A Note from Interim President Michael A. Olivas: 'spanglish'
When given the opportunity to highlight a favorite poem in contribution to our own Professor of English, Robin Davidson's Favorite Poem Project, I immediately thought of classical influences and favorites over the years, some of which are touchstones when I need to escape real life and go to places that only exist in the poet's mind and my eye. Here, I think of Pablo Neruda, John Updike, T.S. Eliot, Milton, Shakespeare sonnets, Thomas Gray, and almost any page of Joyce in Ulysses. These are all influences on me over the years, and places of escape and wonderment when I cannot sleep at two in the morning and need to submit to familiar pathways to slow down my own internal clock and racing mind. Honestly, I despair some nights over how hard it is to turn off my day life and to find elusive and restorative sleep.
But I offer Jesús Abraham "Tato" Laviera's wonderful "spanglish" because of its Joycean playful nature, and because I knew and loved Tato during his short life on this earth. Indeed, he was the first person I ever knew who made a living as a poet, sort of, and because he was into slam poetry and hip-hop literary rhymes even before his direct poetic descendant, Lin Manuel Miranda, whose "Hamilton" must have been animated by Tato's work. I have read and seen much of Miranda's influences, including the improbable connections to Lerner and Lowe's "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot," but I have never heard him speak of this possible, orthogonal ancestral line. But read Tato's bravura "spanglish," and then connect the rhythmic dots to, "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence Impoverished, in squalor, Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?" Both are meant to be slammed and exclaimed and savored. Both show nuanced and rich wordplay. These two poets are literate, articulate, musical, serious observers and mining deep veins of outsiderdom in the service of understanding. Their lives intersected in time, and by the time Tato died, Lin-Manuel's In the Heights had already begun to garner him the fame he enjoys today. But I do not know enough biography to know if they knew each other in Nuyorican poetic circles. If they did, that would have been the best pub crawl since Leopold Bloom's wanderings through Dublin.
I cannot help but think Tato, among the most playful and fascinating friends I have ever known, would have loved to have seen his Puerto Rican heir Lin Manuel's extraordinary success. I remember a pub-crawl with Tato in Manhattan one night, and because I do not drink, I was the designated companion. His eyesight had begun to fail, but in that one night, we roamed across many seedy bars and poetic fields, both of us dredging up as much poetry and prose as we could remember. I most recall his prodigious powers to drink and to recite poetry—always jabbing at me, and cackling at his own sense of humor. He floored me with spontaneous pages of "Short Eyes," by Miguel Piñero (whom he called Mikey). Gawd, it was not until this assignment that I realized how much I miss him.
And so I share with you Tato's "spanglish" and ask that you too submit one of your favorite poems to this anthology before the July 1 deadline. Professor Davidson, we are very proud of you and your service as the Houston Poet Laureate. Thanks for this invitation.
Tato Laviera, "spanglish," from Benedición: The Complete Poetry of Tato Laviera, © 2014, Tato Laviera (Arte Público Press, 2014)
pues estoy creando spanglish
two dominant languages
en colloquial combate
en las aceras del soil
imperio spanglish emerges
sobre territorio bi-lingual
las novelas mexicanas
mixing with radiorocknroll
condimented cocina lore
baraja chismeteos social club
hip-hop prieto street salsacorner
spanish pop farándula
standard english classroom
with computer technicalities
spanglish is literally perfect
spanglish is ethnically snobbish
spanglish is cara-holy inteligencia
which u.s. slang do you speak?