And Suddenly I Was Just Dancing by Tilsa Otta translated by Honora Spicer
Cardboard House | ISBN: 978-1-945720-27-7 | pp. 56 | February 15, 2023
The first thing you’ll notice when picking up And Suddenly I Was Just Dancing—which you should, grasp the physical object with your body—is the book’s surprising width, for a chapbook of poems, and its roughness to the touch: the covers are cardboard, the endpapers and interior pages bundled together and all glued together, the entire construction visible through the book’s naked spine. This unique method of assembly employed by Cardboard House Press is the result of their Cartonera Collective, which conducts workshops for community members in Phoenix, Arizona and Providence, Rhode Island to learn “to hand sew and bind pages, marble endpapers, linocut print, and create book covers from recycled cardboard.” The end product combines aesthetic, pedagogical, and cooperative efforts with a concern for sustainability in using recycled materials to create literary objects of art.
The Cartonera Collective continues the long history of cartonera publishing, a Latin American movement that sprang up in Argentina in 2003 and has since proliferated across the continent and throughout the world. The movement’s name derives from cartoneros, people who salvage waste and discarded recyclables to repurpose or sell. While Cardboard House has published a number of intriguing titles via these workshops, And Suddenly I Was Just Dancing is especially suited to this method of production. Indeed, themes of collectivity, reciprocity, and solidarity are central to this sampling of Peruvian poet Tilsa Otta’s ecstatic, celebratory, communitarian poetics.
Drawn from Otta’s books, La vida ya superó a la escritura (2018) and Antimateria (2014), this bilingual chapbook arranges poems on facing pages, so readers can enjoy the work in both English and Spanish. This allows comparative appreciation for where each language really shines. Contrast, for example, the slick iambs of “Solo fluyo” against the casually pedestrian, “I’m just flowing.” On the other hand, the unwieldy wordiness of “Como un baile presuntamente obsceno” trips over itself in comparison to the suggestive sibilance of “Like a dance supposedly obscene.” There is real pleasure, not only in the lyrical content, but also in bouncing between scripts, in reading between languages to embrace the reverberation. As Honora Spicer says in the Translator's Note, Otta’s lyrics enact a “carnal movement in Spanish,” and translating into English meant “not mimicking but moving sensuously in response.”
This dance surfaces also in the egalitarian spaces Otta’s speakers craft from the “natural beauty in the euphoria of living.” This is perhaps best exemplified by “Brand-New Heaven,” which depicts a reconfigured utopia, wherein individuals as disparate as English guitarist Marc Boland, American astronomer Carl Sagan, Ukrainian mystic Madame Blavatsky, and the girl from The Ring movies intermingle with figures like Selena, Amy Winehouse, Dolly the sheep, and Bulgarian seer Baba Vanga. But all these famous faces also mix with “unknown folx like us.” Otta finally extends the boisterous party’s invitation to readers themselves:
And we can go on and on like that forever
building paradise with our whims
with our fetishes our loves our vices
We’ll wait for you then
Don’t take too long
Dog-ear the page
We’ll be here
Canine imagery permeates the chapbook, including early references to perrero, an energetic dance associated with reggaeton that involves a particularly suggestive configuration of body parts. These images culminate in “Definitive Animal,” which both unleashes the feral wildness of dogs’ evolutionary ancestors and elevates the identity to that of a people through the language of the state:
Nationalize yourself Wolf
Remember your origin and spit up the fruit
Inscribe your laughter onto sheepskin
Rob, hunt, annihilate
Copulate with dogs
Copulate with she wolves
Get down on all fours
This is your anthem wolfdog
There’s no question that endeavors like the Cartonera Collective at Cardboard House Press contribute exciting new entries to the ongoing legacy of Latin American poetry in English translation. Likewise, and with luck, English-speaking readers will be able to revel in more of Tilsa Otta’s exuberant verse in the future.
Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the author of Yaguareté White (UAPress, 2024). Poems and book reviews have appeared online and in print, most recently at Freeman's, The Georgia Review, and Booklist. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.