My Five Things: Luis Alberto Urrea

From Mexican "Narco blogs" to Wilco, here are the five things that poet and novelist Luis Alberto Urrera can't get enough of.

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Nicole Waite

Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Alberto Urrea is a Mexican-American poet and writer who lives in the Chicago suburbs. His new novel, Queen of America, a follow up to 2005’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is based on the life of Urrea’s great aunt Teresa, known as the “Saint of Cabora,” and it follows her as she travels to through turn-of-the-20th-century America. TIME reached out to Urrea to ask, “What are the five things you’re really digging on right now?” He responded….

1. Darrell Bourque

I love poetry, don’t you? I often say poetry was my first love. Well, I admit it here — my first literary love were sci-fi books with big drippy monsters and a bold young male hero with talking wolverines and a cross-bow with which to save the earth from the ravages of the ant-men. But poetry was the girlfriend who kissed so wickedly that she changed my life forever. You never forget your first hot poem.

Poetry is how I feed the soul, and it’s how I fire the furnace of writing. Darrell Bourque, the former Poet Laureate of Louisiana, has unleashed a gorgeous and powerful New and Selected Poems called In Ordinary Light. There is nothing ordinary about it. If you love that mythical, shadowy, musical place, that means you are a person of good taste and a deep soul. Louisiana is all about soul. And Bourque’s new book will lift yours and, oh yeah mon ami, it’s gonna kiss you real good.

2. Wilco

Many of us writers tour like a literary Bachman Turner Overdrive. We ain’t pretty but we’re on the road. Many of us wish we were rock stars anyway. For my part, I live in my iPod. The musicians there are my constant companions on the road. I missed the Wilco phenom while busy obsessing over rock en Espanol. So imagine my surprise when I found myself at O’Hare, getting on a plane, with my Chi-town homeboy, Jeff Tweedy. I loved the guy right away, and loved his family. How odd to know somebody before you listen to them. I don’t know if that’s bad or good. What I do know is that the new album, The Whole Love, is a marvel and a wonder.  I am particularly fascinated by the band’s efforts to deconstruct and reconstruct the “Wilco sound.” The experimental moments thrill and inspire me. Judging from Tweedy’s deep soul lyrics in songs like “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning,” one can sense him arriving at poetry. You could read this album.

(MORE: Read TIME’s review of Wilco’s The Whole Love)

3. Aztec-related reading

I am currently deeply engrossed in multiple writing projects. One of them involves Aztec nastiness — a subject I can’t stay away from. Look, I’ve read Gary Jennings’ Aztec several times. I am working my way through it again, along with Hugh Thomas’s Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. Both are behemoths. I must be mad pairing 900-page books full of human sacrifice for a light night’s reading. But I was raised in a Michener-loving family, man, and I can’t shake the faith that Americans still love big fat books. And both of these books are astonishing — it is fun to try to decide which is more amazing, the fiction or the history.

4. Lila Downs

The Goddess. If you have heard her, you know it. Once you hear her — La Voz del Cielo — you must surrender. Fall to your knees as she unleashes her swooping, demanding, soaring, plunging voice upon you. Or perhaps I am confusing her with an Aztec deity. Her newest album focuses on interesting takes on traditional Mexican and folkloric songs (Pecados Y Milagros). It’s clearly a labor of love. But I am also mad passionate about her  “modern” CDs — Border, or Shake Away. Her mix of rock and roll, jazz, blues and country burns along with the ancient sounds.

5. Mexican Narco Blogs

We have a long tradition along the border and deep in Mexico of pondering grue. It was always a kind of rite of passage for boys hitting Tijuana to find nasty comic books, weird plaster statues of Bart Simpson naked, and gore-magazines like the infamous Alarma! And, admittedly, this “narco blog” phenomenon in Mexico has an appalling body-count. There are even hideous videos on display of torture, maiming and death. Yes, snuff is here.

However, the message behind the obvious nastiness on display is astonishing. Consider this: in a toxic atmosphere of narco-terrorist insurgent war, in a milieu that hides truth and kills reporters while terrorizing the public, the young firebrands running these blogs have faced danger and worse to provide trustworthy news. Anonymous, yes. But brave.

You have to be brave to spend any time with them. These reporters, along with the several brave Twitter writers who are cyber-policing several cities in Mexico now, are the only ones trying to tell you what is going on. A sociologist needs to spend some time there, and if you read Spanish, examine the comments sections. You will see the demented pensees of the narcos themselves…and the responses of every kind of Mexican citizen. It is literally mind-blowing.

(MORE: Read TIME’s July 2011 cover story “Mexico: The War Next Door”)

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