Cincinnati's New Poet Laureate Is a Man of Many Well-Chosen Words

Manuel Iris, who has just published a bilingual anthology of his award-winning Spanish verse, hopes to get everyone interested in reading and writing poetry.

click to enlarge Manuel Iris, Cincinnati's new poet laureate - PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
Manuel Iris, Cincinnati's new poet laureate

Manuel Iris, Cincinnati’s new poet laureate, describes the subject he loves this way: “Poetry is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

And his writing does exactly that.

For instance, in one of his poems, “Ars poetica” — from his latest book, Translating Silence, a bilingual Spanish and English anthology of his past work — he takes the time to deeply contemplate something which most people wouldn’t give a second thought: the fate of a leaf on a tree. Iris finds beauty in the extraordinary stubbornness of a yellow leaf fighting to stay attached to its branch through bad weather. Thus, he decides to preserve the leaf’s tenacity in a poem:

“I watch her battle

against wind and rain

against gravity

Her persistence

does not deserve oblivion.

That is why

I put her here

in this verse

from which she will not fall.”

Translating Silence, published this year, has been nominated as a finalist in two categories of the International Latino Book Award — for bilingual and translated works. In September, Iris will fly out to Los Angeles for the ceremony to hear the results. Each of the finalists in the categories will receive either an award or an honorable mention.

If that poem about the leaf strikes you as so beautiful you want to read or hear more poetry, or perhaps even try to write it, you’ll have support from Iris. Encouraging poetry appreciation is an important part of his duties as the City Council-appointed poet laureate. For the next two years, he says, his job is to promote poetry appreciation and encourage the reading and writing of poetry throughout the city.

“I have complete freedom to develop how to do that,” he says.

One way he’ll achieve his goal is through launching a poetry reading series. Each month, the readings — titled “All We Have in Common” — will be held at different sites.

He’s taking over the position vacated by Cincinnati’s first poet laureate, Pauletta Hansel. 

“I feel confident that Manuel will make an excellent poet laureate, building on initiatives begun during my term and, more importantly,  bringing his own passions and creativity to the post, making it his own,” she says.

Iris, who is 34 and a native of Mexico, received a degree in Latin American Literature from the Autonomous University of Yucatán. He then came to the United States in 2006 to receive a master’s degree in Spanish and Hispanic American Literature from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. He subsequently received a doctorate in Romance Languages ​​from the University of Cincinnati.

After graduating from UC, where he met his wife, Iris took a job as a Spanish teacher at Clifton’s DePaul Cristo Rey High School and later switched to teaching English literature.

Iris and another teacher at the school, Pat Brennan, co-coach a poetry slam team that participates in an annual competition called Louder Than a Bomb. He has also been able to continue his writing and establish a family life — his wife gave birth to their first child in March.

Iris’ rise as a published poet has paralleled his academic studies. In 2009, he was awarded Mexico’s Mérida National Poetry Award for his book Notebook of Dreams. His third book, 2014’s The Disguise of Fire, won the Rodulfo Figueroa Regional Award for Poetry and was one of the 10 finalists for the Latin-American award for published books, Ciudad de la Lira, in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Translating Silence, published in March, is his first book in the U.S. and is bilingual — he sought to avoid using a translator but rather tried to write in English, as if he was first composing the poems in that language, he says on his website. 

Iris was an experienced, published poet before he ever left his homeland. In 2003, at age 20, he published his first book while living in Mérida, Yucatán. When Iris was in his late teens, his brother Fernando was just a young boy beginning to articulate words. Iris noticed a rhythm to his speaking pattern and he jotted down the phrases his brother said. That soon became the foundation for a book of poetry with the appropriate title Stolen Verses and Other Games.

Iris and a friend were the ones who distributed that first book.

“We would go to small little towns around the city,” Iris says. “There, we would have book parties, sing with the kids and give a contest. The winner won a book. Then, we gave the other books for free.

“Then we would go back to the city, and do the same thing. But, this time, we would sell the books in the private schools and use that profit to cover the travel expenses to go to the more poverty-stricken schools.”

Because of his highly praised Spanish-language books of poems, Iris has actually flirted with popular culture in Mexico.

“I am known there, but I don’t live there,” he says.

Recently, the Mexican telenovela Por Amar sin Ley mentioned Iris’ name in a brief scene, where one of the characters is heading to jail. A friend offers to give the character poetry to read during his jail stay, and asks him to choose between Iris and Octavio Paz, the great 20th-century Mexican poet who won the 1990 Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Of course, the character chose Octavio Paz,” Iris says, laughing. “That was very fun and very funny.”

However, what made the scene more poignant was that the dialogue showed people had heard of him.

“Someone somewhere is reading what I do. Someone cares,” he says. “And that is enough to be happy for me.”

Learn more about Manuel Iris and his poetry at bufondedios.blogspot.com.

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