Sing The Truth! is a new Kweli initiative. In this second go-round, our summer intern Criss Han Moon talked to Kweli contributor Noel Quiñones about his poetry and process.
KWELI: Can you share a few craft tips for writers of color interested in poetry?
NOEL QUIÑONES: I would share that there are many ways writers of color can subvert the white, patriarchal literary space poetry has existed in for the past few centuries. As poetry gains prominence amongst young writers of color in the form of spoken-word, we must not exclude ourselves from long standing literary traditions. As a writer who began in spoken-word, I believed for too long that to write in standard form (i.e. sonnets, sestinas, etc.) was to engage in white literary vehicles antithetical to my existence as a writer of color. At a recent lecture by Natasha Trethewey, she argued for poets of color to embrace white traditional forms as one of many ways to subvert the white canon.
She described the use of form as an entry point for an audience who may otherwise not be open to reading the work of a writer of color. Thus she uses such forms to push her own agenda so that by the end of the poem, those who were initially intrigued by the form are now left to grapple with themes they would not have engaged with otherwise. This subversion is just as powerful, I believe, as creating new forms or working in free form to create a sense of isolation for the white literary gaze. To neglect either is a disservice to the work of the writer of color.
KWELI: The violence in your poem, “A False Tribute to Abuela” is complicated; violence is problematic, violence is empowering. Such complexity is evident in the two quotations: “plucking feathers off a headless chicken / searching its body to absolve me of America, sitting across from / the bloodstained blade” and “machete swinging in her name, in her name, in her patria”. In light of this paradox, could you speak to violence?
NOEL QUIÑONES: My experience of Latinidad, of Puerto Rican identity, is one of extremes. With such a long history of violence in all its manifestations, we are a people always on the brink of emotion. These traumas associated with violence are easily passed from generation to generation. We love and fight fiercely and so I have found violence to continue to sew itself into the seams of my search of place within Latinidad. “A False Tribute to Abuela” is one of many ways I tried to violently prove myself to Latinidad in a world where I am often not seen as Latino enough. I am not fluent in Spanish, I did not grow up in the stereotypical ghetto as my cousins and elders did, and I do not have a close relationship with la isla. When presented with the chance to replicate the beheading of a chicken for dinner as mi abuela had done so many years ago, I grasped the machete unknowingly and in earnest, terrifyingly. I placed spiritual and ancestral importance on this act of violence, only realizing afterwards that experiencing the necessary violence of my ancestors would never absolve me of the violence I have experienced as being labeled not enough. Violence in and of itself is a language within our communities and to find ways to speak outside of it is a journey I am still navigating.
KWELI: The Modernists (given all their problematism and eurocentrism) believed in using foreign language in literature, untranslated, to achieve a specific rhetorical effect. While T.S. Eliot could easily be criticized for aesthetic appropriation, I suspect you thoughtfully chose to weave Spanish into your poems. Could you speak to how you chose when to do so, how to do so, and why?
NOEL QUIÑONES: I have found that the Spanish in my poems demands its space when I approach certain themes and emotions in my work. Spanish has a complicated presence in my life and so I both feel joy in speaking it as well as isolation. I try to use Spanish in my poetry for three different reasons. First, when I want to celebrate the beauty this language can hold in its Puerto Rican form, I do so by embracing the Spanglish present in the households I grew up in.
Second, when I want to tell the stories of my elders and ancestral Puerto Ricans, I feel the necessity to engage with Spanish. Their lives and experiences were not in English and so to write them in that way would be a disservice. Yet, for those stories, I often only use the knowledge base of Spanish I have from listening to family members and had learned in the classroom.
Finally, I have many poems like “derrame” which attempt to describe my lack of fluency, to paint the picture of the isolation I feel within Latinidad. I believe in order to express this effectively, I must make the reader feel that same isolation. Therefore, I use Spanish that I do not readily know by translating words through family or the use of online resources. It is in this exchange that I am most unnerved by my use of Spanish because in the act of isolating the reader, I am simultaneously isolating myself from my own work, something I am still coming to terms with.
KWELI: How is your process different in writing this poem and preparing a spoken-word poem?
NOEL QUIÑONES: For both processes word choice is at the center. I strive for rhythm, lyricism, and nuance in both processes yet beyond that I kept their desires very distinct. When writing page poems, I am thinking of its life on the page in terms of enjambment and stanza breaks, line length, and use of white space. I write these poems while sitting down and closely examining their landscapes visually. When preparing a spoken-word poem, I write them while standing up, in front of a mirror. As I write the poem, I write in big paragraphs, unconcerned with its life on the page. In front of the mirror I mark tonality, body movement, and pacing—so I situate the poem on the stage from the very beginning. This process is very start and stop, where I read each line aloud before moving on to the next, making sure I know how the poem feels in my mouth and if my body movements are comfortable with their connection to the words.
KWELI: During the recent “Art and Social Activism” event at the Ambassador Theater, Toni Morrison reminded the audience that “[t]he history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists. They’re the ones that sing the truth.” What does singing truth mean to you, specifically, as an emerging artist?
NOEL QUIÑONES: I appreciate this question put within the context of emerging artistry. I feel that singing truth in the 21st century means singing truth anew. I do not believe the truths of artists of color have changed very much. We want freedom, equality, a risen consciousness, among many other things, yet what I believe has changed is the way oppression manifests itself against us. As oppression takes on many forms so must our work as artists of color.
I have always been fascinated by remix, having grown up in the Bronx where you can still smell Hip-Hop’s birth in the air and hear Salsa’s dedication to its mixed name, I am not an artist to repeat what another artist has already done. While I pay homage to the writers and performers who have come before me, I always approach my work with the questions: Is this poem being presented through a new vehicle? Am I creating a nuanced lens to understand this topic? Am I adding to the chorus of artistic voices or am I detracting from the song by sounding too alike to my predecessors?
Noel Quiñones is an AfroBoricua writer, performer, and educator. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Pilgrimage Press, The Acentos Review, and Winter Tangerine Review. He has received fellowships from Poets House, CantoMundo, and Brooklyn Poets. His performances have or will be featured on Centro at Hunter College, Button Poetry, and Lincoln Center's Out of Doors Festival. Noel lives in NYC, where he is a member of the Bowery Poetry Club slam team and works at the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families supporting communities in the borough of his upbringing, the Bronx. Visit him at www.elninoquinones.com or @NQNino322.