Named by Mayor Julián Castro as San Antonio's first poet laureate, Carmen Tafolla is truly one San Antonio's greats. As one of the most anthologized Latina writers and author of more than 15 books of poetry and fiction (not to mention her screenplays), she is often referred to as one of the madrinas of Chicana lit. She spoke to the Current last week about her new position and about how poetry can elevate our city, where only three out of every four residents are considered functionally literate.
As poet laureate, how do you hope to improve the literacy rate in SA?
I have a great deal of respect for the literary and poetic talent in this city, as well as for the popular culture, which has thrived here for longer than people usually think about — for thousands of years. I think that as poet laureate I can help make connections between the different elements of our community so that our schoolchildren, our young families, adolescents, preschoolers, all have meaningful connections with the poets and producers of literature and actually join in as co-creators of that literature. Literacy and literature are connected, and sometimes people forget that. They try and make literature a very high and elitist experience and they see literacy as a very low level of entry into the world of literature. And actually they're two sides of the same coin; our literacy goes up as we become involved in the world of literature. If people don't see their own experiences reflected in the world of books, they see literature as an alien thing.
As a bilingual author and poet, do you have any plans for incorporating the two dominant tongues of San Antonio?
Both the Spanish and English — and others — are vibrant elements in the life of the city. I can guarantee that most of the projects I undertake as poet laureate will involve more than one language in coming to fruition. And if we want to reach all parts of this great pueblo we need to be willing to weave together the many poetic tongues in this tapestry we call San Antonio.
Can you describe any common misconceptions about poetry you've experienced?
You know a lot of people have been told that poetry is some disconnected form of weird speech spoken by little old ladies and crazy beatniks who pull together sickeningly sweet images of butterflies and flowers to recite at formal events. Things like, "Oh for the purple butterfly of my loneliness," you know? When in reality the very best poetry is that which honestly speaks the feelings and the most meaningful experiences in a person's life. And it puts it in a way that reaches us and expresses what we really feel. And that's why poetry becomes so important to the intellectual life of a city, or of a people, because it's expressing what is most important to them in life.
How do you see the current condition of literature in this city?