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Tracing Traditional Mesoamerican Culture in 20th-century American Poetry

June 10, 2013

Edgar Garcia (English) is working on a dissertation that links Mayan hieroglyphics, Mesoamerican cartography, Amazonian shamanism, and Latin American literature to 20th-century American poetry.

It is tentatively titled “Red Word: Indigenous Representational Technologies and the 20th Century Revolutionizing of the Word” and advised by Wai Chee Dimock, Langdon Hammer, and Anthony Reed.

The first poets Edgar remembers reading were Percy Bysshe Shelley and Arthur Rimbaud, “two youthful runaways whose iconoclastic biographies made more sense to me than their poems did at the age of 14. … Though I couldn’t understand what their poems meant at the time, there seemed to me to be something tremendously meaningful there that hooked me. I decided then that I would make this thing my life’s pursuit.”

As an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, Edgar had been a medievalist and was “a professed early Americanist” when he arrived at Yale. “My work here in American literature has made me keenly aware that you can’t talk about America without talking about the Americas. We live in a cultural environment whose climate is greatly impacted by activity across the hemisphere.” His own parents fled Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1970s to escape political persecution. Growing up in California, Spanish was the language spoken at home, but “it was only later that I connected the study of poetry with a study of my immediate sociolinguistic background,” he says.

In his dissertation, Edgar analyzes the works of writers in the 20th century “whose so-called literary innovations were based on encounters with the indigenous peoples, languages, and poetries of the Americas.” Some of the writers he studies are Jaime de Angulo, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Robert Barlow, Charles Olson, Edward Dorn, William Burroughs, Michael Taussig, Alberto Urista, and Oscar Zeta Acosta. Each of these writers “encountered and adapted indigenous ways of knowing and communicating into their poetic systems,” he says.

Mesoamerican “representational technologies seemed to be behind a number of their literary experiments.” Edgar studies the ancient Maya script, “a complex writing system with its own set of changing cultural assumptions and possibilities that I find very interesting and very pertinent. In one chapter of my dissertation, I focus on how both accurate interpretations and misinterpretations of Maya script resulted in formal literary experiments. In other chapters, I do the same with pictography, Mesoamerican cartography, Amazonian shamanic performance, and Nahuatl cosmography. My conclusion is that the literary experiments based on indigenous representational technologies bear traces of indigenous ways of knowing and self-knowing, complicating our understanding of American literary history in the 20th century.”

While many students in the humanities consider doctoral research to be a lonely endeavor, Edgar finds himself “in a larger conversation with friends in my department and others. The amicable rigor elicited by mutual exploration of a given topic from a variety of perspectives has been extremely rewarding. And, of course, the mentorship and guidance that I’ve received from faculty have been invaluable.”

Edgar is also a poet in his own right. His poems “take as their basic context the contradictions, complications, and antagonisms of life on the American hemisphere. And I am fortunate enough to say that a few of them have appeared in some of my favorite publications, including Big Bridge, Damn the Caesars, and Mandorla.” A chapbook of his poetry was recently published by Punch Press.

Here is a sample of his poetry.

the wind is a canoe on the sea
said under my breath
seeing neither the sea
nor a canoe nor the wind

but a multiform pressing down
                     on the waves

           to make the waves
over which some invisibility moves

maybe it is like that
          maybe not

it could be that one is a strand
lengthways on a cloth
crossed by another
sagging under a heavy weight

like paper under ink
like stone under the beating light

the light’s tail is also a snake
and the snake
opens out to the water
          so I wrote
the wind is a canoe on the sea

In addition to his poetry and scholarship, Edgar and friends launched a publication called Hydra Magazine and co-curated a blog on shamanism and metamorphosis. He also serves as a mentor for the PEN America Prison Writing Program and volunteer youth outreach. Next fall, he will teach an undergraduate course in creative writing, “Reading Poetry for Craft” (ENGL 135), and a composition course, “Anthropologies of Literature/Literatures of Anthropology” (ENGL 115).