I first discovered the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes in the final year of my BA. I was researching a paper for a research seminar on “Race and Representation in 20th Century American Culture” and came across “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War Between the Races.” To cut a long story short, I was hooked and proceeded to write my MA dissertation, and pursue a PhD on the poetry of Cervantes and Gloria Anzaldúa.
By means of introduction, Cervantes is a Chicana, Native American poet who has, to date, published five major, award-winning collections. Her poetry is among the most anthologised Chicana/o poetry appearing in hundreds of anthologies and literary magazines. After completing doctoral studies in History of Consciousness at UCSC, Cervantes was associated professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder for nineteen years until she returned to her birth place, San Francisco, to focus on her poetry full-time.
Encouraged by my supervisor I made contact with Cervantes during my MA. To my delight I received an enthusiastic response and from there a friendship developed. One of the first things Cervantes spoke to me about was her interest in all things Irish. She told me that when she was in her early twenties she attempted to apply for a Visa to visit “the Emerald Isle” as a part of a “poet’s pilgrimage” she wanted to embark on. Her application was rejected due to race. Horrified that such ignorance brought her dream to a standstill, I immediately made a promise to her and to myself that I would see her in Ireland before the end of my doctoral studies. This June, five and a half years after that initial conversation, Lorna Dee Cervantes delivered a poetry reading in Cork, Ireland for the first time. She is the most recent of several Chicana authors and artists who have visited UCC over the past few years, including Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Celia Herrera Rodriguez, Alma López and Cherríe Moraga.
The reading was held in the beautiful setting of the Cork Vision Centre, a former church that was recently reclaimed as a venue for cultural events. As well as being her first reading on Irish soil, the event also marked the first time one of her collections was launched in Europe. I was not surprised when copies of Sueño sold out within minutes following her reading. Despite having been ill since her arrival, Cervantes’s performance was energised and electric. Circled around her, the audience was captivated and charmed by her quick wit, trademark wordplay, metaphorical depth, and thematic versatility. On several occasions she asked if she should begin to wrap her reading up and was encouraged to read some more.
For me her reading was illuminating for several reasons. First, it re-emphasised the oral tradition that catapults the sounds, rhythms and messages of her poetry to new heights. She also drew some further linkages between Chicana/o and Irish culture and history; she read a poem called “Hunger”, prefacing it with some thoughts about hunger and passion in Irish and Chicano histories of colonisation, famine, subjugation and cultural reclamation. Cervantes opened her reading with an elegy in memory of Gloria Anzaldúa. This, for me, was most powerful not least because my thesis is a formal study of the work of both poets. Moreover, this short 10-line poem is called “Ver” which means “to see” with the final word of the poem posing the question: “See?” Bringing Lorna to Ireland was not just about getting to see my favourite poet perform and fulfil one of her life-long dreams. Being part of a very small community of Chicana/o studies scholars in Ireland and the UK, it was also about showing others the power, value and impact of Chicana poetry. It was also about breaking down common barriers and misconceptions of Chicana/o literature such as the notion that language will be an impediment to understanding.
The title of the symposium, “Pathways, Explorations, Approaches” very much speaks to this. Taking new paths, exploring unknown territories and approaching fresh ideas require looking and seeing as much as anything. Lorna’s poetry has drawn me into areas I would never have considered looking into. From nuclear physics to media studies and much more besides, analysing her poetry has caused my research and my own perceptions of the world to germinate in unexpected ways. Her visit to Ireland provided a unique opportunity to share this illuminating poetic experience with my peers.
Gracias a Donna for this wonderful and inspiring story about connections, collaborations, and friendships.
Donna Maria Alexander is a PhD candidate in the School of English and the Department of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American Studies in University College Cork. Her research on Chicana poetry has been funded by the Irish Research Council and the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Studies, UCC. Her research has been published in the Forum for Inter-American Research, American Studies Today. She blogs at Américas Studies.