Why Are Hispanics so Under Represented in Poetry?

Love is so short, forgetting is so long. Pablo Neruda

Is Poetry Racist?

In 2006, the Poetry Foundation commissioned the first national, in-depth survey of people’s attitudes towards and experience with poetry. A startling finding was that Hispanics don’t read poetry.  I was puzzled as to why that would be with such great poets as Pablo Neruda and Jorge Louis Burges. 

Two of the Hispanic professionals who work at my salon gave me a little insight when I mentioned this finding to them.  They seemed ashamed and apologetic, explaining that Hispanics really don’t get involved in the arts and culture much. Living in Austin, Texas with a vibrant Hispanic culture, alive with Tejano, mariachi, and Spanish art, I knew Hispanics embraced the arts in other ways. 

Language Issue

I don’t think the absence of interest by Hispanics is due to a lack of interest in culture or arts: it is a language issue.  Every time I visit, one of these Hispanic professionals always asks if I brought a poem for her to read.  I offered a poem I wrote that just won a state award about the death of my sister.  After reading halfway through she clutched her chest and said, “I’m going to cry.”  I remained silent knowing that she had just paid me the ultimate compliment-my poem was speaking to her.  She handed it back to me and said, “I want to buy the book this poem goes in.”  She raced to the front of the salon to show it to the officer manager as I checked out, pulling her away from the busy front desk to urge her to read it, explaining how it touched her.

I don’t write to be commercial or to anyone in particular.  I write because I breathe and because words can heal, inspire and entertain.  I don’t expect anyone to invest in my poetry to understand it, anymore than I would expect someone to do that with music I played, visual art that I created, or the screenplay I wrote.  Would you pay $10.00 for a movie you don’t understand, or $25.00  for a book that must be read two or three times to understand it, if then?

Is Shakespeare to Blame?

Many culture bred fanatics like to point to Shakespeare as the ultimate evidence of good writing that we should aspire too.  First, there was only one Shakespeare and much of what is being written in poetry journals today is not even close, failing to connect with the reader on any level.  Shakespeare wrote with many levels of meaning.  Second, they forget that Shakespeare actually wrote works that on their surface could be understood by the uneducated bawdy peasants in the pits below the stages.  He didn’t address all of his work only to the upper class sitting in the balconies.  The brilliance of Shakespeare was that he was understood by the uneducated and the educated.  Shakespeare specifically wrote to his audiences, both of them, not to please only himself.

If English is your second language, grasping standard English is hard enough without trying to understand the nuances of inferred meanings and riddles in contemporary poetry, which fails to find an audience on any level.  Maybe the reason more Hispanics don’t bother with poetry is because poetry doesn’t bother with them.

The assimilation of Hispanics in American culture is not a simple matter.  In talking to my hair stylist and other Hispanics at my salon, I learned that one couldn’t really read Spanish comfortably, so it is not a simple matter of letting her read someone like Pablo Neruda in Spanish.  Yet, poetry that is in English and tries to speak on many levels would read like Greek to her, as it does to me a native English reader.

Do We Care About Peasants and Kings?

So, why is it that Hispanics are not involved more heavily in the poetry world?  Could our elitist view of the “peasants” be part of the problem?  Could our Ivory Tower fixation on nuanced, multi-level poetry be shutting out huge parts of the population?

I hope to continue to reach all people with my writing, because poetry belongs in the hearts and minds of the people, not merely in the dusty rarely read poetry journals coming out of ivory towers that preach diversity without fully considering what it means for art to be diverse.

Viva la poetry in the hands of people who love it so much they cry and insist that others read it too!

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