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Kansas City Poet Xanath Caraza Has Words For El Salvador

Xanath Caraza

Kansas City poet XanathCaraza is used to answering questions from the college students in her writing classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But last month, she spent an intense six days answering questions from children who want to be poets in El Salvador, which is struggling with gang violence after years of civil war.

Caraza is an internationally recognized poet and short-story writer who teaches in the Foreign Language Department at UMKC. She was one of about twenty writers – and the only one from the United States – invited to participate in the Segundo Festival Internacional de Poesia de Occidente (the Second International Festival of Poetry of the West) in El Salvador in August.

They visited schools in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador, and rural schools in small villages. For six days, the poets presented sessions twice a day – sessions that lasted as long as four hours because of the extended question-and-answer sessions that followed the readings.

“We had audiences of 1,000 people, 500 students, and they were very attentive, asking us very intense questions,” Caraza says. “People want to be poets there, too, so these young audiences had very practical questions: How do I become a better writer? How can I make a short story more interesting? How do I end to make it more attractive? The same questions that my students have.”

Caraza teaches several courses at UMKC, including an upper-level class in creative writing in Spanish. Those students might have excellent speaking or writing skills, but they also need work in other areas. She has a way to address that.

“I tell my students we’re going to publish what they have,” she says. “We produce. We write, we perform and we learn.”

Around the same time as her visit to El Salvador, headlines in the United States were about unaccompanied Central American children seeking refuge at the U.S.-Mexico border. Caraza was troubled by the effects of war and gang violence that she saw in El Salvador, but she says poetry can help.

“One of the questions students asked was, ‘Are we born poets or do we become poets along the way?’ If we have the opportunities, we can all become poets. But social conditions, social structures, sometimes don’t allow us to become poets because we need to feed our children or flee a war. I hope one poem, one word, can help someone. I’m in touch with these children – they’re sending me their short stories and telling me they’re going to send more.”

Young poets in Kansas City can learn from young poets in El Salvador, she says.

“We are lucky we are not in a war. In Kansas City, sometimes conditions are similar. We have very poor zones here and need to bring writing programs to those areas. But we shouldn’t forget that we are free to say anything we want and we will not be sent to jail.”

On her trip, Caraza wrote a new poem, "Joyas de Ceren." She reads the English version toward the end of the audio portion of this story above; the Spanish version is here:

Xanath Caraza reads "Joyas de Ceren" in Spanish.

Caraza's poem, “Imagen Digital/Digital Image,” is published in her 2012 book Conjuro. She says she was inspired to write the poem after coming to the United States and suddenly realizing that she was considered “a woman of color.”

“I kept thinking and reflection about the political, racial, and historical implications of the term. And I ended up saying: how lucky I am – I am a woman of color. I can be blue, yellow, gold, red, anytime I want. So I wrote this poem."

Xanath Caraza reads “Imagen Digital/Digital Image” in Spanish and then in English.

The poem “Tormenta/Storm” is from Caraza’s new book, Silabas de Viento (Syllables of Wind):

Xanath Caraza reads “Tormenta/Storm” in Spanish and then in English.

Xanath Caraza reads from Silabas de Viento (Syllables of Wind), with Arkansas poet Juanita Lamb on Friday, Sept. 12, at 8 p.m. at The Writer’s Place, 3607 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo., 816-753-1090.  

On Monday, Sept. 15, Angela Elam interviews Caraza as part of Park University’s Ethnic Voices Poetry Series (the interview will run at a later date on New Letters on the Air) at 7 p.m. at the The Mid-Continent Library, Woodneath Branch, Woodneath Library Center, 8900 NE Flintlock Road, Kansas City, Mo., 816-883-4900.

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