Originally printed July 21, 2010.
One of the oft-cited limitations of contemporary American poetry -- including the poetry produced by graduates of the Iowa Writers' Workshop -- is its inaccessibility. Readers often have to be as well-trained and academically astute as the poets themselves to appreciate all the nuances, sly allusions and small linguistic experiments. And the poets seldom offer a helpful hand to readers struggling to find meaning or purpose in the words.
That's definitely not the case with the "Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives/Fronteras: Dibujando las vidas fronterizas" (Wings Press), a recent book project by poet Steven P. Schneider and artist Reefka Schneider. Not only have the husband and wife team paired every poem with the drawing that initially inspired it, but the book stage of the Schneiders' broader project evolved from exhibits that the couple took on the road to schools and other educational settings throughout south Texas.
Steven Schneider, a 1977 graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop who now teaches at the University of Texas-Pan American, said the couple has long had an educational purpose in mind for the project. They describe "Borderlines/Fronteras" as a text -- appropriate for use in high school and college classes as well as for everyday reading -- that demonstrates how to cross the borders between:
• Art and poetry.
• Academically aware poetry and a broader, popular audience.
• English and Spanish.
• The physical border between the U.S. and Mexico and the different ways that imaginary line echoes symbolically throughout both nations.
The "Borderlines/Fronteras" project began in 2001, when Steven Schneider came to teach in Texas, and Reefka Schneider began to draw portraits of people on both sides of the border. Once Reefka had amassed more than 100 drawings, Steven chose the 25 most engaging and began a four-year process of writing poems in response to the visual images. He then worked with bilingual poet José Antonio Rodriguez to translate the poetry so that reading through "Borderlines/Fronteras" would be a dual-language, integrated-arts experience.
With readings scheduled in New York, Rhode Island, Florida, New Mexico and Iowa City (7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights), the Schneiders now are hoping to attract a broader, national audience for the book stage of their project. (Interested readers can follow the couple's progress at http://poetry-art.com.)
"The border has moved north," Steven Schneider said. "There is still the Rio Grande, of course. But (through farm labor and working in meatpacking plants) the influx of immigrants from Mexico and Latin America has come as far north as states like Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota."
At the very least, "Borderlines/Fronteras" is a helpful primer for anyone looking to improve their Spanish or English reading skills. At its best, however, "Borderlines/Fronteras" is a model for the type of cross cultural understanding and communication that needs to take place to ensure a healthy and comprehensive national debate on immigration issues.
Sandra Cisneros, a workshop graduate and MacArthur fellow who has spent decades urging writers to be more culturally relevant, describes the Schneiders' poetic/artistic portraits as, "Ordinary folks rendered with love, compassion and intimacy at a time in which love, compassion, and intimacy are in short supply on borders, especially when it comes to the Tex/Mex border."
Thus "Borderlines/Fronteras" also is welcome reminder that legacy of the Iowa Writers' Workshop is not just the linguistically and formally challenging work of poets such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Jorie Graham. The workshop's legacy also includes the poets and writers such as Cisneros and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove who continually call on literary artists to be more actively, socially and politically engaged in the world around them.