Latino literary group enters 3-year agreement with Piper Center, will offer variety of programs
Whether it was by design or accident, CantoMundo's arrival at Arizona State University during Hispanic Heritage Month signals a new relationship is off to a serendipitous start.
ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing recently agreed to a three-year collaboration to house CantoMundo, a literary organization founded in 2009 to support the creation, documentation and celebration of LatinxA gender-neutral alternative to Latino/Latina. poetry.
Jacqueline Balderrama, a Latinx poet with experience in literary program management, has been named as CantoMundo’s inaugural director. She will be based at the Piper Center. Balderrama will work in concert with CantoMundo co-founders as well as the national CantoMundo Advisory Board to offer a variety of programming, workshops, symposia and public readings.
ASU News spoke with Balderrama — who graduated with her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from ASU in 2016 — to discuss the organization, its mission and how it plans to bring new poetry and voices to the community.
Question: Can you give us a brief history on CantoMundo and its importance to Hispanic literature and poetry?
Answer: Sure. CantoMundo was founded 14 years ago by Norma E. Cantú, Celeste Guzmán Mendoza, Pablo Miguel Martínez, Deborah Paredez and Carmen Tafolla — all wonderful poets who I had the pleasure to meet this past June. There wasn’t necessarily a mentorship program of this kind offering community and professional support for Latinx poets, and they wanted to cultivate this.
The statement on their website I think says it best: “Our work is motivated by the understanding that Latinx voices, despite their historic silencing, have always resounded within the chorus of American poetry.” So they took inspiration from Cave Canem that works to remedy the underrepresentation of African American poets, and CantoMundo had its first annual retreat in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s since been housed at several host universities, including University of Texas and Columbia University. Their programs have consisted of workshops, symposia, public readings, professional development training and publications.
As far as importance to Hispanic/Latinx literature and poetry, CantoMundo has an impressive roster of guest faculty, and its CantoMundistas, or fellows, who have attended the annual retreat, go on to do some impressive things. They’ve published award-winning books, become poet laureates, created supportive communities in their hometowns, and been involved as literary journal editors or contest judges. Just this summer, Ricardo Alberto Maldonado was named the Academy of American Poets' first Latino executive director. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that CantoMundo is at the intersection of Latinx poets shaping the literary field.
Q: How significant is it that CantoMundo has landed at ASU?
A: It’s big! CantoMundo is nationally recognized and has made a real-world impact in the literary field and in the communities its fellows engage. It brings along its own literary prestige, but I’m also excited to see what it can do now and in the future at ASU.
There’s so much geographic significance for CantoMundo to have a home in the Southwest and at ASU, which was recently designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). ASU welcomes so many Hispanic/Latinx students, staff and faculty, and CantoMundo can do a lot to support its charter and aspirations for inclusive excellence. Having CantoMundo here as a local presence amongst our diverse community within Arizona and in proximity to Mexico and Latin America carries a certain weight.
Q: What are the short- and long-term goals for the group, given that they’ve signed a three-year term?
A: Well, first and foremost, the goal for this coming spring is to host the annual retreat. The retreat has been on pause for a couple years, and the co-founders, Piper and I really want to bring people together in person again.
Beyond that, I’m looking for ways CantoMundo can be fully integrated into Piper and ASU, and how we can build relationships with the community here. Already, Piper leadership and I have been part of some promising conversations with the Hispanic Research Center and the HSI Advisory Council, and we look forward to finding ways to collaborate. The Piper Center and CantoMundo have a three-year agreement to develop this relationship, but we know CantoMundo is looking to find a great forever home, and I’d love that to be ASU.
Q: How does the work at CantoMundo connect with the work you do as a poet?
A: I really value its vision. I can’t tell you how important it is to have programs like this that offer support to writers in marginalized groups, especially emerging poets. While I was not a fellow at CantoMundo, I did receive the experience of being in community with a small cohort of MFA students from across the country through Letras Latinas in 2014. This is a literary initiative based at Notre Dame and led by Francisco Aragón, who is not surprisingly a CantoMundista. Aragón was working with Lauren Espinoza, an MFA candidate with me at ASU and then or soon-to-be CantoMundo graduate assistant. I remember the day when she invited me to be a part of Letras Latinas, and my hesitation in just wondering if I belonged or was “Latina enough.”
I come from a mix-heritage background. My father’s side has Mexican ancestry, but I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish or having all the experiences someone might say, “Oh, that’s being Latinx.” So, this experience to be welcomed into a community with other Hispanic/Latinx poets across various spectrums including language was a turning point for me. What I learned during that time was instrumental in the direction of my writing and the completion of my first book, “Now in Color.” It’s this and the mentorship I’ve received from professors over the years that made this first book and my career in the literary arts possible. So, on a personal level, I know the work CantoMundo has and is doing at a larger scale is very important.
Q: Tell us about the big retreat planned for May.
A: Well, you’re going to have to imagine this with me as it’s my first time planning it: So you’re one of 30 Latinx poets, across aesthetic, ethnic, racial, linguistic and gendered spectrums, coming from all over the country, and you’re in this intimate setting with others who share in small or big ways a part of your identity. It’s finding what you have in common, what you can learn from those in other programs or communities and building friendships and support systems all while exploring your poetic craft with expert faculty. ...
We’ll follow a similar design of past retreats with two guest Latinx faculty and a keynote lecturer. And in the evenings, there are celebratory readings open to the public, so we’re looking at off-campus venues to welcome in the local community. The four-day retreat is tentatively scheduled for the end of May on ASU's Tempe campus, and I’m really looking forward to welcoming this new group of fellows. Please stay tuned for our announcement on who will be our guest faculty and keynote lecturer.
Q: Any reading suggestions for Hispanic Heritage Month?
A: Since we are on the topic of CantoMundo, I’d like to recommend a couple works by their members. I’m really enjoying CantoMundo co-founder Norma E. Cantú’s “Meditación Fronteriza: Poems of Love, Life, and Labor” (University of Arizona Press, 2019) for its breadth of perspective on the borderlands, culture and personal experience. Also, CantoMundista Anthony Cody’s “Borderland Apocrypha” (Omnidawn, 2020) for its inventive approach to poetics of witness following the Mexican American war. It’s been a popular pick among my students.
Beyond CantoMundo, “The Book Eaters” by Carolina Hotchandani is just out from Perugia Press, my first book’s press, that publishes a first or second book by a woman poet. The poems here explore her Latinx/South Asian roots and how to capture one’s life narrative within shifting identities. I love the beautiful delicacy and deeply felt core of her writing.
Lastly, ASU’s Hispanic Research Center, which houses Bilingual Press, has an ongoing book fair every Thursday (Sept. 21, Sept. 28, Oct. 5 and Oct. 12) during Hispanic Heritage Month, so for those on and around Tempe campus, I encourage you to stop by. There’s lots of choices by Hispanic/Latinx writers.
Top photo: Clinical Assistant Professor Jacqueline Balderrama, photographed at the Piper Writers House on the Tempe campus, is the inaugural director of CantoMundo at ASU. Established in 2009, CantoMundo is a literary organization that provides support to Latinx poets and poetry. Recently, ASU and the group announced a three-year collaboration to be hosted on the Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News