General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Cindy Williams Gutierrez reading Aztec inspired poetry

Nahua-inspired poetry

We’re joining forces with Cindy Williams Gutierrez, a US-based poet-dramatist who writes Nahua-inspired poems in English, and performs them accompanied by a Mexican musician on pre-Hispanic instruments. She is currently researching Nahua lullabies. Cindy writes:-

Love at First Sight

I fell in love with the Nahua culture in 2001 when I learned that they refer to poetry as “flower and song” — in cuica in xochitl in Nahuatl or floricanto in Spanish. Their unapologetic love for metaphor resonated deeply with me. I loved the way the Nahua created metaphor through what Mesoamerican scholar Miguel León-Portilla calls difrasismo — the joining of two concrete nouns to create a third, larger, more abstract idea. “Word and breath” is prayer, “clouds and mist” is mystery, and “spear and lance” is war.

That year I was the dramaturge for a play produced by the Miracle/Milagro Theatre Group in Portland, Oregon in celebration of Día de los Muertos. The visiting director, Daniel Jáquez of New York City, conceived of the show as a string of vignettes exploring this festival through the eyes of children. He wanted to incorporate storytelling, drama, music, dance, and poetry. He asked me, as the play’s dramaturge and as a poet, to incorporate poetry into the show—both my own and that of Nezahualcoyotl, the fifteenth-century Nahua poet-king who ruled the city-state of Texcoco. I immersed myself in the haunting words of one of the greatest tlamatinime, or Nahua sages. Then I was cast in the show as a narrator who spoke Nezahualcoyotl’s timeless words and was forever changed:-

Here only
Our heart sings
Briefly, briefly
Lent to one another

Gerardo Calderón
Gerardo Calderón (Click on image to enlarge)

From Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine to Tenochtitlan

Five years later in 2006, I enrolled in the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine to earn an MFA in Creative Writing. I entered the program open to possibilities, but intent on one thing: to study Nahua poetics. I was fortunate to have as my mentor Charles Martin, the award-winning translator of Latin poets, who shared my fascination with ancient civilizations. Under his tutelage, I began to study Nahua poetics and culture and to write persona poems (in English) in the voices of Nahua poet-nobles.

Then I studied meter with Annie Finch, Director of the USM Stonecoast Program and one of the foremost prosodists [someone who studies the metrical structure of verse] in contemporary America. She encouraged me to find a musician to accompany my Nahua-inspired poems. Through my association with the Miracle/Milagro Theatre, I met Gerardo Calderón, a musician originally from Mexico City who was a sound designer and composer for the Miracle and the musical director of Grupo Condor (www.grupo-condor.com), a Latin American folk music ensemble.

From Brutal Heart to Emerald Heart

“Why are you interested in writing poetry inspired by the Nahua?” This was the only question Gerardo asked me over coffee to determine whether or not to collaborate. I responded: “Because I want 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.” Then he said what he’s been saying to me every time a collaborative project has come our way over the past three and a half years, “Let’s do it!”

Cindy Williams Gutierrez
Cindy Williams Gutierrez (Click on image to enlarge)

Gerardo and I are artists — not anthropologists, linguists, or historians — so we have collaborated to re-imagine Nahua poetry and music. Our program called “The Poetry & Music of Ancient Poetry” features my Nahua-inspired poems accompanied by Gerardo on pre-Hispanic instruments — including clay flutes, wind and jaguar whistles, water drums, turtle shell, butterfly cocoon rattle, and rain stick — followed by a dialogue with the audience. We have performed at colleges, libraries, museums, and theatres throughout the U.S. Northwest for the past two years under the auspices of Humanities Washington’s Inquiring Mind series (www.humanities.org) and the Miracle/Milagro Theatre Group’s Luna Nueva series (www.milagro.org). In response to the strong interest in our work, we recently released our CD, Emerald Heart — named for the Nahua ancient ones who said: “Poetry and inquiry are the way to a pure heart, an emerald heart.”

Songs of Springtime and Death

Steeped in the oral tradition, Nahua poems were songlike, often chanted and accompanied by music and dance. The Nahua had many kinds of songs associated with seasons, rituals of life and death, and the preservation of oral history. There were songs of spring, death, women, the ancient ones, as well as provocative songs, eagle (or warrior) songs, to name a few.

My poem Xopancuicatl, or “Song of Spring” is inspired by a ritual that still occurs twice a year in June and December. 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.

My poem Miccacuicatl, or “Song for the Dead” is inspired by the Nahua cosmology which comprises thirteen heavens and nine underworlds. Ometeotl, or the God Above All — also known as the Dual God for possessing both masculine and feminine traits— resides in Omeyocan, the thirteenth heaven. This poem traces the journey of the soul through the nine regions of the underworld. It follows the soul as it is tested in Mictlan, the Land of the Fleshless, before returning to the God Above All in the highest heaven.

NOTE: These poems can be found in Cindy Williams Gutiérrez’s poetry collection the small claim of bones, Bilingual Review/Editorial Bilingüe (Arizona State University), to be published in 2012.

‘Song for the Dead’

‘Song of Spring’

Cindy Williams Gutierrez’ website
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