An Interview with Poet Vincent Toro

By on Monday, March 14th, 2016 at 9:03 am

Vincent Toro, poet, and author of STEREO ISLAND MOSAIC

Professor Vincent Toro, an English Kills Review contributor, is a poet and playwright from New York, where he teaches for The City University of New York’s Bronx Community College and The DreamYard Project, a nonprofit organization that places working artists in the schools and local communities. He has an MFA from Rutgers University, received a 2014 Poet’s House Emerging Poet’s Fellowship, and was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry for 2014. Ahsahta Press recently awarded Toro with the Sawtooth Poetry Prize; his manuscript of poems, just released in February 2016, is titled Stereo.Island.Mosaic.

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Melissa Adamo: Congratulations, Vincent, on winning the Sawtooth Poetry Prize! Stereo.Island.Mosaic. is a stunning collection. How are you feeling now that your first poetry collection is out there in the world?

Vincent Toro: Thank you for the kind words. The first and strongest sensation I’ve felt since the book came out is one of relief. I’ve been dreaming of writing a book since the age of 17. I’m 40 now. The meal had been cooking for a long time. I think when I got the call from Janet Holmes about The Sawtooth Prize, the first thing I did was sigh because I thought maybe I could rest for a second and stop scaling the cliff, which is of course a myth. The climbing doesn’t cease. But at least you get to camp out for a night and make s’mores before you have to keep climbing in the morning.

Adamo: Can you tell us a bit about that climb, sharing the origin story of Stereo.Island.Mosaic. and finding its home with Ahsahta Press?

Toro: Well, as I mentioned, it was a slow-cooked meal. The inception of this book reaches back to my undergraduate years, when I started to seriously question my own identity and my shared history. It was clear very early on that, as a non-Spanish speaking, working-class Puerto Rican raised in New Jersey, I fit into none of the prescribed American demographic categories. I’ve always felt marginalized in whatever space I inhabit. Growing up in Northern New Jersey, there was constant tension with the working-class white kids I went to school with. But I never felt entirely connected to my family in New York either, who seemed more boisterous, cynical, and street savvy than I was. And I felt completely alien to my family on the island. Our trips to Puerto Rico felt like trips to Mars for this young Sorta Rican. They got chickens and pigs in the backyard! Abuelo raises fighting cocks! What do you mean there’s no subway or air conditioning?! I wanted to know why I was different, why I was who I was, how I got here. So in college I took every class I could that was related to Latino literature and history. My poetry then became consumed by this search for the history I was not taught, for the parts of me that had gone missing.

But the first sketch for a poem that ended up in the book dates back to about 2007, when I was living in Texas. I suppose the distance from both New York and Puerto Rico gave me a perspective and a longing to turn this search in to a book, a work of art. The material was composed and gathered over the next seven years. The process accelerated when I entered the MFA program at Rutgers, which afforded me more focused time to really make sense of what I wanted to craft. I finished a completed draft as my thesis in 2013. Then I spent the subsequent 2 years submitting the manuscript, making a point to revise with each submission. I submitted the book 41 times, so there were 41 stages of revision.

The strategies and maneuvers to submit is a story within itself, so I’ll just focus on how it ended up with Ahsahta. Ahsahta was already on my radar because they have a reputation for publishing work that is experimental and risk taking, work that more conventionally minded publishers tend to steer away from. I made the decision to submit to them last year because I saw that Ed Roberson was judging, and I adore his work. I also saw an affinity there, as Roberson’s work is also influenced by and draws from visual art. It all moved very quickly from there. I submitted sometime in January 2015, got the message that I was a finalist around April, and a few days before I left for Spain this past June, I got the call that my manuscript was selected.

Adamo: You craft and construct this collection so strongly. Sections (as named in the book’s title) counter each other, poems mirror themselves, lines repeat and resound throughout. Poems appear to dance on the page, calling attention to syllable count and white space. The forms enact subjects of the book itself; so many use juxtaposition to reveal the complicated history of the Caribbean—details of a sultry spring break scene fueled on rum shatter alongside the horrific history of Captain Morgan, depictions of the natural beauty of “Yucca fields” sadly turn to become “tailored into/ spa resort.”

Can you speak a bit on developing the overall structure for this book as well as these patterns for poems themselves?

Toro: So, I actually consider myself a very messy thinker and writer. I write in nonlinear fragments, shorts bursts mixed in with lulls and furious binges. I am constantly telling my students that a work of art that has any chance of making an impact, of lasting, must be housed inside of a solid piece of architecture. So to practice what I preach, I made the decision to elevate the function of the poems by concentrating on form, form that would actually enrich the language and movement of the poems rather than flatten them, as some traditional poetic forms can do. But as my work has also been a very conscious push back against American and Eurocentric traditions (I believe I’m the founder of the Association for Not Another Sonnet!), I was adamant that the forms I chose for the poems would either be invented by me or come from relatively unknown or underutilized poetic forms and traditions. I began with the décima, as it is a form indigenous to Spanish, one widely used in the Caribbean for the last several hundred years, most commonly as the lyrical form for the Puerto Rican music known as Plena. But I also had been thinking that if I was going to take this kind of rebellious stance, why limit it to draw from just poetic form. As music and visual art are huge influences on my ideology and aesthetics, I thought I would play with forms and methods from these disciplines as well. So I began to construct the architecture of the poems using principles of triptychs, and cubism, and hip hop, and Frank Zappa’s concept of Xenochrony, and modal jazz, which has a somewhat indirect root in Puerto Rico. Apparently, Juan Tizol, a Puerto Rican trombonist who played in Duke Ellington’s band, claimed that when he studied music in Puerto Rico, they could not afford sheet music, so when they learned to play a piece of music, they would then turn the music sheet over and learn it backward.

This led me to recall Douglas Hofstadter’s use of the classical music structure of the Crab Canon in his absolutely mind melting book “Gödel, Escher, Bach.” But at the time I discovered the anecdote about Juan Tizol, I was also reading Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s book The Repeating Island, which theorizes that time for the Caribbean does not move in one direction, that it moves much like ocean waves, folding and unfolding, forward then backward, and each time it changes directions, it takes a different form, leaving certain debris behind while accumulating other pieces that are absorbed into the wave (of time)’s body. And it is with Benitez-Rojo that I owe the inspiration for the structure of the book. I made it my aim to construct the book with this structure, where the book has multiple beginnings and endings, moving forward and then reversing, evolving and then de-evolving, sometimes repeating itself (with subtle or not so subtle differences), and sometimes recasting itself as something entirely new. I had been struggling to find that structure for about 2 or 3 years, and then suddenly, with Benitez-Rojo’s book, it struck me, like a moment of satori. Once I found that structure, the book began to almost organize itself (or disorganize itself, I suppose) swiftly and with clarity. What is it that Oscar Wilde said? “Thank god for form, for without it we would all be at the mercy of genius.” (Unfortunately, I think he was referring to the sonnet.)

Adamo: As a result of using so many stylized poems, the collection seems to highlight the ones that don’t follow such patterns, like the dense and beautiful piece “Ricanstruction: Xenochrony.” In which you write, “In middle school a classmate/ asked me if I was to steal his parent’s hubcabs. I asked/ him if his parents were going to steal my culture.” This poem kept wowing me line after line, hit after hit.

Okay. So that isn’t a question. I just love this poem and would thus love to hear you speak more about it.

Toro: Thanks for your positive reaction to the poem. It is, perhaps obviously, one of the more “personal” poems in the book, and it was a difficult one to create even though the form itself was not as taxing on me as some of the others were.

I would say the mirrored “Ricanstruction” poems are a kind of Ars Poetica for the book. The first draft of Ricanstruction was one of the earlier pieces I wrote for the collection. It began with a conversation with my wife, Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta. She is an Afro-Latina scholar (and poet), she is Cuban and Colombian, and so among the things we share, we share parallel colonial histories. Anyway, she has written in her scholarly and her creative work about the ways in which the history and culture of colonized peoples has been stripped and buried by the colonizer. The colonizer deprives the colonized of a complete vision of their own history because to fully colonize a people one must force the colonized to adopt the culture and history of their conqueror. It is a way of minimizing the possibility of reciprocity, of rebellion. As a result, the life’s work of the colonized is very much an acting of searching for the parts of you that have been stolen, and then of attempting to patch back together those broken and incomplete pieces. Our ongoing discussions about this process over the last 15 years slowly made cogent my own efforts to reclaim my stolen and recurring history.

As an undercurrent to this effort, I had become swept away by Aime Cesaire’s poetry, particularly his Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. What makes his work, and that book, so liberating is, here is a poet from the Caribbean saying, “yes, the conqueror has decimated our history and our culture, and this is a tragedy. But this is also a unique opportunity to reconstruct ourselves anew, however we deem fit.” I took this as a call to arms to do just that with the book. So in my messy and fragmented notebooks, I collected the tiny broken pieces of my history that I discovered from a myriad of places and people. In keeping with the Repeating Island structure of the book, I began to weave these fragments together with my own poetic vignettes, choosing not to artificially re-enact them as a linear narrative, because that was not how the pieces were collected. As a kind of jazz improvisation, I began to sew the pieces together, numbering them somewhat arbitrarily as I pulled them from various notebooks. So if one were zealous enough to want to put the poem back together based on the logical numerical progression, they would not get a linear history; they would only see more transparently the order in which I transcribed each fragment from one of my notebooks or composed it into the final product. I then further pushed against the urge to create order by chopping up sections and pushing them from away each other, while randomly reconfiguring a few of the chopped up sections. I was also thinking, at the time, of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film 21 Grams. While editing the film, Iñárritu purposely ripped apart and shook up the scenes he shot in order to create a narrative puzzle for the viewer to piece back together themselves. I find it not coincidental that a Latino director applied this approach, since piecing together a torn apart narrative is exactly how Latinos must negotiate their way through the post-colonial world.

Anyway, after completing what I hoped was the final draft of Ricanstruction: Xenochrony, I wanted to find a way to frame the poem within the larger Repeating Island structure of the collection, so I conducted an erasure of the entire poem, but then I put the erasure version first in the book, chronologically speaking, so that the reader gets the sense of disorientation the colonized person feels when their own historical context is fragmented and incomplete.

Adamo: Having been to a few of your readings, I can attest to the fact that your performances are always captivating; such powerful poems like “Vox Populi for the Marooned” especially seems to want to live out loud. How does performance of poetry help you craft your work on the page and vice versa?

Toro: I nearly always begin my process with sound, with music, usually even before I seek meaning or intent. I often say that I became a poet because I could not become a musician. I am enchanted by sound and was never given the proper opportunity and resources to learn to play music. My earliest poems were poor attempts at rapping and writing songs. Though I have no talent for melody, I have always had a strong sense of rhythm, and so I took to spoken word and slam, and in college I was enthralled with poets that experimented with sound like Tracie Morris and Edwin Torres and Sekou Sundiata, who performed his poems with a full band behind him.

I also have a theater background, so I am trained to see writing as a text waiting to be staged. Often I am infected with a rhythm or sound first, then I try to capture it in language, or I will envision myself dramatically performing a piece that I have yet to write. I don’t know what the language of the poem is yet, but I see myself performing it. So that my idea of performing a piece will be a precursor to actually having written it, which is what happened with Vox Populi. I had a vision of creating an incantation piece that would evoke the power of the populist movements of history, stretching back to the rebellions of indigenous peoples fighting colonization and moving into the modern world of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matters Movement. Later, the image was evoked with only the anaphora “they will gather,” which I subsequently repeated in my head, and out loud, for weeks, waiting for other lines and images to come to me. In this crazed repetition, the lines started to crawl out and attach themselves to the anaphora, until I had enough material that I could see the progression.

This is more commonly how my work is born, though I will say with this collection, it was the first time I have created work where the seed of a particular piece was not music or rhythm, and the intent was not necessarily performance. There are pieces I have yet to read from the book because I have no idea how they will sound out loud, such as “Epicenter: Caribbean Sea Crab Canon,” which was conceived visually, as a mural, rather than sonically.

Adamo: And those visual poems, like “Alzheimer’s Suite (For Sammy),” are so arresting as well.

At a reading last year, you discussed being a “political poet.” What does this phrase and its often negative connotations mean to you?

Toro: Well, first, I think when someone says that your work is political or they call you a political poet here in America, it is often intended to be a subtle criticism, if not an insult. The implication being that the work is somehow not “serious” poetry (ideas without lyricism or form). At the very least, it is an attempt to compartmentalize the work and marginalize it from the rest of the poetry landscape. I take issue with this for a number of reasons, the most prominent one being that this “political poet” brand seems to all too often be placed upon writers of color, almost as a form of literary minded racial micro-aggression.

Moreover, as I said that day at Word Bookstore, in Jersey City, all poets are political. I know I am being ambiguous here. In one sense, as I made explicit at that particular reading, we live in a place and time when the ruling classes of the world are using all their resources to limit the capacity and scope of our imaginations. Imagination is, in my opinion, the most powerful of all human tools. To insure that some people cannot access it is to put those people at the mercy of other people’s imagined realities. As Arundhati Roy said, “There is a war that makes us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.” That happens when our imaginations have been stunted, when we can no longer dream for ourselves, and then another dream, the dream of the conqueror, can be inserted where ours should be. Poetry is, first and foremost, unbridled imagination made material with language.

But my other meaning when I said this refers to the fact that only in America is political content forcefully stripped from poetry (I do see this changing, little by little, as evidenced by the public success of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen). All over the world, it is understood that poetry is a useful and powerful tool for engaging with politics in a very real and pragmatic way. Poets have always been political, their poems being the extension of themselves, and they are inevitably political beings. Jose Marti was composing poems from the front lines of Cuba’s war against Spain for independence. Taslima Nasrin’s poems that challenged the misogynistic social structure of Bangladesh made such an impact that she was inevitably exiled from the country in 1994. Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his poems about Tianemen Square, poems that he wrote from his prison cell. Leonel Rugama died while fighting the dictator Somoza’s National Guard in Nicaragua, and like Marti, he was literally writing poems about the rebellion from the mountains where the rebellion was occurring. Julia De Burgos, whose poems challenged American imperialism and promoted women’s liberation, was Secretary General of the Daughters of Freedom, the women’s branch of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist party. I could keep going with dozens of examples from around the world. I am not nearly as brave as any of these poets, but if someone wants to label me as a political poet, well I should be so lucky to be in such esteemed company. Love, Paolo Freire asserted, is itself a political project. And poetry is an act of love.

Adamo: Speaking of acts of love, in the acknowledgments of your book, you thank your students, past and present. How does teaching help inform and shape you and your artistic pursuits?

Toro: In innumerable ways. My students not only inspire me with their ability survive in a world that works every day to strip them of their humanity, but they trust me with their minds and spirits, trust that I am there to help them grow into the world, when too often adults exploit that trust (if you want countless examples of this, read Alissa Quarts “Branded”). This humbles me and also disciplines me to try to see the type of person I want to see in the world, to try to be the type of person my students need in the world. I have long since asserted that what makes someone a poet is not the writing and reciting of words, but how a person perceives the world and how they use their entire being to transform the world, to move it toward progress. Because of the responsibility I have to my students, I must constantly unpack the world and re-imagine it, and dig into my own head and heart, so that I might heal and learn and train to be my best self for them.

But to be more specific about how the act of teaching impacts my writing, let me say that at this point, I’m not sure I could even write without teaching. The work of trying to make my own process transparent to my students, to discipline myself to understand how a piece of writing (or media or art) has been constructed, to assess what the purpose or agenda is for that piece of writing, then to have to find strategies for getting my students to discover all this, contributes to a process that has sharpened my work ethic and pushed me to constantly feed the fire within me.

I think of something Herbie Hancock once said when he was asked about why his touring band for his Future 2 Future tour were all twenty years his junior. He said something to the effect of, “I give them wisdom and they give me fire.” I love that idea! My students keep me curious and hungry, while also pushing me to have to get them to see how, for example, N. Scott Momaday uses the device of metaphor to make the rhetorical argument that man and nature are one and that to destroy nature is an act of suicide, or why I use alliteration so much in my poems. Teaching is the most effective method I know for training myself to be a better writer, and person.

Adamo: Growing up yourself was there a particular poet or educator who helped give you wisdom, who brought you to poetry?

Toro: My mentors, Carmen Rivera and Candido Tirado, gave me my first poetry book, Puerto Rican Obituary by Pedro Pietri. Those three right there were the most important teachers I’ve had. Carmen and Candido not only gave me culture, taking me to museums and jazz concerts and making me “work for it” at their theater company, but they also gave me my first lessons in what it means to be Puerto Rican, and most importantly, they helped me gain self esteem that I severely lacked. And Pedro’s Puerto Rican Obituary was the first book I read inhabited by people like the ones in my own family. I still remember reading that book at age 16 and being like, “Oh yeah! This is EXACTLY what I want to do with my life!”

Adamo: What’s on your shelf now? In other words, who have you last read that most excited you? or What are you currently singing or dancing to that you want to share with more people?

Toro: I’m in the middle of reading the Collected Poems of Edouard Glissant. He is a heavyweight of Caribbean poetry and letters. Etel Adnan’s Sea and Fog. And Roger Reeves’s King Me. For fiction, it’s been Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents and Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness.

I’ve noticed when poets and fiction writers are asked this question they rarely mention nonfiction books, and what would we know without nonfiction? So here’s a few nonfiction books I’ve been reading too: War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson A. Denis, The Divide by Matt Taibbi, and Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra.

And what have I been recently singing and dancing to? Now we’re getting down to business!

Well I’ve been understandably Bowie crazed of late. But others I’ve had on steady rotation are Imani Vol. 1 by Blackalicious, Courtney Barnett’s last record, While You Were Sleeping by Jose James, Thunderbitch, The Nevermen, and Mulatu Astatke with The Heliocentrics. And I’m starving to hear the new Santigold album, but with music I get how some people get about TV shows; don’t spoil it by telling me about it or playing me a note of it until I’ve heard it in its entirety on my own turntable.

Adamo: Thanks for the recommendations, and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us at EKR!

Toro: Right back at you. Thanks to you, Melissa, and to English Kills Review for supporting Stereo.Island.Mosaic.

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Pick up your copy of Stereo.Island.Mosaic. today at Ahsahta Press. And for more information on Toro’s upcoming work, check out his and his wife’s website GRITO for event and other publication updates.

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