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  • Zachary Joseph Schloss

Love(ly) Child: A Review and Conversation with Emanuel Xavier


 

Interview Transcript

Zachary Schloss (ZS): In the preface of Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier, you describe your long history with spoken word poetry. So, my first question is, how do you think this history with performance has affected the way that you write poetry for the page? And has your approach for this recent collection, Love(ly) Child, differed from the way in which you've approached poetry in the past?

 

Emanuel Xavier (EX): It likely influenced me to write poetry that is more personal and political. I am not a poet interested in rhyming, but I find the musicality when I am delivering a poem live in front of an audience. I enjoy a good list poem, and I suppose that comes directly from performance. I didn’t find myself writing for the stage when putting my poems together for Love(ly) Child, but I can’t say those elements will not always be a part of my writing style. I learned to embrace that I may suck at my attempts at metaphors, but I can be strong when being authentic.

 

ZS: This gets into my second question, which is also related, in some way, to spoken word poetry in terms of the concept of lyricism. What struck me in Love(ly) Child though were the poems that leaned away from the lyric, instead taking on longer, narrative lines. In poems like “Dinner With Apparent Descendants Of The Mayflower,” “Into The Woods,” and others, you engage with narrative elements, like longer lines and a heavier use of “scene,” you might call it. Yet in other poems like “Latinx Is” you still engage with lyricism through its emphasis on pattern and music. What is your approach to both the lyric and the narrative in your poetics?

 

EX: To be honest, I never really thought about this, so this is a great question. All I can say is that when I wrote “Into The Woods” I was detailing a very traumatic personal experience that I didn’t feel comfortable about, especially because I hadn’t dealt with it and shared it with my own husband, let alone an audience of readers. So, my emphasis was in recapturing a revelatory moment in time. I can be more lyrical in poems like “Latinx Is” because these are experiences that many of us share and I’m speaking to these through my own perspective.

 

ZS: The way that you engage with the rhetorical situation in this collection varies widely from poem-to-poem. Most notable are poems like “Stephanie, Gurl!” and “Letter to Augusto,” where you rhetorically remove the reader as recipient, instead addressing the subjects of those poems directly. Letter forms or letter-adjacent forms typically feel more intimate. But add to that the element of the autobiographical, and these forms, which now involve real language meant for a real person, begin to feel much more personal or private than any of the poems that are addressing the reader in the typical, you might say, “public way.” So, how do you approach this autobiographical component of your writing in the context of "public" poetry vs. "personal" or “private” poetry? And how do you view the reader in relation to your poetry, particularly in poems like "Stephanie Gurl!,” where there is a more personal language between you and the subject?

 

EX: I could only hope that my readers somehow relate to my personal poems. Some of my favorite experiences are when someone completely different from me, someone totally unexpected, comes up to tell me that they appreciate a certain poem because they have been in a similar situation. I started on this journey because I wanted to give voice to those of us who felt voiceless. Those of us who didn’t have the opportunity or courage to get up on a stage and share poems about being queer or Latinx or sexually abused or rejected by a parent. What I learned was that poetry could be universal. We may look different and have had different experiences but all of us have felt displaced or abandoned at some point in life. In response to the second question, I suppose I’m inviting the reader in as a spectator to a poem which may be more directly addressed to a close friend that has passed away or a father that I never even met.

 

ZS: My next question relates to your use of time in Love(ly) Child. Throughout this collection, there is an invocation of the past, and the past tends to haunt—and in the poem “Juvenile,” you even use that word, “haunted.” Many poems bring a comparison forward between past and present, a language of “then” vs “now,” specifically as it relates to the friends and found family of the piers and ball scene—people who are no longer alive—juxtaposed with the speaker who is alive in the present. Can you speak about this entangled concept of time and how it might relate to illness and queer futurity?

 

EX: I’m attempting to capture a moment which is part of our history and has often been sidelined or glossed over. I can’t speak for them but I’m sharing my own personal truths and experiences. My past is my present because it made me who I am today. In relation to how it relates to illness and queer futurity, one of the reasons I started writing is because I thought my time on earth was destined to be as short-lived as many of my contemporaries that were abandoned to survive as long as we possibly could on those piers. It was important to tell our stories so that we wouldn’t be forgotten even as we watched others that weren’t there attempt to rewrite our histories. James Baldwin famously said, “All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.” So, that’s my intent in sharing these stories—to give voice to that moment, to that time.

 

ZS: In the past, you've used the hypothetical in If Jesus Were Gay and the poem by the same title. There are also moments in Love(ly) Child where you engage with the hypothetical (in poems like “Juvenile,” “Après Le Feu,” and others). These hypotheticals explore alternate possibilities of violence and questions like, "if they were alive today…" What was the intention behind your use of hypotheticals in this particular collection? And how do these alternate realities—which you have constructed in micro-moments—reveal the truth of our reality?

 

EX: There is a snarky subtext to a poem like “If Jesus Were Gay” because it is meant to challenge the reader to note certain hypocrisies. As an atheist, everything I understand about Jesus is that he was about love and compassion. So, if he were gay, would he still have that devotion. Much like that simple list poem that managed to raise some eyebrows, if I engage in hypotheticals, I’m challenging readers to perhaps see things differently or from another perspective. I think the only truth in our reality is that hopefully there is a better world out there where we belong.

 

ZS: In many of the early poems from this collection, there's this language of consumerism tied to the present. There are references to Doordash, Target, Amazon. And in some poems, you juxtapose the language of the past, of hustling in the piers and the community. What purpose does this language of consumerism hold in your poetics and your exploration of time?

 

EX: I don’t think it holds any purpose other than noting the current world I move through, so it is an exploration of time in that sense. In my earlier poems, there are references to piragueros and American blue jean labels, so it’s all relative to when I write the poem and how I relate to the world around me. I never got any free piraguas or Amazon placement for mentioning any of these along the way so it’s all relative.

 

ZS: In the preface to your Selected Poems, you stated, “I always felt like I brought my own folding chair to the table when it came to the Latinx Literati as it was.” As a queer Latinx poet who has built their poetic career outside of Academia and has faced many of the difficulties described in the preface of your Selected Poems, what would be your advice for young writers in a similar situation, who are trying to break into the world of poetry?

 

EX: It’s a very different world than when I was starting out as a poet in the late ‘90’s. There is far more opportunity as far as education. Also, even if you are rejected by journals or anthologies, you can put your work up on social media. The publishing industry is more open to reading manuscripts from poets of color and queer poets. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is now a thing. But always remember that art is for the people not just for the elite. There will always be critics and professionals that have spent a lot of money and have had great opportunities in life to succeed, but genuine talent is something that can’t be bought. So, just stay passionate, read for pleasure, and always strive to be your best.



 


Rebel Satori Press | October 2023|

ISBN: 978-1-60864-274-8


The pages of Love(ly) Child surge with hungry voices: “Nothing will protect us / our silence, our screams.” Voices that thirst for wishing wells, that fill our mouths with pennies, too many to swallow at once. But we all taste the copper dreams, feel the throb of trauma in our necks, recollect the acid in our mouths. In this new collection published by Rebel Satori Press in 2023, Emanuel Xavier explores the autobiographical by creating a poetic dimension where past and present are equally real, where queer and Latinx futures swell into a fluid space, where time is folded. Scraps of “then” bleed into fragments of “now.” Personal tribulations scab across a shared history. Particularity calluses into the universal. Consequently, memory becomes both intimate and collective: past moments of abuse, abandonment, and hustling on The Christopher Street Pier culminate into an interconnected history.

During my interview with Xavier, he commented on his usage of time: “I’m attempting to capture a moment which is part of our history and has often been sidelined or glossed over.” He clarified that his intention is “to give voice to that moment, to that time.” Of course, he more than renders the past. He pumps its chest until it pulses here and now, until it speaks. In “Hanging At The Piers With Jay, 1991,” he achieves this intention by fragmenting out the self. He slices the “I” from the poetic body like mold from bread. All the reader can see is crust and crumb:


Jay rocking his freshly shaved head,

looking thinner than ever. Jay

limping with his wooden cane at 22

 

“It’s just for effect. Mira, I just

need some coins to pay my rent,

and some medical bills and shit.”


With the speaker’s presence minimized, what remains is a past voice given breath. But despite removing the first-person “I,” it is still rooted beneath the surface, an invisible undergrowth. In our conversation, Xavier made clear that his writing—even when attempting to “capture” a shared history—is purely based on his own perspective: “I can’t speak for them but I’m sharing my own personal truths and experiences.”

Every exploration outside the self is still grounded within the self. It cannot be unfused. Even in a poem like “Ella,” which attempts to center the perspective of the speaker’s mother, Xavier carefully distances the subject to the third-person point of view:


Ella loved his ivory white skin like Jesus

Few noticed the bruises on her own or questioned

why the effeminate brown boy looked nothing like them

 

They were a nuclear American family

which is all ella ever wanted,

a front for the world to admire


Not only does Xavier take a detached third-person view of both the speaker and their mother, but he also uses a free indirect style: he blurs the lines between both the mother’s desires—“all ella ever wanted”—and the speaker’s internal perception of those desires—“a front for the world to admire.” He enters a paradoxical internality: his language reaches for something distant and objective, while also entering into empathy, all while remaining partly in the language of the speaker.

But Xavier does not withhold voice. In poems like “Old Pro,” the first-person “I” uncurls like a loose fist. Softly, rhythm and lyric scatter from the hand, and what remains, bare and raw in its palm, is a confessional voice:


I thought what I was sharing was 

important. I thought what I was doing was significant.

I thought poetry was meant for everyone. I made

mistakes in my rebellion. I was almost killed.


This level of vulnerability and the repetition of a basic “I” structure allows readers to access an honest emotional landscape. But Xavier takes this further in poems like “Parole,” where a private language—in this case, addressed to the speaker’s mother—is offered to the reader:


I watch children play

hide-and-seek and I’m transported behind couches, under tables,

even closets. Not playing but scared you would kill me because you

might have seriously murdered me.


During our conversation, Xavier stated that in poems with private language, he is “inviting the reader in as a spectator.” The rhetorical situation is complicated by the fact that the poem is both for the reader and not for the reader. 

This can also be felt in poems of plurality, where Xavier brings focus to a collective experience: he embeds the speaker’s interiority within a specific, shared perspective. Poems like “At The End Of Christopher Street” use the communal “we”: “We learned to love ourselves, / our skin, on the edge of a city / where bodies were dumped off.” Here, shared experience depicts the past and the piers. It is a plurality based on the particular. But the poem “Latinx Is” moves toward universality, implanting the “we” deep into its language. It becomes a vein on the wrist, bulging under the skin. It beats with a broader identity: “something between Latino and Latina,” “Something like drag queens at La Escuelita and butches at / Café con Leche,” “Somewhere between ‘When did you come into this country?’ & / brown babies in hospital delivery rooms.” Xavier uses repetition to define and redefine what “Latinx Is,” not placing it within precise conceptual terms but lodged between lived fragments. This language of “between” creates a sense of an interstitial identity, a definitional gap that is applied to the collective through the use of particularity.

Xavier’s use of time also carries this feeling of “between.” Like an incision yawning with blood, a gap opens between self and community in the poem “Aprés Le Feu.” Here, Xavier juxtaposes the shared past of the piers with the speaker’s present: “We were criminals, prostitutes, destined for / prison or hell. Now I Google my dead friends to see what is said / about them, make reservations to go for ‘ouchie’ dinners…” The “we” exists in the past tense, the “I” in the present, and this entanglement between then and now places the speaker in a liminal space. In “Alienated,” Xavier hints at a further temporal detachment: “Freedom and idealized beauty must feel divine / as far & as distant as stars / for me / us / them.” Here, stellar imagery represents an ideal future that is visible but light-years away; but in naming it, Xavier shows us a communal longing to close that gap, to feel the warmth of stars on skin.

Love(ly) Child explores the collective through personal memory, and it glimpses queer and Latinx futurity, an overlap of both time and dream. Emanuel Xavier’s language reverberates a new history, a vibration of voices. They speak of a hunger we cannot unhear: Know what buries our stomachs, they say, leaves us starving to be seen.



 

Zachary Joseph Schloss (he/him) is from the shrub-steppe of the Yakima Valley in Washington State. Because he was raised in the countryside, rearing pigs and beekeeping, his fiction deals with small-town confinement, rural spaces, and the mundane as myth. He graduated with his BA in Professional and Creative Writing from Central Washington University, and he is currently an MFA student at Western Michigan University. When he isn't conducting interviews or writing book reviews, he works as an associate editor at Poetry Northwest.


Emanuel Xavier is author of the poetry books Pier Queen, Americano, If Jesus Were Gay, Nefarious, Radiance, Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier, and Love(ly) Child (shortlisted for a 2024 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry). He is recipient of a New York City Council Citation and a Gay City Impact Award for his many contributions to NYC arts culture. His books have been finalists for International Latino Book Awards and Lambda Literary Awards and his work has appeared in POETRY, A Gathering of the Tribes, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is on the Board of The Publishing Triangle and works for Penguin Random House, where he founded their LGBTQ+ Network.

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