October 3–9, 2016
Noel Quiñones is an AfroBoricua writer, performer and educator born and raised in the Bronx. He has performed at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival, La Casita, the Nuyorican Poets Café and Apples & Snakes–London, and he has been a featured artist with TEDxSwarthmore, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College and BronxNet Television. His poems have appeared in Pilgrimage Press, Kweli Journal, Winter Tangerine Review, Asymptote and elsewhere. A recipient of fellowships from Poets House, CantoMundo and Brooklyn Poets, where he studied with David Tomas Martinez in the summer of 2016, Quiñones has also been showcased on Blavity, Vibe, Button Poetry, LatinTRENDS and Medium. He was most recently a member of the 2016 Bowery Poetry Club slam team, which placed among the top twenty teams in the nation.
Author photo by Jesse Rinka
False Tribute to Abuela
El Yunque was itself an exercise in the small death
of tongues, as I returned to the birthplace of mi Abuela
I was still no better at tuning my ear to the Spanish I left
at her feet, yet I saw sacrifice in the tree stump made altar,
an even exchanging of my shoulder muscles for the embrace
of campesina love, the machete in the desirous cup of my hand,
imitating veins Abuela used long ago, eyes watching the tightening
of tiny black ropes to limbs, its neck taunt in translation, the rainforest
demanding Sangre, my ears hearing trade, remembering
Abuela beheading her own chickens in the backyards of Bayamón,
her swearing Otra vez, me translating the first time,
machete swinging in her name, in her name, in her patria
bearing down upon the air, slicing each neck feather in wet
earnest, a begging kind of symphony cut open at its throat,
bulging with the weight of twilight, wanting to die but not
dead yet, a death so poor in reconciliation I hear Abuela pray over
a lifetime, still not isla enough to call anywhere but
the Bronx home, plucking feathers off a headless chicken
searching its body to absolve me of America, sitting across
from the bloodstained blade.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem during a Cave Canem workshop called Fast Break: Capturing the Motion of the Mind with Jason Koo. We were prompted to write a poem that was one continuous sentence / action. The poem focuses on the act of killing a chicken for dinner in an attempt to feel closer to mi abuela in Puerto Rico who killed chickens in her backyard. I wanted to express the longing / tension I felt in that action as a descendant born in America and not fluent in Spanish. The poem names various cultural currencies I navigate on a daily basis and presents mi abuela as a gatekeeper. As the title states, I offered this chicken as tribute to her and it was not enough. This then begs the question of what is enough, something I still grapple with.
What are you working on right now?
My grandmother has been one of the biggest supporters of my poetry and I believe this is because of her dedication to our family history. She sees the connections between what I do and what she does. Her father, my great-grandfather, was captured during the Korean War in 1952 and never heard from again. He fought for the first all–Puerto Rican battalion, the 65th Infantry or the Borinqueneers. My grandmother has spent years advocating for recognition and increased awareness of their existence. Recently she received all his military records and made copies for me. I am currently in the process of sifting through pages of letters, military reports and federal documents, attempting to transcribe not only his service but also his life into a short book of poems.
What’s a good day for you?
I was struggling to answer this question yesterday morning on the train to work, but then the day revealed itself as the answer. I took my students on a field trip to Forced From Home, an exhibit presented by Doctors Without Borders on the International Refugee Crisis. I then went to the NYU Creative Writing Reading Series after work, where I heard Solmaz Sharif and Ocean Vuong read. The room was full of friends and fellow poets. Finally, I went to an off-Broadway production of Brian Quijada’s one-man show, Where Did We Sit on the Bus? I was fortunate enough to perform a poem afterwards. All in all, a good day for me is one where I get to engage with all my communities: my educators, students, poets, artists and performers. It helps that I ended the day with a burger and fries.
So you were born and raised in the Bronx. Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I grew up on the last stop on the D train, Norwood-205th Street, for about 13 years. My neighborhood was majority Puerto Rican, Dominican and West African but it still had a small Irish community. Looking back, I had a very diverse group of friends, who all lived in the neighborhood and went to the neighborhood school. While it wasn’t an easy place to grow up, I have very fond memories of my neighborhood. We grew up in the limbo era between the ’90s and the 2000s. We got to experience both making up games outside on the block and playing video games inside. We used the entire neighborhood as a home and I don’t think kids do that as much anymore. Honestly, the neighborhood hasn’t really changed, considering how far it is from the center of New York City. My grandparents from both sides of the family actually still live there and so I try to visit as much as I can. Gentrification is definitely coming, but it hasn’t reached there yet. The Bronx doesn’t compare to anywhere I’ve lived or anywhere I’ve been in the world. There is a resiliency I have experienced growing up in the Bronx and having friends from the borough. Our neighborhoods have been burned, turned to rubble, hit with toxins, and still we persevere, still we gave the world one of the most popular genres of music ever known and still we are so often forgotten and pushed to the side.
How often do you come to Brooklyn? What neighborhoods do you go to? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I recently started a new job in Brooklyn Heights so I’m actually spending more time in Brooklyn than I ever have before. I joke with my students when they name all these Brooklyn neighborhoods as if I know what they are talking about. They are helping me out, though, because I’m taking any and all suggestions for great stuff to do!
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
A poetry community means one where difference is accepted and embraced, in form, delivery and content. Thankfully the divide between spoken word and “academic” poetry is dwindling and so the NYC poetry community is becoming more fluid between the two. I love that I can see both performers and poets and everyone in between engaging in different spaces across the city. Sadly I have begun to realize how few Latinx-accepting poetry spaces there are, even worse how the Nuyorican Poets Café fails to support our communities in the way it was meant to when it was built. This has led me to try and find more spaces where a true poetic community exists for my people.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Mos Def would probably be first and foremost for me. Mos taught me the intersectionality of hip hop and poetry when I was just starting out as a writer in high school. Seeing Mos Def host Def Jam Poetry and how he brought together so many different kinds of artists is what gave me the foundation I have today to move so fluidly between both realms. I must name my contemporaries zakia henderson-brown and Cynthia Manick as well, with whom I had the unique privilege of completing the Poets House Emerging Poets Fellowship. They not only create necessary and profound work but also inspire me to pursue writing full time.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I have been blessed to have many poetry mentors in my life but I would like to highlight two: Perry ‘Vision’ Divirgilio and Peter Schmidt. Both entered my life during critical times in my writing career and without them I don’t believe I would be where I am today. Vision was my first-ever slam coach when I started my college’s first team in 2012. Throughout the following four years, Vision became a powerful presence in my life, pushing me in both the art form and my personal life to strive to be better. As one of the leaders of the Philadelphia spoken word scene, he is someone I miss every day since I’ve returned to New York City. Peter was my creative writing project supervisor in college. He oversaw the creation of my first chapbook of poems, EgoRikan. For months he gave me advice, edits, therapy sessions and recommendations to better my craft and knowledge base on Latinx and specifically Boricua poetry.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I’ve been trying to immerse myself in Latinx poetry for the past few months and two of the books that stand out for me are Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral and The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay. Corral has created one of the most precise books of poetry I have ever read. The length of each poem and the length of the collection itself have such an eye for the detail. His precision in word choice but also how he perceives and presents his own life and experiences has made it one of my favorite poetry books so far. As for Girmay, The Black Maria speaks to the very work I wish to create, one that tracks the history of a displaced and oppressed people as she does with those from Eritrea.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Sadly I have too many collecting dust on my bookshelf, but two that haunt me are Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith and [insert] boy by Danez Smith.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I unquestionably am a dip-in-and-out type of reader. I love to run my fingers through my bookshelves and then flip through a random book to find a poem, knowing that I’ve never read through the entirety of that book. It is frustrating because I wouldn’t want someone to do that with my own work (when it comes out), but I can’t seem to help it. As someone who is spiritual, I often believe the right poem will simply come to me, which I believe comes to my detriment. I can’t seem to stay attached to one book long enough. I plan out none of my reading in advance and that may be a helpful tactic to pursue. I prefer physical books every day of the week, one huge reason being I am an avid note-taker, my margins are always full of symbols, words and phrases like damn, THIS^^^, WEPA and ***.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
My best friend, who is also a poet, has been talking a lot about sonnet crowns lately and so that has been on my mind. Attempting to replicate Douglas Kearney’s use of the space of the page is something I would love to try as well.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love to read and write on the subway. I can’t tell if this is out of necessity or not. For five years, I would have to take a two-and-a-half hour train ride to get from home to school and so this taught me to use that time wisely. Now that it takes me 45 minutes to get to work, I simply must do something on the ride; I always have to have something to occupy myself.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I honestly don’t know very many Brooklyn spaces but one I recently encountered, Bembe, has taken my heart. Bembe is an Afro-Caribbean nightclub where they have live drummers accenting the songs the DJ mixes. Going there has been my best night out in the city since I returned from college.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate mi Papi’s feet,
And what I have taught you my rhythm child,
For every time you floor me as good as abuelo has spun you.
Brooklyn because real recognize real. The Bronx and Brooklyn recognize our shared struggles and so Brooklyn because I see my family, my neighborhood and my people in your borough.