Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino poet laureate of the United States, has just been named to a second term in one of the most visible ambassadorships of American poetry. Yet American poetry continues to marginalize if not completely exclude Latino poets.
I know this because every National Poetry Month, as a matter of ritual, I scroll through the Web and click on seemingly endless articles and listicles with promising headlines like "31 Contemporary Poets You Need to Read" and "Celebrate National Poetry Month with 10 New Must-Read Collections." And then I sit back and shake my head because, without fail, those lists — curated by my very own allies, who claim to have their fingers on the pulse of an ostensibly expansive and ever-more inclusive field of letters — fail us.
The Annual Poetry Letdown fails all of us, the entire reading community, by making the Latino writing population — no negligible number — seem minuscule or nonexistent. While the act of identity roll-calling or body-counting ignites discussions about skewed representation and its repercussions and holds a curator accountable for any oversights, it often leads to the simple solutions of quotas and tokenism. And indeed so many of those lists appear to reach for an easy and superficial measure because it provides cover for the compiler and purposefully stalls the conversation on the question of diversity and representation (if at least one member of the group is ethnically different, then how can the group as a whole be accused of not being diverse?).
I instead am quite frankly asking: Where are the writers who come from a community that numbers 55 million in this country?
The usefulness of a list is not up for debate, which is what makes it extremely frustrating to have to compensate for the near invisibility of Latino writers by drawing up Latino-only lists that feature not only established writers such as Herrera and Sandra Cisneros but also early-career authors, something I will continue to do until it's no longer necessary (creativity took less exertion than outrage when I first began to make my own corrective lists).
An immediate outcry to any list is a given. My own lists have come under scrutiny and critique, and I accept that because it's par for the course: Putting a list out there is an invitation to readers to respond and even push back. The goal is to create conversation and help build reading lists or curriculums through informed selection. To curate on a visible platform is to declare oneself an arbiter of taste, it is to make a strong statement about quality, to shape an influential avenue for publicity, visibility and book buzz. Essentially, it is to be a gatekeeper and a builder of canon. And to those who deny the power of a list: Simply observe how much those authors who do end up on one, particularly those who are early-career writers, benefit from the attention. It can affect bottom lines, livelihoods and curriculums, sometimes for decades. At the very least, it makes publishers happy.
The entire literary establishment is due for a meaningful and dedicated cultural shift.
Much has been said (and proved) about the need for diverse books, editors and publishers, for people with a clearer vision of how the country's demographics should be shaping the literary landscape — but little has been done.
Publishers, literary agencies and editors can start by hiring, instead of by going the route that today seems de rigueur: seeking out free advice online or at dreaded conference panels on diversity. There, outsiders who could truly make a difference are badgered for strategies that become mere talking points — talking points that are conveniently forgotten as soon as it's time to make actual changes.
Only in positions of power can writers, editors and critics of color move the industry where it needs to be: building from a dynamic foundation of long-marginalized or completely ignored voices to provide a springboard for an exciting new generation of writers who represent the vibrant reality of America's cultural, ethnic and racial wealth.
Everyone likes to acknowledge the problems, but change can't come soon enough. The situation is similar to our urgency about global warming. Despite expressions of concern, those who can actually effect change are extremely slow to act because they believe that to do so would be detrimental to their immediate interests; the world appears to them as a zero-sum game. At the moment, small presses and independent publishers, with limited resources, are doing the good work of publishing poetry and prose by writers of color and other marginalized groups. But the general reader should find these authors everywhere and in abundance on every list.
Until that happens, Latinos will continue to be relegated to supplementary reading lists, "suggested reading" annexed to the dominant canon.
It's important to state here that the cultural production of Latinos and that of many other groups does not depend on support from the establishment. Our literary tradition has been an American one long before the large publishing houses arrived and will continue to be long after they disappear. The problem lies in the way the "American literature" bookshelf resists the reality of today's American society and fails to reward excellence in an equitable way. Much is at stake by adhering to established canons, it seems.
And so this essay is about more than just reeling at perpetually lopsided lists, it's about how those lists are current indicators of a larger problem in the industry that includes publishing houses, literary magazines and awards, some of whom want brownie points — in 2016 — for essentially dipping a toe into a reality they should have fully embraced decades ago. It's time the gatekeepers acknowledge that they're embarrassingly behind the times and that it's easier for them to remain static than to exert the energy that it takes to make a commitment, to truly accept and implement guidance.
These proposals are new only to those who have not been listening or indeed who have been wantonly plugging their ears. For the rest of us, those of us who are listening, acting as watchdogs until this shift takes place, it's important not to become complacent, even if policing is tiring. This is a challenge to all parties involved: Keep eyeing those lists (and that book review page, that publisher's catalog, etc.) and keep pressuring those institutions that serve as gatekeepers to do better.
I'll continue to check the lists every April for signs of improvement. I'll keep compiling Latino-focused list, and I'll focus on poetry because, of all the genres, of all the writing communities, the poets, despite obtaining the lowest financial rewards, continue to be at the cutting edge of the most pressing political and social moments. When the poetry lists begin to acknowledge Latinos I'll know the tide has commenced to turn.