Sunday, September 06, 2009

Poet Tino Villanueva to read at The Somerville News Writers Festival Nov. 14, 2009

Poet Tino Villanueva to read at The Somerville News Writers Festival November 14, 2009 7pm at the Armory Arts Center

By Doug Holder

The Somerville News Writers Festival is hitting its seventh year thanks to the folks at The Somerville News, Tim Gager, and the spanking new Armory Arts Center in Somerville. This year Tim has secured the services of such writers as Rick Moody, John Buffalo Mailer (that’s right Norman’s son), Steve Almond, Margo Livesey, and Kim Chuinquee. I had the pleasure of booking poets Sam Cornish, Richard Hoffman, Tam Lin Neville, Frank Bidart, and Tino Villanueva. Villanueva is a Senior Lecturer of Romance Languages at Boston University, and recognized as one of the most important Chicano voices today, according to the The Texas Observer. The noted poet Martín Espada opined that Villanueva was “…central to the vibrant Hispanic literary scene that began flourishing in Boston during the 8o’s.” Indeed Villanueva has no doubt influenced a whole generation of Latino writers.

Villanueva, who had youthful aspirations to be a baseball player, published in Boston in the 1980s an influential internationally focused literary magazine Imagine, and has published a number of critically acclaimed poetry collections, as well as works of criticism on Spanish poetry. His collection Scene from the Movie GIANT won a 1994 American Book Award. His other books include: Primera causa/First Cause (translated by Lisa Horowitz) Shaking off the Dark, Chronicle of My Worst Years, and others. I had the opportunity to catch up with Villanueva before he started his busy teaching schedule at Boston University.

DOUG HOLDER: You have completed a set of thirty-two poems titled: So Spoke Penelope (poems based on Homer's Odyssey) that is written from the point of view of Queen Penelope, Odysseus's wife. Penelope waited 20 years for Odysseus' return from the Trojan War. Do you think there are contemporary applications for the modern woman today considering we are in a constant of war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

TINO VILLANUEVA: In a couple of places Penelope does comment on the war--you bet there's a connection with our current involvement in two wars. In the final analysis, she holds an anti-war attitude which is also part of her agony and lament, asking at one point: “Cannot the gods bring on all-out peace? / Enough with this madness." And a bit later: "people have not always relished war, / and the rage of armies clashing gives me pain."

Beyond that, the book is about absence, and having to wait twenty years makes her--for all intents and purposes--a war widow, and Odysseus an M. I. A. These are, certainly, two consequences of war, and it's my belief American readers will identify with Penelope's predicament, especially those whose memory runs from the Korean War onward to this moment of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Penelope's case, she's quite fortunate her husband returns.

DH: You really dig deep into the mind of Penelope--her dream state, mind vs. body, what she prays for, etc. You wrote that Homer only gives us glimpses into her mind set. Was this because during this era in history a woman's mind was not deemed worthy of a lengthy exegesis?

TV: This may be true, but not so fast--give Homer some credit. In The Odyssey, Penelope is regarded as "wise Penelope." She is shrewd, smart, and wily, I would say, enough to match wits with Odysseus when he finally shows up (disguised as an old man) at the palace in Ithaca.

Now then, I was being very specific: what I said is that Homer does not reveal much about Penelope's ideas on weaving. It would've been quite extraordinary if the poet had given us a glimpse into her views on the craft on working with wool--Penelope as weaver, Penelope as artist, as it were. In more than a couple of my poems she launches into this facet of herself, especially in these two: "In Color and in Cloth" and "A Width of Cloth."

DH: You said in The Texas Observer that you didn't want to live in a literary ghetto. At any time in your career were you being forced into that direction?

TV: The quote actually says, "literary barrio." And it's true that, in the past several magazines / journals have asked me to contribute to their "Chicano Issue," let's say, or their "Latino Issue," when, really--if my work is of any merit--they should simply invite me to the mainstream pages they publish the rest of the time. I appreciate that a journal would want to showcase my poems, but I bristle a bit when editors try to pigeon-hole me. I don't always write about the Chicano reality, you know. As a poet, I write on many subjects; I'm not a one-trick pony. Not unlike Denise Levertov's strong conviction of wanting to be invited to read her work for being a poet, not for being a woman.

DH: You are an accomplished artist. I have seen your prints in a number of lit mags. How did this art develop? Is it in confluence with your poetry? Whom are you influenced by?

TV: I don't know if I deserve the "accomplished artist" label, but for me it started summer of 1973 when I went to see an exhibit of William Blake's watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. I had seen several ads around town for the exhibit, and was curious as to this Blake fellow who had the same name as the poet I'd read as an undergraduate at Southwest Texas State University. Could it be the same person, I wondered. That drew me to the MFA one day in August, and what a surprise--a poet whose poems I admired turned out to be a painter as well. That opened my mind to the idea one could possess two creative outlets, could be a writer "and" a painter at the same time. Quite a revelation that was, believe me--it changed the direction of my creative life, to be sure.

So I went out and purchased a watercolor set, some brushes and the appropriate paper, but soon thereafter, to my dismay, I discovered that watercolors are not that easy to master. All the more respect I poured on Mr. Blake. But what a let down for me. I have to say I squarely faced what could've been a ego-busting setback by promptly promoting myself to acrylics, and then to oils, the results of my efforts with these media being more satisfactory. Then I moved on to pastels, and wound up working with collage, and my own mixed-media of sorts: a combination of watercolors, crayon, and pencil and pen. Journals such as Green Mountains Review, and TriQuarterly have displayed my art work on their covers. And in 2003 Parnassus published one of my drawings in its inside pages. TriQuarterly, I remember, wanted to buy Dreamscape (1989), the painting they'd published, but I declined. It hangs proudly in my livingroom. As to the painters I mostly gravitate towards, and whose work holds my undivided attention: Kandinsky, Klee, Miró, any of the Futurists, plus Picasso and Braque for their Cubist view of life.


It’s done…finished.
Three days ago, as an impatient sun was dropping fast
behind the sea,
and a starlit sky appeared, I finished it—
a piece of cloth in wool that took too long to weave.
Half a year dragged on, but at last I have it:
the likeness of Odysseus,
splendid husband and gentle father to his infant son.
One day I managed from early dawn to dusk,
then until the brightness of the morning shone again
to keep on weaving, to get it right. And there it is
folded up across the bed in color and in cloth.

Now, when the sting of absence is too much,
when the weariness of why-keep-waiting wears me out,
I reach for it to satisfy my love-struck eyes.
The background: I’ve simply made it dark,
against which stands Odysseus looking rapt into my eyes.
Beside us—our longest table in the palace hall, and
because he’s speaking to me,
I gave him speaking lips. He’s telling me he doesn’t
care for war, that he loves me “to the Pleiades and back.”
In turn, I’m offering wine to him from my wooden bowl.
A long pose from each of us,
standing there,
is what I remember most: he and I glowing
from two bowls of sweet and mellow wine.

Need I say I pleasure in bringing out this piece of cloth—
such felicity unfolding it,
running my hands over it, and embracing
both ourselves each time.

—Tino Villanueva

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