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From my perspective, it is always contentious when an effort is made to present the collected work of artists in the context of their race, sexuality, or gender. I understand affirmative action as a process that is necessary to disrupt the cis/white/male axis of power and focus of attention — both within the art world and outside of it — and I likewise cherish the naive hope that one day the mechanics of carving out space for, say, queer poets of color, can give way to a natural diversity within the canon, leaving room only for great poetry. Because, as anyone can tell you after being forcefully subjected to some of the really boring white male poets held up as masters of the form, reading poetry out of duty or obligation is an odious undertaking.
Happily, the writers featured in Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, published by Nightboat and edited by Christopher Soto, were not chosen based on their gender, sexuality, or race. This might come as a surprise, given the prominence these categories hold in the anthology’s marketing, and the mission of the online journal, founded by Soto, from which the poems are drawn.
Nepantla’s online incarnation launched in 2014, in conjunction with Lamdba Literary, with the mission to “nurture, celebrate, and preserve diversity within the queer poetry community,” according to Soto’s introduction to the anthology. Later in the introduction, Soto outlines the three questions considered while selecting poems for the anthology from five years of Nepantla archives:
What is the emotional core of the poem? What is at stake within the content of the poem? Has the poet been absolutely pivotal to development of other queer of color [sic] poets?
Viewed within this rubric, much of the work within the Nepantla anthology makes sense. Initially, I was taken aback by the inclusion of works by Harlem Renaissance poets, like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, whose contributions are foundational to intersectional social theory. With all the new voices grappling for outlets, is it the highest and best use of publication space to reprint works by those few who have already pierced the canon? But if, as Soto asserts, the intention was to include pivotal players in the development of subsequent generations, then Nepantla would be remiss not to offer some of their works amidst the extraordinarily diverse jumble of contemporary participants.
“I think it’s impossible to create an archive,” said Soto, in an email interview with Hyperallergic, “But I think its possible to be part of a conversation. I want this anthology as part of a continued conversation about the poetry of QPOC.”
With nearly 90 contributors, and billed as “the first major anthology for queer poets of color,” the collection touches upon issues that are, perhaps predictably, concerned with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. But the featured works also include many personal moments that achieve the universal emotional resonance of really great poetry.
What constitutes “really great poetry” is, of course, highly subjective. As Soto points out, “barometers of what is actually ‘artistic’ are steeped in racism and ignorance. Those barometers are always in flux, contingent upon what the poem is attempting to do. Another example is when thinking about closed forms. Once, in order to be a Poet in the US, you were expected to only write in closed forms. Then, within the white anglo-phonic literary canon, came along Whitman and Dickinson and it was also ‘artistic’ to write outside of closed form. Grouping people according to being queer and of color was not a dilemma of ‘art’ but rather of social-political realities which have created the disappearance of QPOC poetry from various canons.”
For myself, I deem it a pleasant surprise if even a handful of poems in a given anthology catch my heart in my throat. I know no other metric for the efficacy of poetry. It can be broken into historic context, analyzed for rhyme and meter, understood to be “important” — but, just like meeting the person you will one day fall in love with, one’s connection to a poem is not something that can be predicted. By my standards, Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color contains more than a handful of those profound turns of language that create a heart-stopping feeling. To call them out individually would do disservice to others — not just the other poets, who, as we know, are sensitive souls, but other readers, who may mistake my soul-stirring moments as exclusive to theirs. It is an anthology worth reading, and a rich vein for discovering new poets for yourself.
The titular concept of “Nepantla” is drawn from Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s The Bridge We Call Home, presented in Soto’s introduction:
Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra ente medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries.
In a moment where identity politics bring much-needed representational equity to the arts (and one hopes, by extension, to society), there is always the risk of throwing out the considerations of art for the benefit of inclusion. But the “Nepantla” exercise, and new anthology, is well-named, and shines as a transformative bridge between art and equity, these two equally important expressions of a civilized society.
Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (2018), published by Nightboat Books and edited by Christopher Soto, is available online and at retailers.