap in rights betwen Chicanos and gringos in old-time Texas. And again we’re back into racial/national disequality class meditations totally divorced from any Mr. Chicano prejudiced-against in what now seem like ancient, ancient times:
I am cast in time forward,wherethrough runs the present --- on track of light triumphant, the sum of everything that ignites this room with life, vida que no olvida,* calling out my name...(“...en el acto de contar/me lanzo hacia adelante en el tiempo, por donde transcurre/el presente -- una franja de luz triunfante,// la suma de todo lo qe enciende este salón/con vida, vida que no olvida, y que me está/llamando...”) (“The Telling,” pp. 88-89.) I suppose that Villanueva represents a real triumph of the underdog becoming the overseer, but after having lived in a world of affluent Latinos, and Brazilians most of my life, I don’t see him as that much of an exception. But triumphant he is, especially in the classical, profound impact of his art. _____*Life that doesn’t forget.
Hugh Fox /Ibbetson Update/ Jan 2006./ Somerville, Mass.