Neoliberalism’s Omnipresent Antagonist: Latin Poetry

Michael Dowdy is an assistant professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He is the author of American Political Poetry into the 21st Century and a chapbook of poems, The Coriolis Effect. His latest book is Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization (University of Arizona Press, 2013). As well as offering, according to the publisher, the first in-depth study of the diverse field of contemporary Latina/o poetry, Michael Dowdy also presents ecocritical readings into the environmental dimensions of current Latina/o poetics.

John Wisniewski: Why did you decide to write Broken Souths? What did you hope to convey to us?

saving...Michael Dowdy: Back in 2007, before the latest financial crash and foreclosure crisis, I began researching the project that would become Broken Souths. My goal then was decidedly less ambitious. I wanted to write about Victor Hernández Cruz and Martín Espada, two very different New York Puerto Rican poets. In 2008, the project started to take on its current shape as a broader examination of U.S. Latino poetry as it has developed from its roots in the social movements of the late 1960s up to the present. It’s no coincidence that this is the same historical period in which neoliberalism came to dominate the globe.

During that year I was a faculty fellow at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center, which is directed by the geographer David Harvey. In our weekly discussions, I came to see Latino poetry as deeply concerned with the ideals and outcomes of the neoliberal project. As such, neoliberalism became the omnipresent antagonist in Broken Souths, a complex set of highly disruptive ideas, policies, strategies, and political forces. The neoliberal ideology that all places are the same, subject to the same immutable economic laws, become particular significant in my thinking. As Cruz says, Latino writers are obsessed with place, in part due to their histories of displacement and migration.

Broadly, I think that Broken Souths conveys some of the ways that Latino poets critique neoliberal ideas and outcomes. Also, I believe that the book shows how Latino writers are transforming the landscape of “American Literature.” Who could have predicted that one of the most innovative Latino poets, Maurice Kilwein Guevara, would be born in the Colombian Andes, grow up in the shadow of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, and create what I call an Appalachian Latino literature, even though he teaches now in Milwaukee?

In scholarly terms, I hope that the book creates a flexible, enduring literary-historical framework for reading Latino poetry. I attempt to map the field of Latino poetry as it emerged from late 1960s political-social movements (the Chicano, Nuyorican, and Mexican Student movements) and expanded into new expressive forms and locations, taking shape alongside and in response to neoliberalism, the ideology of free-market fundamentalism and the project to restore wealth and power to the capitalist class. It is significant that this framework is hemispheric in scope. As Cruz says, Latinos and Latino writers are shaped by a “tremendous coming and going” between North and South in the Americas.

Because poetry by Latino poets is usually studied in terms of national groups—Nuyorican poetry in New York City, Chicano poetry in the west and southwest—I wanted to build a framework that spans their geographies, including the new places of emergence for Latino writing, as in Appalachia. After all, there is little critical work on Latino poetry as a field. The fact that many poets now identify first as Latino suggests possible alliances and common histories in relationship to the U.S. But it also reminds us that Latinos have been incorporated into the body politic of the U.S. through capitalism, as consumers, as a target market, as commodified images. Think of the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

I also wanted to bring the late 1960s (and the upheavals of 1968 particularly) into conversation with the present generation of poets. Latino writing is often studied by dividing the movement (Chicano and Nuyorican) era from the post-movement (“post-sixties”) era. Generally speaking, the former is politically engaged, culturally nationalist, and collectivist; the latter is defined by consumer-based individualism. I was worried that this approach reproduces troubling neoliberal language like “post-racial” and “the end of history.” (Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is especially good in exposing the violence hidden by this language.) The Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis has said that the promise and devastation of 1968 persist as an archive of symbols and images. Traces of these symbols and images are everywhere in contemporary Latino poetry. The work of the Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera is a good example.

Finally, in Broken Souths I wanted to put Latino poets and poets in Latin America in conversation with each other. I was interested in finding out how they responded differently to the touchstone events of the neoliberal era—the Pinochet coup of September 11, 1973; the passage of NAFTA and the Zapatista uprising; and the femicide in Ciudad Juárez, to name a few. In her book Ambassadors of Culture, the scholar Kirsten Silva Gruesz asks a question about the origins of Latino literature in the late 19th century: “What does it mean to be a poet in a trans-American sense?” My book investigates this question over the four decades of the neoliberal era.

JW: Are words powerful in any kind of revolution or movement? How powerful are the writings of poets such as Roberto Bolaño and Martín Espada?

MD: It might be said that a social or revolutionary movement is made of (and with) words. It seems feasible then to assert that social change (and a new society) requires that we relate to each other, to nature, daily life, work, play, history, and the future, among many things, in different ways, each of which require new languages, new words, and new ways of using the words we have. Movements often have manifestos. The Chicano movement had El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán and El Plan de Santa Bárbara. The Nuyorican movement had the Young Lords 13-Point Program. The Zapatista uprising began with shouts of “NAFTA is death,” and Subcomandante Marcos still gives communiqués from the Lacandón rainforest in Chiapas.

As the scholar Walter Mignolo puts it, the Zapatistas’ revolution was “theoretical,” because they had to invent a language, a framework for articulating their reality. With increasing distrust of hierarchical forms of representation, who gets to speak is now a key question in movements. Espada’s poem “Sing Zapatista” underscores the ways in which Marcos effaces his identity in service of collective goals. And Juan Felipe Herrera has a long poem about the Day Without an Immigrant march on May 1, 2006, in L.A. Nearly 400,000 people marched there that day, “without leaders,” as Herrera says. The poem, “A Day Without a Mexican,” catalogs the political signs carried by Latinos, many of whom were undocumented. One banner—“Yo nací en América soy Americano ok”—insists quite radically that having been born in the Americas stakes a subsequent claim to U.S. citizenship. The U.S. plunder of Latin America and the exploitation of Latino labor justify this claim. Herrera calls poems of this sort “undocumentary.” It’s not only that they deal with the lives of those without citizenship papers; he’s also acknowledging that language often fails to represent what it purports to represent, in this case the lives of the undocumented.

Espada and Bolaño ascribe to an idea of Poetry with a capital P, though in different ways. By that I mean they see poetry as having unique, inimitable qualities. For them, poetry can be salvational, it can emancipate, it can galvanize. It should thus be treated with the utmost respect. Espada sees himself working in a Whitmanian lineage, in which the poet speaks for “the rights of them the others are down upon,” in Whitman’s words. Bolaño was more of a romantic, influenced by Nicanor Parra’s “anti-poetry” (though it isn’t romantic) and Jorge Luis Borges’s archetypes, such as labyrinths and mirrors. He wrote that poetry is “braver than anyone”—not poets but their words. This enigmatic statement provokes us to consider how poems made well and courageously outlast their makers. That said, his mock “Infrarealist” manifesto and his fictional encyclopedia of right-wing monsters, Nazi Literature in the Americas, satirize the entire literary endeavor as callous, narcissistic, and pathetic.

Both Espada’s and Bolaño’s writings think through the relationship between poetry and the People, again with a capital P. In one sense, this concept might refer to the polis or body politic; in another, the working class or the excluded; or in much of Latin America, the “popular” sphere. (This last term means something very different in Latin America than it does in North America.) Two perspectives on this relationship come to mind. First, the Latino poet-critic Urayoán Noel riffs on the title of the Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri’s one-act farce The Masses Are Asses: “If it’s true that the masses are asses / then the poet is their wipe.” The poet as a representative of the people isn’t necessarily disavowed, it’s reframed, and not in liberatory terms, to put it kindly. Second, a quote from Carlos Monsiváis serves as the epigraph to Daniel Alarcón’s Lost City Radio, a novel about the Shining Path insurgency and the Peruvian government’s counter insurgency: “It is the people who are executed and the people who make up the firing squad; the people are both vague randomness and precise law. There are no tricks, nor can there be.” Monsiváis’s words are painfully accurate and beguilingly beautiful. Power divides and then conquers, after all.

JW: Could you tell us about the author Roberto Bolaño for those who may be new to his work?

MD: Sure, Roberto Bolaño was a Chilean poet and fiction writer best known for the sprawling novels The Savage Detectives and 2666. He was born in Chile in 1953 and died in Spain in 2003. Beyond these dates, it can be challenging to narrate Bolaño’s life without veering into the territory of myth. So, here’s one take. Bolaño was part of the “generation of ‘disenchantment.’” This term is often used to refer to writers, artists, and activists on the left in Latin America who were born between 1945 and 1955. The collective “disenchantment” has much to do with the defeats of 1968 in Mexico City, 1973 in Chile, and the Dirty Wars in the Southern Cone countries generally. Bolaño’s life tracks these events, and they endure in his work as complex, even obsessive touchstones. He moved with his parents to Mexico City in 1968, living there until just before the coup. After his brief stay in Chile he returned to Mexico, where he lived until 1978. He spent the rest of his life in Europe, in and around Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast.

Bolaño’s book jacket covers sell the author by emphasizing his return to Chile in 1973 to fight for the Allende revolution, stating that he was imprisoned after the coup. Digging a bit deeper you learn that he returned to Chile just weeks before September 11 and was jailed for a week on a case of mistaken identity. When one of the guards recognized him from childhood he was released. That version can be teased out from Bolaño’s interviews and essays. Meanwhile, innuendo surrounds his years in Mexico, including some hints that he was an intravenous drug user. In any case, those years were defined by hard living and creative ferment. As a member of the farcical literary movement the “Infrarealists,” Bolaño and his young poet friends were provocateurs, challenging what they deemed to be Mexico’s staid official literary culture. They interrupted public readings by shouting their own poems from the audience. They stole books. They caused trouble. At least that’s how the story goes. Bolaño was also a ruthless and whip smart critic, deflating icons such as Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz.

The mythology of Bolaño styles him as an idealistic but melancholic vagabond, drug- and drink-addled, a romantic genius cast about on the seas of history. Although alluring, this mythology tends to overshadow the work and overlook the fact that Bolaño spent at least the last decade of his life sober, with a family, and working at a feverish, incredibly productive pace. The Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco writes of what has happened to “the poet” in our current era:

He’s become one more entertainer.
      His drunken bouts, fornications, his medical history,
his alliances or fights with the other clowns in the circus,
      or with the trapeze artist or elephant tamer,
have guaranteed him numerous fans
      who no longer need to read the poems.

Although Pacheco didn’t have Bolaño in mind when he wrote this passage it describes succinctly what such myth making risks doing to him. Bolaño’s novels and short stories are frequently about poets, real and imagined. (Pacheco appears briefly as a character in Bolaño’s novel Amulet.) One of his recurring characters, Arturo Belano, is a pseudonym (or alter ego) that facilitates such myth making by blurring the lines between fiction and life writing.

It wasn’t until 1996 that Bolaño had his breakthrough, when Nazi Literature in the Americas made his name in the Spanish-speaking world. In the next seven years, before he died from liver failure, Bolaño became one of our era’s most esteemed and influential writers. I have always loved this passage in The Savage Detectives:

There are books for when you’re bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you’re calm. The best kind, in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. And there are books for when you’re happy. There are books for when you’re thirsty for knowledge. And there are books for when you’re desperate. The latter are the kind of books Ulises Lima and Belano wanted to write.

Bolaño’s work reveres books and reading above all. Desperation and desperate characters are the mark of this work. In his books desperation can be a surprisingly energizing creative force, though one that will eventually kill you. A word of warning, however—these lines are spoken by a patient in a mental health clinic, so take them for what they’re worth.

JW: How have neoliberal reforms hurt countries such as Chile?

MD: As Naomi Klein and others have documented, the “Chilean Miracle” produced by Pinochet and his “Chicago Boys” (the economists trained at the University of Chicago) was a strange sort of miracle. In a religious context, miracles lift up the infirm, downtrodden, outcast, and poor. The “Chilean Miracle” subverted this paradigm. A perverse miracle that exalted the rich and powerful, it too descended “from above,” but not from a beneficent god in heaven. I think of the bomber planes strafing the presidential palace on September 11, 1973, captured in Patricio Guzmán’s superb three-part documentary film, The Battle of Chile. I think of the young men and women thrown from helicopters into the sea, joining the ranks of the disappeared. I certainly don’t think of selfless saints serving the poor. But that’s the point. The nefarious language of “miracles” is used to obscure, to mislead, to erase history.

Supposedly detached, technocratic, and rational economic “reforms” dismantled the Chilean state, with its long-standing democratic institutions, all in the service of the neoliberal fever dream—to create the perfect state for global capital and capitalists. This is why we still see Wall Street Journal headlines such as “How Milton Friedman Saved Chile.” But it’s a ruse. By many measures, Chile is now one of the most unequal countries in the world. Neoliberal “reforms” were great for the owning class, bad for the majority of the middle class, and terrible for workers, the poor, and the indigenous. As Klein, Greg Grandin, and others point out, Chile served as a “laboratory” for “reforms” to be duplicated elsewhere, from the former Soviet states to Iraq to right here in the U.S.

I’m not referring solely to inequality of outcomes but also to inequality of access. It’s important here to emphasize that “reform” is a euphemism that arrives at the point of a gun. Nowhere is this idea more salient than in the near total privatization of education in Chile. The “school reform” movement in the U.S. would be so lucky. Just as “miracle” is a euphemism for a CEO-led class war, “school reform” is a euphemism for the destruction of public education. It claims to work in the name of access while actually limiting it. Under neoliberalism, after all, students are simply consumers who must shop for and buy their educations, just as they might purchase bread or socks, no matter if they can’t afford them or lack the resources to evaluate their (limited) options.

In Chile, a powerful new student movement has arisen in response to this educational ideal. Francisco Goldman, a Latino novelist and journalist of Guatemalan descent, has a profile of Camila Vallejo in the Times Magazine. I admire his writing very much for its clarity and insight, and this piece on one of the Chilean student movement’s leaders is essential reading. In addition to supplying clear contexts for the ways in which neoliberal “reforms” have decimated access to education in Chile, it highlights the emergence of one struggle for a different world in arguably the first “laboratory” for neoliberal policies. (N.B. I say “arguably” in deference to critics such as Edward Carvalho who see Puerto Rico having this dubious distinction.)

John Wisniewski is a freelance writer who resides in West Babylon NY. He has written for L.A. Review of Books, Toronto Review of Books, Paraphilia Magazine, and other publications. Read other articles by John.