Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Interview with poet Carlos Cumpian

TLY: Today, we welcome poet Carlos Cumpián. In addition to his work as a poet, Carlos is an activist, English teacher, publisher, visual artist and performer.

Thank you so much Carlos for taking the time to share with us. You have been described as a “sound and fury barrio” poet. Your poetry is equally gentle, humorous, and often beautiful. What is beauty to you?

CARLOS: Ok why not, let’s start with an eternally philosophical question. Beauty is what our natural world has provided in its most extreme forms and transitory delicate forms, free of human debasement or meddling.

Lightning storms, snow falling, sun-showers, the Aurora Borealis, the open desert, vast cloudless blue skies, or real clouds racing past. Beauty for me are mountain shadows cast across the landscape, shooting stars and constellations, forests and sunrise over beaches. These are all places of high energy and low man-made (EMF) electrical magnetic frequencies, no factory funk or laundry detergents, no transportation exhausts and smells.

Some might think I don’t see beauty in an urban setting. Yes, cities are also places of hidden beauty. You must seek it out. Maybe you’ll experience it or just have to settle for the artifice of beauty, a pseudo-beauty that artists of all genres aspire to. There’s the Navajo song that I’ll cite, in approximation, it goes like; “I walk in Beauty, in front of me ---beauty, behind me-- beauty, to the right---beauty, to the left—beauty, above me ---beauty, underfoot –beauty all around.”

If you are able to reach a state of grace, satori, bliss, Samadhi, nirvana, enlightenment-- then you are experiencing beauty. The ability to use our bodies in a trained manner also provides an enormous glimpse of beauty— a devotion to physical discipline before we deteriorate. I have seen this human beauty appear and disappear like cresting and receding waves. I recall the words of the poet/ philosopher and ruler of Pre-Conquest Mexico, Netzahualcoyotl who wrote, that we were like flowers, that come from seed, bloom expand and fade to dust. Beauty is not aware of its own state—it just is. I do realize that each culture or civilization has developed their own “yard stick” to measure beauty and these contain differences and disagreements. But there is NO ONE UNIVERSAL absolute agreement as to what is undisputedly beautiful. We must find it for ourselves, however influenced we might be by our social conditioning.

TYL: Latino Rainbow: Poems about Latino Americans is a “teen-centered” work. I have read that you found your own formal education lacking because you were curious about the world around you, and it wasn’t being taught at school.

CARLOS: It became especially evident to me after becoming a full-time English teacher in the mid-1990s. I worked mainly in poorer areas of Chicago with an almost all black and brown student population. I realized that they had been exposed to only a few minority authors such as: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Toni Morrison. While these are all tremendously important writers they hadn’t read work by living Native Americans, Asians or their neighbors—Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

These were rather sophisticated Black authors who were shoveled as “essential reads” to many an urban classroom, all to the befuddlement of seventh and eighth graders. I discovered this from my tenth graders when I attempted to “introduce” these giants of African American literature to them. When I was enrolled at the University of Illinois-Chicago, I had read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston for the first time. It required some in-depth analysis to fully appreciate her characters and plot. So how was an elementary school teacher supposed to get any serious traction from 13 and 14-year-old students in an over-crowded classroom? I am sure it could be handled now that I have a Master’s in Education and two decades worth of teaching under my belt; but as a new teacher it really challenged me. I am certain it has been difficult for other teachers too.

Alas, what I found in my school’s English department. The tattered leftover remains of minority authors of uneven talents published in paperback anthologies in response to the “Black is Beautiful 1960s” or the newly woke sleeping giant; The Mexican-American “Brown Pride” period, was marked with the publication of POCHO -- published in paperback in 1970 by José Antonio Villarreal. I argue that, for the most part, teachers didn’t have thematically appealing fiction or poetry books available outside of a couple of Gary Soto and Sandra Cisneros stories. When the book Parrot in the Oven by Californian Victor Martinez appeared – I pushed to have him appear before hungry young Chicanos at my school in Little Village, La Villita. I did the same for Texas fiction writer David Rice with his Give the Pig a Chance and New Mexican multi-talented Denise Chávez who had me as a fan since 1986 with her Last of the Menu Girls. I feel the talented Luis J. Rodriguez’s autobiography Always Running and his 1999 bilingual children’s book It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way/ No tiene que ser asi are two solid literary contributions for our school kids.

If you were to go into the way back “Time-Machine” back to the mid-1960s, you might see me reading a comic book behind my text books, like Turok: Son of Stone which featured Paleo-indigenous people fighting against dinosaurs and other tribes. It was a story line with no Europeans, no Africans, just a fantasy world of survival in isolation, deep in a lost valley, in contrast to the ethnically insensitive and racist projections depicted in our school board approved Texas History Book.

The challenge of “making reading materials relevant to a minority audience” must have dawned on me way back in seventh grade. And aside from The Texas History in cartoon drawings format, I grew up seeing nearly no mention of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans or indigenous people except in the most stereotypical manner. Speedy Gonzales, Frito Bandito and the television commercial where a Mexican labor couldn’t finish his painting job unless he finished his cigarette first. It seemed wrong since I had a male Mexican-American teacher Mr. Zavala in sixth grade and my father who graduated from Bowling Green University in Ohio with a political science degree.

Books that spoke to my interests while in high school were next to impossible to find. I was pretty well alienated by the lack of topics I wanted to know about. Superficially in school we touched on the nagging issue as to where do we come from and what is the meaning to life. I pondered this as many friends were dying from accidents, drug use and later in Vietnam. I took my questions to older folks and fellow students who were juniors and seniors while I was a freshman.

Turns out, they too were curious and suggested I go to bookstores and libraries. I started my search with intriguing titles like the I CHING, specifically Hellmut Wilhelm’s translation of the Chinese classic. I had a leather cover made for it because I consulted it on a weekly basis for years. Then there were pop sociology works like Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, Alvin Tolfer’s The Population Bomb, and Future Shock. I met a few Hare Krishna devotees and read their colorful Bhagavad Gita. I did this thinking I might journey to India, therefore I wanted to understand their culture. How could I do that without reading their classic? So, I read parts of The Rig Veda, The Mahábhárata, and The Upanishads. I had my introduction to Buddha with Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. You might say I was in the “spiritual supermarket” going down the aisles reading the ingredients. How Tao you do Lao Tzu?

My older friends introduced me to poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the other Beat poets he published through City Lights Books. I found Gary Snyder’s poetry perfect as I was drawn to various non-western mythologies of Asia and North America which he incorporated in his poems. I forged ahead with reading my dictionary at my elbow as I worked to understand all the new spiritual and philosophical words and concepts.

It was The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran with his parable-like tales and his book’s pencil illustrations that basically turned me towards reading philosophy. I may have spent too much time trying to figure out the various philosophies. In part, it was a rejection of Catholic school and church which I regularly attended up until age 14.

What I call the “breaking event” happened when I was eleven (don’t go cray-cray now). When walking back from the store one late afternoon with my brother, he slapped my arm and said rather alarmed, “Hey, what’s that?” Pointing directly across the street from where we were living was a bus-size silver UFO with greenish-blue lights visible in its portal. It hovered silently and I strained my eyes trying to make out a series of odd markings that circled its underside meant. Years later I say those markings appeared like Sanskrit. The sighting lasted two to four minutes. The craft went swiftly straight up into a cloudless sky in seconds and became as small as a daytime star. Having seen that it struck me that all my Catholic catechism classes never covered alien UFO sightings. I now had to question EVERYTHING.

In turn, my questioning led me to become such a “book worm.” If anyone wanted to find me I would be on a park bench or room reading or haunting the aisles of Wells Street Barbara’s Books or the local or downtown Chicago Public Library. Right out of high school, I had a girlfriend who wanted me to read what I thought was childish stuff at the time--The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. I wish now that I finished that book. Back then I wanted “heavier” topics. I found the American Protestant turned Buddhist Alan W. Watts’ books and went down his philosophical “rabbit hole” and in the process bumped into Richard Alpert (Baba Ram Das) and Dr. Timothy Leary who were trying to expand our Western minds. This was all before I found Chicano literature.

The first Chicano materials I read were collected was by professor Phillip D. Ortego, who edited We are Chicanos, an anthology that appeared 1973. Dr. Ortego is now in his 90s and has taught longer than any professor I’ve ever known. Later, it was the 1974 paperback, Voices of Atztlan; Chicano Literature of Today which introduced me to the fiction and poetry of Tomas Rivera, Ricardo Sanchez, Luis Valdez, Abelardo “Lalo” Delgado and Gloria Perez, among others. I was blessed to later meet many of the same writers and host them in Chicago for public readings.

Reading saved me from a world of hurt (gangs). From age 15 on I became a reader of more than comic books and pop culture magazines. Once while on the train, a college recruiter saw me reading a Mesoamerican history book, he asked if I was reading it because of a college course. I assured him it was just for my own interest. He gave me his business card and said call if I wanted help to get into college. I didn’t take him up on that offer for two years before starting baccalaureate studies. I was married and had a kid and worked during the day had to take evening classes, so earning my BA only took me seven years. I was often the oldest guy in many of my classes at the University of Illinois. I was also the only Spanish-speaking (my Spanish was not all that rich) Chicano in many of my English classes too. The Latinos were not really becoming English majors. This was in the 1980s! I am like the turtle—slow and steady wins the race (I guess) because I finally earned my Masters in 2010.

TLY: Have you ever traveled to a new place to find that, instead of feeling lost, you felt completely at ease—at home, even? 

CARLOS: Yes, in 1972, there was this one place, in the Mexican state of Morelos. Up in the mountains, it was an Eden-like place, a glimpse of paradise. A 2012 road trip to Montana’s mountains prompted me reflect on human existence and made me feel connected. At the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn where Custer was “rubbed out” I felt it was a deeply spiritual place with the long sweet grass or buffalo grass waving in the wind on an overcast afternoon. But if I wanted a “home” experience, it would just be the smell soil after a fine drizzle, turning cool air into a rare incense on a summer night in San Antonio, Texas. Love your question. 

TLY: The word “destiny” is rooted in religion, culture—and, in the States, ideas of personal success. How do you define destiny?

CARLOS: I embrace a mainly a backwards-looking definition or understanding of destiny. I see destiny only in retrospect. The future for the most part is “unwritten.” While I am a fairly decent student of history, I appreciate the concept of destiny as mainly myth and luck that’s coupled with gut survival. The fact we will all die is the only guaranteed destiny I know in store for us mortals. I am more intrigued in how “Black Swan” events might set the action for collective destiny. An example is the 9/11 horror or the 2008 stock market housing crash or the 2011 Japanese 9-point earthquake, that busted open the Fukashima reactor. But it takes years for the dust to settle to understand these occurrences. I know one’s personal interests can provide a sense of a destiny. We shouldn’t confuse destiny with goals. Our interests can change quickly depending who we are with and what’s expected. When I was in diapers my paternal grandfather said I would become a football player. That never happened. The closest was when I played baseball in sixth grade. My father told me I should have become lawyer or actor. Instead, I became a teacher which at times is about acting and the law. Destiny is not entirely pre-determined like the old Calvinists thought. There’s free will but within historical limits until conditions suddenly change. My passion has been to understand and anticipate some of the earth and social changes which will impact my family and friends.

TLY: We live in a multi-lingual society. How has this influenced you and your writing?

CARLOS: I understand the USA as a multi-lingual country because my parents were always switching between English and Spanish while we were growing up in California and Texas. After we moved to Chicago, I heard a strange form of Spanish coming out of some neighboring old timers rolling a ball in their backyard. It turned out to be Italian! My old friend and mentor Carlos Cortez was married to a woman straight from Greece. They could speak to each other in Greek, then switch to Spanish, then to English in a matter of minutes. Cortez himself was the result of a German American woman and Mexican man meeting and marrying in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I figured if I wanted to be understood by either English-speakers or Spanish-speakers— I should try to be good in both. In the 1980’s, I became “serious” about one day publishing a poetry collection. This was after coming across a collection of Cuban poetry. Every poem was translated facing each other Spanish across from English page for page. That’s when the light came on for me, this was a clear signal I needed to reach both los hispanohablantes and English-speakers in the same text!

Honestly, I am always learning when it comes to languages—currently I’ve added Lakota to my pursuits, I also want to know my own tribal tongue which is connected to the Hokan speakers of the Southwest. Years ago, I wanted to learn French after visiting Quebec, but there’s only so many days in a year and I would have to move there if I wanted to use it. I’ve little interest in traveling to Africa or Europe where more French is spoken.

TLY: You have been named among the Chicago Public Library’s “Top Ten Most Requested Chicago Poets.” What is your dream library, real or imagined?

CARLOS: Wow, I’ll keep it short, I would love a library where readings of fiction and poetry are hosted on weekly basis as well as films-documentaries on poets and writers plus VISITS from established voices plus book-signings and writing workshops happen twice a month. This is stealing or combining Evanston’s’ library a suburb just north of Chicago and Chicago’s own system with coffee house culture. Every parent should try to bring their child or children to the library at least a few times each season.

TLY: In the poem “Chupacabra Furlough,” you write about a creature that is goat vampire, of sorts—a mythical creature that belongs to the folklore of the Americas. It’s a fantastic poem, and I was hoping you would share your thoughts about it with us.

CARLOS: Gracias, you are kind, yes, the poem speaks to my interest in alien and cryptozoology sightings—Latinos (Puerto Ricans and Mexicans) have had a fair share of them in the past decade—there was one case which really, I confess it “scared me” from Monterey, Mexico of a dark humanoid that could fly it appeared going from mountain top to mountain top and even leaped from a tall tree to attack a young police officer who was out looking for it. The case was never solved—some called this creature a “bruja” a witch but it could be an alien. The goat-sucker or Chupacabra is an animal with dog and lizard features could be the result of a lab experiment gone wrong or an escaped critter from an alien craft. Then again, it might be too much rum or mescal at work on some lonely outpost in the hills.

TYL: You edited the anthology Emergency Tacos: Seven Poets con Picante (March Abrazo (March 1989). What should readers expect?

CARLOS: The long out of print collection will go on to be a collector’s item, with wonderful Sandra Cisneros in the chapbook anthology. Then there’s the late great Carlos Cortez’s poems and art. Cynthia Gallaher is also in the collection and she’s been getting some mileage for her recent non-fiction collection a Frugal Poet's Guide to Life (Book Baby, 2016). The other poets Beatriz Badikian, Margarite Lopez Castro, Raul Niño and myself round out the collection. Niño’s first book Breathing Light is also a collector’s item—he had a follow up in 2007 called The Book of Mornings—which is a chapbook while Breathing Light is perfect bound. I would love for my amigo Raul to finally come out with his poetry manuscript Rough Sutra. The other women I’ve lost contact with and can’t say what they are up to publishing wise. Readers can expect a wide-range of styles and some bilingualism in the works I’ve published. Recently, Arte Publico Press, the well-heeled university press, accepted one of our Puerto Rican writers—Frank Varela’s manuscript which included poems originally published in March Abrazo Press Serpent Underfoot and Bitter Coffee titles. Frank’s new work is Diaspora: Selected and New Poems which earned him a 2017 Latino Literature non-fiction award.

TLY: Once, in conversation about poetry, you said, “No postcards.” What is a postcard poem?

CARLOS: I am not all that good with writing Haiku-like work—or poems that can be appreciated on a postcard complete with an image or photo. I’ve been part of such collections, but, it’s not the most satisfying medium. Some will tell you -- use what you can and be glad you ever got published, I agree.

TLY: It’s been a great honor and pleasure, Carlos. Before we let you go, can share with us current or future projects you are working on?

CARLOS: I am reviewing my three-decade collection of letters, fliers, notes, booklets, posters, photos, and other documents for donating my literary archives in a Michigan university. The collecting and sorting is at times a challenge and I hope by September 2017 to have most of it completed. I do have a poetry manuscript that is on the burner and my play, Behind the Buckskin Curtain: Buffalo Bills Wild West that needs revisiting. You may know from Facebook comments that I have been exploring survivalist literature as both a cultural phenomenon and a practical way to be self-sufficient when faced with a possible grid down or massive ecological challenge. I hope we all look up from our reading and take measures to make the coming transitions or earth changes as safe as possible. Be well and thanks.


Carlos Cumpián is a widely anthologized poet.  He is the author of: 14 Abriles: Poems (March Abrazo Press, Chicago, 2010); Armadillo Charm (Tia Chucha Press, L.A. 1996, 2nd printing, 1998); Latino Rainbow: Poems about Latino Americans (Children's Press, Scholastic Books, Danbury, Conn., 1994, available in hardcover, paperback and teacher's guide editions), Coyote Sun (March Abrazo Press, Chicago, 1990, 4th printing, 2005). His most recent essay appears in With a Book in Their Hand: Chicano/a Readers and Readerships Across the Centuries (University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

Carlos is also the editor of MARCH/Abrazo Press and has been instrumental in the longevity of the small press and establishing its presence as an independent publisher of Latino and Native American poetry. Carlos taught high school English in Chicago and worked to provide quality education to inner-city high school youth. He has also taught at Columbia College in Chicago and still does public readings and beginner and advanced workshops on poetry and small press management.


  1. Thanks for introducing us to this poet!

  2. Friend him on FB. He's great. Really.

  3. My name is Teresa D. Carlos is my first cousin; my maiden name was Cumpian. I am his Uncle Joe's daughter. How wonderful to learn what he has been doing!! Looks like I have some interesting reading ahead!!

  4. That's wonderful that you and Carlos are family. Yes, Carlos is a poet whose word is much loved.


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