Notebook: Spanish Interlude, Part II

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

[Continued from Part I, here]
The legacy of Spanish refugee intellectuals informing American education after their flight from fascism in Spain found a contemporary mirror, among our eclectic group in Madrid, in the number of Spanish-speaking writers now teaching in Spanish-language creative writing departments in the US. The poet Luis Muñoz, who befriended American poet Mark Strand when he moved to Madrid near the end of his life, teaches in one of three American Spanish-language writing departments (Iowa, the other two are NYU and El Paso). The poet Jorge Vessel, a Venezuelan MFA candidate in the NYU Spanish creative writing department, translated all the selections in the Unamuno Festival anthology (which has for its cover a collage by Strand, see above). Luis and Jorge tell me that most of the students in these departments come from Latin America and Spain, where there is not a tradition of teaching creative writing.

To follow the refugee thread in another direction, historian Soledad Fox Maura told the group the story of Maria Luisa Elio, who as a child barely survived flight from Spain to France in 1936 and by a stroke of luck received passage to Mexico ahead of the Nazi invasion of France, becoming there an admired actress and writer and a friend, like many of the Spanish intellectual émigrés (including the Residencia’s Buñuel), with the rising generation of Latin American writers that included Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Marquez, as well as the newly re-appreciated surrealist novelist Leonora Carrington. Indeed García Marquez sent chapters of his signature novel One Hundred Years of Solitude to Elio for her opinion and ultimately dedicated the book to her. The Residencia is working to collect the correspondence of these far-flung heirs of the Generation of 27, reconstructing a virtual Spanish literary community reaching across Spain and the Americas and touching English-language culture at many points.

Of course even before this wave of exiles there were familial connections in Spanish and American reading life. Lorca’s own Poet in New York, arising from a tumultous ten-month stay at Columbia in 1929, is a modernist classic, and many of the Unamuno Festival’s “Academic Cycle” participants harkened back to the reverberations of Lorca’s journey to New York, like his ode to Whitman, who happened to be celebrating a 200th birthday that week. Mark Doty gave us a preview of his forthcoming book, What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Jonathan Blunk, author of James Wright: A Life in Poetry, drew out Wright’s lifelong love affair with Spanish literature: Wright described translation as a “magical device” for survival in the face of debilitating depression and dreamed of moving to a Spanish-speaking country “to regain Whitman for my own tongue.” He translated the ode to Whitman into English, drew on it for his own work, and called Poet in New York “possibly the greatest human book of the twentieth century.” Wright also had a particular passion for Antonio Machado and Juan Ramón Jiménez, recalling “the gorgeous, reviving, happy poems of Jiménez that I have clung to in the middle of hell.”

Later in the week was a celebration awarding the second annual García Lorca Prize for an Emerging Latinx Poet (another invention of Spencer’s) to Steven Sanchez. Born in Fresno to undocumented parents from Mexico, Steven was travelling to Spain for the first time to receive the award and step into the Spanish literature of the continent. At the ceremony Steven spoke movingly about how going to college, and discovering literature and becoming a writer, had profoundly altered the course of his life and how deeply grateful he was for these opportunities. He was on his way to the take up the Prize’s spot at Civitella Ranieri, the intimate residency in Italy that was a sponsor of the Festival and that prides itself on bringing together artists from around the world. To see him read his work on stage with Laura García Lorca seemed an almost magical family reunion of languages, fittingly nourished by the welcoming air of the Residencia.

Another Unamuno Festival participant. Luis Rodriguez, told us about the thirty-year history of his publishing house and cultural center Tia Chucha, now based in Los Angeles (they published Spencer’s collection of poems by his Honduran students). Tia Chucha does not exclusively publish translated and Latinx writing—some of their biggest sellers have actually been African-American writers like Terrance Hayes, Patricia Smith, Elizabeth Alexander, A. Van Jordan, Patricia Spears Jones, and others; they are committed broadly to cross-cultural publishing. But it is a central part of their mission to bring culture and reading to the Spanish-inflected community of the northeastern San Fernando Valley that is often outside the sites of the literary establishment. [Stay tuned for Part III!]

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