“Akrílica” by Juan Felipe Herrera and the step yet of Latinidad

IN HIS INTRODUCTION to the collection of poetry by Juan Felipe Herrera, Akrílica (2022), Farid Matuk describes the collection, first published in 1989, as an act of “recovery” rather than “recovery”. “We want Akrílica away from literary institutions, away from the discipline of literature, and away from the traditions of experimental poetics that should hope to claim it,” Farid continues. “Akrílica belongs elsewhere; it belongs in the hands of those who find themselves in a gathering that has not yet taken place. Yet Matuk apparently introduces a paradox in the paragraph that follows these lines by observing that “Herrera’s work as a whole has been excluded from the genealogies of experimental or avant-garde American poetry”. This suggests that the collective that came together to repost Akrílica (Carmen Giménez Smith, J. Michael Martinez, Rosa Alcalá, Suzi F. García, hanta t. samsa and Anthony Cody, as well as Matuk), have had to deal with how their “own writing practices have suffered in passing by websites […] without having met Akrílica or a book like this on the reading lists that have been given to [them].” Thus, it would seem that part of the publishing project Akrílica is not stealing anything, but an act of installation: in the institution, the discipline of literature and the traditions of experimental poetics.

Rather than reading Matuk’s statements as antithetical to each other, I focus on how he points to “a gathering that has yet to take place” and suggests that this means both in the past – a meeting with Akrílica it never happened and the Latinx poets who suffered from it – and a future created by Akrílica. That said, entering the institution, the discipline and the traditions of experimental poetics does not mean that Akrílica is institutionalized, disciplined or traditionalized. Instead, by pointing to a future gathering, Matuk also suggests a future in which Akrílica circulates not only on playlists, but also “in the hands of those who are found”. The aesthetic of such a community exchange informs the collection, which includes black and white photos and abstract art, giving the collection a zine-like feel while making it easy to photocopy, staple, and circulate.

Each section of the collection features the type of gathering to which Matuk refers. For example, in the “Gallery” section, J. Michael Martinez creates what he calls “infected text”. Responding to how “Covid-19 continues to disproportionately impact Latinx and other communities of color,” Martinez translated the poems in this section “by distributing DNA codons to represent each word in each poem ; afterwards, each poem had its own unique dictionary of 64 DNA codons, each codon representing a (set of) potential word(s). Codons – which, according to a Google search, are “a sequence of three nucleotides that together form a unit of genetic code in a DNA or RNA molecule” – thus speak to how Martinez’s translation of the poetry de Herrera creates a genetic code for the future. Latin poetry. Additionally, in the context of COVID-19, Martinez’s project sheds light on how writing this genetic code is another way to establish Latinx survival in the face of mass Latinx death due to the pandemic, but also to recent events such as the Uvalde mass shooting.

As Martinez’s genetic code makes clear, the collective translated Herrera’s poetry not from Spanish into English or vice versa (although the 1989 and 2022 editions contain the original Spanish text along with its translation in English), but riff on the poems in English based on “an impression of the work, an approach that speaks to the way translators see Akrílica.” While such translations can be seen in the grayed-out poems by Martinez that appear alongside Herrera’s work, they can also be seen through the typographical experimentation employed by Anthony Cody in the “América” ​​section. For example, in “Exile Boulevard”, Cody takes the word “float” and floats it in a clockwise semi-circular pattern, flipping over before ending in “fall”, thus emphasizing how the typography mimics the content of the poem.

Another layer of translation exists in the language of the poems themselves. For example, there is a constant effort throughout the poems to make their female characters more agentic. In “Eclipse / Watercolor 41 x 80 / San Francisco”, where the 1989 poem reads: “which woman is lifted up / out of the graves?” the 2022 version reads, “which woman tears herself from the graves?” Similarly, such changes occur in relation to feminized work: in “Concerning the Anti-Theater of Quentino’s Diary” (the 2022 version replaces “concernant” with “about”), “secretaries” is replaced with “assistants”; in “Poetic Report on Maids: Toward a Model for Urban Hispaniks in the USA”, the title becomes “Poetic Report on Domestic Works: Towards a Model of Being Urban Hispanik in the US” with all former mentions of “maids” in the poem later changed to “domestic workers”.

These translations also extend to how the text addresses race. “Arab grocery store” becomes “Arab grocery store” in a poem; all references to slavery are changed to captive (e.g. “enslaved salt” in Quentino becomes “captive salt”); “plantation” becomes an “estate” in “Minerals in Our Legacy”. I’m torn about some of these changes – while making the female figures more agentic and not calling a person “Arab” makes sense to me, changing plantation to estate erases a whole part of the story. The full line of the 1989 version reads: “biting the corpse plantation of centuries”, which becomes “biting the domain of the ancient corpse”. Given the 1989 poem’s dedication to Isabel Alegría and El Salvador, I can only assume that the plantation referenced in the poem is a coffee plantation. Notably, the 2022 version of the poem dispenses with the dedication, which makes me wonder if the move from “plantation” to “estate” then meant a further erasure of Salvadoran history. The 2022 version also changes the title to ‘Minerals in the Legs’, suggesting an even greater shift from the common ‘our’ to the clinically specific item ‘the’.

This brings me to my main critique of the 2022 edition, which I offer as an invitation to continue this conversation. Focusing on issues plaguing Latinidad, such as anti-Blackness, which Matuk discusses in his introduction, the translators subsequently erase what the 1989 version of Akrílica has done so well, which has been to express solidarity with the struggles in Central America, especially in Nicaragua and El Salvador. As Ana Patricia Rodriguez has shown us, the solidarity fictions of Chicana writers have tended to privilege the experience of the Chicana protagonists; however, in his poetry, Herrera creates an experimental poetics of solidarity that foregrounds the history of Central America over the experiences of Chicanx. Also, while the list of translators indicates the sections they translated (e.g., “Galería/Gallery and Terciopelo/Velvet”), none of the translators actually worked with the original Spanish version of Akrílica. The beautiful genetic code of J. Michael Martinez does not exist in the “Galería” section; Anthony Cody’s typography does not adorn or amplify the “America” heading.

More tellingly, women continue not to be agents in the Spanish version, such as the phrase “¿cuál mujer se arranca de las tubas?” ” remains the same. Salt is always enslaved; the secretaries remain secretaries. But the plantation? It remains “the finca” in Spanish. A finca can never be an estate; it recalls the native labor exploited at the hands of the ladinos. The only English word that comes closest to this meaning is – you guessed it – planting. Thus, by changing “plantation” to “domain” in the 2022 version of the poem, the translators operate a double erasure: of the indigenous populations on the finca and of the history of slavery on the plantation in the United States. Where the reference to the plantation might have brought together native and black Latinx, the translator’s use of the term “estate” obliterates that possibility and, in doing so, participates in the anti-Blackness they hoped to avoid. Moreover, the dedication in the Spanish version of the poem remains intact, suggesting that this act of solidarity can only exist alongside the finca and the plantation, not the estate.

What Akrílica does well is to stage a calculation in terms of latinidad and aesthetics. Through Akrílica, some of the finest poets of our contemporary age riff and play upon Herrera’s work, reclaiming an experimental poetic legacy that would otherwise be lost. Thus, the collective points to our poetic heritage as well as the poetic futures made possible by the resurrection. Akrílica. Fascinatingly, Juan Felipe Herrera says, in the interview preceding the collection, that Akrílica “It’s not the kind of book that would come out today.” And yet, it is a book that comes out today, albeit in a reprinted form. And, as a book coming out today, it sheds light on where we are with contemporary Latinx poetics, particularly with regard to how Latinx poetics copes with the political circumstances of our moment and the criticisms of the investment of latinidad in the whiteness that were lifted by the poets. like Alan Pelaez Lopez.

In my own work I focus on a latinidad that is not yet here, and in Matuk’s introduction I find him calling for this future latinidad and calling on Herrera to help us achieve this liberating future. However, by privileging the Latin experiences delimited by the English language and not also experimenting with the poems in Spanish, the translators missed the opportunity to install the kind of hemispheric latinidad that Herrera points through his solidarity with the countries of America central as El Salvador in the 1989 edition. That said, the 2022 edition of Akrílica is a remarkable achievement that illuminates the work we have to do to build “a gathering that has not yet happened”. In other words, rather than nullifying latinidad, which wouldn’t require the kind of calculation that the 1989 and 2002 versions of Akrílica encourage, we should think about how our decisions about Latinx poetics reflect our investment in Latinx politics. By doing so, we can see not only how far we have come, but also the work that remains to be done. Although I am drawn to Matuk’s distinction between recuperation and recuperation, we must remember that the two words are synonymous with each other, a kind of oblique rhyme that encodes recuperation work in recuperation and vice versa . By recovering the poems in the Spanish language, I think we can recover a latinidad that is not yet there in a gathering that has not yet taken place.


Renee Hudson is an assistant professor of English at Chapman University, where she specializes in Latin and multi-ethnic American literature.

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