an interview series
(conducted by Luis Lopez-Maldonado)
Roberto F. Santiago
LLM: Luis Lopez-Maldonado
RFS: Roberto F. Santiago
What was your inspiration for starting the journey to get this book published? Did your graduate experiences solidify your manuscript and give you the supporters needed to get it published?
Growing up I didn't have the chance to read stories like mine...that isn't to say they didn't exist, but they were definitely not valued in the same way as other literary works. This made me think my writing was always going to be my little secret, but one day my principal, a man that I had never written a thing for, singled me out in class. He was highlighting the superstars that he expected to hear great things from in the future. Initially he mentioned the athletes and club leaders, and then he went into great detail about my writing. I was so proud of myself that day. I want to make sure I give that feeling back to all the readers and writers that don't realize how important their voices truly are. I want them to feel as if they are an integral part of the literary community. And if you feel there is a lack of representation, you should take that on as a challenge and not a permanent, insurmountable problem.
My MFA years were eye-opening! So much so...I wanted to quit after my first year. Weeks before I began my program at Rutgers University, my best-friend passed away. A few months in I had some serious family matters that made it hard to concentrate. Partner all that madness with people pushing you to be more writer than you have ever been allowed to be...it was all almost too much.
I built up my confidence to quit a few weeks before we entered the second year. I talked it over with my partner, who was very understanding. He just asked that I give it one more try. I thought, "what could it hurt...I've come so far." That semester was the one when it all clicked: I realized my project and I regained that excitement I had when I got my acceptance letters to MFA programs. I am not sure if Angel Park would be what it is today without my MFA experience. I am glad I won't have the chance to find out.
In Angel Park the poems are all working together. You seemed to have written it that way, so audiences can clearly see the many threads from start to finish. Can you elaborate on how this book was put together were there any poems you left out in this collection, if so, why?
I started the foundation for Angel Park as an undergrad…I didn’t really have a master plan for what a manuscript would be, but I thought it would be interesting to try to tell a story. One of my professors said, “we write our obsessions” and I really did begin to notice them manifesting themselves in this project--both consciously and subconsciously.
In grad school, I began shaping the project to tell a story that was already there in the poems. Once I began to group the poems together on my living room floor, three piles emerged: Home, Away, and Far Away. I am so glad to hear that you feel the threads are clearly laid…because at times I wasn’t so sure it would make sense to anyone but me.
Were there any poems left out of this collection? Oh, for sure! Mostly because they were not ready, others because they were redundant within the scope of the project...but some were also left out because they didn’t really fit this book. I have big plans for those poems in the near future.
The title of this book is first introduced in your poem titled, “Some Birds Are Exotic.” How and why did you decide on using “Angel Park” as the title for this collection of poems? As a reader I noticed a strong contender for the title of this book could have also been your poem titled, “City Boy.” Was there anyone who influenced your decision on choosing the title for your book? I ask this because titles are very important and have been known to make or break a book!
I had several titles in mind before I landed on Angel Park. Some were terrible and some less so, but Brenda Shaughnessy—immensely talented poet and my thesis advisor—in one of our thesis meetings, had several suggestions…one of them was Angel Park. Angel Park was my little
sister’s nickname for a tiny park off the Cross Bronx Expressway. I always loved that she called that little triangle of grass and glass Angel Park. The one with a couple of swings and a slide. It was a getaway in the middle of the city’s chaos where everything seemed ok. Not perfect, but as if everything was going to be ok. Thinking of my sister on the swings at her Angel Park makes me feel joy to this day. I want to share that with the world. To give other people that escape.
I actually considered City Boy as a title for a collection…not necessarily this iteration of my collection, but there was a brief moment where it was a contender. “City Boy” would have been the mixtape—or chapbook—to Angel Park’s full length album.
Something I noticed in Angel Park that was very interesting and fascinating was the use of the Spanish language in the titles of your poems. This was clearly intentional. I love it. How did you decide on doing this and why? Would the English titles, instead of the Spanish titles, change
the meaning of the poems? Would there be something lost if the titles were translated? Would you consider, then, this collection of poems to be a bilingual text?
Thank you so much! I have always been fascinated by translation and Spanglish is pretty much the ‘language’ in which I feel most comfortable. Growing up in the South Bronx, I didn’t really distinguish between English and Spanish…not until one day I mentioned “la sala” to one of my friends who didn’t speak Spanish. He said, “sala…what the hell is that?” So I described what a sala was and he said, “you mean a living room?” And I had actually never heard/used that term before. I went home and talked to my mother about this encounter and found out that there were so many other words and phrases that we used in our everyday lives that traversed our two languages. I also really found it fascinating how my family made that switch between languages… there is something magical about finding the right words regardless of language and translation. I just had to incorporate that part of my upbringing into my collection.
Without the Spanish in the titles and lines throughout my collection, Angel Park would not be my collection. It would not be true to the story I sought out to tell. There is something powerful in printing untranslated Spanish in an English text. It’s a wink to those that need no translation and an exercise in reader responsibility for those that do need it. I would love for my collection to be considered bilingual, it was conceived of two languages.
You mention your abuela from the start of this book and it is clear she is a very important figure throughout these poems. In your poem titled, “Café Con Abuela” you are essentially comparing your grandmother to a Geisha. Can you elaborate a bit more on how these two figures are similar? There are two cultures working together in this poem beautifully and it is
fascinating to link the two together.
Ah…mi abuelita! Thank you so much! I have always loved that poem! I thought about writing about my abuela forever and I think that almost every Latinx poet has as well, so I wanted to write about her in a way that was different. Not just her cooking, or the way she was the keeper of my family’s traditions…I wanted to show her as a complicated person. One that lived many other lives before this one. I wanted to give her a counterpart that seemed very different on the outside, but wasn’t upon closer look. My maternal grandmother was a caretaker and artist in everything she did. She was not only concerned with outcomes, but the process and production in which she did anything really. I also found her to be a bit of a riddle.
You wrote a beautiful love poem or love letter about memory of childhood, about race and education, about the body and masculinity. In the poem titled, “Odd Man Out” one of the most powerful stanzas for me was:
In our school, both of us were odd men out. He, white. Me, gay.
How is race and sexual preference (sexuality) highlighted in this poem and how are the speaker and Kenny similar, regarding being seen as the “minority” by social constructs? Did the themes of this text affect the form and style of this poem on the page? How did you decide to do this poem in essentially three sections, using 3-line stanzas and couplets?
That stanza was really strange to put on paper. It felt so naked. I immediately wanted to embellish it with descriptions of the light streaming in the window of the gym, and the cling of sweat and gym clothes…but I challenged myself to be open and honest about what it felt like to be alone in a crowd. That desperate search for kinship. I wanted to write a non-romantic love poem…a queer one. Odd Man Out grew out of He Writes Like a Girlwhich both seek to chronicle my Catholic school education. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, where I was part of the majority in one sense—being Latino—but was also gay, which although I was DEFINITELY not the only queer student, it certainly felt that way most of the time. Kenny wasn’t gay…that I know of…I never really asked… but he was white. The only other white boy at the school had a Bronx-ified accent and swagger that made him much less a target of ridicule than Kenny. You see, Kenny wasn’t trying to fit in either. That inspired me to do the same. I think that identity is ever-changing, especially depending on the context.
The form—for the most part—came together organically, but I did see the need to root this poem in a more rigid structure…to represent the institutions it seeks to depict. The material deals with three people, or two people depending on how you look at it. There are 3 sections. The abbreviations were two letters. There may be a nod to the Holy Trinity, as well. It just felt like the best fit for this text.
There seems to be a heavy presence of family throughout most of these poems; the energy of the mother, father, grandfather and grandmother figures. How much more have the female figures in your family affected your work, in contrast to the male figures? We see these figures listed as
stanzas in “Collecting Spanishes” and we as readers see this poem as a recipe for finding or knowing one’s own voice. It’s like making the perfect pie; we need a little bit of everything/everyone…
The women in my family are strong and vocal. My mother is my favorite speaker in the world. She has been a million things: legal counsel, high priestess, chef, real estate agent, my biggest supporter, my mortal enemy
My mother being so outspoken and was always an inspiration. The male figures in my life were less vocal, but they were still present. My father, for example, was/is a strong presence in my life and writing. He always chose his words wisely and preached the gospel of consistency...be it of
character, or penmanship. My dad was such a detail oriented person, he is a very talented artist and always supported my creativity. My mother was a stage mom in many ways. She never let me settle for anything less than my best. I guess in that respect the women in my family gave me the energy to perform my art and the men reinforced my attention to my craft, but those borders informed, intersected and bled into one another.
"Collecting Spanishes" was such an important poem for me to write for myself. My relationship to language has always been a sacred and profane one. Spanish was never singular in my mind. It was plural. Came with so many different identities, depending on the speaker. Spanish was a tool of understanding, expression and even mystery. When my mother used Spanish it was usually when the stakes were too high for English and its flatness. That or when she wanted my little brother to not understand what she was talking about :::laughs:::. My father's Spanish felt like an appeasement, or an apology...but in an endearing way. In this poem, I wanted to sharpen English...use it to describe the untranslatable moments.
In many of your poems, the start of the text is causally written, no tricks or surprises, and really pulls the reader in. How important are first lines for you as a poet? Do you believe this, like the titles of poems, have the power to “make or break” the entire text in the eyes of the reader?
Hmmm...well, I think that poetry should not JUST be written for the workshop. I write for the page, the stage, the poet, the person that thinks poetry is too dense...I always find first lines should be a welcome. Kind of like a catcall in a way. I want you to want to find out how this story ends. If poetry is impenetrable, it becomes a luxury... I think poetry is a necessity. The highest compliment one can give fiction, drama, art, music...etc is that it is poetry—in my opinion. Nothing can break a poem, but the poet. Believe me, I have broken more than my share :::laughs:::. Sometimes opening lines and titles are the tools by which the poet makes or breaks the poem...but that is on the poet.
“Self-portrait of a Boy Kicked Out of His House” is a very touching poem. I connected to it personally, as I am sure many other gay Latino boys/teens/young adults have too. What advice or words of wisdom would you give to the 17-year-old speaker in the poem (Roberto/yourself) right now?
That means so much to me! Thank you! Self-portrait was a poem I HAD to write. Being kicked out of your home is such a formative experience for so many queer young people. My advice to the boy I was, and that the poem represents is: you matter. Your voice is valid. Find a way to turn that pain, that loss, that guilt…turn it into art or motivation, not just for you, but for the others that will come after you. I wrote Angel Park to ensure that little boys and girls with last names like mine had someone they could relate to…someone they can argue with, and connect to, in the moments that it seems there is no one.
I love the repetition in the poem, “The Lexington Avenue Line, III. Castle Hill Ave.” Repeating something is very powerful, in that it will never be read the same, and it helps give the poem texture and context. How were previous drafts of this poem working differently than the final poem? Did the use of repetition come from the birth of this poem, or was it something
that developed in the process of revision? Also, how do you expect readers to read this poem, regarding the shape and form it takes on the page? Does this matter to you as a poet?
Repetition is powerful! That poem is millions of sections longer... I just don't think that story is ready to be completed. Earlier drafts incorporated repetition in other ways, even sought to obliterate the white space. In that sense, repetition has always been a part of that poem...but there was something about the call-and-answer version that made its way to the collection that just made sense to me. It felt more honest and musical. Reminded me of my choir practice notes.
I am much more interested with how other people read the poem…and why...because I think that tells me more about my reader. When I began writing, I would have been much more concerned about how people were reading my work. Now, I believe art is malleable and my intention does
not negate your appreciation, or vice versa. That...and I am just so happy to talk about my poetry--or poetry in general--with anyone that I would love the space and time to argue over line breaks for eternity!
“The Voyeur” is like a 14-line sonnet in one stanza. The rhyme creates a satisfying whisper in the reader’s ear throughout the poem. What are your thoughts about using rhyme in poetry? With contemporary poets and free verse becoming more and more popular, do you think it is less attractive or less valid to write using little to zero rhyme? And why do you think we tend to write poems currently that stay away from the recognized stylized historical rhyming methods?
Rhyme is underutilized! That being said, successfully incorporating rhyme into poetry is a challenge. It requires the poet to use rhyme in unexpected less conventional ways, otherwise it comes off as less serious, joke-y…less refined. But that is not an excuse. I love when there is music in a line. Makes me think the writer really cares about the performance of their work. I think there is a place for rhyme in poetry, but conventional rhyme schemes to leave little to the imagination. Although "The Voyeur" is not a traditional sonnet, it takes traditional elements and translate them to something that the poem wanted to be.
In your funny and ironic poem titled, “Two Old Ladies at the Met Staring At a Mural,” we clearly see race and privilege play-out. Do you think poetry should and can be a medium of discussing heavily charged themes like racism, class, and immigration, among others? Do you believe artists should use their voices to bring light to current events and social injustices?
Poetry is revolutionary. It is a weapon. It is a battle cry. I don't think ALL poetry has to delve into every social issue and injustice of its day, but I do think that writers should do their part to leave more accurate and inclusive histories for future generations. It would be impossible for me to not write about race, class, gender, sexuality, language, home, ability status, and all the facets I ascribe to, and have also been ascribed to me.
"Two-Old Ladies"... seeks to explore the moments and conversations between people that have less at stake in the conversation they are having. I am not an advocate for teaching those women everything they need to know re: identity. That is their responsibility. But there is such beauty in the moments where someone doesn't necessarily have the language to illustrate their point, but they still push through. They don't allow what they lack to dictate their abilities.
“The Widow” is a tender, rather quick moment of a poem, with simple language and title; a very beautiful work. What inspired this lovely poem, besides Doña Luz and does this have any connection to your own mother or abuela?
"The Widow" was inspired by a real life moment. It was winter and the snow had become a thick ice, none of which had been cleared yet. As I began to cross the intersection (same one that appears in the poem), a small older woman came out of nowhere, and linked arms with me. She didn’t ask. She just went for it. And we crossed together. As we slowly walked together she told me I reminded her of her son. She hadn’t seen him in so long. And she missed him. Him and her late husband. A few blocks later she let go and I never saw her again. Meeting her made me think of my abuela…and my mother…the amount of time I had spent far away from them. I hoped that they always had someone to help them across the street. Maybe me meeting/writing Doña Luz helped to ensure that karma.
“As a Feather” is an erotically charged and personal moment between the speaker and a lover, using hints of Spanish in a couple of lines. This is very intriguing and we are left wanting more stanzas with words in Spanish. How did you decide on what words you wanted to include in Spanish? In both circumstances there is alliteration present as an almost by-product of The English and Spanish words being next to one another; the musicality here is very attractive to the ear. Was this planned or a lucky accident?
Intrigued, huh?! :::laughs::: That is always a good thing to hear! I just let The sounds dictate what needs to be English or Spanish. To my ear, some words just make more sense both sonically and poetically in Spanish. Music is really important to me—there are many things in this world I don’t know…but music aint one of `em—so hearing that there is music in
my work is such high praise, thank you!
As for lucky accidents, I have a pile of drafts that would say otherwise! There are very few accidents in my writing and even fewer are lucky ones… I put the music in my work one note at a time.
Lastly, to wrap this interview up! “Behind the Green Door” is a surreal adventure into a name-filled world, including Pontius Pilate, Lorca, and La Gata, among others. This poem could spread to a whole new book! How did you dream this fabulous outrageous concoction and what was your inspiration for writing such a poem?
HA! Don’t give away my next book for free!? :::laughs:::
Thank you, Luis. I really love this outrageous not-quite elegy. I wrote this toward the end of
the book journey. …the Green Door comes from a few places.
1. Loss. So much of my life has been revolved around the loss of someone. When I gave a eulogy for my best-friend several years ago I realized how important expressing that loss is.
2. FOMO, or fear of missing out. I wanted to write a poem that talked about people I never knew, but affected me so much as a writer and person.
3. A wild dream I had after…
4. A conversation I had with a very good friend of mine about a class in which the 1972 American feature-length pornographic film of the same title was a required text.
ROBERTO F. SANTIAGO received his MFA from Rutgers University, and BA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is a 2016 Community of Writers Fellow, 2015 Sarah Lawrence Fellow, 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow, the recipient of the Alfred C. Carey Poetry Prize, and his debut book of poetry was a finalist for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for Poetry. Roberto writes and produces his own music, and likens himself to Tennessee Williams in a poodle skirt, Gloria Anzaldúa in culottes, and/or James Merrill in short-shorts. Currently, he works as an educator in San Francisco and lives in Oakland with a fiction writer and 16 year old cat that edits most of his poetry…whether he asks her to, or not. www.therfsantiago.com
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,Cloudbank, The Packinghouse Review, Public 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 Project. www.luislopez-maldonado.com