Online Exhibitions

Multilingual Poetry presents contemporary poets whose multilingual heritage plays a central role in their work. Their languages are Chamoru, English, French, Hawaiian Pidgin/Hawaiian Creole English, Japanese, Korean, Navajo, O'odham, Russian, Spanish, Spanglish, and Tagalog. This list, however, does not comprehend all of the languages that are their heritage, nor is 'multilingual' synonymous with 'bilingual.'

The poets of Filipino descent featured here, for example, come from a nation where more than 170 languages are spoken. For Mexican and Chicano/a poets, Spanish and Spanglish have deep and varied indigenous roots. The farther back any language is traced, the more it becomes multilingual all on its own.

On the heels of language comes language politics. Some of the poets featured here remember a time when they, or their parents, were punished for speaking a language other than English at school or in a public place. In resisting this constraint, they have opened a space for the multilingualism of subsequent generations. But the push for monolingualism and monoculturalism is hardly a thing of the past. Where some forces work to shut down, seal off, and contain, multilingual writers work to expand, forge links, and refresh: like language itself.

This exhibit, curated by Wendy Burk, was originally presented in the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery of the University of Arizona Poetry Center from August 16 to September 25, 2010.

Talk Shows
Image of Mónica de la Torre's Talk Shows
Image of Bite Its Heart Until It Learns, by Mónica de la Torre

Mónica de la Torre. Talk Shows. Chicago: Switchback Books, 2006.

Mónica de la Torre, originally from Mexico City and now based in New York City, is a rising star as translator, editor, experimental poet, and promoter of the next wave of multilingual theory and art. de la Torre publishes in the U.S. and Mexico and is also a critic, pursuing a PhD at Columbia University with a focus on multilingual writing and countercultural discourses in Latin American poetry.

As might be expected, de la Torre’s work delights in multilingualism and persistently pushes the boundaries of the term. Witness the poem on display in this exhibit, "Bite Its Heart Until It Learns," from her first full-length collection in English, Talk Shows. de la Torre’s notes explain that the poem is one of two "renditions of two poems… that Paul Hoover wrote in English as if they were being written by a Spanish-language  poet. My renderings are centos with lines that I found in poems by diverse Latin American authors and which I then translated into English… Resulting from this 'translation' project were more literal Spanish poems, in English."

Mónica de la Torre in 2008

Mónica de la Torre, 2008, at The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

Half of the World in Light
Image of Half of the World in Light, by Juan Felipe Herrera
Image of "Arizón maricopa tempe tu tierra roja," by Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera. Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Juan Felipe Herrera is a venerable and vital presence in Chicano letters. In addition to poetry, he writes prose and theatrical works for adults, young adults, and children, working in and on an American identity that resists hegemony. Herrera is deeply interested in indigenous cultures and consciousness, which are also part of the Chicano experience.

Herrera’s poetry balances the experimental with the lyrical. He is innovative, yet never abandons the heart. A self-translator, he often includes English and Spanish versions of his poems, and particularly in his early work of the 1970s, he mingles English and Spanish in a hybrid that draws on the fluidity of Spanglish but is something else again. Half of the World in Light, his collection of new and selected poems, received the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus
Image of Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus, by Gizelle Gajelonia
Image of "Bustainability," by Gizelle Gajelonia

Gizelle Gajelonia. Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus. Kane'ohe, HI: TinFish Press, 2010.

Gizelle Gajelonia, a very new author on the scene, is definitely one to watch for. Born in the Philippines and raised in Hawai'i, she wrote this, her debut chapbook, while still an undergraduate student at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. As the title Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus implies, Gajelonia takes on 'other' voices, including Eliot, Bishop, Crane, Ashbery, and, naturally, Stevens. Her transportations of their frames of reference to the contemporary Hawaiian context are trenchant and wryly hilarious.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at TheBus (TheBus, by the way, is the island of Oahu's public transportation system) also includes poems in Hawaiian Pidgin/Hawaiian Creole English, a self-translated set of 'bus haikus' in Tagalog and English, and a breathtaking multilingual, but mostly English, final prose poem. By "doing da kine in different voices," Gajelonia calls attention to persistent inequities, stirring up our political outrage along with our laughter.

Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol
Image of Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol
Image of Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. Codex Espangliensis: From Columbus to the Border Patrol. San Francisco: City Lights Books with Moving Parts Press, 2000.

This collaboration comes from the fertile minds of poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña, founder of the cutting-edge performance troupe La Pocha Nuestra, visual artist Enrique Chagoya, and book artist Felicia Rice. In the form of a pre-Hispanic codex, the book unfolds accordion-style, presenting a rich visual and linguistic history of the Americas. Text in Spanish, English, and Spanglish juxtaposes past border conflicts and border cultures with present ones.

Gómez-Peña's work is a premier example of the inherent and deeply rooted multilingualism of the U.S.-Mexico border region. Codex Espangliensis reminds us that multilingualism and hybridity are our heritage.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña with Albert Soto in 2003
Image of Guillermo Gómez-Peña with Albert Soto

Guillermo Gómez-Peña with Albert Soto, 2003, after his performance at the Rialto Theater for The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Albert Soto (1954-2005) was a beloved Tucson arts administrator and performer. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné
Image of Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné, by Rex Lee Jim
Image of poem frmo Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné, by Rex Lee Jim

Rex Lee Jim. Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné. Béal Fierste [Belfast]: An Clochán, 1998.

Poet and playwright Rex Lee Jim, of Rock Point, Arizona, writes and publishes in Navajo and English. Dúchas-Táá Kóó-Diné, published in Belfast, presents poems in Navajo and English (Jim's renderings) beside their translations in Irish Gaelic.

Jim's work is acclaimed for speaking volumes in few words; because of Navajo's richness, poems are sometimes one word long. He has inspired the next generation of Navajo writers, including Sherwin Bitsui. Rex Lee Jim was also a 2010 candidate for Navajo Nation President.

Rex Lee Jim in 2007
Photograph of Rex Lee Jim

Rex Lee Jim, 2007, at The University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Native Voices Symposium. Photo by Christine Krikliwy.

Type O Negative
Image of Type O Negative, by Joël Barraquiel Tan
Image of "Beautiful Daughter," by Joël Barraquiel Tan

Joël Barraquiel Tan. Type O Negative. Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2009.

Joël Barraquiel Tan's poetry is wild and rangy. He speaks informed by his Filipino childhood, his adult activism, and the voices of family and friends who interject their words into his own, in the multitude of tongues of the eminently multilingual Philippines, where more than 170 languages are spoken. As voices dart in and out, the poems acquire elements of collage, a collage that is very much mixed media, frantic, sexual, and loving. In "ars poetica filipiniana," Tan writes:


isn’t enough

to pass mangoes ‘round

until they’re bruised

[…] to be defined

by exile of empire

or scorn the

love of whites. just

isn’t enough to be brown.


He then describes a search for "the wildest poem in captivity," an apt description of his project in Type O Negative.

Where Clouds Are Formed
Image of Where Clouds Are Formed, by Ofelia Zepeda
Image of "Birth Witness," by Ofelia Zepeda


Ofelia Zepeda. Where Clouds Are Formed. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2008.

University of Arizona Regents' Professor of Linguistics, MacArthur Fellow, and former Tucson Poet Laureate Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'odham) has achieved international acclaim for her creative writing and scholarly work. Zepeda, born and raised in Stanfield, Arizona, authored the first grammar textbook of her native language, O'odham. Her work promoting O'odham literacy has brought her many honors, and she has served as a consultant for other tribes on literacy projects. She is co-director of the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), which brings American Indian educators to the University of Arizona campus each summer for study with renowned teachers and writers. She is also the editor of the University of Arizona Press Sun Tracks series, publishing distinguished American Indian authors. From this 'short list' of her professional activities, it is clear that Zepeda works passionately and tirelessly to promote literacy and scholarship in indigenous languages.

Zepeda, who writes and publishes poetry in O'odham and English, often uses both languages in a single poem and also translates her own work. Her poetry is sweeping and tender; it is humane and sometimes fierce. "Birth Witness," included in this exhibit, is a poem in English whose central concern is multilingualism. In this poem Zepeda recounts her difficulty obtaining a passport because she was born at home and has no birth certificate. As Zepeda describes her parents, who cannot read and write English but "speak a language much too civil for writing," the reader feels the injustice accorded to those who are indigenous to this land but experience difficulty 'documenting' their existence through bureaucratic channels.

Arizona Board of Regents