Yago S. Cura: An Interview

For many, American journalist James Foley—slain by ISIS in August 2014—is  a news item: an unfortunate yet abstract victim of  the crossfire in the Middle East. But for poet Yago S. Cura, and others, he was a friend, a classmate and a mentor. During James Foley’s captivity, Cura often reminded his friends on Facebook  to ‘Remember Foley.’ Months after Foley’s public death, Cura started a KickStarter campaign to fund the publication of Ghazals for Foley on Hinchas Press.

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Yaddyra Peralta interviewed Yago S. Cura about his circuitous journey as a poet, librarian, teacher, blogger, and publisher—one that led him to cross paths with James Foley.

Yaddyra Peralta: Yago, for those who don’t know you, you are currently Adult Services Librarian with the Los Angeles Public Library. What does that mean and what is your connection to poetry?

Yago S. Cura: I work with Adults in South Central Los Angeles, and I try to make them life-long learners and readers. I usually do this in Spanish, as that is the dominant language spoken at our branch. I try to sell them on the idea that this is their library, that they have already paid for these materials and services with their tax money, and that if they don’t use these materials and services, many times, these materials and services get discontinued because of inactivity.

I work at a branch that sits on Central Avenue and is celebrating 100 years of service this September. Obviously, the library houses poetry, but in a very real way, the library is also busy writing the poetry it will one day display on the shelf and make room for in the catalog. I am a firm believer in that Samuel Johnson quote about a man “turning over half a library to make a book” because the books I like to read, the books I like to champion,  more often than not,  have half a library sticking out of them.

Y.P.: You publish and edit the online literary journal Hinchas de Poesia, and publish poetry chapbooks via Hinchas Press. I get the sense that every single hat you wear–as a teacher, librarian, poet, editor and publisher–is colored by a strong sense of activism and community involvement. Can you speak to that? And/or, in general, discuss how and why a poet-librarian decides to start editing and publishing poetry.

Y.S.C.: I went to Queens College for library school in 2007 after winning a Spectrum scholarship from the American Library Association. I learned how to work with html and XML from some of the classes, and I started a blog (I know, I know) Spicaresque, that I have kept since 2009 that has garnered over 50 thousand visitors. Publishing Hinchas de Poesía (www.hinchasdepoesia.com) was a no brainer because I could wear all the hats, so I started out putting together the magazine by myself. Then, Jim Heavily sent me some poems, and I struck up a convo and project with him and eventually invited him to guest edit; currently, he’s my editor in chief, or (editor mero mero). The art director for Hinchas, Jennifer Therieau runs her own company, Cool Grey Matter (http://www.coolgreymatter.com), but she also provides all the design and digital infrastructure. And, now, we are about to publish our first print publication, and working on our first poetry chapbook and children’s story.

Because I pay the rent with my librarian work, I get to lose a nominal amount of money every year on my passion of publishing poetry. Hinchas doesn’t sell advertisement, and we are donating the proceeds of Ghazals for Foley (our first print publication) to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. So, I guess a poet-librarian will decide to start editing and publishing poetry when his public librarian gig affords him the opportunity to lose a nominal amount of money every year electronically publishing poetry from las Americas.

Y.P.: I was really surprised to learn of James Foley’s connection to the world of creative writing and poetry—he too was an alumnus of the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass-Amherst.  He was a creative writer, a Teach for America fellow, and then a journalist. Like you, he seemed to easily inhabit different identities that allowed him a passionate connection to his various communities and the world at large. Would you mind talking about that?

Y.S.C.: Martin Espada connected us to the Care Center in Holyoke, MA starting in 2000, and both Jim and I taught pregnant, predominantly Puerto Rican drop-out girls G.E.D.-English. Those years were extremely formative for me as an educator, and I guess as an activist, in so far as every educator is an activist in their classroom (or I guess can choose to be). But, Foley was already a seasoned teacher and I was just getting my feet wet teaching the girls at the Care Center and Freshman Comp classes of yawpers for the ZooMass Undergraduate Writing Program (the “movies of the mind” writing guy, Peter Elbow).

For Jim, I don’t think there was a separation between his teaching life and his writing life, in fact, the one short story that garnered him a good amount of cred while we are at ZooMass was “Notes to a Fellow Educator.” I think Indiana Review published it in 2000. “Notes” is a candid account of what it’s like to helm a classroom in a rough part of Phoenix as an undertrained, suburban neophyte in a program like Teach for America or City Year.

Years later, Jim would go on to teach at a Cook County boot camp for youthful offenders in Chicago to raise money for him to pursue his Masters in Journalism from Northwestern. At the end of 2011, he was the only person I called up when I was offered a job by a crappy California charter school to teach inmates inside the Los Angeles County Jail. His opinion was the only one I wanted to hear. In many respects, I learned how to be an educator and an activist from Jim, and he was actually crashing at my apartment in Spanish Harlem when he got arrested alongside poet Daniel Johnson for protesting the Republican National Convention in NYC in  2004.

Y.P.: Talk about the content and purpose of Ghazals for James Foley which Hinchas Press is getting ready to publish. And could you address how the ghazal form informed a book that in many ways seems to be the mournful yet celebratory remembrance of a uniquely extraordinary individual?  

Y.S.C.: The idea to publish a book of ghazals for Jim came to us after having read an October 25, 2014 NY Times article, “The Horror Before the Beheadings.” The article discusses Jim’s conversion to Islam while he was being held in Syria. Naturally, the article begs the question of whether “any conversion under such duress [is] a legitimate one”? Using the ghazal’s form to “speak” with Jim made sense to us, I guess, because of how the form has addressed separation, mourning, and loss for at least an eon.

The year before we were set to start at ZooMass, a poetry professor there, Agha Shahid Ali, had assembled a book of ghazals, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (Wesleyan Press, 2000). Ali’s anthology contains more than one hundred “ravishing” ghazals, and establishes linguistic, historical criteria poets can utilize to contradict the petty claims championed by many American poets about the sonnet being “our” oldest poetic form. We wanted to speak to him perhaps using a form he might more easily authenticate, given his recent conversion to Islam. At the same time, I have always known that fool to be spiritually curious and seeking and on the prowl for better systems. During grad school, I remember him attending a meditative retreat, and that first year, he lived in a rectory a thousand feet off campus, and we almost got him kicked out of it for having a massive party there.

 

Trackbacks

  1. […] Yaddyra Peralta interviewed Yago S. Cura about his circuitous journey as a poet, librarian, teacher, blogger, and publisher—one that led him to cross paths with James Foley. […]

  2. […] Appel, Joy Castro, Yago S. Cura, Campbell McGrath, and Jason Smith. Visual Art by Mia Avramut, Hayli England, Janne Karlsson, Iryna […]

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