As I write this extremely necessary and long overdue review of Dan Vera's collection of poems, Speaking Wiri Wiri, which was published in 2013 by Red Hen Press for winning the 2012 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, I am reminded of another new book that I finished reading for the fourth time, Maria Mazziotti Gillan's Writing Poetry to Save Your Life (Miroland Publishers, 2013). Gillan states: "Only poems that make you cry or laugh or make the hair on your arms stand up are worth writing. Anything else is just you trying to fit in, to be acceptable, to be what critics want you to believe a true poet is" (23). I could not have said that more accurately and perfectly. But what I can confidently say is that Vera knows what it is to be a true poet, creating true poetry, allowing his readers to cry and laugh, to feel a range of emotions, and to know what it means to be human. And that is why I am truly grateful for Vera's book and his other work.
I stopped counting after I read Speaking Wiri Wiri for the twelfth time. It is one of those rare books that has had an emotional impact on my life and has affected me intricately and profoundly. My favorite poem is the last one, "Asombrado," which is the perfect finale to this compelling collection of forty-five poems. The poem is about the 2009 March on Washington for Immigration Reform, but what it is really about is making a community of people visible to a mainstream society and a hypocritical government that prefer them to be unseen and silent. It is about giving voices to the voiceless and powerless. It is about Latinos and immigrants no longer tolerating the marginalization, discrimination, and injustice. This is what Vera does best; he passionately writes poetry about the personal and the political, interweaving the two because he knows that one does not exist without the other, and he knows that true poetry comes from the roots of both. Vera's poems make us think and feel; they touch our minds and souls.
Toni Morrison said that "all art is political," and I agree. And those who disagree are simply clueless to the political world in which they live, or maybe they are sheltered in their privilege. Fortunately, Vera and I are not naïve and sheltered in our privilege. Poetry must be political. Poetry must also be emotional and personal. If a poet wishes to write a poem about a tree, then it better also be a poem about how the tree is in danger of being chopped down for human consumption, development, and greed. Vera is able to situate current personal, social, and political issues in his poems, and other poets must do the same. He understands the reality in which he lives and writes--in which he survives, thrives, and creates his art--so why don't other poets understand this? Why can't other poets do what Vera does so effortlessly?
Poems must be the earthquakes that send tremors through my entire body, that shake me to my core, that shatter my mind and soul. Vera's poems are my precious earthquakes that move me, that satiate me, that make me yearn for more. Oh, how I wish that other poets wrote earthquakes. Therefore, my advice to other poets is to study Vera's talents and skills, and to take cues from him. If you are a narcissistic poet who chooses to write only about your daily mundane life, then please don't make your poem as mundane as your life. If you are a poet, especially a gay poet, who constantly chooses to write only about sex, either because you are getting lots of it or none of it, then your poem better be orgasmic, it better give me an orgasm, otherwise don't bother wasting your time and mine. Time is never wasted when reading Vera's poetry.
As for those scholars who are wannabe poets, who write from inside the walls of the academy--who write intellectual poetry instead of emotional poetry--I have no time for your useless contributions. I hate intellectual poetry. You can intellectualize a theory, not a poem. And I am not wasting my time and brain cells trying to decode your poems, trying to figure out what you are trying to write and communicate. Poetry does not belong to the elite; it belongs to everyone. Vera's poetry is for all of us. He welcomes all of us into his poetic home and heart, asks us to stay for a while, and makes us comfortable. He is truly a hospitable poet.
In 2008, Dan Vera and Bo Young published an excerpt from my essay on being gay and ethnic, in their White Crane Journal. In his comments about my essay, Vera understood what it meant to be gay and ethnic in heterosexist white America. From the very beginning, Dan understood me, and I understood him. We share similar experiences and beliefs. Simpatico at its finest! And as I read Speaking Wiri Wiri again and again, I feel happy knowing that there is another poetic soul in this cruel world who is also interested in making this planet a better place. I am grateful to Vera for his poetry, his compassion, his generosity. Bravo to him for writing his book, and bravo to the award committee for getting it right and honoring poetry that undoubtedly deserves it.