This interview with the teacher, poet, playwright, and director, Vincent Toro is part of a series with Latinx authors. Toro is the author of Tertulia (Penguin), a poetry collection that has been getting a lot of buzz for its lyrical style. He is also the author of Stereo. Island. Mosaic. (Ahsahta Press).
González: Whether it’s Stereo. Island. Mosaic. or Tertulia, your poetry is often an artistic form of history lessons. Writers are often asked about when they first started working within their genre, but my question for you is when did you first begin to develop such a reflective interest in history?
Toro: I love this question. You might be the first to ask me about this. I think it began not so much as an interest in history, but as a burning urge to understand my own identity as a Puerto Rican and Latinx person. I felt very marginalized as a youth, and Latinx and Latin American culture and history were rendered invisible in the curriculum at the schools I went to. I wanted to understand myself and where I came from but no one was offering me this knowledge at home, at school, or in my community. Thus, I went searching for it in books. I swallowed up any book I could find that had “Puerto Rico” or “Latino” or the name of a Latin American country in the title. Some of those books were history books, but many were fiction and poetry, economics, political science and sociology, and cultural criticism.
So it didn’t start as a love for “history” for me. In fact, I hated history in high school, because it seemed to be just a lot of arbitrary (white) names and dates and wars. There is a story I’ve often told when I do lectures and school visits about how I was given detention for a week for challenging my U.S. History honors teacher. I saw that our textbook had only a single sentence about Puerto Rico that merely mentioned it as being annexed by the U.S. in the Spanish-American war. When I questioned him about why Puerto Rico was given so little thought in our textbook, he told me it was because Puerto Rico was not important. Then I said to him, “well if Puerto Rico isn’t important to you, then maybe you should give it back.?” Not only was I given detention, but I was essentially kicked out of the history honors program.
Then I got to college. I went to Rutgers which actually had one of the few robust Puerto Rican and Caribbean Studies programs at the time. I took every class on Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America that my course load would allow. Those classes were a wellspring. In some sense, I “found myself” there. I was lucky enough to have a professor who showed me the way: Professor Jose Morales. Professor Morales helped me to understand why I felt lost and rootless, explained the importance of colonized peoples reclaiming their histories and their ethnic and cultural identities. He also taught me that our losing those things in the first place was a deliberate provocation, a strategy implemented by the colonizer. To illustrate this, Prof. Morales would use the story of Alexander burning down the libraries and archives of every place he conquered, because he knew people without their own history and traditions could be easily dominated.
From early on in my path toward becoming a writer there was the intention of aiding in rebuilding those “burned down” libraries. I wanted my work to be at least a tiny step to this reclamation project for Latinxs of the diaspora here in the U.S. I’ve spent 25 years digesting books on Latinx and Latin American history and culture, and I hope to offer some of what I’ve absorbed to the students in my classrooms (who are majority Latinxs, Black, and nonwhite and immigrant in general) and to anyone who reads my poems. In the age of Google, it is my wish that someone will come across my poems and go look up Policarpa, Manuela Sanz, Túpac Amaru, etc., for themselves.
González: A recurring theme in your poetry is a call for unity. What would you say has influenced this aspect of your writing the most?
Toro: Activating and provoking unity has long been one of the primary purposes of the world’s poets. The metaphor, which is an essential element of poetry, is a bridge builder. Metaphors connect things to each other, they create affinity. Inherent in the function of poetry is bridge building and uniting things. If I’m doing my job as a poet, then the acting of inducing some degree of unity is inevitable.
I imagine, though, that you are talking about unity in socio-political terms rather than in aesthetic and metaphysical terms. You know, my biggest poetic influences are Latin American poets who were unabashedly political and tied to social movements in their countries; poets such as Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, Julia De Burgos, César Vallejo. What you see consistently in their work – both on and off the page – is calls for unity, because unity is central to successful political action, or at least it is essential to liberational political action (if your political intention is to conquer, then you’ll be seeking to divide people, of course). Think of the labor movement’s slogan, “workers of the world unite!,” or Simón Bolívar’s entreaties to the Latin American nations to unify their efforts to end colonial rule. From the Young Lords to the Black Power movement to the anti-dictatorship and indigenous movements in South America, poets were often recruited and utilized – poets and musicians, and artists, because song and art brings people together and can make abstract ideologies cogent and material.
If I’m doing my job as a poet, then the acting of inducing some degree of unity is inevitable.
I would argue that the work of those poets is much more powerful because it is infused with the intention to unify, uplift, and provoke change, and that these movements were in turn ever more effective because of the work of the poets and artists that contributed to these causes, and that the artists were instrumental in preserving the legacies and traditions of those movements.
Though, I also have to admit there is something embedded in my own programming that compels me to call for unity in my art, teaching, and daily life. I’ve always harbored the instinct to try to pull people together and to connect people and things. Maybe it’s the result of being an only child in a fractured family. One of my old friends from college used to tease me that whenever a bunch of us went out on the town together on the weekends, I would spend most of my time trying to “keep the band together” as folks would split up and disappear and drift off to do their own thing over the course of the evening. I suppose that I am personally more at peace when I feel that everyone is acting in harmony.
González: You write globally, which is to say that when you write about one region you often write about it in the context of another. I would say that likewise, stylistically, your poems rarely conform to one form. Is that something that happens organically when you write?
Toro: I would say that the global bent to my work partially happens organically, but that there is also a degree of premeditation or mindfulness about it. It’s interesting, I recently read “Cosmopolitan Desires” by Mariano Siskind, a work of literary criticism which theorizes that Latin American authors have pursued globalism in their work in part as an antidote for colonialism. I wonder now if that doesn’t have something to do with the globalist tendencies in my own work. Siskind claims that writers like Ruben Dario and Jose Marti were framing their writing within the context of literatures from other parts of the world in an effort to create more visibility for Latin Americans. The hope being that this visibility would evolve into Latin America being perceived as equal to the other regions of the world, particularly those regions that were oppressing them through imperial force.
I suppose that by placing the Puerto Rican experience in a global context there is some desire to both gain visibility for Puerto Ricans on the world stage but also to create solidarity (there’s that unity again) with other people’s that have been colonized, oppressed, and/or marginalized. In this respect, the globalist imperative in my work is premeditated.
Where this predilection is organic in my work comes from my being born and raised as a New Yorker. New Yorkers are inherently globalist beings. Those of us who are born and grow up here are raised immersed in an exciting palette of cultural influences from all over the world. This diversity is so prevalent in our daily life that when we venture to places in the world that are culturally homogeneous we are dumbfounded. We can’t understand why anyone would want to live without a thousand different languages and types of food and music and forms of dress populating their environments and imaginations. So New York is at least partially responsible for my globalist tendencies. I find diversity and eclecticism absolutely invigorating. The fact that pretty much every group of humans from every corner of the world have found their way to New York and have left their mark here is fascinating to me. There is just so much to be learned, as a result, from standing on any corner in New York, and that is what I love about this city despite all its headaches. So, I suppose, at least aesthetically, I aspire to a poetics that is as expansive and kaleidoscopic as the streets of New York City.
González: As an educator in one of the largest higher education systems in the U.S., where would you say New York is in terms of including Latinx in its curriculum?
Toro: Well, because of the dynamic environment I previously mentioned, New York is somewhat ahead of most places in this regard. Having more Latinx educators here than in most U.S. territories, and considering that Latinx students are the majority of the student body in New York City public schools, we just have more representation in these spaces. But I strongly feel that New York still has a long way to go until there is any kind of parity in this regard. The problem is that the white supremacist and neoliberal factions that have taken the American education system by the throat have made it very hard to implement a curriculum that is Latinx, or even POC, centered. These factions uphold policies that make it so that any teacher or administrator who tries to deviate from the imposed test-obsessed curriculum, which still centers white Eurocentrism, risks direct and indirect forms of punishment. I work with so many teachers that are actually quite crafty, and bold, in their efforts to provide their students with an education that is culturally relevant to them, but they are trying to do these things while being hamstrung by mechanisms that have been installed to ensure that they cannot provide an education that fully accomplishes this. From programs that force white teachers who are not from the city into its classrooms, to the neoliberal charter school movement’s dismantling of democratic education, to projects like the “Great Books” program that seeks to re-establish the notion that white authors are the standard bearers, to the oppressive standardized tests, and the massive amount of drilling for these tests that is aggressively enforced, it becomes quite a task to jump those hurdles and still find the time to squeeze in a lesson on Cesar Chavez or read some Julia Alvarez with your students.
Truthfully, I left my position as an elementary school teacher and chose alternative teaching institutions for this very reason. My work with Dreamyard, the Dodge Foundation, and as director of the Saturday Program, a youth arts program at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, allows me to implement a social justice pedagogy where I can center the literature, art, and histories of Latinx, Black, and other people of color. And I am fortunate enough to be able to teach a Latinx Literature class at Bronx Community College to a student body that is 98 percent students of color and majority Latinx. But this is not yet the norm, not even here in New York. We still have to work “against the grain” to give the students the education they deserve, one where they can see themselves and value their own experience.
González: You’ve been heavily involved in theater initiatives. Can you describe any experiences from your time in theater that have developed you as a writer?
Toro: Unfortunately, my involvement has lessened over the last decade, as poetry has been winning in its tug-of-war with theater for my creative time. But yes, I’ve had a number of my plays staged off-Broadway and in Texas, and I was the theater director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center for five years. Theater was actually my entry point into the arts. I proved to be inclined toward the arts even as a child, but books were not abundant or highly valued in my home or in the community where I was raised. This lack of a literary community led me to become a music obsessive first (the one art medium that was accessible to me), and then in high school I was fortunate enough to find a mentor who happened to have her own theater company producing plays off-off-Broadway. At seventeen, I was a stage hand and intern in her company, where I was taught everything from stage lighting to dramaturgy to how to make and distribute emergency promotional flyers. This led to my choosing theater as my minor at Rutgers, which meant I got to study in part at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, where I learned a good deal about playwriting, directing, and stage production.
I see my writing as “one art.” I talk a great deal about how art was originally a singular entity that embodied all the aspects of what we now call “the arts.” It was industrialization and capitalism that broke the various dimensions of art (dance, music, visual, literary, theatrical) up into disciplines that could be commodified and made into systems of production. I say this now to make the point that my experiences in the theater have always informed my writing, as does my time playing in a band and my years working at a visual arts school. And the reverse is true as well: my writing informs all these other dimensions of my artistic practice.
As a result of my theater training, I have learned to write my poems from “the inside out” rather than from the first line to the last. Strong plays have to have a spine, inner architecture that holds them up. I try to write my poems with the same understanding.
But I guess there are some things I can specifically say about how theater has impacted my poetry. For one, writing for the theater has taught me structure, that structure is necessary to all writing that is effective. A play with no structure might have some amusing elements that an audience will enjoy for a short while, but it won’t hold them for long, and it won’t create something that they will want to return to again. As a result of my theater training, I have learned to write my poems from “the inside out” rather than from the first line to the last. Strong plays have to have a spine, inner architecture that holds them up. I try to write my poems with the same understanding. Now when I am composing a poem, I am looking for the elements that will serve as the steel foundation that holds up the work, so that the beautiful flourishes and fancy décor will not be easily blown away by any strong wind. I find that spine first and then write my way out to the edges of the poem. Theater – playwriting and dramaturgy – taught me that.
Related to this, the theater has taught me that the audience matters a great deal and that no art happens in a void. In the literary world one regularly hears about how you’re supposed to ignore the idea of a reader or audience in order to write uninhibited, but theater has taught me that isn’t exactly true. I think that talk is about trying to get writers to stay away from pandering or settling for cheap tricks that easily grab readers for the sole sake of winning their attention. But without any larger aims. I understand that part. But in the theater world, from writing that first line of dialogue, to the dramaturgical stage, to production and rehearsals and tech, all the work is informed by the fact that (one hopes) there will be a group of people walking into the theater and waiting to be taken on a journey when the curtains come up. This doesn’t mean that you dumb your work down. In fact, it means that you challenge yourself to challenge the audience with your work in ways that they might find exciting or that they will be able to learn from. It means you offer them opportunities to enter the work so that they feel safe going on that journey with you. So, there is a kind of dance between author and audience occurring, there is a push and pull where you offer them elements and items they already know and are comfortable with, and then you surprise them with something new and unexpected. If I were to write by ignoring that there will ever be a reader or audience I would greatly risk losing them, and thusly my sense of purpose for creating the work. I would risk losing myself too, or at least own sense of what the work is to be doing. And because theater is a collaborative art – you literally cannot make theater all by yourself, collaboration is in theater’s definition – you also learn that you are dependent upon others for the success of the work. Just as I do not take for granted the director and the sound engineer and the actors and the designers who work on behalf of my play, I try not to take for granted my poetry editors, readings and event curators, the hosts, the reviewers, the publicists, and the schools that are willing to teach my poems and plays, and the other poets who invite me to read with them. I can’t do it without them. And I wouldn’t want to, because they are the reason to do the work in the first place. Theater has taught me, and continues to remind me, that building and maintaining community is the reason that you do the work in the first place.
Vincent Toro is the author of the poetry collections, Tertulia (Penguin), and Stereo. Island. Mosaic. (Ahsahta Press), which was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award and the Sawtooth Poetry Prize. During this career, Toro has been involved in numerous literary and unifying efforts. He is a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellow, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Poetry, winner of The Caribbean Writer’s Cecile De Jongh Poetry Prize and a recipient of the Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award. He is a professor at Bronx Community College, poet in the schools for Dreamyard and the Dodge Poetry Foundation, a writing liaison for The Cooper Union’s Saturday Program, and a contributing editor at Kweli Literary Journal.