Wednesday, January 18, 2017

An interview with Emanuel Xavier



SEIS
an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)

5:
Emanuel Xavier

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
EX:   Emanuel Xavier

*

LLM:
“Rhetoric Of Empire” is a love letter to your father. So beautiful, sad, and tender. This poem is also about identity. Can you expand a bit on both of these themes and how they affect your voice as an artist? How much do they feed your poetic voice, and how have they shaped you as a poet?

EX:
Never having met my father has had a significant impact on my personal life as well as my creative writing. I suppose it made me rebellious by nature and perhaps rather autonomous. That doesn’t necessarily bode well as a poet when you’re expected to take part in literary circles and socialize. Anyone who has met me should be able to attest that I’m easy to get along with. I’ve never had a problem making friends and would like to think I’m funny and don’t take myself too seriously. But I’m aware I’m not as out there as I should be as far as the poetry scene. As far as identity, it’s complicated. No one will ever box me off as anything other than Latino but, breaking it down further, if you’re not 100% of one or the other it’s hard to fit in. There are Puerto Rican purists out there who will never fully consider me because of the Ecuadorian in me and vice versa. I only know the Ecuadorian side of my family and the poem was about somehow connecting to my father and our shared cultures. I’m reminded of his rejection of me every time I’m not invited to participate in specific events celebrating Puerto Rican poetry. You learn to embrace your heritage on your own terms.

LLM:
I was broken-hearted with “Becca.” I hate that bitch! I had a Becca too. Can you shed light on how these characters of Becca can empower us Latinos and queers? These mean individuals bully colored and gay kids all the time in school; it still happens. What would you tell Becca right now, if she were in front of you?

EX:  
I suppose we all need a Becca in our lives to remind us of the ignorance that exists in the world. It’s great to be rich, beautiful and popular but you don’t have to be a cunt about it. If she were standing in front of me right now, honestly? I would have cut her and she would have walked away not knowing I did until she found herself bleeding in the back of the classroom. She’s just lucky she was in my life before I took to the streets and befriended all my drag queen and trans sisters.

LLM:
I too compare myself a bit to Jean-Michel Basquiat. And in your poem, “Jean-Michel Basquiat Exhibit, Brooklyn Museum, 2005,” you raise questions and draw-out possibilities; I love this poem! Because of the title, I am curious: Is this an ekphrastic poem? Or did this branch from ekphrastic writing? If so, are there any specific works from the museum exhibition that inspired you to write this poem?

EX:  
Totally not an ekphrastic poem though it was titled that way on purpose. It’s based on an actual encounter I had with Basquiat as an underage hustler just before he died. We didn’t actually meet but I was left with quite an impression. I am a huge fan of his artwork but had no idea who he was at the time. I love that his work is raw and rebellious. I only wish I had scored one of his original prints at the time.  

LLM:
In your poem titled, “Men Like My Father,” you repeat the phrase “men like my father” five times on the page; visually, I really enjoy what that does. Can you elaborate your thoughts on using repetition in poetry and the importance it creates in this poem? In other works? Repetition is powerful and it is alive in this beautifully tragic poem!

EX:  
I’ve often used repetition in poems to emphasize something important. In this poem, I’m driving home the point that I spent much of my life looking for paternal love in other men. The repetition is much like this ill-fated cycle. I’ve been rather masochistic in my search for my father. There’s a clear difference between using repetition to highlight a word or a sentence and just repeating something to fill up a page or your time in front of an audience. 

LLM:
“Penicillin” is not your average abuelita poem. I find myself most interested in abuelita poems, especially coming from Latino gay poets: I adore this poem, so raw yet sweet. With that said: What are your thoughts about the idea that the “abuelita” poem is long dead and overdone? Do you believe these kinds of poems are a staple for the Latino poet? And lastly, what advice do you have for the next generation of writers that will write abuelita poems?

EX:  
The first abuelita poem I published was back in 1997 with the original chapbook edition of Pier Queen which was officially published fifteen years later in 2012 by Rebel Satori Press. It was called “Abuela’s Advice” and I enjoyed reading it in front of audiences. I’ve referenced my Mamina, which is what I personally nicknamed my abuela, throughout the years in several of my poems but “Penicillin” could be considered the follow up poem to that. Both are really snarky and not your traditional abuelita poems at all. I absolutely adore my grandmother. She has always been supporting and loving and we have a very close relationship. I’m truly lucky to still have her in my life. I think most of us love our grandmothers and learn from them so there will always be a place for poems about them in literature. Perhaps some writers are not quite fond of these but they’re far from done. Why would a culturally specific type of poem that speaks to its readers and could be universal be considered long dead? What’s next? A Japanese haiku? Is it the subject matter? What about poems about birds? Trees? Whatever!
  

LLM:
You bring a current issue to light in your poem, “Anonymous.” Some lines that stood out to me: “Just don’t let them touch without permission… We can still escape.” Can you share with us your thoughts on themes like these, like abuse, rape, and suicide, among others, that make their way into our art? How can outlets like poetry change or draw awareness to certain issues happening in society? This poem had so many wonderful layers and it touched me very much.

EX:  
Your interpretation of this poem is awesome. Without revealing what inspired me to write it, I will say there is definitely much between the lines. Writing has been personally healing for me because I have been able to express things like anger, resentment, loneliness and pain to let go of these things and move on from them. It’s not the only solution to self-healing but it helps a lot to share something creatively and not be held prisoner by it. It’s all about owning your truth and, in this case, sharing it with your readers. If it helps others understand or challenges others to confront their own demons, then that’s a bonus. 
 
LLM:
Research is important if a writer seeks validity or believability. In a poem like, “Sometimes We’re Invisible,” over half of the poem reads like a list poem, stating facts and reporting events. Can you let us into your preparation for writing this important piece of writing in the collection? How did you narrow down your chosen casualties, and your world events, among others? Was some of this material, “found” material? It’s a great, cool poem.

EX:  
I researched the internet to find hate crimes toward the LGBTQ community and, once I knew the year of the incident, I tried to think of what else happened that year that made the headlines. I was already aware of most of these incidents and was surprised by how many other events I remembered reading or hearing about. The media inundates us with headlines and newsworthy items but many of these incidents were merely glossed over or didn’t quite register on people’s radar. I focused on the LGBTQ Latinx community because, as the poem title suggests, sometimes we’re invisible. I started it with Venus Xtravaganza because I was still hanging out at the West Side Highway piers when she was found murdered and that definitely had an impact on me. It simply ended where it ended but that poem could easily go on and on. My hope is that years down the road someone will pick up this book and be schooled with some LGBTQ Latinx history that isn’t taught in the classrooms. As a matter of fact, the Orlando massacre happened just about a month after the book was published and the poem took on a whole new significance. I’ve since read it at a tribute honoring the victims held at the Nuyorican Poets Café and ended it with a reading of the names of each of the victims.

LLM:
Árbol” is a classic example of how to write something without really writing it: the tree was a wonderful metaphor to focus on. I’m curious: Can you expand on, “They took one of your roots and left you scarred for life…?” What root? Who is “they?” It is such an important, almost crucial line in this poem; from beginning to end, this was inspiring to read.

EX:  
You want me to reveal what this poem is really about? The tree is a metaphor for myself. They refers to all the critics who have voiced, openly and behind my back, their negative opinions. I’m not ignorant to the fact that because I was once a hustler that made a name for himself as a spoken word artist there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge me as a contemporary writer. You’re supposed to study your craft at colleges and universities and get published by whatever online poetry journals are trending at the time and get literary awards. You’re expected to be involved in literary circles and attend writer’s conferences. That’s all great but I’ve always traveled to the beat of my own drum and that annoys a lot of people. The roots of a tree are buried underground and mostly invisible. In this poem, they represent the subconscious layers of my soul, my spirit. Writers understand how much words can hurt. Sometimes, like a tree, I feel alone and taken for granted but I still think I have something to offer and keep growing in spite of it all.

LLM:
“Beside Myself” is another love letter, but this time, to Emanuel Xavier: advice, wisdom, and adoration. What would you say to the Emanuel in times when he needed someone the most? In the times when you recall he needed guidance and encouragement? Sometimes we are lonely and scared, with no way out, with no way of seeing light in darkness.

EX:  
I think the poem says it all. It’s tongue-in-cheek but worthwhile advice and I think there is hope. I learned to be independent at a very early age. I grew up fast. I didn’t have much choice. My mom was never the warm and fuzzy maternal type and I grew up reminded every day that my stepfather was not my actual father. I was sexualized as a child when an older cousin molested me and, by the time I was in my teens, I was turned away and put out on the streets for being gay. I’ve had a pretty fucked up life and most people would be dead by now. The only reason I survived all of that is because I learned the hard way how to be tough during my time out on the streets. I have my moments like anybody else but I allow myself the opportunity to go through it and then I move on and bounce back. I think this carries over to my career as a writer. Every time I need some sort of encouragement, I think about all the ways this journey could have ended. If anything, I’ve at least proven to myself that I’m a survivor. I may not have any valuable accolades or sold as many books as others but I have met many wonderful people along the way that have been inspired by my work for whatever reason. That means so much to me and that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

LLM:
Confessional poetry can be a hurdle to tackle for some people. What advice do you have for aspiring writers, maybe specifically Latino writers, on this subject? This form of poetry is seen more and more in the community, but sometimes those that need to write confessional poetry, don’t, because they do not know how or where to begin. Because “When Your Doctor Calls To Tell You That Your Brain Tumor Is Back” made me gasp and swallow and think about my own life; it was amazing.

EX:  
Yes. That was a very personal poem. I suppose you have to be ready to share your private world publicly if you’re going to write confessional poetry. You have to be prepared to be judged and criticized. I’ve been writing this type of poetry from the very beginning because I had nothing to lose. It’s actually something celebrated in spoken word poetry and slam poetry competitions which is where I started. As writers, we could create entire universes and focus on anything from a pen to the sun. But I think confessional poetry is a style of poetics that should also be considered by Latinx and other writers of color because it is important to reflect the world we live in from our eyes and keep our histories alive. In spite of our differences, readers might find something universal in our stories and be able to relate and maybe even be inspired. Also, if we don’t share our stories, who will? A white professor from the Midwest who has been privileged enough to experience some of our culture and thinks they can speak for us. 

LLM:
I hated you as I read “Radiance,” tears blurring words against page. Thank you. I thought, I could keep reading this! Which brings me to my last question: Do you think writing a memoir is in the near future for Emanuel Xavier? I vote yes. I feel your unique voice is very much needed and the survival lessons you can bring to the table are thrilling. Your story can change the lives of many of us out there.
   
EX:  
If I were to be offered a worthwhile publishing deal, I would totally be ready to share my story as a memoir. I genuinely hope to be considered for this someday. Sorry not sorry that this poetry collection brought tears to your eyes. Thanks for taking the time to read it. It’s been almost two decades and I hope to continue doing what I’m doing along the way.



*
EMANUEL XAVIER, an LGBT History Month Icon, is author of the poetry collections Radiance, Nefarious, Americano, Pier Queen, If Jesus Were Gay and the novel Christ Like. He also edited Mariposas: A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry and Bullets & Butterflies: Queer Spoken Word Poetry. He is recipient of the Marsha A. Gomez Cultural Heritage Award, a NYC Council Citation and a finalist for Lambda Literary Awards and International Latino Books Awards. One of the first openly gay Nuyorican poets, he has been a longtime gay rights activist, AIDS activist and homeless youth advocate. He was featured on Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry, has spoken at The United Nations, was a featured TEDx speaker and was filmed for a documentary on poets from around the world. He continues to perform at colleges and universities throughout the country and his books are often included in LGBTQ and Latino Studies courses. 

 LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review,CloudbankThe Packinghouse ReviewPublic Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Projectwww.luislopez-maldonado.com

Thursday, December 29, 2016

An interview with Natalie Scenters-Zapico


SEIS
an interview series

(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)

4:
Natalie Scenters-Zapico

LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
NSZ: Natalie Scenters-Zapico

LLM:
The collection of poems titled, The Verging Cities, deals with trauma, border issues, personal history, memory, and marriage, among other themes. It will grab you, drag you, and put you up against a chain-linked fence; it is mesmerizing. Thank you for your work. Which brings me to my first question: Those of us that read your book can have a pretty good idea of what its about, but can you please maybe tell us, what its not about?

NSZ:
The Verging Cities is a collection sprung out of a deep and complicated obsession with the sister cities of El Paso, Texas, USA and Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, México. It is about two people who fall in love on a surveilled border that constantly denies their existence. Threaded throughout are poems based on my relationship with my husband, José Ángel and the ways the personal and political intersect. The Verging Cities is about all of the things that you mentioned above, but also about how we experience landscapes differently. How some have the privilege of seeing a desert and how others live in constant fear of how that same desert might consume them. It is about the body, the way we deny the violence our bodies commit against other bodies, how the body can become violent against itself, and how that same violence can become a part of a landscape’s body.

LLM:
Lets chat about the infamous Angel character in some of these poems. He is everywhere! As a reader, I fell in love with him by the end of the book. Could you please elaborate on how your personal relationship with him has assisted or acted as a catalyst in this collection of poems? Can you also tell us a bit about how you decided to focus so many poems on Angel and how his energy shapes the tone of the book?

NSZ:
While I was working on this collection I started writing letters to my husband, José Ángel. Later I found out that he kept all of these letters in a small box in his desk. One day, he let me go through the letters and I was interested in how when I was writing them I was thinking of a memory, even if brief, of José Ángel. None of the letters were written with him near me, so I decided to take this concept of the absent body of a loved one you are deeply familiar with and apply it to a series that runs throughout the collection. In these poems José Ángel becomes the character of Angel, one you’re never quite sure is a literal angel, or a man named Angel. This Angel character is certainly not completely my husband José Ángel, but he is a version of him. As I revised the collection the narrative between the speaker and Angel trying to navigate the verging cities became apparent, and important to the book’s structure. In The Verging Cities, Angel and the speaker are both trying to navigate their border space that is out to control and oppress their bodies, while falling in love in that same landscape.

LLM:
In A Half-Full Bathtub” (pg.16) you introduce the couplet-form for the third time in the collection of poems. I absolutely love how this form is working in this poem and how it moves flawlessly. Can you share with us, the importance of form in your work, specifically in how it serves this beautiful poem?

NSZ:
My poems go through many forms before they find the right one. In fact, it’s often the thing I’m left tinkering with the longest. I especially like the couplet form for The Verging Cities because it creates a back and forth tension similar to the tension between the two cities. Couplets can also be very romantic, because they exist like lovers on the page apart from the rest of the poem, and yet dependent on other couplets for meaning. In the poem “In A Half-Full Bathtub” I’m interested in the way the female body is policed and how that same body can create resistance. I think as a woman you walk always aware that your body can stand more pain than you’re aware of. And I don’t mean only in the physical labor a woman’s body can stand giving birth, but also for example, the recent ACLU verdict in which a woman was finally able to get monetary compensation for an invasive cavity search done by border patrol agents at a border checkpoint. How many women have gone through invasive cavity searches before her and have either been detained, deported, or let go to walk across the bridge humiliated? And while the power of these stories is important, I do think there’s something to be said for a poem springing out of an emotion and then turning that into a narrative, which is how “In A Half-Full Bathtub” started. While José Ángel and I were going through the immigration process we felt very observed, very scrutinized as people, and the threat that there was no limit to what they could investigate was always looming. “In A Half-Full Bathtub” poem sprung up from that anxiety.


LLM:
There is a lot of trauma with border agents, border patrol, with crossing the border, and being seen as “the other.” In “I Light The House On Fire And Lie Down” I see and read math, religion, sex, love, nature, identity, culture, race and discrimination: How did you manage to make this poem work, with the layers upon layers of themes threaded through the speakers mind? Its fascinating.

NSZ:
Oh, thank you. I don’t know if I have a prescriptive answer as to how I got this poem to “work.” I suppose it began with an exercise I would do and still do sometimes on Sunday mornings, when I can’t help but have the old nagging feeling I should be at Mass. It begins by lying down on my kitchen floor. At first I let myself stare at the ceiling for a bit, but then I let my eye move down and start viewing objects and the floor from this angle. I’ll be honest, doing this gives me a type of anxiety and I depend on that anxiety to give me the bravery to leap from image to image. This poem came out of that exercise in anxiety, which is probably why it’s able to encompass so much. When you suffer from anxiety your mind attempts to carry the world, and I think this can be useful to the poetic mind. Of course, the key is to make sure you don’t let the anxiety paralyze you, something that can be a dangerous game. I suppose I should also talk about why border patrol agents are such a source of trauma for me. Growing up in El Paso-Juárez border patrol agents are often seen as a hassle, but for people with loved ones who are undocumented they can be the wolf capable of devouring your entire family in a moment. El Paso, Texas for example has more border patrol agents than police in the city. They don’t just patrol the physical border, but the entire city, into New Mexico. They become a presence that is always lurking, always visible on a drive down the freeway or while eating at a restaurant, capable of unraveling any semblance of stability you might have built for yourself.

LLM:
“Its The Heat That Wakes Us” is a contemporary Romeo & Juliet! Beautifully written, thunderous, heart-felt, and longing for love. How do stories like this become poems? What is your process as a poet of writing poems that seem very personal to both the speaker and the poet?

NSZ:
Poems like “It’s the Heat That Wakes Us” become poems by being unafraid to enter places in your memory that hurt you. I’m asked often: How do you enter that place in a poem and then go about your day without it affecting your psychological well being? I don’t know that I have an answer to that because to me, like many writers and artists before me, I think it’s important to develop the capacity and mental ability to look and render that pain on the page. I don’t believe  you can live a genuine life, a brave life, without immense pain. The poem you mention above was inspired by the old tenement building José Ángel and I used to live in. It was located in the Sunset Heights district of El Paso near downtown, and the Santa Fe Bridge. The apartment had the most spectacular view of El Paso, the border highway, and all of Cd. Juárez. Of course, the view was spliced into hundreds of angles by electric wires, and the building had foundation problems so its uneven floors gave some people vertigo, and one summer our swamp cooler went out. We spent most of that summer in our underwear because it was too hot to survive any other way. What I remember most about that summer was thinking of how many people survive the heat in the Chihuahua desert without a cooler, and how unnatural these tenement buildings are to the heat. We would be much better off living in an adobe house because it’s much cooler, but most builders have stopped making adobe houses. I also remember how José Ángel and I used to ask each other if we were dead yet because there’s nothing like extreme heat to confuse your sweat for your soul rising. 

LLM:
In your poem titled, “Placement,” we read it as a kind of interview or investigation. Was this something you intended the audiences to interpret this way, or did you not think about how this specific poem would be understood? And my second question regarding this poem: You end the sections in section 7. Why? Is this a lucky number, or just a simple choice you made without really thinking about it? I am just curious!

NSZ:
When I started working on this collection, everyone had book suggestions for me. El Paso-Juárez is an interesting place too because many people from all over the country have been there and have an experience to share about the space. As I started engaging with these different books and works of art I grew exasperated by how many people were creating art to “bring awareness to the issues: femicide, the life of undocumented immigrants, the dangers in crossing the border, etc.” I find that border art that arises purely from a need to “bring awareness” is rather vapid and self-serving. Now, if you have personal experience with these issues in a sustained way, and write a poem that happens to be political, but didn’t begin in that space I hold much more respect for the work. I think, of course, writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Alberto Ríos, writers who are trying to capture their lives, and in doing so, their lives become an intersection with the political.

As for the number 7, I play with this number because it is considered to be a Godly number and I wanted it to be a subtle reminder of the angelic forces at play in The Verging Cities, even when Angel as a character isn’t present.  

LLM:
Kids are taught lies in school, and the truth is hidden from us growing up in education systems. Your poem “A Place To Hide The Body” discusses this issue. Do you feel it is important to educate your readers through your poetry? Because this poem does it. Do you believe as an artist that poems like this are/can bring awareness and social change? What are your thoughts on writing “political” poetry, or poems that can be defined and seen as social commentaries?

NSZ:
I think I’ve always fallen in the Lorna Dee Cervantes camp here: This is not a political poem. In “A Place To Hide The Body” I experienced the denial of the border history that I was living in a high school classroom. The Southwest is full of contradictions like this, in which people love the aesthetic, consumer-based beauty of the Southwest, without realizing all the pain and blood of this region. As for bringing social change and awareness through poetry, I think we’re living in a great era for this. There are so many poets that are starting serious conversations that extend into the political through their work. I think of writers like Danez Smith, Solmaz Sharif, and Natalie Díaz. But again, part of the reason that I love these poets in particular is that none of their work stems purely from a “bring awareness” lens. It’s about being personal, about being unafraid to look in the mirror and put your fingers in the open wound.

LLM:
Repetition is a tool a lot of poets love using in their works, for it brings texture and musicality to the page. In “The Archeologist Came To Hunt Trilobites,” we clearly see the use of repetition. How is repetition working here for the poem? Do you expect readers to read each repeated word or phrase as same or different? What effects did you expect to communicate by presenting such repetition?

NSZ:
Repetition is a powerful and important tool in poetry. It is important to remember that repetition was used in poetry before poetry was composed on the page. Repetition is used as a way to help someone memorize a work, guide pacing, and change meaning. Repetition teaches us not to trust our understanding of things at first glance, but instead to read, re-read, and observe what is happening around the repetition. When I wrote “The Archeologist Came To Hunt Trilobites” I had just finished reading Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning and was mesmerized by how well he employs repetition. Corral is a master at making us look, look again, and understand new ways of seeing the same image. I realized that I was not very good at doing this in my own work, and that I relied too heavily on narrative propulsion in many poems, which for a collection can make a book feel rushed, so I decided to start playing with repetition and found that this was very useful to my ideas on gaze. Thus each time the reader is forced to encounter the phrase, “The archeologist came to hunt trilobites” I hope that they understand the archeologist’s horror at never finding them, at being confronted with bones he nor anyone around him wants to discover.

LLM:
A poem is seven parts/sections. Again! “Epithalamia” spreads across seven pages. What is the importance of the blank space in every poem/page? What about the space between pages/sections? I’m very curious about the choice behind having this poem spread across so much blank space/pages; I really enjoyed the pace of this poem, and how the white/blank space looked on the page.

NSZ:
Most of the poems in The Verging Cities are very dense and narrative in style. They are action-image packed. They hardly let you breathe. They make you feel pushed against a metal fence. They make you feel interrogated. But I like collections that have a variety of feelings, that don’t just linger in one spot. So I wrote  “Epithalamia” with so much space to be the lungs of The Verging Cities. To help the reader look, with space to breathe. I also knew that I needed traditional wedding poems, dedicated to a very untraditional wedding between a speaker and her undocumented lover, who might be of this world and might not, who might be living and might not. I’m glad you enjoyed the white/blank space, and hope that it serves as a place to reflect on the inner workings of the relationship depicted on the page.


LLM:
Turns are very important and sometimes necessary for a poem to reach its full potential! You killed it with a fabulous turn in your poem titled, “Girl Curled Over A Bar Stool.” A poem about sex, violence, and femininity: Can you elaborate on how this poem became a poem? This turn at the end of the poem, in the last sentence, really makes the poem explode! We are hit with life and trauma. It is stunning. For me, I wanted to keep reading, for it felt that you opened many doors with the turn, “…I wonder when shell notice the blood caught in the groves of that bill.”

NSZ:
That poem started out as a much longer two page piece, in which I compare the woman’s body to a freeway. But the piece was too self-serving. Anytime I have a piece that is longer than a page I’m skeptical. Not because I don’t think it can be done, but because I know myself and sometimes in early drafts I’ll fixate too long on certain images that are only interesting to me. One day, frustrated at my computer because I couldn’t get the poem to work with me I opened up a new document and challenged myself to write the poem as a sort of sonnet in fourteen lines, with a boxy shape, only using whatever I could remember from the earlier draft. Somehow “Girl Curled Over A Bar Stool” came to be. In it I kept the image of the girl, but instead framed it from the perspective of a man going to a brothel. The turn at the end came to me much later. I think because I always struggle with how to end a poem. I hate poems that begin strongly and end weakly, I don’t think they have bite. So this end was a way of leading into poems that would follow that are directly about femicide.

LLM:
“Angel And I Are Both Great Pretenders,” stood out to me and I loved it for the title of a book! Can you tell us a bit about how the title of this collection of poems came to be? How did you decide on the title, The Verging Cities?

NSZ:
When I was working on the collection I spent a lot of time thinking about how I conceived of the border, my cities, my marriage, and how these things were similar or related. I started referring to the cities as one place, “the verging cities” in many poems, and when I finally wrote the title poem “The Verging Cities” it became obvious to me that this was going to be central to the book. Because while the Angel poems are important, the verging cities are what define the love and give it shape. Without the landscape of the verging cities, there would be no imagistic landscape.

LLM:
The cover is hauntingly tender and perfect. How did you choose the cover for this book? Were there other options before the current one was made official? The girl on the bed/concrete stares at every reader that picks the book up. That is so cool!  

NSZ:
The Center For Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, was amazing in the process of picking a book cover. They asked me to send them a bunch of options for the cover and I sent a selection of works from the Chilean artist Pascuala Lira. I’m a huge fan of her work and while writing The Verging Cities, I used to have the image that is now the cover hanging above my desk. Because the book has so much to do with femicide and the female body, I loved this image because it centers the woman in an intimate sphere and forces you to read the image from left to right, much like how we read. In effect, she is staring at you but you must also read her body in order to interpret that stare. I could not be happier with the cover of this book.



*
NATALIE SCENTERS-ZAPICO is author of The Verging Cities (Center For Literary Publishing, 2015). She is the 2016-2017 Poet-In-Residence at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

LUIS LOPEZ-MALDONADO is a Xican@ poeta, choreographer, and educator, born and raised in Orange County, CA. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California Riverside, majoring in Creative Writing and Dance. His poetry has been seen in The American Poetry Review,CloudbankThe Packinghouse ReviewPublic Pool, and Spillway, among many others. He also earned a Master of Arts degree in Dance from Florida State University. He is currently a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a poetry editorial assistant for the Notre Dame Review, and founder of the men's writing workshop in the St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center; He is co-founder and editor at The Brillantina Projectwww.luislopez-maldonado.com

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Our Warrior: A Celebration of Rigoberto González

Rigoberto González @ Poet's House
December 6, 2016

Among the NYC poetry orgs Letras Latinas has had the pleasure of collaborating with, Poet’s House holds a place of honor: in the Fall of 2009, they hosted the fourth final stop of, “The Wind Shifts Tour,” which consisted of a reading featuring four contributors of The Wind Shifts anthology, as well as a pre-reading panel discussion on Latino/a poetics, featuring NYC-based Latino/a poets. So when Poet’s House, this time around, approached Letras Latinas about co-presenting an event to celebrate Rigoberto González’s contributions to our field, it was easy to say Yes. What follows is an account of that special evening. Special thanks to Nathan Xavier Osorio for contributing this piece. FA

Our Warrior: A Celebration of Rigoberto González


On Tuesday, December 6th, Natalie Diaz and Ada Limón co-hosted a celebration of Rigoberto González in Downtown Manhattan’s Poet’s House. Despite the early winter rain, the venue felt true to its name – homelike.  It vibrated with old friends reuniting and shuffling along the packed room in search of a place to sit or stand. La raza cósmica had shown up to honor a poet who, throughout his career –which includes four books of poetry, ten books of prose, and the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement– had never forgotten about us. In their opening speech, Limón and Diaz called him, “Our Warrior … a man who had written for us, of us.” Limón praised the beauty of his language saying, “his poems are lessons on bowing down to sound and confronting the abyss.” Rigoberto González sat in the first row, wearing a suit and a dark blue sarape that hung down his right shoulder like the fashionable champion he had come to be known as. Diaz described how the after-cocktail ritual of remembering friends and heroes would often end with González’s name and his message that poetry is service and the light by which we navigate the borderlands of our identity.  
Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, Rigoberto González

The evenings readers shared their own stories of González and selections of his work. They came from local barrios like Brooklyn’s Bushwick, and further out west from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Bell Gardens, California, demonstrating the vitality of the community González has influenced.  Saeed Jones, the author of Prelude to a Bruise, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award and former student of González at Rutgers University – Newark, read first. Jones reflected on how Rigoberto was his first non-straight, non-white literature teacher and how he guided him to understand that in our writing, “sentimentality is not humanizing, clarity is.” Jones’ reading of González’s persona poem “Gila,” with its line, “I make a throne of the body/ until it begins to decay.” reminds us of how devotion to clarity can animate the spirit embedded in language.


 Saeed Jones
 Elisabet Velásquez

Elisabet Velásquez, a spoken-word poet who has performed at the Brooklyn Museum, Lincoln Center Out of Doors and the Nuyorican Poets Café, shared a story of how González had always looked out for young and emerging writers. She cited a Harriet post from April 9th, 2011 written by González after attending Latino Literary Imagination Conference at Rutgers that year. He writes, “Baca and I were the only non-stage poets, which made for an interesting pause among the parade of young, energetic spoken-word poets that took to the mic. Special shout out to Elisabet Velásquez, who impressed the fuck out of me …” González’s sense of humor and hope for a poetry community that isn't stifled by cruel self-preservation has become his living legacy. 

Erika L. Sánchez
Hannah Ensor
Erika L. Sánchez, whose debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, is forthcoming from Graywolf, called González the “padrino of latinx poetry,” and praised his complex portrayals of women in his writing. Hannah Ensor, poet and president of the board of directors of Casa Libre en la Solana, highlighted the importance of how González connects with the echoes of what immigrants have abandoned.  From his poem, “Gone the Body, Its Accessories,” she read, “The moon,/ she bows to you-she’s seen fugitives/ evade recapture when the mouth doesn’t seal like stone, suspend/ the letters of a name like fireflies in amber.”
 Eduardo C. Corral

Eduardo C. Corral, the first Latino recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, called González, “threshold and exit,” a means to entering and gathering within community but also a way out to practice talent and growth. Corral, who has extended his support and guidance to many young latinx poets, including myself, lovingly called González his mentor and brother. 
Vickie Vértiz

Vickie Vértiz, author of the poetry collection Swallows, read an excerpt of González’s memoir Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa: “I look back at her defiantly, but then my aunt turns away and keeps collecting clothes as if she hasn’t seen two young men scrubbing heat out of their flesh ... “I think we should go in, you,” he says, placing his arm over his face for protection. He has broken the illusion. He has expressed weakness. I roll over on my back, shut my eyes, and spread my arms out. The rain continues to pin me to the roof.”  Vértiz explains that this “looking back defiantly” captures Rigoberto’s temperament. His commitment to queer communities and narratives is bold and unapologetic.
Juan Felipe Herrera

The evenings final reader was United States Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. He read González’s poem the “The Solider of Mictlán,” and wooed the audience into a call and response song he accompanied with his harmonica.  Its refrain, “more books, more books” came from when Herrera asked González what he had in store for the future. Despite the distress of the recent election, Herrera urged us to continue to seek out magic, in González’s poetry and in his message of fortifying friendships and making love possible. “We all have things to do,” Herrera admitted, “but we chose this path.”

Rigoberto González takes the stage
When Rigoberto González stepped up to the lectern he was welcomed by a standing ovation.  If González had been overwhelmed by the affection, he showed no sign of it as he spoke with the clarity he had been celebrated for all evening. He talked of how although writing was a solitary act it did not have be lonely, how all our communities, including those supported by organizations like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Cave Canem, Kundiman and Canto Mundo, are and have always been intimately interconnected. Any gains or setbacks were all of ours to share. He explained how protesting with the United Farm Workers taught him at a young age that there was no waiting for anyone else to lift the weight of progress. González addressed the literary community at large, reminding us that it still held many of its doors shut to writers who didn’t fit the white heterosexual male description and how there was still much work to be done. Yet he expressed, in his defiant optimism, that change was coming, “this isn’t a threat, this is a certainty.” 

***

Nathan Xavier Osorio is the son of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants. He is from Sylmar, California and teaches translation studies at Barnard College. His chapbook The Last Town Before the Mojave was a finalist for the 2016 Atlas Review Chapbook Contest. His poetry and translations have been featured in Mexico City Lit, diSONARE and The Offing.  

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Letras Latinas inaugurates a new occasional series

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One of the pleasures of working in this field is encountering new voices. 

This space has forged a decent track record of posting author interviews of poets and writers with new books. 

The gesture that follows is a bit different. 

We’re highlighting a voice that, shall we say, is “pre-book,” “pre-chapbook” even.   

All in an effort to support and encourage an early and lively commitment to the art. 

Letras Latinas is pleased to introduce Daniel Eduardo Ruiz. 

—FA

First of all, I want to thank you for agreeing to take a few questions. Will you share with our readers what brings you to poetry?

What brings me to poetry is what brings me to most things: an enjoyment of my personal freedom. I love playing around. Anyone who knows me knows I'm an enthusiastic goofball, and much of the joy I derive from writing comes from exploring the stretchy spaces of language and sentiment. I am and have always been emotionally charged-up and excited by wordplay. Technically, we don’t see with our eyes but with our brains, and that’s where all of the goodies are: memories, little ticks, weird patterns, ideas, and feelings—and it’s all perpetually sloshing around together like a semi-truck full of soup. In this way our perception becomes kaleidoscopic, and wordplay becomes a system of experiential or imaginative plasticity whereby we “stretch the truth,” so to speak. Nicanor Parra says the only rule in poetry is that you must “improve the blank page.” Fear provides an ending. It says, Hey man, none of these lines are worth a damn, and if you stop writing no one will care anyway. From conversations with other artists it seems to be a pretty common belief, an anti-self or arch nemesis we create so we have something to go against—often with a very specific, personal face. I write poetry to confront this reality in a space where I have the ability to improve it—to make it more playful, more human, more mine. There is joy in play, and in this way I’ll always be a child. I want to feel joyous, which, for me, is more about emotional fullness than an embracement of only positive stimuli. Happiness too often feels like a rejection of the negative, and poetry is a lifestyle for me in the sense that I use it to explore the origins of my often-exaggerated reactions to whatever life seems be to torpedoing toward me.

One of the things that drew me to your profile is that you made the deliberate decision to spend time abroad. I know for myself my time in Spain was transformative. Why did you decide to spend time in Chile?

Chile is el país de los poetas. I admire many Chilean writers—Bolaño, Huidobro, and Neruda (sometimes) are my favorites. I applied for the Fulbright with the idea of writing a solid manuscript of poems and came out having produced a lot of writing but no cohesive book. It took me weeks to get settled and transition from Florida to Santiago to an apartment in Valparaiso. I spent a lot of time editing and reading, watching movies and cooking. Fulbright gave me a rare opportunity and one most poets probably dream of: I got to be a full-time poet. I had a salary. It seems like magical realism to type it. Fulbright gave me the space to make of my writing whatever I wanted, and that’s an experience for which I have the utmost gratitude. I spent four years in poetry workshops at Florida State, but for the first time I went to a place and wrote by myself, for myself. In a sense, if you accomplish little during your Fulbright, there aren’t real consequences. I had the opportunity to experience a quiet failure, and I’m elated to announce that I didn’t. I wrote so much, tried out so many new moves, read so many new authors. It was what I had wanted for years: to have total accountability, to be able to blame my success or failure on myself—because without accountability we quell the former and blame others for the latter. I came to Chile to learn to be myself, and I’m proud of the person I’ve become. It’s like a little act of kindness you do for someone else and decide to walk around all day long like nothing happened—but you know.

Will you share with our readers how living abroad for a year has changed your poetry?

It changed my poetry in many ways. First, in a short period of time I experienced so many new things—food, music, culture, street art, a dialect of Spanish about which I knew nothing and had never heard—which means I took the opportunity to write about new things. I wrote a series of odes based on Neruda’s Odas elementales called “Industrial Odes”—doorknobs, credit cards, digital scales, etc. But Chile is also known for its protests (many of which I attended). I lived in Valparaiso, a big-ish port city with five universities only a quick bus ride from Santiago, and the protests were frequent. Universities went on strike often, often because students would take them hostage by sneaking in after hours or bribing the custodians for their keys to lock them from the inside. Because I witnessed and participated in political protests—coupled with the elections in my home country, Trumplandia, the Colombian deal with the FARC, Brexit, Castro’s death, and Venezuela’s new dictatorship—I wrote some more obviously-political poems. I used to think topics like religion and politics were taboo, but now these difficult conversations seem imperative to the re-education of a post-colonial society whose concept of power, when you follow the historical rhetoric of threats, is based on physical superiority and not mental or emotional strength and stability. So I wrote about these things. I’ve decided to be happy for others when I see them utilizing social media as a platform for expressing themselves because social media has given voice to many, many, many people who didn’t even know they had a mouth that could open. Also, more than ever, I did all I could to be honest with myself in my writing and make it truly mine.

One of the issues that Latino and Latina poets seem to have to navigate, in one way or another, is identity.  Will you share with our readers your take on this subject, as it pertains to you?

In the movie The Rundown, Travis (Seann William Scott) flees to Brazil and tells Mariana (Rosario Dawson), a bartender, that, in the states, Brazil nuts are expensive, and she says, “Well, we are in Brazil, so we just call them nuts.” I’m Puerto Rican and Cuban and was raised in the ultra Puerto Rican part of Orlando, but I was born in Puerto Rico. My dad was born in Cuba and raised in Miami. My mom was born in New Jersey and raised in Bayamón. My grandmother was born in Fajardo and raised in Harlem. My grandfather was born in Brooklyn but raised in Aibonito. To be honest, I don’t even know if I’m considered first- or second- or third-generation, and it’s a tricky roulette many Puerto Ricans play because, for example, though my Spanish accent is very Puerto Rican, in Puerto Rico they can tell I’m boricua from the states—and in the states it’s always, “What, um, what are you?” What I’m getting at is this dual sense of not belonging, of feeling othered, though I actually feel whole and liberated in New York. Until I reread many of my poems in a row, I never realized how much of my latinx upbringing came through subtly in them. To me, the poems had nothing to do with where I was from, but there’s no way for me to change the part of my personal history that’s behind me. Without a doubt, I am a hyphenated person. On the other hand, though, it has to do with what my mom complained about my entire life: that she had to be twice as good and work twice as hard to get noticed a little bit less than just-as-much. I struggle with this because I want to empower other latin@s, especially Caribbean ones, but I also want my writing to be good enough that people who don’t look or sound or dress like me find themselves in it. Salvador Plascencia said in an interview, “I’m not a professional Mexican,” and I was immediately drawn to that logic, though I sometimes think it reductive of the importance and diversity of the Latin-American experience. Other times, I tell myself we’re all equals on the blank page and think about O’Hara saying, “Everything is in the poems.” In short: I’m still figuring it out.

*

Mash(ed) Up

            by Daniel Eduardo Ruiz


I am through feeling embarrassed     I don’t care if vodka
is the French fries     of liquor     If push comes to shove
I will stick my hand in toilet water     to pull out glasses
for a friend     Yes     I am mad that David Mitchell wrote
Cloud Atlas          before me       I’m pissed off that I’m leaving
Alexis says it’s easier than staying—     not if you’re a tree!
I am one half of at least sixty people      I admire     not
my five closest friends     It’s my responsibility to help them
fill in their cracks with liquid gold       like Japanese china
They need me like water wishing to wash itself of salt
for its awareness     of parched lips      which is to say
I want to jump off a bridge    and watch my back unbend
into wings like a soccer ball kicked so hard      it floats
after bursting open     Open your hand      Here a token
for pinball      Here an amulet     whose golden wrapper
reveals a chocolate     Do you know how many faces
have pressed against each      Iron Man mask
in the Wal-Mart toy aisle?            Don’t hate on where
I bought all of my childhood     lightsabers     Don’t hate
on my habit of waking up     to make breakfast     for roosters
I believe in god most      on top of a mountain      or tumbling
down a waterfalled river      Yes      I have ogre ankles
and chapped lips              Yes              Memory is the key
to combination locks     Yes     Sometimes I sweat more than steak
Love makes you feel smart            the same way feeling
unlovable tells you you’re dumb      Some days I feel as degraded
as a Band-Aid       on a bug bite             It’s okay it’s okay
besides my own death            I can make anything useful



Daniel Eduardo Ruiz was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico and lives in Florida. A recent Fulbright Scholar to Chile, his poems can or will be found in Juked, Southern Indiana Review, The Journal, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere.