Celebrating Latina Voices at White Lotus Farms

Last Thursday, Ann Arbor was graced with the poetic lyrics of three Latina poets, brought to the city for a night of art and community at White Lotus Farms. Brenda Cárdenas, Laurie Ann Guerrero, and Carmen Giménez Smith journeyed from Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Texas respectively, to bring their diverse voices to a shared reading organized by One Pause Poetry, a local non-profit dedicated to poetic diversity and making the arts more accessible. Sarah Messer, the director of One Pause, is also a poetry teacher at the University of Michigan. Sarah's vision for her work is simple: “Our goal is to break down barriers.” This reading, titled “Celebrating Latina Voices," is a step towards accomplishing exactly that.

White Lotus Farms is one of Ann Arbor's hidden gems: located a mere 20 minutes from The Diag, the farm sits quietly on a dirt road, tucked away from the hurries of modern life. The name "White Lotus" comes from the farm's devotion to Eastern design. Gardens and buildings alike follow a Zen Buddhist architectural style, creating a space of beauty and tranquility perfect for events like this.

The tent where the reading is held lies just on beyond the edge of a tranquil, flowering Buddhist garden, and it is through this journey (not your destination) that the poetic beauty of White Lotus Farms makes itself known. At the center of the garden: a giant wooden shrine built to the Buddhist god Tara. Around the shrine sit candles and incense, ready to be lit for meditation or prayer. Just beyond, a koi pond in one of the last warm days of the season. Black rocks and a wooden board walk surround its outer edge. A waterfall sends runoff tumbling down the sides of boulders, flowing into the pond with a steady locomotion. Aside from the trickle of the waterfall and the slow movement of the koi, the water is still. The farm is at once quiet and alive.

(Photo courtesy of Justin  Robert Cox)

(Photo courtesy of Justin Robert Cox)

The reading is next to the pond in a white canvas tent. Firefly lights are strung around the perimeter giving the area a golden glow. Although the event is scheduled to start at 7:00, it takes the attendees nearly 20 minutes to fill the rows of wooden chairs. Despite on-and-off rain showers, over 30 devotees (a mix of of University students and community members) make the trek to see the three poets read.

First up: the poet Brenda Cárdenas. Brenda is the former poet laureate of Milwaukee and a current creative writing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She also received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. Her work plays with the fusion of Spanish and English. Cárdenas sees this fusion as vital to the creative process: “Those fused spaces, or border space, that’s where a lot of new things arise. As a an artist and as a poet I feel like I can get so much more mileage if I can rub one language up against the other.”

Brenda Cárdenas reads a poem while an audience member holds her computer to show the crowd a piece of artwork on which one of her poems is based. (Photo courtesy of  Justin Robert Cox)

Brenda Cárdenas reads a poem while an audience member holds her computer to show the crowd a piece of artwork on which one of her poems is based. (Photo courtesy of Justin Robert Cox)

Cárdenas is a strong oral poet. She emphasizes important words with punches, and makes impassioned eye contact with the crowd. Her work is serious in nature, yet unbounded in its deliverance. The meter switches from complex to light in a way that beautifully compliments the messages conveyed in her work. One of her most captivating pieces is “Poem for the Tin-tun-teros,” an ode to drummers. Her voice sounds musical, and the rain pitt-pattering against the tent feels like an undertone guiding the poem along.

The next poet to take the stage is Laurie Ann Guerrero. As the former poet laureate of San Antonio and the current poet laureate of the state of Texas, Guerrero's presence at this event is a privilege. From her bright red lipstick to her poetry, Guerrero is full of spunk. Much of her work is centered on femininity, and her powerful lyrics are both uplifting and haunting. She does not shy from exploring deeply intimate topics, and at one point, even sheds a few tears as she reads a poem about her son. 

Carmen Giménez Smith is the final poet to take the stage. In addition to poetry, Giménez Smith writes lyric essays. Her most recent book, Milk and Filth, was even nominated for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award. Tonight, she reads a section of a 56 page manuscript on which she is currently working. The manuscript is one giant poem titled “Be Recorder,” and the portion she chooses to read takes 17 minutes. Giménez Smith makes less eye contact than the previous poets, and speaks in a demure yet beautiful way. Her poem talks about many relevant social issues including the proposed building of a wall along the border of the United States and Mexico. 

Carmen Giménez Smith reads her poem "Be Recorder" (Photo courtesy of Justin Robert Cox)

Carmen Giménez Smith reads her poem "Be Recorder" (Photo courtesy of Justin Robert Cox)

Celebrating Latina Voices was a night bursting with talent, but it was truly the ambiance that sealed the deal. Every so often, wind lifts the sides of the tent, juxtaposing dark sky with the soft light in the tent. The candles placed in front of the podium sway in the breeze. At once, the energy of the crowd is palpable: the barriers between audience and reader, indoors and out, simply fade away. One Pause accomplished its goal, after all.