Work, faith bring success

Latino poet, ND prof wins fellowship.


By Pablo Ros

In the poetry of Orlando Menes, who writes in English about his life in the States and his Latin American origins, you sometimes find interspersed Spanish words or phrases. They are reminders of how inextricable from language experience sometimes is.

Menes, an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is Cuban American. That is why it’s so exciting that he is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for 2009.

Forty-two poets in the nation and four in Indiana received the prestigious award, which is given to published writers of exceptional talent and comes with a $25,000 stipend.

Menes — whose latest poetry collection, “Furia,” was published in 2005 by Milkweed Editions — is at work on his next book of poetry. He said it’s going to be a collection of poems in closed forms — sonnets, villanelles, pantoums — tentatively titled “Diaspora Son.”

The subject of the book will be “the nature of fatherhood,” Menes says, based on his experience as both father and son.

“I will ‘explore,’ as most poets like to say, my childhood in Peru, in the U.S., my life as a father, and also my life as a child,” Menes says.

Menes previously has explored aspects of his life in his poetry, which has been anthologized and has appeared in such literary magazines as Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Indiana Review, Epoch and Prairie Schooner. Born in Peru to Cuban parents, Menes grew up in Miami and later studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he received his doctorate degree.

He is raising two children with his wife, Ivis: Valerie, 9, and Adrian, 5.

Menes’ father was from Matanzas, Cuba, on the northern shore of the island, and left during the Cuban Revolution. He resettled with his family in Peru, where he managed a furniture factory.

Menes recalls rebelling against his father when, in his late 20s, he took up poetry, defying his father’s expectations. But writing was life-saving to him, in a way, for it allowed him to make sense of the “arduous years of decline” that characterized his teenage years, a period of uprootedness, but also of economic and emotional hardship for him and his family.

“A poem should not just be about language itself,” Menes says, “but driven by an engagement with the world of the living and the dead.”

One of the challenges for Latino writers, Menes says, is translating culture.

“Any poet who’s tapping an ethnicity,” he says, “a cultural sense of being, will bend language — to make sense of experiences that are not necessarily rooted in English society.”

Pat Mora, Dionisio Martinez and Martin Espada are just some of the Latino poets Menes says are not afraid of “the fire of language or the fire of childhood and memories and the fire of culture.”

The challenge for others is to understand your world.

Sometimes they do.

“Hard work and faith, hard work and faith,” Menes says. “Absolutely, the two roads to success.”