My relationship with poetry has always been tenuous at best. There are a few authors whose works I will read no questions asked. Sherman Alexie or Sandra Cisneros? I’ll read their poetry, and I’ll like it. David Rakoff’s novel in verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish., was another poetry-filled book I enjoyed. There are other books of poetry and several stand alone poems I’ve come across over the years that I’ve been very fond of, but I’ll be the first to admit that poetry isn’t something I actively seek out. Like, ever. I’m more of a prose girl.
So it’s probably a weird moment to mention that one of my best friends growing up was announced as McAllen, TX’s newest poet laureate (this is her latest book). And last month, she asked me to moderate a poetry panel at the McAllen Book Festival, which is how I was introduced to Amalia Ortiz, who breezed into the room wearing Star Wars leggings, a leather jacket, and a hairstyle that I wish I could pull off, but alas…I am not that cool. When the panel was over, I immediately went and bought a copy of Rant. Chant. Chisme.
Ortiz is a Rio Grande Valley native who appeared multiple times on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. The first section of the book is all about the Valley, so that was an immediate connection for me. The second poem in the book, “these hands that have never picked cotton” resonated deeply; it reflects on the sacrifices of previous generations. It begins:
my father unexpectedly pulled the car to the side of the interstate
and ordered his four children out into the cotton field
confused, we set down our video games
and flipped off the headphones
he said, you’ve never picked cotton
you have no idea what it’s like
it looks so soft, but it has thorns
which cut at the fingers even through gloves
we mortified teens reached down
with sideways glances embarrassed by the passing cars
plucked tiny clouds while rolling eyes
swallow a handful of humble
but the real lesson would not be digested until years later
I actually had that exact conversation and experience as a teenager with my own parents, and like Ortiz, my own “third generation hands” have never picked cotton.
She writes about Tex-Mex life, immigration, resilience, and cultural identity in similar fashion; several of her poems call to mind the long tradition of Chicana feminist poets sounding off on sexism and machismo in Mexican culture. I’ll leave you with one of a performance of one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Cat Calls:”
Rant. Chant. Chisme was published in September 2015 by Wings Press.