Author Interview: Lori M. Carlson on Red Hot Salsa

Red Hot Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Being Young And Latino in the United States edited by Lori M. Carlson, introduction by Oscar Hijuelos (Henry Holt, 2005). From the anthologist who brought us Cool Salsa, this new collection reaches farther and deeper, chronicling the perspective of young Latinos today. Includes helpful glossary and biographical notes. Featured poets include Gary Soto. Ages 12-up. See more of my thoughts on Red Hot Salsa.

What was your inspiration for Red Hot Salsa?

Eleven years ago I published Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing up Latino in the U.S. This poetry anthology took the publishing world by surprise. Not only was it a landmark book–a book of its type had never been done before–but it was critically acclaimed and commercially successful. I have been told by librarians that it is now considered “a classic.” And yet Cool Salsa, for all the enthusiasm and appreciation it generated, never really made, let’s say, a splash. By that I mean, it wasn’t one of those books that was on the radar in the media. It found its way quietly to its readers because the Latino population in those years wasn’t on the radar of the nation’s media, either.

I had been asked to do a companion volume to Cool Salsa by my editor but I never felt compelled to do so, because I don’t like to repeat my book efforts. And yet, a few years ago, I suddenly realized that 10 years seemed like a publishing anniversary of sorts. And so much had changed in the U.S. vis a vis the Latino population–in a good and inspiring way.

One day, while riding the bus down Broadway, I was inspired to do Red Hot Salsa. I experienced an epiphany. Cool Salsa needed a follow-up.

What was the timeline between spark and publication? And what were the major events along the way?

The timeline was just over a year. Red Hot Salsa, unlike Cool Salsa, was formed in a very timely fashion. First, because I had a model from which to work and secondly I had a new tool in my office: the internet.

What made Cool Salsa so hard to create was finding the poets and getting their permission to include their work. I remember one poet in particular whom I just couldn’t locate. I had discovered a beautiful poem by him–of a somewhat religious nature–in an obscure little magazine. I don’t remember the name of the publication, but it looked as if it had been published on a shoestring budget. Anyway, after months and months of trying to locate him, I did! It turned out that he was a penitente in New Mexico. And he decided not to let me include the poem because he felt he couldn’t enter into any kind of “commercial” exchange. Fascinating. I still have the poem in a file…and I read it occasionally when I am asked to speak.

Red Hot Salsa emerged in a very different way. I found people quickly online. I found the poems by tootling around in musty libraries, magazines, vanity publications, self-published journals, little bookshops, churches, language institutions, my old folders that contain excerpts, poems, and stories from years of research–I love research–and even friends’ homes (personal libraries can offer up a plethora of literary delights).

What were the challenges in bringing the anthology to life?

Unlike writing a novel–a challenge that both of us have experienced–editing a collection of bilingual poetry is more about sensibility. Of course, there are challenges; particularly in the art of translation. (Translating poetry requires precision of thought as well as faithfulness in one’s own interpretive and writing skills. And I might do six to ten versions of one poem before I settle on the final translation.)

But specifically, regarding Red Hot Salsa, I would say the major challenge to me as the editor of the book was psychological in nature. I was concerned that people who so loved Cool Salsa would not embrace the “second” volume as much. And so I put myself through a very, very rigorous process of selection. I agonized over the choices, constantly second-guessing myself and my instincts. I thought–and there is no better way of saying this than by simply being blunt–that the critics were going to be tough on me because Red Hot Salsa was a follow-up. Cool Salsa got stars from every single major publication that reviewed it. While I know that the quality of the poetry I chose for Cool Salsa is part of the reason for the stars, the other part is simply “the novelty” or invention of something that hadn’t been done before.

But I am very grateful to the reviewers of Red Hot Salsa, as they have been very positive about the volume. And I did get a star–from School Library Journal–which just thrilled me. Really, thrilled me.

Cynsational News & Links

An Interview with Kathianne M. Kowalski from Northern Ohio SCBWI. “Kathi is a prolific writer with over 375 articles and stories to her credit. Her list of 17 books for young people includes titles such as: Order in the Court: A look at the Judicial Branch (Lerner, 2004), The Everything Kid’s Nature Book (Adams Media, 2000), and Global Warming (Marshall Cavendish, 2004). Her topics range from political science to space science to alternative medicine.”

Pooja Makhijani offers a middle/high school teacher’s guide and a reading group guide for her anthology, Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America (Seal Press, 2004). Perfect for middle and high school literature classes.