A Poetry Sancocho

By: Gabriela García Sánchez

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(Creative Commons/ Flickr)

Sancocho is a stew from Puerto Rico—there are variations of this stew throughout the Caribbean—that dates back to when the Spaniards originally brought African slaves to the island. Since that time, it has been passed down from generation to generation before landing on my table. The integrity of this recipe has been kept intact over all of these years partially because of its simplicity, the ingredients are left to boil in a huge pot and become a hearty stew by the end of the day.  It’s a popular dish in my household as it is apt to bring everyone to the table commanding them to eat. I believe that the beauty of sancocho is that it can be found in many variations across the Caribbean as well as the world. Poetry can have a similar effect.  Like sancocho, poetry has the ability to warm my conscience, lift me up, and fill the spaces within me with its hearty words.

Now, here are some lines that are still simmering away in my mind like a delicious stew:

  1. “If you are grow up the type of woman”

In The Type, Sarah Kay elegantly challenges being a specific type of woman. Her delivery of this poem reminds me of the ocean: the sound is soothing but the waves can pound on your body with a harsh integrity. In this poem, Kay brings me back to being assigned a certain role as an adolescent, people using my physical cues to label me like a plant. Her poem also reminds me of the ways that I have previously defined myself as a certain type of woman who will take care of a certain type of man. This poem acknowledges the power of discovering what is right and wrong for you on your own.

  1. “The birth of revolutions is simple like the wings of butterflies”

To Pimp a Mariposa is an exciting poem for me. First, it is a duet between Julian Randall and Noel Quiñones. Second, it illustrates how poetry is a useful tool to immortalize both history and the people in the creation of it. Being a history junkie myself, I would encourage you to do some research on Dominican history in order to get a better understanding of the significance of the Maribal Sisters. Historical moments do not only need to be remembered, but also engaged with by the present generation so that they can be learned from. In addition, this poem will be enjoyable for anyone who gets the references to songs like Alright from Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly.

  1. “I speak the alien tongue in sweet borinqueño thoughts”

Sandra Maria Esteves’s poem Here situates you in both the speaker’s perspective and setting. Esteves blended Spanish with English, using the manipulation of her diction and the insertion of various slang words in order to draw on specific references about Puerto Rico. The inclusion of both cultural sides of the speaker makes the mixing of cultures more intimate and vivid. This combining of languages is a common occurrence among Puerto Ricans who were raised in the mainland U.S. Language is not mutually exclusive for the speaker (as well as myself), our identities include both.

  1. “My mother tells me to fix my hair”

This poem is so rich for me. Although my mother loves the outrageous way that I wear my hair, my father does not feel the same way. Now, let me start off with saying that I love my father, even though he never fails to notice when I leave my hair to dry in a thick halo. He is prone to remarking, “What’s up with your hair?” or “Are you going to do it?”  From his perspective, I am challenging him with my new hair styles, cuts, and colors. When I do my hair, it’s almost like a mediation for me on how I can manipulate my body into new forms. As a child with tight curls, many people would come up to my mother and me, praising my hair and asking to touch it. However, when I was five years old I wanted to have silky, bone straight hair that my mother would not have to tediously detangle. Today, I have grown to love my hair for it’s natural texture. Poems like Elizabeth Acevedo’s Hair speak to the spiritual connection that I have fostered with my hair.

  1. “She speaks a sancocho of Spanish and English pushing up and against one another”

My number eight choice goes out to my mama (Hi, Mamí). My mother moved to the U.S.  from Puerto Rico about 24 years ago and even though she’s fluent in English, she still has trigger words that flare up her accent. Sometimes, my best friend and I purposely get her to use words that we know she’ll mispronounce just to hear the awkward remixes that she will create. Denice Frohman’s poem Accents is narrated in such a way that embodies the personality of my mother and her unique existence between English and Spanish.

  1. “My Spanish is left in the corner of the classroom, chews on a pencil, does not raise its hand…”

This line from My Spanish by Melissa Lozada- Oliva is the spitting image of me as a child in school. In this poem, Lozada-Oliva dives in to what “my Spanish” means to her by demonstrating the way in which her identity interacts with her environment. This line tickles my memories about the way in which I was often embarrassed my lack of a Puerto Rican accent. It is as if I needed to prove my Spanish-ness to those around me because I could not naturally integrate it into the way that I spoke. As a child I would often say, “I understand more than I can say.” At this point in my life, English is not enough for me. I need to express myself in both languages in order to describe my perspective to others.

  1. “I am nasty like the battles women fought to get me into that voting booth”

Many have heard Ashley Judd recite the poem, Nasty Woman, by Nina Mariah at the Women’s March in D.C. This line is from that poem, reminding me of how important my civil duty of voting is to my experience as a woman. Being an active voter is my way of honoring the women who have come before, those who fought so that I have the choices that I enjoy today. This poem also reminds me of the fact that my ability to vote is only a little older than my great grandmother, who is 93 (women’s suffrage is only 97 years old).

  1. “I’m the pimp who built this shit”

Porsha Olayiwola’s poem, Capitalism, depicts the power of personification and extended metaphors by giving a voice to America’s economic system. Her delivery of this poem commands attention in the same way that the financial state of this country rules over the lives of its citizens. This poet’s ability to bring capitalism to life while simultaneously villainising it is both entertaining and thought provoking.

  1. “Wepa for the word that taught my people to celebrate”

Perfection by Noel Quiñones captures the spirit of the people of Puerto Rico. This identity is powered by our pride in our lineage, which is a combination of Tainos, Spaniards and African Slave. In an odd way, we are like satos, mutts or, better yet, a designer breed of people. Quiñones reminds me of the pride that I feel for Puerto Rican history, the reason why we wave our flags, and the community that unites our understanding of ourselves into a cohesive group.

  1. “Go como la negra tiene tumbao, azuuuuuucar”

Elizabeth Acevedo’s poetry has worked its way into my heart, and Afro-Latina is one of the stand-outs that first caught my attention. Her soft yet strong delivery of her piece is empowering. I love to read and hear poetry that intertwines languages with art forms and narratives. Acevedo tugged on my heart string by stirring butterflies in my consciousness. Acevedo directly engages her audience with lyrics from famous Latinx icons like Celia Cruz which reinforces positive images of successful Latinos. She also faces heavy issues like sexism and race head on through her lines. Her ability to embrace her identity as an Afro-Latina, and all of the parts that make up that understanding of the self, is empowering.

Reading and listening to poems revitalizes me like my mamá’s sancocho, except the sustenance it gives me builds and coddles my mind. These poets have managed to imprint their words into my thoughts by using different styles, dictions, performances, and experiences. Hearing their recitations has caused the inner dialogue of my consciousness to spiral and intersect, infusing their spoken words into my own experience like the flavors of the rich sancocho that nourishes my body.

“The Scientific Process” By Zachary Bradley (2015)

Collins Literary Prize Winner, Poetry (2015)

Ants can withstand 5,000 times their weight,
a strength attracting the envy of man.
But still, even the strongest backs can break.

I glue heads to a centrifuge and wait
for the force of spinning to make neck snap,
“Ants can withstand 5,000 times their weight.”

We’re making new robotics and they’re aimed
to kill because weapons are in demand.
We know even the strongest backs can break.

In Giza, they dragged limestone blocks for days
and died piling them into ant-hill-stacks.
Men can’t withstand 5,000 times their weight.

It’s a wonder built and polished by slaves,
three tombs for pharaoh’s bones with jewels in hand,
because even the richest backs can break.

A sultan scraped away the limestone face
and now the stones are lining his mosque’s halls.
Ants can withstand 5,000 times their weight,
but still, even the strongest backs can break.

This poem first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.

Noche Dorada at UConn

On February 22nd, I went to the Lambda Upsilon Lambda event called “Noche Dorada.” It was mostly just an excuse to eat really good Spanish food– sweet platanos and arroz con pollo and creamy, amazing flan. The best part is that you get to eat the food while listening to intelligent speakers (this year: Dr. Thomas Colbert talked about growing up as a black man and his passion for education). My absolute favorite part of the night was, of course, the poetry reading. Brave New Voices’ poets Janine Simon, Mahogany Browne. A video of the performance can be found here.

The first poet, Janine Simon, read poems about coming of age and social activism– heavy subjects, beautifully handled. Her first poem, titled “September,” was a rhythmic tribute to the feelings she had as a girl on September 11, 2001. She wove rhymes in and out of the poem with grace, and her use of profanity fit exceedingly well. I loved the wordplay she used, taking slang and giving it literary importance. “‘Cept…  ‘cept… Sep…tember,” she said.

Her next poem, “Alive,” was about growing up and finding a job in the pathetic market that we see today. Her pauses between lines were so deliberate that I got the sense that I was reading the poem and seeing the line breaks. Very cool. The last poem, “Growing Up,” spoke about the camaraderie of our generation and used a lot of puns. It got to be a little too much after a point, but it was enjoyable. My favorite thing about her reading, besides her really great use of slang and the word “fuck,” was how her accent (from Harlem in Manhattan) worked with her poetry. Her poems would probably still sound great if I read them in my head, but I think you need the effect of her energy on her words.

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(The link to her YouTube channel can be found here.)

The other poet I want to talk about is Mahogany L. Browne. She, like Janine, was loud, but her big frame and even bigger attitude were just fabulous. She read from her book, #Dear Twitter: Love Letters Hashed Out Online in 140 Characters or  Less. Her big voice took over the room, and people were laughing and snapping and whooping as she told people she was “black as hell and woman as hell, too.”
A few excerpts:

“#dear Self: this is the big one. Practice breathing. Leave your hands to floating – don’t thrash, even when the small fish get in the way.”

“#dear self: everyone got a spine – but not all of them got the know-how for heart-holding.”

“#dear right: you dead wrong.”

More excerpts found here
The link to Mahogany’s website can be found here
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Buy her book on amazon.com here!

The poetry reading wasn’t something I would have sought out for myself, but it was loud and raw and funny and moving. I know as I give you the links to these poems that they won’t be as powerful as the spoken versions– even the video can’t capture the energy in the room and the passion in these brave new voices.