Tenth Biennial Conference in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico

Since 2005 the William Carlos Williams Society Biennial Conference has brought together writers, literary and cultural historians, and independent scholars to discuss Williams’s writing and its relationships to modern poetry and other literary forms––in North America and in other areas of the world. The 2024 conference, Crossing Borders / Cruzando Fronteras, convened at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Mayagüez February 15–17, 2024.

Our gathering in Mayagüez was a significant event in the study of Williams’s contributions to poetry and literary history. Mayagüez is the birthplace of Williams’s mother, Raquel Héléna Rose Hoheb Williams. It is also the city where his uncle and namesake, Carlos Hoheb, practiced medicine. While honoring Williams’s Hispanic heritage, the conference in Mayagüez offered poets, translators, and literary scholars the opportunity to discuss Williams’s life-long engagement with Puerto Rican literature and culture, as well as to explore a major modernist poet many contributions as a translator­­—including the issues of borders and translation his work raises, whether linguistic, geographic, or cultural.

Williams visited Puerto Rico in 1941 and 1956. In 1941 he attended the First Inter-American Writers’ Conference of the University of Puerto Rico, a ten-day international gathering of writers at the university’s campus in Río Piedras near San Juan. “In his featured lecture on poetic form,” writes Jon Cohen, Williams emphasized that Latin America had much to offer the writers of the United States, and that its vital function was ‘To introduce us to Spanish and Portuguese literature — pure and simple. And if to that literature, to make us familiar with its forms as contrasted with our own. For instance,’ he said, ‘What influence can Spanish have on us who speak a derivative of English in North America? To shake us free for a reconsideration of the poetic line.’” As Cohen documents, one of the organizers of the conference, Muna Lee, wrote to Williams following the conference to praise Williams’s appreciation of Latin American literature and his call for inter-American exchange among poets of the New World. Following the conference, Lee wrote to Williams: “Ripples and phosphorescence still mark your Caribbean passage,” she wrote. “You may be sure that Puerto Rico will not forget you and has very evidently taken you to her heart as her prodigal son.”

The biennial in Mayagüez furthered our understanding of Williams’s dedication to the translation of Spanish and Latin American poems. As early as the first book-length study of the poet, William Carlos Williams (1950), published by New Directions Press in the Makers of Modern Literature Series, Vivienne Koch commented on this dedication. “As the translations indicate, Williams’ curiosity is not limited by his own creative commitments. The considerable gift which he has brought to the exacting discipline of making foreign works available to an English-reading audience deserves wider recognition than it has yet to receive” (261). In the decades since, this recognition has come. This scholarship includes a groundbreaking book by one of the keynote speakers and  roundtable panelists, Julio Marzán’s The Spanish
American Roots of William Carlos Williams
(1996); a book by one of the conference, Peter Ramos, entitled Poetic Encounters in the Americas: Remarkable Bridge (2019), that examines the ways that U.S. and Latin American modernist canons have been in cross-cultural, mutually enabling conversation, especially through the act of literary translation; and we now have an indispensable collection of Williams’s translations of Spanish-language poetry, By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959 (2011), edited by Jonathan Cohen—one of our speakers and panel facilitators, who is also editor of the centennial edition of Williams’s Al Que Quiere! and his translation of the Spanish Golden Age novella by Pedro Espinosa, The Dog and the Fever.

More broadly, the conference in Mayagüez furthered a transnational dialogue on American modernism that promises further scholarly collaborations. We are especially interested in individual and collaborative efforts to unsettle conventional readings of modernism in ways that acknowledge the intellectual intersections of (post)colonial Latin American and US literary history. As one of the organizers of the conference, and one of our speakers, Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, argues, “the Latinx and Spanish-language dimensions of Williams’s formative years are not—and indeed, cannot be—separated from the ostensibly Americanized, monolingual man he often projected in public.” For indeed, as Herlihy-Mera explains, “Williams’s work has many parallels to other writers—like Junot Díaz, Gianna Brasci, and Edwidge Danticat—who also work in between Caribbean and US cultural spaces, and in between traditionally separate linguistic spaces. And the cross- and interlingual nature of their English language expressions (in fiction, poetry, prose, interviews, translations, and correspondence) could be read similarly through the nuances and harmonizations with other languages and their philosophies, a concept that indeed complicates the notion that multilingual authors have a single ‘native’ language or culture. (1088)

Our Tenth Biennial Conference was supported by the extraordinary contributions of the talented and dedicated faculty and staff in Mayagüez. We are especially grateful to Linda M. Rodriguez Guglielmoni, Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, Rosa I. Román Perez, Hugo Ríos-Cordero, and Jose Irizarry. The conference received generous support from the UPRM Department of English and the Department of Humanities, as well as the Mellon Foundation initiative, Nuevos Horizontes en Estudios Culturales y Humanísticos en Puerto Rico. More details about the conference, participants and presentations, and a reading list, will remain available on the conference web site William Carlos Williams: Crossing Borders / Cruzando Fronteras

From the Conference

A pre-keynote interview with Marta Aponte Alsina, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and literary critic, and author of La Muerte Feliz de William Carlos Williams

Julio Marzán, poet, writer, scholar, and author of The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams

Ivette Romero, Professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she is founder of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, and founder of the amazing Repeating Islands blog hosting the Poetry Reading during our dinner at DeRaiz Restaurant

Poets, scholars, and translators extraordinaire: Julio Marzán, Peter Ramos, and Jonathan Cohen

Stephen Hahn, professor emeritus of English, William Paterson University, commenting on the documentary evidence provided by Williams’s use of prescription pads in the process of making poems

María del Carmen Quintero Aguiló, Department of English, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Mayagüez, presenting her talk on Kamau Brathwaite’s Tidalectics in William Carlos Williams’s ‘Flowers by the Sea’”

Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, professor of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez and the founding Director of the Instituto Nuevos Horizontes, funded by the Mellon Foundation, presenting his talk “Medicinal Poetry: Words, Places, Code-Switching, and Healing in William Carlos Williams’s Language.”

Event Posters

Photo Credits: Mark C. Long. Poster credits: Hugo Ríos-Cordero