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.

 

Yago S. Cura/Ghazals for James Foley

A video released by ISIS showed the beheading of American journalist and poet James Foley, who disappeared in November 2012 in Syria.

As a tribute to Foley, Hinchas Press is publishing Ghazals for Foley. The collection is curated by Argentine-American poet Yago S. Cura who was a personal friend of Foley.

The following poems are from the collection.

***

Ghazal for a Tall Boy From New Hampshire
by Martín Espada

For Jim Foley, journalist executed on video by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), August 19, 2014

The reporters called and asked me: Did you know him?
I was his teacher, I said many times that day. Yes, I knew him.

Once he was a teacher too, teaching in another mill town
where the mills have disappeared. There they knew him.

He taught the refugees cut adrift from an island of sugar cane
where the cane has disappeared. In Spanish they knew him.

They sounded out the English, made the crippled letters
walk across the page for him, all because they knew him.

He ate their rice and beans, held their infants, posed with them
for snapshots at the graduation. Ask them how they knew him.

Beliza, Mónica, Limary: with him they wrote a poem of waterfalls
and frogs that sing at night, so he could know them as they knew him.

We know his words are raining in the rain forest of the poem.
We cannot say what words are his, even though we knew him.

His face on the front page sold the newspapers in the checkout line.
His executioners and his president spoke of him as if they knew him.

The reporter with the camera asked me if I saw the video his killers
wanted us to see. I muttered through a cage of teeth: No. I knew him.

Once he was a tall boy from New Hampshire, standing in my doorway.
He spoke Spanish. He wanted to teach. I knew him. I never knew him.

***

Ghazal of Witness
by Daniel Mahoney

for James Foley

It’s hard to believe the arc of history bends toward justice when history
repeats every five minutes and justice is just a girl’s name.  Fix

yourself to the screen, try not to scream:  we wrack, we catch ourselves,  then
hang ourselves instead of our hats.   Did you hear?  The passengers are sick!

The moon’s a dead white fish!  Did you hear they killed Lorca?  Hung a sign
that said he was here until he wasn’t, here until the fascists

killed him.  They said: mariposa…mariposa….mariposa.  Which means butterfly
or faggot in Spanish.   His sister got a call in Madrid, said diga, which

means tell me or hello, then Lorca’s body fell dead through the phone.
My heart…  Jim, your face just now….  This is not the end of it….

Tyndale built his English bible from the original Hebrew & Greek,
so the church killed him twice:  strangled, then burned him.  History is witness.

We see through a glass, darkly, and we write to take a swing at the darkness.
The King James Bible is Tyndale; he lives in lines writers have ripped

for centuries.  O brother, dear brother.  We steal, we beg and borrow.
We burrow, go toe to toe, looking for truth because… Because Nazim Hikmet

said, the point is never to surrender.  If history is a lake of fire, a screen
on some kid’s Gameboy, then we are witness to rain, the very sun’s a gift,

and nothing is finished.  The sun still shines on the hill where they killed you
and the rain will never stop falling, even when we feel nothing but distance.

Jim, I have to tell you, when I saw you on the screen I didn’t know, until I knew.
And your body fell through me like rain.  And then the endless abyss.

A day later I brought my son to the cabin in Maine.  You remember?  He sat
where you sat looking out to sea.  His body a furious abundance, a drift

of your body, his face your face.  And that was all.  You are no further from me
than your work, growing as my son grows from the living truth of it.

These are the names:  Lorca, Hikmet, Tyndale, Foley.  Their words
speak louder than their deaths.  Their work is a ministry of witness.

***

Ghazal
by Shauna Seliy

How to thank the Jesuits of Malta, you asked me to help craft a letter
They’d prayed for you in your first captivity, you’ll remember.

You had a glass of water, the baby chewed your watch, then you vanished forever
Did I take you to the train? Say a serious goodbye? I don’t remember.

Walking with me into class, into parties, into bars, for years, remember?
Next to me, in movie theaters, libraries, cars. I wonder if you remember.

We got lost, a winter afternoon, Logan Square, Lake Street, North Avenue
We stood on some roof and looked at the skyline, one that maybe you’ll remember.

You kept up the spirits of the other prisoners, that’s what they remember.
But where are you now, and in that wherever, can you even remember?

“I ask for the captors to have mercy,” the prayer my sister made for you.
After they killed you, you came here, three loud birds in the tree next door, remember?

“I remember you two in class,” a friend says at your memorial. “You always sat together.”
Your laugh, so distinctive and loud, but how long will I remember?

I can’t hear my name said in your voice. Did you ever call me Shauna?
SS. Dude. Sister. Sweetie. Chica. For now, those are the words I remember.

***

Ghazal for James Foley
by Yago S. Cura

“Mr. [James] Foley converted to Islam soon after his capture and adopted the name Abu Hamza”
—Oct. 25, 2014 N.Y. Times article, “The Horror Before the Beheadings”

Hard for me to believe Jimbo didn’t convert under duress.
Although, I have always known him spiritually curious.

Easier to believe he proved syrup at fangs of alien vampires
intent on making him pay, leaving us lot spiritually curious.

Jimbo adopts name Abu Hamza because Hamza’s famous
for riding into Battle of Badir with an ostrich feather in his turban.
(how spiritually curious of him, no doubt!).

Hamza was a late convert to Islam; Jimbo came to journalism a seasoned teacher.
Both proved paladin interlopers, distinguished ball-busters of spirit: curious.

También, the manner in which both are cut down early in life, apenitas
after egress of civilians on H.D.M.I. proves too easy, of little spiritual curiosity.

Tell me Abu, how does an Abyssinian slave gamble on their manumission
by chucking a javelin into the abdomen of an O.G.-General, spiritually curious?

How does one roam into a ‘sitch so egregiously far from Lake Winnipesaukee?
How does one prevent their liver from turning into jewelry of spiritual curiosities?

Jimbo picks Moe’s right-hand man (I’m talking about Hamza here) because Jimbo knows Gabriel only shows himself to deniers of emerald escalators, not the spiritually curious.

Tell me Abu, why should I forgive the rabid—the rabbled, wracked with graphic cabals?
Estos matadores en balaclavas tyranny the Just, pimp the Innocent, and claim spiritual curiousity.

Torture ain’t stop Jimbo programming: specialist lectures, tournaments of Risk, faux
wrestling matches between the captives. For what? Morale, and to not lose spirit and curiosity.

Abu is kindness performed with militance; Jimbo is witness subsumed with service.
Together they shatter cisterns, premonition sprouts, listen to spirits, curiously.

A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of American journalist James Foley, who disappeared in November 2012 in Syria.