An Interview with the Founders of CantoMundo

Millicent Borges Accardi | May/Summer 2016

Large shot of group members on a stage.

I was keenly aware of the groundbreaking work of Cave Canem and Kundiman, which affirmed not only poetry, but also identity and the way that one informs the other. That was a source of immense joy—and hope—to me.

The roots of CantoMundo were planted with sister programs Cave Canem (a home for the many voices of African American poetry) and Kundiman (a retreat for Asian American poets): safe places where poets of color inspire, create, and exist within a supportive community.

CantoMundo fellows have included many of today’s brightest and most innovative poets writing in America: Eduardo C. Corral, Cynthia Cruz, Barbara Brinson Curiel, Sheryl Luna, Amalia Ortíz, Luivette Resto, Carolina Ebeid, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Manuel Paul López, Carl Marcum, Michael Dauro, Ruben Quesada, Carmen Giménez Smith, Jose Javier Zamora, Rosebud Ben-Oni, and Erika L. Sanchez, to name a few.

Founded in 2009 by Norma Cantú, Pablo Miguel Martínez, Celeste Guzmán Mendoza, Deborah Paredez, and Carmen Tafolla, CantoMundo provides a space where Latina/o poets can “nurture and enhance their poetics” and “network with peer poets to enrich and further disseminate Latina/o poetry.”

Every summer, twenty fellows gather for a four-day retreat of panels, poetry workshops, lectures, readings, and social events. The first CantoMundo was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2010; subsequent retreats since have been on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Offering “workshops specifically devoted to the craft of poetry, every aspect of the work, including discussions which revolve around aesthetic issues, firmly rooted in social concerns,” CantoMundo creates a welcoming community for its writers. Their mission statement explains that only by “respecting Latina/o poetry’s stylistic and diversity, while maintaining a vibrant, meaningful connection to a community-grounded readership” can the growing community of CantoMundo succeed.

What follows is a conversation with the founders of CantoMundo.

The first Poet Laureate of San Antonio, and current Poet Laureate of Texas, Dr. Carmen Tafolla has written more than twenty books. Recognized by the National Association for Chicana/o Studies for “writing which gives voice to the peoples and cultures of this land,” she has received an Américas Award (Library of Congress, 2010) and two Tomás Rivera Book Awards.

Pablo Miguel Martínez’s collection of poems, Brazos, Carry Me received the 2013 PEN Southwest Book Award, and his work has appeared in Americas Review, Best Gay Poetry 2008, and Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. Winner of an Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation award, he lives in San Antonio, where he works in the not-for-profit sector.

Deborah Paredez is the author of Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (Duke UP) and This Side of Skin: Poems (Wings Press). Paredez is a Professor of creative writing and Ethnic Studies at Columbia University.

Celeste Guzmán Mendoza is a Macondista fellow and Hedgebrook resident. Her first, full-length poetry book, Beneath the Halo, was published in 2012 by Wings Press. Her chapbook, Cande te estoy llamando, won the Poesía Tejana Prize in 1999. A performer and playwright, Mendoza’s plays have been produced in Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

Norma Elia Cantú, a Chicana postmodernist writer and Professor of Latina/o Studies and English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has coedited four anthologies, including Entre Malinche y Guadalupe: Tejanas in Literature and Art, and she is the author of the award winning Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera (University of New Mexico Press).

Millicent Borges Accardi: Can you describe how CantoMundo began?

Pablo Miguel Martínez: I attended the 2006 AWP Conference in Austin. As the conference was winding down, I found myself increasingly frustrated—there was a cognitive dissonance: there, in the midst of all that celebratory euphoria, I became angry.

There we were in the heart of Mexican America, and I had seen/heard so few Chicana/o voices during the myriad panel presentations. I was keenly aware of the groundbreaking work of Cave Canem and Kundiman, which affirmed not only poetry, but also identity and the way that one informs the other. That was a source of immense joy—and hope—to me.

Celeste Guzmán Mendoza: Pablo and I had a drink after the AWP conference and wondered how a Cave Canem or Kundiman for Latina/o poets could be created. We dreamed of a place where Latina/o poets could gather and discuss their poetry and poetics.

Norma Cantú: A few years after the conference, I was having lunch with Pablo. He once again bemoaned the fact that we didn’t have a Cave Canem or Kundiman, and I said, let’s just do it! And we prepared a list of potential poets who would be interested.

Mendoza: Pablo wrote me that he had spoken with Norma Cantú and that she told him that she was interested in convening a group of Latina/o poets to start a retreat for other Latina/o poets. Pablo sent out the introductory email (which I still have in our archives). Some of the poets who were asked to come to that first meeting were Benjamin Alire Saenz, Emmy Perez, and the other founders, among one or two others.

Five of us showed up: me, Deborah Paredez, Carmen Tafolla, Pablo, and Norma Cantú.

In one morning and early afternoon we mapped out the vision, mission, and logistics of the gathering. We also decided on the application procedures and requirements and how these would be administered. We decided on a venue for the first year’s gathering, the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. We then made a list of faculty poets and decided to contact the first two to see if they would do it: Demetria Martinez and Martín Espada. We got so much accomplished in that one day and with so much consensus that we knew that it was meant to be.

Accardi: How did you choose the name?

Deborah Paredez: When we gathered at Norma’s house, Pablo said the word and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Cantú: Pablo was the one who came out with CantoMundo—it has great significance as it is in Spanish and it says it all—Canto—one of the original names we played with was FloriCanto—the old Chicana/o literary gatherings—but it had been used before (comes from the nahuatl word for poetry) and so we kept Canto then the Mundo, well, it is a world, no?

I think it matters that all of us are feminists of color and, as a result, understand how to interrogate power and inhabit pleasure...

Carmen Tafolla: The old Festival Floricanto in the ’70s had such huge significance as it was the first National Chicano Literature Festival to be held—the first in California, and the second in Austin, Texas—and it had drawn together such an enthusiastic overflow of Latino writers from all regions and all experiences, and the name itself “FloriCanto” was symbolic, as the Spanish translation of the Aztec word for poetry (flower and song.) Aware of this history, we knew that our “canto” had not yet been heard by the world, and that it WAS the world (mundo) to which it was relevant.

So when we gathered around the table at our first meeting, and Norma asked us all to think a moment and give our suggestions for names, everyone was scratching at pieces of paper, and crossing out and struggling.

But Pablo had a small smile on his face, and he waited for everyone else to give their suggestions. When he gave his, it resounded like the echo of a drum.

Martínez: I remember getting nervous and frustrated—with myself—the names I had come up with were either overly cutesy or too referential or downright lame.

I was, in other words, eager to hear my comrades’ suggestions. Two days before the meeting, during my morning shower, it came to me, like a flash. (I’ve heard Demetria Martínez tell the story of how the germinating idea for her novel Mother Tongue came to her—not piecemeal, but all in one coherent flood of ideas and words.)

That’s the way it was with me and the name CantoMundo—immediate and urgent. I liked not only the meaning, but the sound of the conflation.

Accardi: How long did it take to create CantoMundo?

Mendoza: From the first meeting, to the first gathering, it was less than a year.

Paredez: It was really, I think, all about timing. Once we decided to do this, no matter what, to take that leap of faith, so many opportunities came our way. It sounds cliché, but the whole, “if you build it, they will come” idea really did surface.

In 2009, I was just beginning my term as Associate Director of the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at UT-Austin. I had no idea how these two events would ultimately be so linked.

One morning, early in the fall of that year, I was in a meeting at CMAS in which we were strategizing how to allocate some funds that had not been allocated in the previous year. I left that meeting and immediately called Celeste and together we came up with a proposal and within twenty-four hours we submitted it to CMAS. And, fortunately, the CantoMundo mission was well-aligned with so many of CMAS’s research, artistic, and outreach ideals. It was a mutually beneficial collaboration.

Cantú: That lunch was in summer of 2009. I have notes but they are packed away somewhere, and I have photos of us sitting around my dining room table.

In addition to the mission, we also wrote up a commitment to the organization and pretty much in our own way committed to work in various aspects of the organization. I have had a lot of experience working with groups so I felt I could contribute; besides, I had been involved in a group that Carmen and Teresa Palomo Acosta had organized over twenty years ago. It failed for a number of reasons, and I was determined that this effort would not fail.

Accardi: What are the key components of each CantoMundo summer retreat?

Tafolla: We always start with a communal circle, a bonding of purpose and direction, a clarification of respect and autonomy, a commitment to creativity and community, to culture and innovation.

Mendoza: The workshops themselves, these three-hour sessions during which we as Latina/o poets can cocreate together, a discussion about Latina/o poetics, and of course the public readings!

But I feel the camaraderie is really the KEY element of CantoMundo, the community that we build with one another is the most important part of the gathering.

Paredez: Another key component is the guest lecture delivered by an important writer/literary activist from outside the Latina/o community who has inspired or models for us a way of being in the poetry world.

This year’s keynote speaker is Natasha Trethewey.

Cantú: Equally important are the talks: the opening keynote, especially. We have had Toi Derricotte, Vikas Menon, and Ethelbert Miller. The faculty are also critical—we choose them carefully and we have been blessed with each and every faculty member who has come to share with us; the readings are also critical—we have modified the structure and made it better, but we still have not been packing them with outsiders—noncantomundistas… and finally the most important element: the poets who apply and are selected to attend. Without them CantoMundo would not exist.

Accardi: How did or has participating in CantoMundo inspired and/or informed your own work?

Mendoza: I’ve applied for residencies that I would not have done in the past. I also have seen my work in a much larger context of Latina/o poetics than before. Plus, I feel I have a group of people I can turn to with questions about poetry and that there is a network of support for readings that I would like to give outside of my local community.

Paredez: Yes, I feel the same way as Celeste. I have forged relationships with other Latina/o poets with whom I’ve shared work, ideas, and resources that have helped me get my work out into the world.

Cantú: I too need some time to think about poetry in a sustained fashion. The workshops I have attended (as founders we take turns) have been very good and have jump-started my own poetry projects. My current project, Elemental Odes, came out of one of the poems I wrote while at CantoMundo.

Tafolla: For me, I feel that the deeper bond with national events and organizations has broadened opportunities and strengthened relationships with other Latino and non-Latino writers and writing projects. It has drawn us out of our regional mindsets, and given wing to a more global perspective. It has become more “MUND-ial.”

Accardi: How do writers from so-called marginalized groups find their own space and establish a sense of belonging?

Cantú: Not easily! At least for me, it has been a long and difficult road and even now, there are times when it feels pretty lonely. Writing itself is a lonely endeavor, so when you add to that the ostracism or the marginalization that being a person of color in the US brings, well, it just intensifies the feelings of not belonging. But, I have also always had good friends who are writers who offered support and in a way allowed me to create my own space. I guess “home is where the heart is”—the old platitude—applies, but I would say, “My home is where my poetry is.”

Mendoza: In my opinion, I think it is key to establish a space where we feel safe to be who we are without any reprisals to us or our work. For this reason we created the guidelines for people to follow once they are at a CantoMundo. In fact, the structure of an opening and closing circle also support this idea.

Accardi: What hopes for the future?

Cantú: I have great hopes for the future of CantoMundo. First, I want to be at the celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary! I hope to continue supporting young poets and celebrating the more experienced ones and offering everyone that sincere, kind, loving space you mentioned. There are two or three other things: an important poetry prize, publications, and expanding the reach so we can also work with budding poets in high school and college. Establishing such a strong national network of Latina/o poets that we will help each other and promote Latina/o poets and poetry will insure that our poetry will continue.

I feel that the deeper bond with national events and organizations has broadened opportunities... It has drawn us out of our regional mindsets, and given wing to a more global perspective.

Mendoza: I hope that eventually we will be able to provide full housing and lodging for fellows, but that is a logistical hope. Overall I hope that by creating this community we bring more attention, critical and general readers, to all of the fellows’ work and to Latina/o poetry. So many critics and readers don’t know we or our books exist, so we think it is important to get us on the map and connected.

Accardi: How important has it been to build a team of strong incredible women?

Paredez: I think it matters that all of us are feminists of color and, as a result, understand: 1) how to interrogate power and inhabit pleasure; 2) the promises and frustrations of collective work; and 3) the importance of creating spaces where all who are gathered can be seen and supported and challenged to be brave and to grow.

Mendoza: It was never our intention to build a team of women but a team of Latina/o poets who share the same vision and mission, as well as a collaborative spirit.

Cantú: We never intended it to be that… we invited males as well as females to join us. Pablo was one of the key members right from the beginning.

Tafolla: It’s more about the style of interaction and the commitment to get it done than it is about gender. I feel fortunate to be working with all of the individuals who have been part of the organizing committee.

We are not concerned about the personal race-gender-age data, but we are concerned that each member of the organizing committee has a collaborative style that respects the voices of the comunidad we represent, and knows not to charge through like a bull. Sensitivity to others is a mandate.

Accardi: Can you expand on the long term vision and mission of CantoMundo? Where do you see CM in five or ten years? What will be added? Taken away as CantoMundo evolves? What would you like to see happen?

Cantú: As a founder, I can say that I hope CM will continue to grow and have a presence as it serves the needs of Latina/o poets.

I can’t imagine that anything will be taken away, but that is for the new committee members to decide. I would love to see CM be as well-known as Cave Canem; for its fellows to go on to achieve great things—as many have; and for us to have a larger role in all things that involve Latna/o poetry.

Mendoza: I don’t see CantoMundo’s vision or mission changing in the next five years. Deborah and I will remain codirectors, though there will likely be changes in leadership—as any healthy organization should have.

There will be other CantoMundistas in these leadership roles seven and ten years from now, so there may be some adjustments, additions, but of course, I can’t predict what those may be. For the next three to four years though, I don’t foresee any changes to the core four-day retreat, other than we may decide to add a day to the experience, as many CantoMundistas have suggested it.

We added a publication prize this year (in partnership with the University of Arkansas Press, awarded to a book of poetry by a contemporary US-based Latina/o poet), which is very exciting for us! And we continue to encourage CantoMundistas to organize readings in their regions and to share resources across the community, such as knowledge of prizes, writing residencies, publishing opportunities, etc. I would love to see us partner with more Latina/o literary entities in the coming years, to leverage our different resources and experiences to for the benefit of our Latina/o community, literary and nonliterary.

There is only so much we can do as volunteers, both Deborah and I and the other current members of the organizing committee, Barbara Brinson Curiel and Leticia Hernandez Linares, as well as our colleagues Lauren Espinoza and Lynn Cowles who help us implement the retreat. So, I do hope that we will acquire funding for at least one full-time position.

Accardi: What are some of the basic logistics of CantoMundo?

Cantú: The logistics are ever changing, and I suspect with the move to NYC it will change again! We have not had any new components, but I would encourage the group to add a preworkshop day of activities that would bring back graduates to engage in other workshops (translation? publishing? editing?) so that they remain connected.

Mendoza: It is currently comprised of a four-day writing retreat for twenty-four to thirty fellows, and a publication prize. An organizing committee: Deborah, Barbara Brinson Curiel, and Leticia Hernandez Linares review applications and work together with Lynn Cowles and Lauren Espinoza, as well as staff from the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT Austin to plan and execute the retreat.

The cofounders of CantoMundo, each of us pledged a certain number of years of service before rotating off to invite other CantoMundistas to take leadership roles in the envisioning, organizing, and planning of CantoMundo’s retreat and future.

We chose this structure for CantoMundo so that it would remain a pluralistic space where diversity of aesthetic and vision can flourish.

Accardi: How do you select new committee members?

Mendoza: CantoMundo is not a 501(c)3, so we do not have a board. We have worked in partnership with UT Austin and instead are led by two codirectors, me and Deborah; in addition to leading CantoMundo, we participate on the organizing committee, which reviews applications and assists in the planning and implementation of the four-day retreat.

The duties of the Committee may be expanded in the coming years to outreach activities, fundraising, and other efforts to explore how we can expand some of our programming to further our mission; we are taking slow, strategic steps in this direction since CantoMundo is led by volunteers and so we want to take on what we know we can fulfill with our current staffing.

To recruit a committee member, Deborah and I send out a call to those CantoMundistas who have “graduated,” those who have completed their three-years of participation. Applications are then reviewed by the organizing committee and are selected based on criteria in the call.

Cantú: From the very beginning we signed up for a commitment. Because I have been a part of other groups, and I know the wisdom of not having a group rely on any one individual for too long, I signed up for five years.

At the conclusion of that commitment I chose to resign. We opened it up for self-nominations/applications for the organizing committee. That is how Barbara and Leticia were selected to join the organizing committee. We do not operate as a board but as a consensus with the “training” happening on the job as it were.

Accardi: What funding or support has been provided?

Cantú: Mostly the support has come from UT Austin’s CMAS (Center for Mexican American Studies) and from the English Dept., individual donations (from Teresa Palomo Acosta, for instance) and from everyone volunteering their time—the helpers like Lauren…

Mendoza: CantoMundo has also received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which covered housing costs for all fellows at CantoMundo 2015, and some very generous individual donors.

Accardi: CantoMundo has been based in Austin for the past few years and will be relocating to Columbia University in 2017. What will be different? What are the potential benefits of being based in New York City? What do you hope to achieve there?

Paredez: Columbia University has invited CantoMundo to be part of its academic community. Currently, we are still residing at UT Austin, but Columbia University has asked that CantoMundo plan its 2017 retreat in NYC, with subsequent retreats, which may be planned in any city in the US.

We have always envisioned hosting CantoMundo in various cities across the country and so we are excited about the possibility this aspect of our partnership with Columbia University can bring to the overall vision of CantoMundo.

We are repairing that within us that has been broken by every message we ever got that our voices or verses or subjects or styles were not legitimate expressions of poetry.

Accardi: How has CantoMundo played a role in other Latina/o groups? What literary partnerships have been formed?

Mendoza: We have partnered with Con Tinta, Letras Latinas, Cave Canem, Kundiman, Poetry, Poet Lore, Dodge Poetry Festival, The Ashbery Home School, Poetry Society of America, Split this Rock, Lambda Literary, and others.

Cantú: Yes, we have from the start made an effort to link with other groups—Cave Canem, Kundiman, AWP, Con Tinta.

Accardi: What teachers/keynote speakers have you had?

Cantú: Faculty: Demetria Martinez, Martin Espada, Naomi Ayala, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aracelis Girmay, Roberto Tejada, Willie Perdomo, Valerie Martinez, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Rafael Campo, and Sandra María Esteves.

Keynote Lecturers: Toi Derricotte, Vikas Menon, E. Ethelbert Miller, Nathalie Handal, Sherwin Bitsui, Tim’m West

Accardi: What do you look for in an artist teacher?

Cantú: At the outset we drew up a list and dreamed big. We have been fortunate to secure excellent workshop faculty who have been diverse and different in their teaching and in their work. I always look for someone who will teach outside the box and who will push participants out of their comfort zone and that will force everyone to exercise poetic muscles they may not even know they have.

Accardi: At CantoMundo 2012, Ethelbert Miller said, “When you rise each morning vow to fix something that is broken. The repair begins with your heart.” What are you repairing?

Paredez: We are repairing that within us that has been broken by every message we ever got that our voices or verses or subjects or styles were not legitimate expressions of poetry. We are repairing the divides amongst us caused by the competitive and colonizing forces that say it’s a zero-sum game and so there is only room for one or two of us “exceptional” ones. Repairing that leaky faucet within us that drips with the notion that your success is my failure.

Mendoza: CantoMundo helps to heal the wound that so many of us experienced in any poetry gathering where we or our work was not validated or made to feel “different” solely based on our ethnicity as well as the content and language we choose to utilize in our work.

Cantú: The soul. Poetry helps restore our humanity. I am repairing what is broken in the Midwest—that is why I moved. To start a Latina/o Studies program at University of Missouri, Kansas City. My poetry heals and repairs the pain of exclusion.

Accardi: What’s the best piece of advice you received?

Paredez: From Grace Paley in a workshop at the Joiner Center: (If you want to be a writer…) “Keep a low overhead.”

Mendoza: Out of the fire rises the phoenix.

Tafolla: Best advice ever. The quote from Antonio Machado, “Caminante, no hay Camino. Se hace el Camino al andar.” (Traveler, there is no road. You make the road by walking it.)         

Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of four poetry books, including Only More So, her most recent from Salmon Poetry. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts , CantoMundo, Fulbright, the California Arts Council, and Barbara Deming “Money for Women.” She organizes “Kale Soup for the Soul,” a Portuguese-American literary series. Follow her @TopangaHippie.



E. Ethelbert Millerfrom The Making Of A Literary Activist And What That Means Today

Many writers are quick to reject labels. How often have I heard someone mention they were not a black writer but just a writer. I recall a few poets not wanting to be defined as political. But before concepts and ideas like “branding” became popular, I was aware of the need to define myself.

I’ve always celebrated being a black or African American writer. This is probably because my roots as a writer are rooted to what is defined as the Black Arts Movement. This movement, which coincided with the late ’60s and early ’70s is often viewed as significant as the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro Movement of the 1920s. I think my idea of activism and its association with literature was influenced by these events.

I was introduced to this type of thinking in 1968. That was the year our nation witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy. Nineteen sixty-eight would find Nikki Giovanni writing the following:

What can I, a poor Black woman, do to destroy America? This is a question, with appropriate variations, being asked In every Black heart. There is one answer – I can kill. There Is one compromise – I can protect those who kill. There is One cop-put – I can encourage others to kill. There are No other ways.

In 1968, I was a freshman on the campus of Howard University. The violence that tore apart many urban areas after King’s death, actually started back in 1964 with the Harlem Riots, followed by Watts in 1965. Along with a changing black consciousness there was also the talk of revolution. A defining aspect of the art produced during the Black Arts Movement was that it was viewed as being revolutionary. The models of revolution that it embraced came from China, Algeria and Cuba.

A young LeRoi Jones would move away from the Beat Movement after visiting Cuba in the early ’60s. How LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka had a lot to do with how Eugene Miller became E. Ethelbert Miller. My memoir—Fathering Words captures how I became a poet, and it also underscores the importance of love in our lives.

If we are to be activists of any kind, we should be motivated by what begins in the center of our hearts.

I think it was in the 1990s that I started using the term literary activist. This was when I sat on the boards of the PEN/American Center, AWP Board, PEN/Faulkner Foundation, D.C. Arts Commission, The Humanities Council of Washington and several other organizations. I was also reading grant applications for NEA, doing reviews and commentary for NPR. In short I was active and doing what I considered to be “service to the field.”

What did I want to do? What was my agenda?

  • I wanted to help writers who had been marginalized by literary politics
  • I wanted to change the literary landscape (curriculum, media)
  • I wanted to build literary institutions (refer back to nation building/1960s)
  • I wanted to protect literary history as well as make it.
  • I wanted to construct cultural bridges between communities; change the narrative.

I first defined the term literary activist around what I call the 3 Ps: Publishing, Promotion, and Preservation. I think if more of us become literary activists, we will discover there is an unfinished agenda. The great jazz musician Charlie Parker once said—“I can hear the new music, I just can’t play it yet.”

Excerpt from CantoMundo Keynote, Austin, TX, July 12–15, 2012 by E. Ethelbert Miller.
Reprinted with permission.

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