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A Decade of CantoMundo: In Conversation with Celeste Guzman Mendoza & Deborah Paredez

This past weekend was the last year of a 10-year term for Co-Directors Celeste Guzman Mendoza and Deborah Paredez, who along with Carmen Tafolla, Norma E. Cantú and Pablo Martínez founded CantoMundo, an organization dedicated to Latinx poetry and poetics. I had the pleasure of introducing Celeste at this past Saturday night reading, and I was reminded of all the reasons why CantoMundo has changed my life: a strong desire for community, to listen to and raise each other up, to provide as many platforms as possible for fellow poetas, and most of all, to rebuild the table, together, so that there are always seats open for future generations. To be honest, I was not ready for the flood of emotions that returned me to the familiar place that is the “Canto feeling”– which for me is kinda like my heart being lit on neon flame and pure hydrogen and listening to the burn awaken, exhale, and SING. I’m so grateful for this organization. It’s my pleasure to have Celeste and Deborah here at Kenyon.      –Rosebud Ben-Oni  

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Rosebud Ben-Oni: It’s CantoMundo’s 10th anniversary! Felicidades! As original founding members of the organization, how have you seen CantoMundo grow? What were some of the challenges you faced?

Deborah Paredez: CantoMundo began around Norma E. Cantú’s kitchen table in San Antonio, Texas during the summer of 2009. I answered an invitation from Celeste, Norma, Carmen Tafolla, and Pablo Martínez for a gathering to discuss the possibility of creating an organization for Latina/o poets in the model of Cave Canem and Kundiman. By the end of that meeting, Pablo had suggested our name, and we had collectively dreamed up ideas for our first retreat. All we needed was the money, which fortunately we were able to secure that fall. In the decade since, CantoMundo’s growth, in my mind, is measured mostly in the ways I’ve seen graduate fellows become literary mentors to younger fellows over the years.  Canto’s community of Latinx poets aren’t successful just because of the ways they have developed or achieved recognition within their own writing/performing practices, but in the ways they have helped one another get where they want to go.

I think a challenge we faced– that many organizations like our also face– is figuring out how to establish and deepen our institutional infrastructure and reach while constantly being vigilant about not reproducing or reinscribing the very systems of valuation or hierarchies that we had sought to dismantle or at least provide an alternative for in our founding. I think any time you become an institution you run the risk of becoming or at least being perceived as another gatekeeper, but our goal has always been to devote substantial time to self-reflection and to seek out feedback from our community of fellows so as to keep up true to our mission of supporting Latinx poets and poetry across its wide range of expressions.

And, of course, our yearly challenge has always been having to decide which fellows to accept among the many many exceptional applicants for our annual retreat.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza: Since our founding, CantoMundo has evolved incrementally, and I hope in a noticeably strategic way. The organization is much more than solely the organizing of an annual retreat, though this remains the first priority of the organization. Our mission now encompasses a publication prize as well as active participation in a national partnership with the Academy of American Poets. Plus, the number of CantoMundistas has grown from the initial 20 fellows to now more than 100. Plus, it’s incredible to see CantoMundistas from all over the country and from various Latinidades publishing their books, receiving recognition through reviews and prizes, and creating opportunities for other fellows and poets of color to share their work. The initial work has spiraled out and continues to broaden in scope and scale; yet, we have not forgotten our roots, which is the retreat.

Regarding challenges, I can think of two, one personal and the other organizational. In terms of the organization, our greatest challenge was creating a plan for a transition in leadership. Since each of the founders at the creation of CantoMundo pledged the number of years of service that we would provide to the organization, from the get-go we needed to consider how we would ensure that the leadership roles of CantoMundo would continue past each of our years of service. We also knew that we did not want any founders to persist for longer than ten years in leadership roles as we felt that it is important that organizations balance experience with innovation in order to ensure sustainability and freshness. So, once the pledge was made it was kept. Norma E. Cantú and Carmen Tafolla pledged five years, Pablo Miguel Martínez three years, and Deborah and I pledged ten years. I am happy that we have new co-directors, two of whom have shadowed my and Deborah’s role for the past two years, and that a third will join. They are Carmen Gimenez Smith, Amy Sayre Baptista, and Yesenia Montilla. I also am glad that, through the Organizing Committee, there is a pool of leadership and experience that the organization can leverage in order to fulfill its broader mission. So, I think that we met that primary organizational challenge.

Personally, my greatest challenge was maintaining a writing practice; that challenge I did not meet. Considering that I have maintained a full-time job the last ten years outside of my volunteer service to CantoMundo, and that the last five years I also was in a doctoral program (I graduated this past May 2019), I forgive myself for not also regularly writing poetry. I know that as I transition out of this leadership position that actual and spiritual space will open to my personal writing goals. I am grateful that as I move into this new space I will have so many other Latinx poets’s work to read! I’ve met so many over the past ten years and I love their work.

RB: I’m looking forward to reading both work from Deborah and you, Celeste– I mean, DOCTOR Celeste Guzman Mendoza! Congratulations on completing your doctorate! Looking back now, can you tell us about a few memorable moments in your ten years of serving as anchors of the summer retreats?

CGM: I am not sure if our roles can be described as “anchors” as much as “caretakers,” though I do appreciate the sense of stability and safety that the word “anchor” implies. I do believe that Deborah and I strive to provide a space that is safe and can support fellows, their work, and their journey to arriving at their work. We also have always asked for critique from fellows to improve our work in this regard, and we take the suggestions to heart and into practice; so, actually, we aren’t the only ones that provide the space. All of the previous CantoMundistas have contributed in the enhancement of the retreat experience—it’s the effort of a community not an exclusive few. I would add that our values have always been about democratization and transparency—we let our CantoMundistas in on the backstage process a lot more than other organizations and retreats for writers. We feel that by being transparent and democratic from our beginnings we’ve built into our work the idea that anyone in the community can lead CantoMundo, that all of us are part of the light and energy that keeps the organization running and breathing.

Regarding a particular moment that stays with me…I will answer the question by saying that each evening when the fellows read from their work…well, that 50 minutes más o menos enlivens me each year! The poetry is so phenomenal and my breath is not taken away but given; I literally feel like I can breathe better in the world. I love those moments!

DP: A few moments that stand out for me include: 1) having Toi Derricotte as our first Keynote Speaker and being in the presence of her wisdom and generosity and lyricism which helped reinforce the ways CantoMundo was indebted to and in ongoing conversation with Cave Canem; 2) washing dishes with Vikas Menon, the Keynote Speaker at our second retreat, which reminded us of the unglamorous labor necessary to the success of Kundiman and to any success we were aiming for; and 3) experiencing every closing circle which is true alchemy.

RB: Alchemy is a perfect word for closing circle; I felt part of something so much bigger when graduating from CantoMundo. Speaking of the bigger conversation, how do you think CantoMundo has contributed to the larger discussion of Latinx poetry and poetics?

DP: Latinx poets were already doing amazing things long before CantoMundo came into being.  I do like to think we simply created a space where Latinx poets could come together to find common ground or have difficult conversations or seek and offer mentorship.  I also think through our publication prize in partnership with the University of Arkansas Press these last few years we have been able to support the work of Latinx poets regardless of their affiliation with CantoMundo, since our goal was always to have the broadest reach possible.

CGM: The publication prize has attracted attention to CantoMundo, Latinx poetry, and by extension to the work of CantoMundistas. People are more aware of the depth and breadth of our communities and our work. As a result, we have seen a rise in applications to the CantoMundo retreat—these total now more than 150 annually—and we witness more Latinx writers winning literary prizes and fellowships. In addition, fellows leverage one another’s connectivity to various literary communities, which furthers their work. Some fellows are editors of journals and presses, a few own their own press, so we see greater dissemination of Latinx work. We still could strengthen our connectivity to the literary critics and simultaneously support the writings of new critics. This last piece is key if we hope to have more Latinx poetry featured in journals and the classroom—a community must be created and supported that can talk about the work and connect it to the readers.

RB: What will you miss most about serving on the organizing committee?

CGM: I will miss routinely engaging with fellow Organizing Committee members through email and phone calls, and of course, experiencing the retreat with them. You build a sense of trust and love that is so strong when you are working together on an effort that everyone believes in so passionately. I also will miss engaging with the fellows during the retreat, but I do hope that I can connect with them outside of the retreat more often!

DP: During the last decade, I have felt such gratitude for being part of a leadership team that is unabashedly feminist in its approach to community formation, a capacious understanding of aesthetic expression, and the constant examination of power.  I will certainly miss being a part of that approach to collectivity. And, of course, I will miss the ways the particular intimacies of Opening and Closing Circle granted me the privilege of knowing each cohort of incredible Latinx poets.

RB: What do you hope for the future of CantoMundo? What are your own plans and dreams for the future?

DP: I am thrilled that CantoMundo has found a new home at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center under the guidance of Executive Director, Tyler Meier, and Literary Director, Diana Delgado. I think it is fitting that Diana is a CantoMundo graduate!  I am also thrilled that Canto’s new leadership team– whom, as Celeste mentioned earlier, are Co-Directors Yesenia Montilla, Amy Sayre Baptista and Carmen Giménez Smith–and their Organizing Committee is composed of Canto graduates who are committed to and have exciting visions for CantoMundo’s growth. Mostly, I hope CantoMundo’s impact can exceed their own dreams as it did mine during the last ten years.

As for me, I’m looking forward to writing more poems and fewer emails and to celebrating the publication of my poetry collection, YEAR OF THE DOG, next spring. And, I can’t wait to finally read (and re-read) that huge stack of books by Latinx poets on my bedside table!

CGM: I hope that CantoMundo will persist and continue to evolve with CantoMundistas in the leadership and administrative roles so as to ensure that it remains transparent and democratic because as being so it is accountable to the large community and the community to it.

Personally, I am already putting into action more personal writing time! The hours that I dedicated to the administration and directorship of CantoMundo will now go into my own writing and creative cultivation. I have a second manuscript of poetry that I am finishing, and I have begun a third. So, I am looking forward to working on these pieces. And more than anything, I am looking forward to reading the work of more CantoMundistas!