Victor Hernández Cruz visited Harlem recently to read from his latest collection of poems, The Mountain in the Sea (Coffee House Press, 2006). He also treated the 20 or so guests, who gathered at the home of fellow poet Quincy Troupe and his wife, Margaret, to a selection of favorite verses from his previous books.
The gathering was also in honor of Cruz being named the chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, the first Latino to hold the post since the Board of Chancellors was established in 1946. The American Academy of Poets was the impetus behind the creation of National Poetry Month, observed each April, which was started in 1996 to raise the visibility and importance of poetry in American culture.
“I’m still trying to figure out what being in this position affords me,” he says, laughing. “But this appointment is for six years, and I’m looking forward to working with this fine group of poets.”
“We get to read lots of manuscripts and judge who gets the prestigious Academy of American Poets Fellowships and the Wallace Stevens Awards,” he adds. “We get to celebrate poets who are already published and highlight rising poets, the ones waving manuscripts around, going to readings and still having to pay their dues.”
Cruz was born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico, in 1949 and later moved with his family moved to New York, where he grew up on the ethnically diverse Lower East Side of Manhattan. He attended public schools in New York City before moving to Berkeley, California, in 1968. He has taught at the University of California at Berkeley,
the University of California at San Diego, and the University of Colorado at Boulder
Cruz says that at first he wanted to be painter. Later, he started reading quite a lot, and his expressions started leaning towards writing, and those expressions lead to poetry.
“I’ve been writing for forty years, and writing has kept me off the streets,” Cruz says.
He began writing at the age of 15 about growing up in Puerto Rican barrios and in the urban landscape of New York City.
“The first book, Papo Got His Gun, was published in September 1966. I don’t know if it really qualifies for a first book, it was more like a booklet, a chapbook; it was done on an old mimeograph machine. It was rough looking with lots of errors and the errata was two pages long, but my friends and I walked it around ourselves to bookstores that were available like the Eighth Street Bookstore, and we walked around with it. It was quite an experience; we had done it ourselves, self-published it.”
Cruz’s first “real” book, Snaps, was published by Random House in 1969, when he was 20. Since then, he has written several collections of poetry and has edited a handful.
He was nominated for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and the International Griffin Poetry Prize. He received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Cruz confessed that he still has no idea exactly how his work became connected to the Nuyorican Poetry Movement of the 1960s, although he has been credited as one of the movement’s founders.
“I must have done that [help shape the movement] without even thinking about it, without knowing that was my mission,” he says. “I had heard about the Nuyorican Poets Café. And I guess I became associated with the Nuyorican school because of certain thematic references in my work, growing up in Puerto Rican barrios; and then writing in my second book, Mainland, about my cultural and national experiences because I was talking about California and my experiences of traveling through the country and being out West.”
These days, Cruz splits his time between his native homeland and Morocco, with his wife and young son.
Regarding his work nowadays, Cruz says he wonders if inspiration and identification go together.
“I write more in terms of a mission and a plan than I do based on an inspiration,” he says. “I like history, and I like to contradict history, and unweave history, and imagine history. My themes have been about Caribbean history, the conquest, and the subsequent colonization, and the mixing of different ethnic groups that have gone down that make us as a people. I like to illuminate the bridges of history. The history of the indigenous elements. “
Cruz says people may think poetry is marginalized today, but he feels that is not the case.
“Poetry is the center of the present moment, more so than any other art,” he says. “It’s there, right now. It’s the center of the emotional life of a generation. And poetry is very political even it doesn’t say anything about any political situation, be it left or right. Writing and language is a social act.”
Cruz’s advice to aspiring poets is very simple: Do not be in a rush.
“Time and duration are the real teachers,” he says. “And there are certain things that come to you with time without your even being aware of it, and it becomes a part of you. Different little revelations that kind of guide you and direct you towards finding your own voice.”
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