Code-switching drives my poetry and brings me to read a variety of text, listen to a great deal of recordings, and attend as many readings as possible to keep that interest moving forward. It would be great if “moving forward” led to some grand destination, a poetry nirvana, where all my questions regarding meter, line length, white space, tone and style were magically answered. (Actually, that sounds like a step-by-step textbook guide to poetry, a resource that is definitely not my idea of poetry nirvana.) The place where all this code-switching leads me is not a final destination but a transit terminal where myriad tunnels intersect and lead to more terminals; in effect, a place more full of questions then answers—a true poetry nirvana.
When speaking of code-switching conversations tend to gravitate toward negotiating between two spoken languages, in my case that would be Spanish, the mother tongue I was born into, and English, the adopted tongue I’ve grown up speaking. If it was as simple as that, I’d just grab a Spanish-English dictionary and call it a day, but it’s not since I’ve never spoken a pure Spanish and never spoken a true English. To paraphrase William Carlos Williams: I don’t speak English; I speak American.
And by American I’m talking about North, South and the Space Between America, as my personal idiom is a combination of Ecuadorian Castilian, Puerto Rican Spanish (sped up with some Dominican influences), and the mishmash that is New York City English. All these mixed dialects have served me well in my personal quest to achieve poetic nirvana. It’s let me understand that the true language in American Poetry is code-switching. From Walt Whitman setting it off by shattering iambic pentameter and freeing future American Poets to write as they speak, to William Carlos Williams’ Spanish American roots, to Ezra Pound’s fascination with Chinese characters, to Langston Hughes claiming the rhythms and cadences of the Black Experience, to the Beats’ appropriation of Jazz and Buddhism, to the Nuyorican Poets’ exploration of immigrant slang, to the Slam Movement’s attempt to democratize poetry; American Poetry continues to be informed by code-switching between languages, music, and cultures.
Examples of this new lingua franca, one that embraces diversity over absolutes, can be found in the work of Patricia Smith, who has taken the lessons from countless live performances in various venues and combined that with the rigor of a Creative Writing MFA to produce Blood Dazzler, a poetry collection that is as intense in its examination of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath as it is lyrically jubilant in celebrating the resilient spirit of the people of New Orleans. Smith’s code-switching is not just her use of African-American vernacular but also about her keen ear for what works in live readings and in prosodic analysis.
Consider the work of Bob Holman and his current project: On the Griot Trail. Holman is not only trying to document the poetries of endangered languages but is also bringing a spotlight to the poetics of preliterate societies that utilize orature, unwritten poetics, to disseminate traditions. In these cultures, there is no debate over what constitutes an authoritative speaker versus an unreliable narrator, only the code-switching between everyday speech and the decalamatory voice.
Today, I find myself code-switching in the poetry world all the time as I negotiate the middle ground between orature and literature, track how Hip-hop has traveled from the Boogie Down to the pages of American Letters, weigh the pros and cons between self-publishing and the contest route, figure out when a poem shifts from the confessional to the political, and measure when the overtly political doesn’t speak for the political subconscious. And if there is any one language that ties this all together, I would say it’s the language of poetry.