“Poetry Is a Superpower”: Edward Vidaurre and FlowerSong Press
By Dick ClusterJune 8, 2022
That began to change when he complained to a teacher about finding Shakespeare’s language incomprehensible and she gave him a copy of Claude Brown’s 1965 autobiographical novel, Manchild in the Promised Land. “It was all about the hood — for me, growing up in the Aliso Village projects, here was something I could relate to.” That led him to Richard Wright and other African American authors, then to Luis Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (1993). Vidaurre’s new love affair with reading got a boost when, after high school, he went to work in the restaurant industry, commuting two hours by bus from Boyle Heights to Beverly Hills. He saw other people reading on the bus and found it was the best way to pass the time — sometimes missing his stop and finding himself in Santa Monica, having to double back. Eventually he discovered that both Wright and Rodriguez had written poetry, which led him to Neruda and García Lorca and more. In the meantime, he was working himself up from busboy to restaurant manager to make ends meet.
But what led him to writing and publishing poetry was another kind of falling in love, the online relationship he developed with Liliana Ramírez in San Benito, Texas, about five miles from the US-Mexico border along the Rio Grande. When he moved there in 2000 to join her and her family’s barbecue business, he found that life suddenly slowed down. In Los Angeles, he says, “I’d been working all the time, stuck in traffic, and when I had a spare minute, I was catching up with life, going to a movie, out for drink. I didn’t know I was going to be poet, to be part of something literary. I couldn’t think straight except about, like, how do I survive? But here in South Texas it’s like five to 10 minutes from work, closer to nature, a different quality of life. Here there’s a lot of time to really think and enjoy and find yourself.”
So, it was in the lower Rio Grande Valley that he started writing poetry and looking for a place to share it, which led him, by the early 2010s, to the open mic nights at San Benito’s Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center, and then to the vibrant Latinx-Tejano literary community in the Valley, centered on the small city of McAllen some 25 miles upstream. He and Ramírez and their daughter Luisa now make their home in McAllen, where Vidaurre manages a corporate restaurant. Between 2013 and 2021, he authored eight books of poetry, all published by small independent presses, was five times nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was named poet laureate of McAllen for the 2018–’19 term. His first book, I Took My Barrio on a Road Trip (2013), portrayed his travels, from Los Angeles to El Salvador to the border. Chicano Blood Transfusion (2016) dealt with questions of identity in the face of — as a line of the title poem puts it even before the Trump presidency — “the concrete wall mierda stretching from Califas to Tejas.” The poem’s Guanaco (Salvadoran) speaker, while “losing consciousness,” gets an imagined blood transfusion from California Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera (US poet laureate 2015–’17), and then
I feel the same
Or, as Vidaurre puts when asked about how he identifies today, “I’m still the same me, and the identity crisis was all made up. People from one or another part of the spectrum, Central Americans, Mexicans, we may still be fighting one another, but the one percent is watching us do that and they’re enjoying that view from above.”
His next-to-latest book is Pandemia & Other Poems (2021), which features work written just before and during the first year of COVID-19 — composed, he says, in order to heal, during a period when some people couldn’t write and some people couldn’t do anything else. Less directly political than some of his earlier work, its themes vary from creation myths, to finding solace in nature, to jazz. His latest collection, Cry, Howl, described as “poems of resistencia […] and nourishment for the reader’s heart,” is also a kind of homage to the Beat poets who became another major influence for him.
Alongside his own work, Vidaurre took on what he saw as the equally or more important task of promoting other poets of color outside the publishing mainstream. While poet laureate of McAllen, he became the director of the Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival — now in its 15th year — and the editor of its annual anthology, Boundless. He had already started open mic nights at the family restaurant, both to provide a new venue for poets and to attract new customers for the food. When Chicano Blood Transfusion was accepted by McAllen-based FlowerSong Books for publication in 2016, he asked the founder and publisher, noted children’s and young adult fiction writer David Bowles, what he was planning to publish next.
“‘I really don’t know,’ David told me,” Vidaurre recounts that fateful conversation. “He had started FlowerSong years before to publish writers from the Valley, but he was so busy with own work he didn’t know whether he had time for it anymore. I thought, damn, this is my new publisher and now it’s about to fold? So, when he asked me did I want to take it over, I said yes.” He succeeded Bowles as the publisher in 2017. Under his direction and with an enthusiastic, partly paid, partly volunteer staff, the renamed FlowerSong Press increased its number of new titles to seven in 2019, 23 in 2020, and 25 in 2021. The press takes its name from the Nahuatl phrase in xōchitl in cuīcatl — “the flower, the song,” a kenning for “poetry.” In 2022, FlowerSong was named as one of three finalists for the Constellation Award of the Community of Little Magazines and Presses, given to honor “an independent literary press that is led by and/or champions the writing of people of color, including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals, for excellence in publishing.”
The press has paid particular attention to writing by women. “You know, the best storytellers in my family were women,” Vidaurre says, somewhat bemused. “The way I learned to read Spanish was reading the letters my mother and my grandmother wrote back and forth. The mothers, the grandmothers, las tías, they were the talkers, they had the great stories while the men were silent, sitting in the corner drinking a beer. The women knew the sufferings of the families. So, I asked myself, where was the literature written by them? Of course, it was there all along — some of it published and some of it not.” Recent and forthcoming FlowerSong books include collections by Texas poets Kamala Platt, Leticia Urieta, and Rebecca Bowman, as well as Los Angeles poets Iris De Anda and Angelina Sáenz.
Another part of FlowerSong’s growth has been the recognition that “borderlands” extend well beyond the Rio Grande. “Our initial impetus was to continue the work of publishing writers from the Valley,” Vidaurre says. “Poetry written by us, Tejanos, Mexicanos, Latinx, people along the border, a real urgency that our voices be heard, to get these books created and put out there. Because when somebody like Trump says stuff about the border, we’re the ones who have to say, ‘Uh-uh, not really.’ Otherwise, we allow the reporters to come down here from Boston or New York or L.A. for a few days and talk to the wrong people and then go back and write stuff that’s not true.” But with the coming of COVID, the open mics and readings of the festival and the press went virtual, with participation by poets from as far away as Nigeria and India, as well as El Salvador, Guatemala, and deeper into Mexico. “Borderlands” became more universal and metaphorical. “My people have to cross two borders, by the time they get here they’ve already fought another border, the Guatemala/Mexico one,” Vidaurre points out. “There’s borders all over the world, there are people stopped from crossing all kinds of lines, so like the title of the Festival anthologies, we’re looking to be literally boundless. I’m like a headhunter, constantly looking. In the restaurant business I’m constantly looking for best employees, and if there’s a better server than I have, I’ll ask them to come work for us. Same thing if I love your poetry, I want to publish you.”
As a result, the FlowerSong mission statement now says the press “nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands. The voices of those from Latin America, the U.S.A. and all over the world. We are literary, lyrical, and boundless, and we welcome allies that understand and join in the voice of people of color and our struggle, truth, and hope.” Recent such books include My Body Lives Like a Threat, the first full-length collection by New Jersey–based Indian American poet Megha Sood. My English translation of Fiat Lux (2012) by Mexico City poet and translator Paula Abramo, due out June 21, is a cycle about her ancestors who were political refugees from Europe to Brazil at the turn of the 20th century, and then elsewhere in Latin America in later eras, and a meditation on how and whether poetry brings such past lives to life. Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs’s ¿how many indians can we be? / ¿cuantos indios podemos ser? centers on her encounter, as the child of Mexican-born farmworkers, with the culture of the real India that Columbus never found. Other 2022 books range from City on the Second Floor, the second book-length volume by revolutionary slam poet Matt Sedillo, to Wingbeat Atlas, a poems-and-photographs collection by Lucy Griffith and Kenneth Butler celebrating birds as “the citizens of the skies.”
From the start, the press has published books written in English or Spanish or hybrids of the two. Increasingly, it is publishing translated bilingual editions. These include Abramo’s Fiat Lux and Ariel Francisco’s Under Capitalism If Your Head Aches They Just Yank Off Your Head, translated into Spanish by José Nicolás Cabrera-Schneider. “It’s a magical thing, translation,” Vidaurre insists. “I find it fascinating, important, necessary — and to see the original and the translation side by side brings up another thing that’s rarely discussed. Bilingual editions can challenge your reading, can help you learn a language; they challenge me, too, even though I grew up bilingual: Could I write a translated work, could I put it in my own words?”
The press is now branching out into mixed genres and fiction, including young adult fiction, and is hoping to create a children’s literature imprint, Juventud Press. As poet laureate, Vidaurre initiated Called to Rise, an annual anthology of youth poets of all grades and ages from the Valley; high school writers are always included in Boundless as well. In this way, FlowerSong mirrors other indie presses, such as Hanging Loose in Boston/New York or Two Lines in San Francisco, that have featured youth anthologies, magazine segments, or school partnerships.
FlowerSong’s main focus remains poetry. “Poetry is a superpower,” Vidaurre insists, “and publishing it is so important, because everybody has epic lines in them. When our authors win book awards, I feel like a proud dad. By contrast, if we don’t pay attention, we’re going to lose out on something special.”
Dick Cluster is a writer and translator in Oakland, California. Translations published in 2022 include Paula Abramo’s Fiat Lux (FlowerSong Press), Gabriela Alemán’s Family Album (City Lights Books), and poetry by Pedro de Jesús (Asymptote Journal). He is the author of a crime novel series featuring car mechanic Alex Glauberman (reissued in 2015 by booksbnimble.com) and co-author, with Rafael Hernández, of History of Havana, a social history of the Cuban capital (OR Books, 2018). He also translates scholarly work from the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, and Spain.
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