San Antonio’s visual artists, musicians, performing artists, and writers have been granted ample opportunity to reflect on their city’s past during the Tricentennial year. Given the occasion, many have played the role of historian, reaching back into the city’s past to create a layered tapestry of historical accounts and personal visions.
Thirty Poems for the Tricentennial: A Poetic Legacy, in the Culture Commons Gallery at Plaza de Armas, is just the latest opportunity for a deep dive into local history.
I was born Mizquitl
though I would soon hear my name mispronounced:
Mesquite, to Spanish expeditions of colonization.
The lines are by Kamala Platt from her poem “’La Posta del Palo Alto’ as San Antonio Poeta, 1935,” which imagines the experience of a 200-year old native tree witnessing history from its Westside home. Platt is one of 30 poets chosen for the exhibition, which paired writers with graphic designers to realize arresting visual displays from poetic excerpts.
Taken as a whole, Thirty Poems presents reflections of the conflict, triumph, glory, pain, and pleasures that have combined to make San Antonio what it is today.
In “El Paradiso de Texas,” Dario Beniquez writes of the experience of his grandfather’s grandfather, witnessing changes to a formerly borderless paradise wrought by colonial expansion:
Men that galloped through Tejas with lances, swords, and muskets, corralling our people …
Men that taught our people about a god that suffered and died, just like us.
Ana Garcia, a freelance designer, illustrator, and artist, was asked to create a display for the poem, which would ultimately be rendered in multi-color cut vinyl on the walls of the Culture Commons.
Garcia said she tried to evoke old “Wanted” posters in a design that emphasized Beniquez’s words. “I saw the connection with old-time Texas, Mexican, and Spanish colonial times, from the 1700s and so on,” she said. In her design work, she said, “I’m all over vintage signage, and I tried to incorporate that.”
Garcia was selected by Rigoberto Luna, an artist, designer and cut-vinyl specialist, as one of 19 designers to be paired with poets for the show. Luna had been invited by Sebastian Guajardo, special projects manager for the Department of Arts and Culture, to repeat the work he’d done in facilitating a similar 2015 exhibition by poet laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero.
This time, Luna asked to curate the group of designers, based on how their visual sensibilities worked with the content of the poems.
“I requested that I would get an opportunity to personally curate designers for this project that I thought were doing really cool stuff in the community,” he said, citing examples like illustrated covers for the San Antonio Current, individually-made merchandise, and underground design culture.
Luna’s goal was to employ people at different levels of design, he said, from “super professionals” like Rolando Murillo to zine makers like Isabel Castro. “The big thing for me is I like to mix the crowd as much as possible, mix talents as much as possible, so everybody’s represented,” Luna said.
Begun in the summer of 2017, the entire process took 18 months. A total of 308 poets submitted work, including some from far outside the region. “It was interesting to see the contest attract writers from other parts of the country who felt inspired to weigh in on this theme of San Antonio’s Tricentennial. It opened up the conversation, so to speak, and showed that our theme resonated nationally,” Guajardo said.
Gemini Ink worked to whittle the selection down to 108 poems, which were sent to a panel of four nationally-recognized poets – Rodney Gomez, Patricia Spears Jones, Urayoán Noel, and Sasha West. The panel chose the 30 winning poets that form the exhibition.
While Guajardo said they sought poets from San Antonio and Texas, they were pleased to see entries from outside the state. Those include Ravi Shankar, an award-winning and widely published author from New York, and Cassandra Farrin, a poet and editor in Idaho.
Farrin’s poem “The First Jews of San Antonio” received a striking visual treatment by designer Danielle Cunningham, who rendered the poem in the shape of a large, ultramarine blue Star of David. Following the form of the single-sentence poem, the text runs in small white letters inside the angular star.
The single sentence was deliberate, Farrin said, to read “like a held breath. When do the First Jews of San Antonio get to rest?” she asked. “It’s actually a very controlled poem than relies a lot on grammar and punctuation, but in such a way that the subjects lean toward release.”
Luna appreciated the challenge of working with a range of design approaches. “Every single one of those poems has a different technique to how they were printed and installed,” he said, and that he’s pleased with the results.
Two poems are visible even when the Plaza de Armas building is closed. Verse from “San Antonio River by Concepción Mission 1740,” by Lisha Adela García, and “Paleta Man” by Eduardo Vega, are on display in street-facing windows on the south side of the building, adjacent to San Pedro Creek.
Also, a free chapbook of all poems featured in the exhibition is available at the Culture Commons gallery, with 66 pages of poetry grouped in era-specific categories, from “Pre-Columbian or Yanaguana (prior to 1718)” to “Modern Times (1947-2017).” Inside is a rich compendium of voices, some rarely heard even in contemporary updates to San Antonio historical events.
In “Lines in the Sand,” local poet Carolyn Chatham gives voice to Susanna Dickinson, a lesser-known personage present for the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, and with her infant daughter, one of its few survivors. The poet’s imagined Dickinson character holds a different perspective on the notorious Mexican general who won the battle, then lost the war for Texas independence:
In truth, I think Santa Anna was a better man than history later painted him.
He drew no line in the sand for me.
He offered choices instead.
Thirty Poems will extend well into San Antonio’s 301st year, running now through April 25. Two poetry readings will take place on subsequent Thursdays, April 4 and 11, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., with poets reading their work featured in the show. More information is available here.