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Crafting with an Audience: An Interview with Kenyatta JP Garcia

by Ivelisse Rodriguez, PhD


Editor's note: This interview is the 10th in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. To read the previous interview with Michele Carlo, click here

Author's bio: Kenning/Kenyatta JP Garcia is the author of So This Is Story (Shirt Pocket Press); Slow Living (West Vine Press); and ROBOT. JP is an editor, cronista, poet and humorist. Xe was raised in Brooklyn, NY but currently lives in Albany, NY where xe received degrees in English and linguistics. Xe was a cook for a dozen years. Now, xe can be found working the graveyard shift and being paid to put boxes on shelves.

Ivelisse Rodriguez: You have published several books, such as Distilled! and A Northern Elegy (2011); Back Pocket Book (2012); Slow Living (2016); among many others. Different books focus on a particular type of poetry: implemental, distilled, abstract narratives, etc. How would you describe the aesthetics of your poetry in general?

Kenyatta JP Garcia: I want all my work to feel immersive. I want an interactive poem. The goal is always to be in conversation with the reader. If a poem can do that, then I’ve achieved my aesthetic goals. Oftentimes, in order to create a sense of dialogic exchange, I tend to leave room for the daydream. That is to say, I try to give a reader some space to drift away and places to fill in some blanks. I am vague by design and desire. As a writer, we’re writers. The poem is ours. I want a poem to feel partially crafted by the audience. 

IR: I remember a discussion in graduate school about the difference between someone like bell hooks who once worked in a factory and wrote in a more accessible manner than someone like Judith Butler. The discussion was about how a blue-collar worker would not have the leisure time to unpack Butler’s esoteric style of writing. You describe yourself as a blue-collar laborer from having worked as a cook and as a shelver. Your poetry, though, is very cerebral. While you share a background with hooks, your work is more in the Butler territory. What do you think the role of a blue-collar writer should be? Who do you think you should write for?

KJPG: For me, I try to write for anybody who wants something a little different out of their poetry. I’m not aiming at the avant-garde, but I want folks to be a bit surprised by my work. I especially want younger, marginalized folks to feel like anything is possible within a poem. I want to bring a sense of freedom to poetry and yet allow myself to address the mundane existence of my world. I think blue-collar poets should feel free/fearless, but in no way should we ignore the realities of poverty, discrimination and all the problems that go with living that kind of life. Blue-collar workers don’t need to always speak to politics, but I do hope that we don’t ignore politics. We can be a reminder to folks who are living comfortably that there are great disparities in wealth in this nation and around the world. 

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IR: How does being a blue-collar laborer aid in the creation of your poetry? What spaces does this type of labor open up in order for you to create?

KJPG: As a blue-collar worker, I tend to do tasks that don’t carry over into my home life. That is to say, when the day is done, I can focus on my writing. Stocking shelves and pushing brooms can be stressful at the moment, but at the end of the day, there are no emails to read or papers to write. There’s no reason to think about work after work. Although, admittedly, low wage work can lead to doing lots of math in the downtime. In addition, if a task is particularly mechanical, it gives the mind time to wander. As a cook, there wasn’t much room for daydreaming. Daydreaming leads to cuts and burns, but it’s easy to just sort of fade away when cleaning. This allows me to come out with some of my imagery, and in addition, I can really listen to lyrics in a song and find some ideas and rhythms to work with. I have time to focus in a way that I doubt I would have while working in an academic or office environment. 

IR: As a genderqueer half-Puerto Rican and half-black young person, what did you find of yourself in literature growing up? What would you have liked to have seen? And what can a genderqueer person and/or person of color find of themselves in your poetry? 

KJPG: As a mixed Latinx writer, I didn’t find much of myself in literature and maybe that’s why I moved towards reading comics and listening to comedians. I think I found myself trying to create new spaces in the speculative and humorous as a way to deal with an overwhelming sense of distance. I was luckier [than others] as when I got a bit older, I found Jean Toomer, Charles Chesnutt, Stephen Jonas, and Bob Kaufman. I would’ve liked to have grown up reading more weird work by mixed folks. I wish somebody was like, “here, this is hybrid poetry, lyrical essays and multi-genre work. Here, look you too can be postmodern. You can use AAVE and Spanglish.” 

I hope POC and genderqueer folks can feel at home in a common language and imagery in my work. I hope they can settle into themes. I hope they can nod with each passing stanza. When I write, I’m like, “we’re in this together.” 

IR: What continuity or disconnection does your work offer from the Puerto Rican poets who came before you? 

KJPG: I am certainly coming out of a deep love and understanding of experimental Latinx poetics. Huidobro, Vallejo, Nicanor Parra and Pablo De Rokha are all very important to my poetic ideologies. I am also working out of Andalusian, Moorish and Sephardic poetics. I am trying to carry on some traditions that have been lost over the centuries. As a Puerto Rican writer, I seek to work out a mixed approach. I want to bring my African and Spanish selves into a piece, and I do believe that I have quite a bit in common with writers such as the Last Poets, Miguel Piñero, Edwin Torres and Rodrigo Toscano. I think my orality as well as my politics and wordplay are all something seen/heard in poetry coming out of the Puerto Rican diaspora. 

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.

© Ivelisse Rodriguez. Published by permission in Centro Voices 29 May 2018.
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