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Cover Story: Breaking the Rules

Castillo's poetry is irreverent, witty, passionate and intensely political

By John Stoehr · June 28th, 2001 · Cover Story

Poet Ana Castillo has never done anything by the book. Born in Chicago in 1953, she has constantly broken the rules.

She breaks the mono-linguistic rule by writing a Chicana-brand of poetry in both Spanish and English, effortlessly intermingling the Latinate and Germanic languages, often breeding them into an intriguing hybrid. But it's not "Spanglish" -- it's something more lyrical and thus more poetic.

She violates the gender rules by continuously flaunting her lesbian sexuality in her writing and in her politics, almost shoving it in readers' faces like a yonic girl-power slice of avocado -- complete with militant clitoral pit.

For literary critics still seeking and lauding the Enlighten-ment ideal of "The Great Chain of Being" in all "great" literature, Castillo pisses them off by lacing her work with powerful if not acidic feminist political commentary.

And she basically circumvented the whole higher education hegemony by getting her Ph.D. in American Studies from Germany's University of Bremen, to which she submitted an extremely postmodern dissertation, Massacre of the Dreamers, on exploring the nature of "Xicanisma," Castillo's invented term that displaces the common understanding of Chicana feminism.

Massacre is an experimental tome and could be mistaken for a crazy lady's diatribe against anyone with a penis. But, as University of Cincinnati English professor Amy Elder claims, Castillo's method and ideology are closely intertwined.

"Castillo's desire to experiment," says Elder, "is a reflection of the desire of many feminists, not just Chicana feminists, to move away from proscribed forms."

Coming from so many directions and manipulating a number of genres ­ from letters to novels, from poetry to essays -- might engender a disjointed and haphazard oeuvre, but Elder sees uniformity in Castillo's output. "I just see a tremendous organic unity in her theory and politics and even in the forms she uses to express herself."

After five volumes of poetry, three novels ­ her Mixquihuala Letters won the 1987 American Book Award ­ a book of short stories and a play, Castillo hit the poetry bookseller's list again last year with her much-anticipated sixth book, I Ask the Impossible, which came out in paperback in March.

Irreverent, witty, passionate and intensely political, much of I Ask the Impossible is like hearing the voice of Carl Sandburg if he'd had a Mexican accent. Though Castillo would chafe at the comparison, she can hardly deny the similarities, especially in her homage to her hometown, "Chi-Town Born and Bred, Twentieth-Century Girl Propelled with Flare into the Third Millen-nium." Like a be-bopping runaway train, "Chi-Town" is a litany of Windy City good and evil.

Beyond the Sandburgian free flow, Castillo brings to the fore her own unique voice, rife with the pain of ethnic life in the United States, the joys of a rich and diverse Mexican-American past and the struggles of her Chicana present. At 48, she's still regarded as a young writer and one who's likely to continue to fight the good fight and to break the rules for years to come. ©



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