Since the end of the summer, we’ve been posting short Q&As on the Dodge Blog each Friday, featuring poets who participated in our Newark High School Mini Festival earlier this week.
Through readings and performances, Q&As and discussions, these poets engaged with over four hundred Newark public high school students at the Rutgers-Newark Paul Robeson Student Center.
For our last Ask a Poet feature of this series, we’re talking to Vincent Toro.
Vincent Toro is the author of STEREO.ISLAND.MOSAIC., which was awarded Ahsahta Press’s Sawtooth Poetry Prize and The Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. He has an MFA in poetry from Rutgers and is contributing editor for Kweli Literary Journal. Vincent is recipient of a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, The Caribbean Writer’s Cecile De Jongh Poetry Prize, and the Metlife Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award. He teaches at Bronx Community College, is writing liaison at The Cooper Union’s Saturday Program, and is a poet in the schools for The Dreamyard Project and the Dodge Poetry Program.
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What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
I grew up in a working class community and family. There were no books in my home, and the arts in general were not encouraged at school or in the home. But I had a very difficult childhood and adolescence, and the only thing that got me through years of abuse and ostracism was music.
Poetry came to me through music….I was very much into hip hop mc’s like Chuck D from Public Enemy and Run DMC, and rap is in many respects poetry. Also, my favorite rock band was The Doors, and the lead singer of the band, Jim Morrison, openly declared himself a poet in his interviews and referenced poets, poetry, art, theater, and philosophy in them (something that seems to almost never happen anymore with rock and pop stars).
I read every writer Jim Morrison referenced in an interview, and then I would read the writers those writers referenced, and on and on. Then when I was 15 my mentor gave me a copy of “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri. I read that book a thousand times. It was the first time I read poetry that spoke openly about being Puerto Rican. I had never seen writing written by other Puerto Ricans. It really changed everything for me. After that, all I wanted was to be the next Pedro Pietri (or the Puerto Rican Jim Morrison, or the Boricua Chuck D). So I just started filling up notebooks with my bad rhymes and weak philosophical musings. It got to the point where I was getting in trouble in school for writing and reading, because I wasn’t writing the assignments and I was reading books that weren’t assigned by the teachers.
Do you have any advice for those who are trying to help students engage with poetry?
Find work to share that is shocking. Not superficially shocking with curses or explicit sex or something trivial like that, but work that is so startlingly, brutally honest that it’s frightening or exciting. I find work by Audre Lorde, Leonel Rugama, and Taslima Nasreen, for example accomplish this. I’m talking about work that got some of these folks jailed, exiled, or even murdered, like Lorca. Because it shows them the power of poetry and what people have done and been through just to write and share it. And I contrast that with work that is just downright fun and relatable, like Maggie Estep’s “The Stupid Jerk I’m Obsessed With.” High schoolers ALL can relate to that one. Don’t start with the dead white men of academia (try to avoid them entirely), start with bringing in rap music and spoken word poetry, jazz poems, poems by people of color and LGBTQ poets. Poetry that matters NOW! Show them what makes you excited about poetry. Find audio and video of legendary poets. Find poetic influence in other artists, such as the rap group Blackalicious’ interpretation of Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” or Benjamin Bratt’s performances of Miguel Pinero’s poems in the film “Pinero.”
I hope this helps.
Do you have a favorite memory from time spent in Newark?
Too many to identify one, but my two years in the MFA Program at Rutgers was magical, and the two years I spent as an 8th Grade English teacher at Rafael Hernandez Elementary made me the man I am today.
What are you currently reading?
As a voracious reader, which every writer NEEDS to be, I am always reading multiple books at the same times. I usually have at least one poetry, one fiction, and one fiction book I am reading simultaneously. Right now those books are:
“Flood of Fire” by Amitav Ghosh
“How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents” by Julia Alvarez
“The Femicide Machine” by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez
“Geek Sublime” by Vikram Chandra
“Notes on the Assemblage” by Juan Felipe Herrera
“Afterland” by Mai Der Vang
The January Children” by Safia Elhillo