Stop Telling Latino Writers to "Write What They Know"

By Pedro Poitevin

 Pedro Poitevin.

Pedro Poitevin.

AT A RECENT panel discussion on poetry and race, a member of the audience asked how the panelists approached writing about people who don’t share their own cultural background. The eminently sensible answer given by one of them was: "You write what you know." I was struck by the wisdom and power of this statement. But I could’ve experienced it differently if the panelist had been white and the audience member Latino rather than the other way around. As a Latino immigrant poet, I’ve heard well-intentioned white poets use similar words to encourage me to write poems about dislocation and ethnicity. "You write what you know" can also be uttered to mean, "This is what I want to hear from you."
 
Being a mathematician, I have a slightly more positive opinion of data than most of my poet friends, so after the session ended, I went home with the intention of reading and classifying all of the poems in the archives of the Poetry Foundation written by Latino poets. (I’ve got some time on my hands.) I had some conjectures about what patterns would emerge, but I didn’t anticipate how quickly I would tire of confirming them. Consider these graceful iambic lines by Kristiana Rae Colón:

[T]he girls whose names are ancient, ancestry is sacred,
the Aztec and the Mayan gods abuela used to pray with

Or these lines by Quique Avilés:  

My tongue is divided into two
into heavy accent bits of confusion

Or, really, almost any poem in the Poetry Foundation’s website by either Richard Blanco or Martín Espada, both of them outstanding. As good as the poems are, all are about ethnicity and identity.
 
I get that the archives of the Poetry Foundation don’t constitute a representative sample of the editorial leanings of the American poetry elite, and that a careful analysis would involve reading, for comparison, a large enough sample of celebrated poems by non-Latino poets, as well as less successful poems by celebrated Latino poets. But I’m convinced the conclusions of such an analysis wouldn’t surprise anybody.

At the Kenyon Review Online, for instance, the most prominent article on Latino poets is a careful review aptly titled, “Racial Profiling: Three First Books by Latino Poets.” I haven’t had a chance to read the three books singled out (the highlighted passages look terrific), but it’s very clear from the review’s title that, when it comes to Latino poets, the Kenyon Review’s editors are focused on identity.

I went home with the intention of reading and classifying all of the poems in the archives of the Poetry Foundation written by Latino poets.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing about identity, and a generic poem about abuela, by virtue of hinting at dislocation, bilingualism, and ethnicity, is probably more likely to touch on a wider range of human experience than a generic poem about grandma. "You write what you know," and Latino poets living in the United States certainly have distinctive experiences that enrich their knowledge of territories less familiar to other poets. And yet, in principle, Latino poets should be just as likely as non-Latino poets to write a good poem about any particular universal topic. So why is it that Tony Hoagland, say, seems to have an indiscriminate golden touch, allowing him to write about divorce or race with almost equal praise, whereas the most prominent Latino poets are disproportionately more visible when they write about Latino experiences?  
 
Though certainly imperfect, an analogy with Hollywood might help. When, two years ago, Ricardo Darín—one of the most respected Argentinian actors of his generation—explained in an interview that he had no interest in accepting offers from Hollywood in part because the roles made available to Latino actors (read: villainous drug dealers) were somewhat impertinent, the clip went viral. It’s true that Hollywood has, over the years, offered a very narrow range of roles for Latino actors and actresses. Aside from drug dealers, Latino actors and actresses play police officers, housewives, blue-collar workers, exotic lovers, and occasionally, inspiring leaders or teachers.

Aside from drug dealers, Latino actors and actresses play police officers, housewives, blue-collar workers, exotic lovers, and occasionally, inspiring leaders or teachers.

There’s a rich and worthy array of human experience to explore in these roles. But to a Latino consumer of Hollywood films, there’s something jarring in how unlikely it is for a Latino actor or actress to be cast in the role of a scientist, a smart-aleck, or even a character in the mold of The Matrix’s Morpheus. No, Latino actors and actresses do not often play brilliant. This contrasts with how Latino poets are treated (their brilliance is, thankfully, acknowledged and celebrated).

Still, as a consumer of poetry—and as brilliant as some the most celebrated poems by Latino poets are—there is something equivalently jarring about how unlikely it is for the work of Latino poets to be picked up as exemplary when the topic veers too far away from the exoticizing "you know what," which goes by the name of "what you know." The mark of the marginal isn’t so much that what it does is uncommon; it’s that it cannot do what the mainstream commonly does.
 
Hollywood itself gives me some hope. The last two years, two Mexican directors have won the Oscar for best director, and both of them did it by directing movies that don’t fit at the mold Hollywood uses to shape Latinos. Birdman is as meta-cinematographic and self-indulgent as any movie I can remember (Fellini’s 8 1/2 comes to mind), and yet González Iñárritu took home the statue. And even though some critics have argued—no matter what Cuarón himself may say—that Gravity, with its exploration of chaos, is filmed with some sort of Mexican sensibility, the effects that cultural identity seems to have had on that movie are subtle and indicative of what can happen when—unencumbered by the expectations of identity—artists freely engage   what they know in the unique manner in which their knowledge connects with their particular place in culture.

I’m not arguing that Latino poets ought to write less about identity and more about anything else in particular. What I find problematic are not the subjective choices Latino poets make but the biased selections editors make

I’m not arguing that Latino poets ought to write less about identity and more about anything else in particular. What I find problematic are not the subjective choices Latino poets make but the biased selections editors make—even if only unconsciously. I know Latino poets write poems about a wide variety of topics. But I can’t help but suspect they aren’t read as carefully when they choose not to write “what they know.” If editors in positions of cultural power have a real commitment to showcasing the remarkable diversity of the contemporary landscape of American poetry, then this phenomenon of unconscious selection bias should be part of the conversation.

So, to put it bluntly, this is what I would want to see from you, dear elite editors: a more conscious effort to publish poems that illustrate the wide array of poetic practices within the Latino community, as well as any other minority communities whose contributions are disproportionately celebrated when they engage rather explicitly with the subject of their own marginality. Or to say it more pithily: publish more of what you don’t know.

 

PEDRO POITEVIN is a contributor to Letras Libres and Periódico de Poesía, the poetry journal of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM. His first book of (Spanish) poems, Perplejidades, was published in México City earlier this year.