Latino Latinx Author Interviews

From a New York City Tradition: José B. González Interviews Yesenia Montilla

This interview with the poet, Yesenia Montilla, is part of a series with Latinx authors. Montilla was one of our Top Ten New Latinx Authors in 2017.

González: One of the challenges for Latinx poets is to find spaces that take us beyond the superficial boundaries that are set against us. Can you comment on how you’ve been able to navigate into various spaces?

Montilla: A lot of it is probably my naivety and the other part of it is determination. There is this part of me that loves poetry so much that I can’t imagine all poems not mattering, all of them not being allowed “in” to spaces; including my own work. But then I also have this determination to me, this idea that el que no llora no mama. The worse thing anyone can say when you ask to be let in is: no; & I tend to like my odds. My ancestors broke way more difficult boundaries, they endured way more than I could ever imagine. So I owe it to them to not only assume space in places that normally are not for me; but to also believe that I belong in those spaces too.

I come from colonized and enslaved people and they were able to create in the most difficult of circumstances. So I do too.

— Yesenia Montilla

González: For years, the New York poetry scene has had its own identity. What has it meant to be a poet within that scene?

Montilla: I remember being 17 and going to Nuyorican for the first time and just being in such damn awe. At that time, writing was something I would dream I could do and so looking back and then fast forwarding to now where I am writing in the city I love and am part of this great tradition of Latinx voices that have come out of NYC and created their own movements means the world to me. I actually don’t know if the scope of that is clear enough for me, it is so massive, such a big deal that I am blinded by the idea that I can even be a part of something that beautiful and important.

González: Your exploration of identity in The Pink Box takes us into many places geographically and emotionally. What advice would you give to aspiring writers who might be hesitant to explore identity in their own writing? 

Montilla: If you don’t explore you and who you come from then your writing is not complete. If you can’t write honestly about your world then your readers will not be able to connect to your work in an authentic way. And authenticity is what we all want when we’re reading something. We want to read something and no that it is true. Even a novel, you read it and you believe that somewhere in some other time or place that plot is real. It has to feel real in order for a connection and spark to be made. So, if you want to connect to your audience you have to be true to you.

González: You’ve remarked about how reading publicly does not necessarily come naturally to you, yet your performances are powerful and seamless. How do you prepare yourself for readings?

Montilla: I don’t prepare. I mean I physically can’t, I’ll get sick to my stomach “rehearsing” for it. What I do know is that a few lines into a public reading someone else takes over, there is a calmness and all that I know is me and the page and that’s how I get through it. I don’t necessarily consider this a conquering of fears, because I have help, my great grandmother, someone is watching someone rests their hand on my heart and calms the beating.

If you don’t explore you and who you come from then your writing is not complete.

— Yesenia Montilla

González: Where do you find your inspiration for writing nowadays? 

Montilla: Everything is shit right now. But that has to be written too. I come from colonized and enslaved people and they were able to create in the most difficult of circumstances. So I do too. I read on twitter a quote from Khaled Mattawa where he says poetry is not just witness it is evidence. So I’ve taken that and have been writing so much about the police state we’re teetering on; the systemic killing of Black folks by the police. I want to write about love too, but that has proven hard.

Yesenia Montilla is an Afro-Latina poet & a daughter of immigrants. Her poetry has appeared in the Chapbook For the Crowns of Your Head, as well as the literary journals The Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, Pittsburgh Poetry Review & others. She received her MFA from Drew University in Poetry and Poetry in Translation & is a 2014 CantoMundo Fellow. Her first collection The Pink Box is published by Willow Books & was Longlisted for a PEN award in 2016. She lives in Harlem NY.