Friday, January 19, 2018

Roberto F. Santiago interviews Emanuel Xavier

Queening Out with Emanuel Xavier
I love Emanuel Xavier.

I have loved him from across pages and stages and screens––and more than a few bars. His work means more to me than I might understand. Emanuel is unafraid to be cha cha, to be Queer, to be a fem-magician, to be himself in ways that I knew no other writer to be. Xavier taught me that my story was not just valid, it was crucial.

Twenty-one years ago, Emanuel Xavier’s first collection Pier Queen debuted, or more accurately “came out” and as Rigoberto Gonzalez remarked, “…was a trailblazing early example of the newest generation of queer Latino writers…this self-published collection…launched a career, and, more importantly,…established a precedent for Latino writers born after 1970.” Writers of color are not often afforded the opportunity in formal education to delve into the work of writers of color that shaped their craft. This interview is a celebration of Pier Queen, Emanuel Xavier’s impact on poetry, and a way to document queer history so that there are more stories of triumph told for us by us. 

Pier Queen’s dedication read, “ DEDICATED TO MY FATHER––WHEREEVER HE MAY BE” and I argue that Manny’s work serves as a House Mother/Father to that of my own and that of many writers to come.


RFS: Roberto F. Saniago
EX:   Emanuel Xavier

RFS:   Pier Queen is full of urgency. It feels almost as if the speaker needs to make sure the words are recorded before they go unheeded. PQ was initially self-published, can you talk about that sense of urgency in the work and the push to get your work out into the world?

EX:      I put the collection together at a time when I thought I was possibly HIV positive. I had lost an ex-boyfriend to AIDS and survived life out on the streets as a homeless teen only to find myself doing a lot of drugs. I had lived such a crazy life that I didn’t expect to be around much longer. This book was going to be my swan song and I rushed to get it to print. I had no formal literary education. I had no credentials. I basically washed ashore from the West Side Highway piers and was hell bent on getting a poetic manifesto out into the world.

RFS:   There are several moments in PQ that deal with silence, for example in Chelsea Queen the reader is able to hear the speaker’s reaction to that of the Chelsea Queen(s). How important is silence in the reception, conception, understanding of PQ and your work in general?

EX:      I was doing a lot of spoken word back then so the focus was perhaps stage presence and the silence was meant to be impactful. I suppose there are some quiet moments in the book but, when it’s loud, it roars. It is something I still utilize to this day for speaking engagements.

RFS:   Growing up in NYC, The Pier meant freedom, danger, magic, and an entryway into a history that was otherwise kept from me as well as a more inclusive future. Reading PQ, I am struck by how influential that space and ones like it were for the speaker and for so many other people like him. 20 years later The Pier, New York, and queerness in general are very different worlds. How does PQ still connect with so many generations of would-be Pier Queens?

EX:      The spirit of the piers may be long gone but the fierceness of the LGBTQ and people of color communities lives on instinctively. Even if someone coming of age has never watched a single episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race or met someone else who may be gay, they might already be fabulous in their own way. Being a pier queen was not exclusive to the NYC West Side Highway. It was perhaps the promised land and stuff of legends but it manifested universally. It always fascinated me that this world existed at the edge of one of the greatest cities in the world and now that energy is everywhere from music to art to dance to television to film to literature.

RFS:   Why was poetry the best vehicle for your voice/art?

EX:      I was moved and inspired the first time I came across spoken word poetry at The Nuyorican Poets Café. I felt it was the best way to reflect the unique world around me and share our history for future generations. I wanted to tell my story from my own perspective rather than a prominent white literary figure writing about what I must have experienced in life. If I learned anything from my time at the piers, it was to be thick skinned and bad ass. It was pretty rebellious to come from nothing and call myself a poet. It was really hard to get accepted when the literary community still only thought of you as a hustler.

RFS:   PQ deals with sex, drugs, and intimacy so remarkably and she don’t flinch! Some writers shy away from being so raw about queerness for fear of exposing all the secrets, or painting communities in unfavorable lights, how did you circumvent these fears in PQ? Your newer work?

EX:      For me, being an artist is about being true to yourself. I’ve never been afraid to share my faults and weaknesses through my words. It has provided self-awareness and hopefully made me a better person and artist. I’m not running for political office so I don’t have to be PC. As an artist, we often strive to challenge ourselves and our readers in ways that may seem provocative. Remember, I thought I’d be dead in a few years and I had nothing to lose so I put it all out there. I have no regrets because regret is self-destructive. I can only laugh at my own contempt.

RFS:   I think that there ought to be more connection between poetry and performance and I often cited your work as a prime example of how I could do that in my own work. How did you navigate the often-immense spaces between the page (or publication) and stage (or performative self) in your career?

EX:      Thanks for the props! I think we both know that someone could be a great poet but maybe not the most dynamic public reader. Writing is a solitary act. Being comfortable as a speaker on stage is not a requirement but definitely a bonus. There’s a difference between reading a poem at a Barnes & Noble bookstore and at a college gig. I started off in spoken word poetry and I have always kept that with me throughout my career. There are certain poems I have written which are better read in a quiet space and other poems that deserve to be heard loudly. I choose my set list carefully, almost like a deejay, with highs and lows. I like to take my audience on a journey as a featured poet. If I’m just one of a group of readers, I select a strong yet appropriate piece or two. In spoken word poetry competitions, you only have a few minutes to get your words across and every second counts. You only have that moment up on stage to impress an audience and they’ll either remember or forget you. When I go out of my way to hear a poet, I want to get something from their live reading that I wouldn’t get from just reading the poems at home.

RFS:   Which poets/writers/artists do you draw strength from to keep you writing throughout your career?

EX:      I’ve often cited Dorothy Parker only because she was a hot mess and I loved her for it. When I first started, I didn’t know much about the Beat poets and I hated being compared to them. Like a lot of new poets these days, I thought I was the first to do anything. I actually performed in front of Allen Ginsberg. By the time I got around to reading his books a few months later, he was already dead. I think one of the most exciting fan girl experiences I ever had was when Nikki Giovanni came up to me after one of our Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry tapings. She was so incredibly awesome. I later found out she included my poem “Americano” as part of her class at Virginia Tech. Back then, we didn’t have social media so connecting with one another and reaching audiences was limited to reading events, traveling, sharing one another’s work and getting published in journals and the like. It’s a whole different world as far as the poetry scene these days and there are amazing new voices doing great work and really getting out there. Yourself included!

RFS:   :::blushes::: What one bit of personal advice have you not taken? Professional?

EX:      On a personal level, I’ve always been unapologetic and stood my ground for better or for worse. Professionally, I’ve had other writers encourage me to become a teacher but I never felt I was ready to teach. I always felt like I was still learning. Ultimately, I landed a job working for Penguin Random House and I’ve been happy working in publishing ever since. I love being around books and editors and writers.

RFS:   I need to mention one of my other favorite works of yours—Americano.  Both the collection and title poem feel so damned relevant to the current political dialogues surrounding race, allegiance, citizenship and the concept of American exceptionalism. Under the current administration, what is the role of art and artists? Should we be political? Can we afford not to be?

EX:      This is sort of also an answer to the previous question about what advice I never took. I’ve often been criticized for being rather political and, at times, perhaps politically incorrect. Now that political poetry is trending again, a lot of those same poets are suddenly “political poets.” In any case, yes, it is both fortunate and unfortunate that a poem like “Americano” is still relevant, perhaps now more than ever. I wrote that in 2001 just before 9/11 and it was published in 2002 soon after. After 9/11, the world was all kumbaya and everyone was an American. I knew that sadly wouldn’t last for too long but I never expected us to be where we are today. I’m glad the poem has stood the test of time but I had hoped it would be a historical reflection of a time that had passed not more important than before. As artists, it has always been our role and responsibility to speak to our truths and challenge the world we live in. Yes, it is great to entertain others and our own egos, but we should never be afraid to take a stance as far as politics. “Your silence will not protect you” as Audre Lorde said.

RFS:   What is your hope for 20 years from now: in poetry? in America? For your own work?

EX:      If I’m around, maybe I’ll still be doing speaking engagements where a poem like “Americano” will be listened to fondly as a historical piece about a time when some of us inexplicably felt uninvited as part of the American dream. Hopefully, new generations of poets will refer to our books for inspiration and find some value in our work. Most importantly, I hope we’re still around as a united country and equal rights will be a reality.


 Emanuel Xavier & Roberto F. Santiago

Emanuel Xavier, an LGBT History Month Icon and Gay City News Impact Award recipient, is author of the poetry collections Radiance, Nefarious, Americano, Pier Queen, If Jesus Were Gay and the novel Christ Like. A former homeless teen involved in NYC’s ball scene in the 90s and 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 which premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival. He continues to perform at colleges and universities throughout the country and his books are often included in LGBTQ and Latino Studies courses.

Roberto F. Santiago received an MFA from Rutgers University, BA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently an MSW candidate in the Child & Family concentration at the Berkeley School of Social Welfare. His poetry has been published in Apogee, Foglifter, Assaracus, CURA, Me No Habla With Acento, and other journals and anthologies. He has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, CantoMundo, Community of Writers, Sarah Lawrence College, and Lambda Literary Foundation. Roberto is the recipient of the Alfred C. Carey Poetry Prize and his debut book of poetry, Angel Park (Tincture, 2015), 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. Roberto works as an Anti-Racism Student Organizer and lives in San Francisco with a fiction writer and little black cat that never stops biting him. 

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