We are the woodlanders who walk in the hills gathering dry branches and deadwood from fallen trees, collecting firewood without chopping down the forest. We come down from the mountains, carrying bundles of wood, of pitchpine and split encino, for the hearths of the
Royal Cityof de Las Casas. We walk through the mist, leading our burros, selling firewood from house to house. We knock on people’s doors, offering pine needles as well, to spread on the floor, moss, flowers of bromeliads and orchids for manger scenes. San Cristobal
—from the website for Taller Leñateros
In 2002 Lee and I were lucky enough to visit
On the morning of our last day in San Cristobal a friend told us that we needed without fail to visit el Taller Leñateros (“the Woodlanders Workshop), a paper-making collective owned and operated by Tzotzil women. So we followed directions and turned down a narrow cobble-stoned street and knocked on a door. A man opened the door for us. He didn’t speak English, and his Spanish was as bad as mine. He motioned us to come inside. We found ourselves in a quiet, magically real room filled with paper art--hand-made papers, cards, large images, small images, books, all made with indigenous hands and perspective. Their remarkable story of the Leñateros is best followed on their website and facebook pages, but here I want to speak of their mother Maya earth book, the creation of their minds and hearts and hands.
We were enthralled by all that we saw and so happy to be there. Then AMBAR PAST burst into the room full of energy and joy. Yes, she knew about Cinco Puntos Press; yes, she knew this person and that person; and yes, she especially knew about The Story of Colors. She was so happy to meet us. And she wanted to show us the jewel that the Taller had produced--INCANTATIONS. The book she showed us was truly a work of art. The original is such a wonderful book, such an important book. The thick cover is hand-sculpted--the brown face of a woman, the brown face of a mother-god, the brown face of Mother Earth. And inside on thick papers were stunning poems from the Tzotzil women. Chants and prophecy and incantations and curses--words to keep the spirit alive, words to keep evil at bay, words to ward off sickness and death, words to protect children and the sacred corn, words to protect women from drunken crazy men, words of love and love-making. Magic words. Sacred words. Ancient words. And dovetailed within the book are images from these women that speak to the same place in the heart.
Over the years of living and working with the Tzotzil women, Ambar had collected these poems, transcribing them first into Tzotzil which by then she had learned. Next she translated them into Spanish and finally into English. And she contributed two important essays--one that tells the history of the book and the other that discusses the poetics of the poets and their Tzotzil culture. The New York Times, recognizing the importance of Incantations as a work of language and as a work of art, published an extensive piece on the original Incantations and Ambar. The Taller was selling the books for $200
I am a poet, and since the 1960s I have been a rabid fan of the pioneering work of Jerome Rothenberg in developing his understanding of ethno-poetics (in particular, his anthologies Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred and America a Prophecy). Reading the poems and Ambar’s essay, I knew immediately the importance of the book, and I yearned for Cinco Puntos to be able of produce a trade edition of the collection. Lee was as excited about the project as I was. We wanted a book that would retain a taste of the original but would make the work accessible to poets and scholars and students and readers. It would require compromises to the original book, but Lee and Ambar worked together over several years to bring about a book that we are all proud of.
Ambar Past is a remarkable woman. She grew up, ironically enough for us, in our hometown of