I met Emanuel Xavier right after returning to my native New York City in 2006, after a 17-year West Coast transformation from musician to writer. During my final weeks in Portland, Oregon, I was introduced to the author and poet Trebor Healey, who offered to meet up again in New York soon after, since he was scheduled to read at The [LGBT] Center. Sharing the bill with him was the poet Emanuel Xavier, whose work I’d learned about in California. Friendships ensued, and I’m fortunate to consider them friends all these years and books and pandemics later.
I caught up with Emanuel recently to discuss his latest baby, Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier (Rebel Satori, 2021). Here’s what followed:
What were some of the thoughts, impressions, and emotions that went through your mind while you were assembling this collection?
The poems written decades ago are what audiences still want to hear and they remain signature classics. As poets, if we write just one poem that stands the test of time, we are quite fortunate. By having several poems to build a collection, we are blessed. I’m always asked at reading events to recommend one of my books to purchase, and it really puts me on the spot. Each one is like your child, and you don’t want to choose.
However, I can easily say that Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier is a collection of my personal favorites. Curating my selections and enjoying this moment is most meaningful to me. Having lived through the AIDS epidemic, and now surviving COVID-19, this was the right time to honor and celebrate these poems and this history.
I learned about you when I came across a copy of Americano at a gay bookstore on the West Coast in the early 2000s. There weren’t many queer Latino voices being published at the time. What are your thoughts on the explosion of poets, writers, and publications since?
I think it’s fantastic. Frankly, I’m surprised it took so long. I was ready for this back in 1997, but I suppose some of us were ahead of our era. At the same time, there was something genuinely exciting about being underground. We discovered one another through word of mouth or by way of introduction from other writers. I kept in touch with the Latinx literary community in other parts of the country via email and phone. We didn’t have social media but found one another and made it happen somehow.
The challenge back then was that some Latinx authors were still living on the DL or ‘down low’, they were not publicly out. We didn’t allow for terms outside of ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, or ‘straight’ for others to feel comfortable enough to identify as anything other than. There was no ‘gender fluid’ or ‘nonbinary’ or ‘polysexual’ or anything other than whatever box we had within the community. Personally, I was fighting against patriarchal Latin machismo to be more thoughtful of these other identities.
Fun fact: The book Mariposas: A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry, which I edited, was going to be titled Maricones. I was staging the book release event at Bowery Poetry Club and booked Elizabeth Latex, a transwoman from the House of Latex to host. Though the book only featured cisgender queer writers and the original title was an homage to Larry Kramer’s Faggots, it was decided to change it to something more beautiful and significant. This was 2008 and so much was evolving for the better, symbolically, like a mariposa or a butterfly.
There was a time when all I had was spoken word poetry to turn to for self-healing.
I got into an online sparring match with a young man recently, who expressed annoyance with statements such as “Art Saves Lives”. I told him he was privileged and naïve, without a clue as to what life is like for working-class artists, how some of us find our purpose through the arts and creativity. Is there anything you’d like to add as relates to your journey?
Indeed. There was a time when all I had was spoken word poetry to turn to for self-healing. I needed the love and support of strangers in the audience to validate my struggle and history. I didn’t have the opportunity, as I’ve mentioned many times before, to pursue a formal literary education. I didn’t have the privilege of going to therapy to work out my issues with abandonment, sexual abuse, drug addiction, and violence.
I could’ve easily ended up in prison or dead like most of my peers. My craft did not guarantee me personal survival, success, or even fame and fortune, but it did offer hope. I’m not trying to misguide anyone into thinking that pursuing one’s passion is what’s going to resolve one’s issues, but it can at least offer hope. So having privilege is great but passion and talent can also be their own rewards.
Hell yeah. The underground DIY path is tough in the MFA Age, but I’ll back out of town shooting until the end. One poem that really impacted me upon rereading your work was “Sometimes We’re Invisible”, which goes into vivid detail on the brutality queer and trans people of color contend with. Are we in a better place than where we were when you wrote it?
Not really. That poem could’ve just kept going on and on and on, but I made my point. That poem was a part of Radiancewhich was published May 17, 2016. On June 12, 2016, the Pulse massacre happened, which was the most violent attack on our community. I felt so incredibly sad and helpless. It definitely struck a nerve because I was undergoing radiation for a brutal attack that I survived in 2005. We’re still in this place where legislation is not guaranteed. Hate crimes continue to be such an issue in this country and we still have so much more to do.
I think it’s inevitable that when you’re starting out, people will compare you to those who came before, but it’s important not to box yourself into those molds.
We lost the great Miguel Algarín last year. It was you who introduced me to him when you read at the Nuyorican Poets Café back in 2009 or so. Anything you’d like to share about him and the legacy he’s left behind, his influence on your work?
The Nuyorican Poets Café was my first introduction to spoken word poetry and it continues to provide a safe space for many to step up to the mic and share their truths. Miguel heard any number of aspiring poets. This was his auditioning platform, so for him to approach anyone afterwards with a genuine compliment was profound. Real talent emerged from that venue thanks to him, and he provided legacy and inspiration.
He paid me the highest compliment from the very beginning and told me that I reminded him of Miguel Piñero. He probably said that to a lot of people, but I believed he meant it. I looked Piñero up and read his work, noting some of the correlations. Like Piñero, I had abandonment issues with my father which informed much of my early criminal behavior while out on the streets.
While Piñero’s bisexuality was historically rumored, I came onto the scene unapologetically and openly gay. He was purebred Puerto Rican whereas I had an Ecuadorian mother and a questionable father, so I’m Nuyorican in that I’m a native New Yorker Latinx at best. I think it’s inevitable that when you’re starting out, people will compare you to those who came before, but it’s important not to box yourself into those molds.
Miguel saw that I was at the forefront of change and bringing openly queer culture to the Nuyorican Poets Café with the House of Xavier and The Glam Slam. He appreciated that I had the balls to bring that to his venue and I’d like to think it helped him be more open and live his own truth. He gave so much to us as a community and yet his generation had to live in the shadows because of our prevailing cultural machismo for many years.
I know he loved me very much because I was so young and daring but I loved him just as much because he built us a legacy. Everybody who stepped foot into the Nuyorican Poets Café back in the day has a Miguel Algarin story because he’s that kind of icon. To me, he will always be like the father I never had.
As a writer, I have to ask what your writing process is like.
I get some poetry books for inspiration and maybe play some music in the background. Nothing too distracting. I hate this question because I always get asked and never have the right answer. Sometimes it just happens as a flow of emotions, and I step away and go back to edit. Poetry is so different than other forms of writing and everybody’s process is different. There’s no right or wrong. I suppose there’s a way to be taught but I don’t consider myself an expert so I wouldn’t be the one to ask. I obviously have a thing for list poems, but I don’t follow any rules or formats and if you were to ask any scholars, they’d likely hate my style of poetry. I joke about this in “The Death of Art” and, true to form… it’s a list poem!
You’ve always spoken your mind, which is something I’ve always admired about you. You also received significant backlash for the Spic Up!/Speak Out! controversy at El Museo some years ago. What’s your take on the policing of speech and how this impacts the honest storytelling in your poetry?
That was a very difficult time for me. I managed to put a bow on it and make it look pretty, but it was really hard to hear what others within the Latinx literary community were saying about me. This came up in another interview where, in retrospect, I should’ve just stayed out of it. I didn’t come up with the name of the event but was asked to curate it. I defended the museum’s decision because I correlated it to the onetime controversy surrounding the use of the word ‘queer’ within the LGBTQ community. I had my own personal history with the word growing up. There will always be those who still see this as an excuse to disregard my work as a Latinx artist, no matter how many times I’ve offered a mea culpa regarding the situation.
I’ve been unapologetically homosexual, atheist, political, independent, etc. Nonetheless, I do think it’s important for us to have the opportunity to listen and grow. I spent a lot of time as a teen at the West Side Highway piers and many of my friends were transwomen. There was a term used freely amongst them as a “kiki”, which was considered a fun insider thing back then. It’s not so cute now. It’s okay to change with the times. Sometimes we have to accept that what was okay for 1997 isn’t okay for 2021. We learn and grow and move on with the times.
Christianity features prominently throughout your work. Was this intentional?
At first, yes, I suppose. I was questioning, challenging my own beliefs perhaps. I identify as an atheist, but I’m spiritual and fascinated by all religions. I think the hypocrisy of Christianity as it affected my personal life is why it features so prominently in my work. My mother lived with an abusive man for the appearance of that nuclear immigrant Christian household: the father, the mother, and the child. He was an alcoholic and married with children.
My real father abandoned us but that didn’t matter so long as people saw us on the surface in pursuit of the American dream. When I came out, I was rejected because of these same Christian values that needed to be upheld. What hurt most, and I think I always fail to share this part of my story because it’s so awful, is that when I came out, I also revealed that I’d been molested as a child. I was so emotional that I ran into the bathroom and swallowed a bottle of pills.
I woke up in the hospital throwing up charcoal as detailed in the poem “Deliverance.” Still, I was not welcomed to stay and live under this “Christian” roof, which was a one-bedroom apartment in which I slept on a sofa-bed in the living room. I don’t think the religious oppression I felt as an LGBTQ person is anything unique and so it does feature prominently throughout my work because I want to challenge others to reconsider what their God means to them.
If God is love, then what’s the problem? If you’re a Christian, then have a seat and read the poem “If Jesus Were Gay” and tell me why it’s so controversial. It’s just another damn list poem for God’s sake!
What’s next for Emanuel Xavier?
There’s an entire part of myself that I’ve yet to discover, and I’m close to getting answers. That might open up more stories to share and I feel it’s an exciting time. If anything, I’m just happy to be alive and present to enjoy this moment and hope that others will appreciate this book.