‘Flower and Song’ Poetry of Mesoamerica – Through Courageous Eyes

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Courageous-Eyes-WebBanner-2This week Through Courageous Eyes features a collaborative pair of artists – the poet Cindy Williams Gutiérrez and musician Gerardo Calderón. Gutiérrez hails from Brownsville, TX and currently lives in Oregon City, Oregon. As a Latina poet and native-born American who believes in the notion of  “the Americas” that includes all parts of both American continents, she was drawn to Mesoamerican poetry. Calderón, originally from Mexico City, focuses on Latin American folk music using pre-Hispanic instruments.

The Through Courageous Eyes blog series features migrant and refugee artists and is curated by Cecilia Pessoa, LIRS Communications Associate.

The Poety & Music of Ancient Mexico-Pasco WA 007
Gerardo Calderón. Photo by Nelda Reyes.

Cindy Williams Gutiérrez is a poet-dramatist who has explored the poetry of the Nahuas, the seven Mesoamerican tribes who lived in the central valley of Mexico prior to the Spanish conquest. The poems in the recordings below were inspired by Nahua poetry and poetic styles. She says she “fell in love with the Nahua culture” when she “learned that they refer to poetry as ‘flower and song’ – ‘in cuica in xochitl’ in Nahuatl or ‘floricanto’ in Spanish.”

This style of metaphor – “the joining of two concrete nouns to create a third, larger, more abstract idea” – is called difrasismo in Spanish and is commonly used in Mesoamerican poetry. Some examples include “word and breath” as prayer, and “clouds and mist” as mystery. Several of these metaphors are used in the poems recorded below, “Xopancuicatl, or Song of Spring” and “Miccacuicatl, or Song for the Dead.”

“Xopancuicatl, or Song of Spring,” was inspired by a Nahua ritual that still occurs in June and December. Gutiérrez describes the event,

Though this ritual occurs close to the summer solstice, I call my poem “Song of Spring” because families present their newborns to the chief. This communal ritual begins after dark and ends at dawn, another symbolic mark of a new beginning. Families gather around an open fire in a 40-feet tepee, from which the smoke escapes through an opening at the top. The chief presides over the ceremony and recites prayers in Nahuatl accompanied by a percussionist.

Listen to “Xopancuicatl…” here: 

Photo by Nelda Reyes.
Cindy Williams Gutiérrez performing. Photo by Nelda Reyes.

Gutiérrez was encouraged by a mentor to find musical accompaniment for her poetry and met Gerardo Calderón, a musician originally from Mexico City. Calderón is the musical director for Grupo Condor, a Latin American folk music ensemble.

When Gutiérrez and Calderón met over coffee to discuss collaborating together he asked, “Why are you interested in writing poetry inspired by the Nahua?” She responded that she wanted “to help share and preserve the beauty and mystery of this indigenous culture of the Americas — particularly since it has often been viewed through the lens of brutality.”

With this they began their artistic collaborations – melding words and music, “flower and song.” Of how they collaborated for five years, Gutiérrez says,

I would give Gerardo a copy of my poem. As he sat next to me facing his instruments, I would read the poem aloud and then ask him, “What do you hear?” He would tell me and show me by playing the instruments that he thought would best accompany the poem.  Then he would ask me, “What do you think?”  I would often say, “Let’s try it.”  And we would.  Then I’d offer my thoughts, and he would offer his, and this iterative process would continue until we both felt it worked.  And the magic was that we both knew when it did.

After that process, she says, “We left it up to the muse and the spirits and the audience to inspire us for the rest.” The results are Nahua-inspired poetry accompanied by pre-Hispanic instruments including clay flutes, water drums, rain stick, butterfly cocoon rattle, turtle shell, and jaguar whistles.

Photo by Nelda Reyes.
Gerardo Calderón with pre-Hispanic instruments. Photo by Nelda Reyes.

Another piece formed through this collaborative process is “Miccacuicatl, or Song for the Dead,” which was inspired by the thirteen heavens and nine underworlds of Nahua cosmology.

In this poem the departed soul journeys through the underworld while carrying a jade bead and encountering wild beasts. At last it returns to Omeyocan, the thirteenth heaven where Ometeotl, or the God Above All, resides.

Listen to “Miccacuicatl…” here: 

Cindy Williams Gutierrez Photo-web
Photo by Nelda Reyes.

If you are interested in seeing more by these artists, Cindy Williams Gutiérrez’s poems are collected in a book called the small claim of bones published by Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press in 2014. She will be reading from her book, accompanied by Gerardo Calderón, at Stonehenge Gallery in Portland, Oregon on May 10, 2015. Gerardo and his wife Nelda Reyes, a duo called Nuestro Canto, will also perform songs in Mexican indigenous languages that evening.

Find all the previous posts in the Through Courageous Eyes series.

Through Courageous Eyes features the artistic work of refugees and migrants. If you would like to showcase your artwork as part of the Through Courageous Eyes series, please contact Cecilia Pessoa at cpessoa@lirs.org.

Banner photo credit: Johanan Ottensooser

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