Gemini Ink: The Bilingual Buzz Behind Poet Urayoán Noel

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Urayoán Noel. Courtesy photo.

Gemini Ink, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and Our Lady of the Lake University, will host performance poet and scholar Urayoán Noel at several cultural events in San Antonio this week.

Noel, who was born in Puerto Rico and lives in New York, will present a free lecture focused on the question “Was there a Latin@ Sixties Poetry?” on Wednesday, March 2 at 7 p.m., at Our Lady of the Lake University’s Providence West Social Room. Noel will also be reading from his new book of poems “Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico” at The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center on Thursday, March 3 at 7 p.m.  Both events are open to the public.

To wrap up his San Antonio tour, Noel will conduct a special workshop at Gemini Ink on Saturday, March 5, titled “Performalist Poetics.” The workshop will explore a diverse range of spoken word forms, from the blues to found poems. The one-day, $95 workshop will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Gemini Ink, 1111 Navarro Street. 

To learn more, call 210-734-9673 or click here.

Noel is a multi-instrumentalist in the world of poetry — playing with a tireless range of forms, sounds and word play. He is the author of several books of poetry, including the most recent, “Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico” in 2015, and the 2014 critical study “In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam,” which traces the growth of the New York/Puerto Rican Poetry Movement.

The evolution of the New York/Puerto Rican Poetry Movement centered around the Nuyorican Poets Café, a cultural icon in New York’s Lower East Side since 1973, but the movement was a galvanizing force behind the national SLAM Poetry scene we know today. Noel’s poems can be described as baroque or spare; they can use smart phone apps or analog, but they never leave the reader feeling complacent about what a poem is capable of doing on the page. Poet Victor Hernández Cruz referred to Noel’s work in “Buzzing Hemisphere” as “a stereo ping-pong game between two languages.” The poems are a new collaboration between English and Spanish and create a buzz all their own.

As a way to offer readers a glimpse into the imaginative, translingual world of this poet, Gemini Ink interviewed Noel about his views on poems, smart phone apps, brain hemispheres, geological hemispheres, and more. 

Gemini Ink: In your latest collection, your poems are dense with sound. You often use the page as an open field in which words ricochet off of each other in athletic, circus-like ways. For example, there are staircase sonnets, anagrams, and concrete poems circling and roving across the space of the page. What would be some of the first things you would say to someone new to your work as a way to introduce them to this book?

Poet Urayoán Noel. Courtesy photo.

Poet Urayoán Noel. Courtesy photo.

Urayoán Noel: Wordplay is central to my poetics, and I structured the book (as I often do) around a pun: brain hemispheres and world hemispheres and their respective noise/buzz. So, yes, noise is a constitutive feature and a compositional one as well, since I play with homophonic translation and with the difference/dissonance between languages. Such is the case with buzz and rumor inasmuch as they do not quite translate into one another but rather give way to a field of associations: buzz begets biz and voice/voz and even bus while rumor gives us room and rheum and rhyme/rima. My poetry has always been highly musical (it must be a Puerto Rican/Caribbean thing!) but that music has become more dissonant in this book. 

Much of my early work sought to evoke the virtuosic, vertiginous rhymes of the Latin American modernistas, the work in “Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico” is rawer and more processual, as if trying to break down flow to its basic units: breath and rhythm and improvisation. The Nuyorican poets have certainly been an influence in this regard, as have the geopolitical improvisations of “The Fall of America” era-Ginsberg and the Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos, with his 1984 book “Galáxias,” and its Babel/babble of languages and sounds and its use of the page as a compositional unit. (Campos) and his fellow concretistas were enthralled by the “verbivocovisual” poetics of Joyce and Pound, and through them I’ve begun to think about noise visually, as evident from the spatial experiments in “Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico.” 

A big subtext of the book is wondering what it might mean to experiment with poetry in the age of social media, hence all the exercises with app-assisted and smartphone-composition. How can or should poetry circulate (or resist) in the age of memes and digital social movements?

GI: The poems in “Buzzing Hemisphere” are presented in English and Spanish and appear as linguistic mirrors of each other, but these are funhouse mirrors in which images and ideas can be shifted and distorted, with some translations not always reflecting back the same parcel of ideas and images as the original (if there is a true original at all). Some have said your poetry exists really between two languages, in which you are creating a new collision between English and Spanish. How would you describe your experience writing poems bilingually in this book, such as with the opening poem, “Alphabet City?”

UN: I would rather not reveal too much, since the fun of the book is partly to figure out just what is happening. But you’re right about the collision of languages and the distorted nature of translation. Certainly, I’ve been influenced by (Campos’) concept of a “transcreation” that politicizes the limits between languages, and by the kind of translingual Latin@ poetics pioneered by writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa or Victor Hernández Cruz, folks whose work complicates the relationship between language and territorially bounded understandings of identity. With regard to “Alphabet City,” it was inspired by and conceived while walking and texting around the neighborhood of the same name, what Nuyoricans call “Loisaida.” I had been teaching upstate in Albany and walking through Loisaida, right by where I started at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1999, I was struck by how many ghosts surrounded me, and how many complex feelings I had about returning. Surely, none of that is evident from reading the poem, since it is so defiantly abstract, but using the alphabet constraint and then forcing myself to translate within it helped me speak to the difficulty of what I felt, the untranslatability of the experience. From hearing folks’ reactions to the book, it seems that a number of them can tell which of the two given versions of a poem is the original and which the translation, but in the case of “Alphabet City” there is no original, since I worked simultaneously across versions and used an online generator to muddy my tracks even further. In that sense, those alphabet pieces are what poet Julio Marzán beautifully calls in his book of the same name, “translations without originals.”

GI: The city is a theme running through many of the poems in this book. The hum of the city, the nearness of other bodies and lives, and the surrounding “buzz” of living in a city are pervasive. For example, “Sentiences,” offers the reader a compact list of short numbered sentences, which fill up the page like an urban brick wall. How would you describe the cityscapes you bring to life in this book and how has being a city poet in New York and Puerto Rico impacted your poetic vision?

UN: I love your brick-wall simile, since it is so physical and since I believe that image appears in the poem. The book certainly reflects my trajectory as a Puerto Rican poet from San Juan who has long been based uptown or in the Bronx. It is about the clash of island and mainland (including bridge-crossings into and from the Bronx) but also about a range of New York and Puerto Rican genealogies complementing and complicating one another, from overlooked island poets such as Violeta López Suria to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and beyond.

More recently, my improvisational poetry vlog WOKITOKITEKI has become an archive for years of video poems based on my hours spent walking the streets and beaches of my native San Juan and my adoptive New York/the Bronx as well as other Boricua/ diasporic spaces or spaces I inhabit as a tourist (Chicago, Philadelphia, central Florida). “Pastoral,” found in”Buzzing Hemisphere,” is one such poem which I transcribed from a walk along a San Juan-area beach. The poetics of transcription is, for me, an extension of a transmedial poetics of translation that assumes the incommensurability between languages, forms, and media (English is not Spanish just as the smartphone video is not me walking the city).

GI: You have often commented on how the Nuyorican Movement in New York, and specifically at the Nuyorican Café in the late 90s, showed you as a young poet how performance poetry could exist both on and off the page and offered you a new view on how you could express the complexities of a multicultural identity. Could you discuss more this perspective on performance poetry and a couple ways your work was influenced by your visits to the Nuyorican Poets Café?

UN: Nuyorican poetry taught me that performance is not just an aesthetic choice but a political one as well. As Cafe-founder Miguel Algarín puts it in his essay “Volume and Value of the Breath in Poetry,” performed poetry “stops the crowd and concentrates it into a listening body,” a social body. As an extension of the Puerto Rican Movement, Nuyorican poetry understood, and understands, performance in the context of activism: protests, occupations, the daily struggle of living and surviving in the city.

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe connects us younger poets to that history, and reminds us of the inevitably political dimension of what we do. In addition, watching poets such as Pedro Pietri and Edwin Torres perform at the Cafe encouraged me to take risks and experiment as a performer, to be willing to challenge the audience without forgetting the subtle community dynamics of the performance. Sometimes we have to challenge the audience/reader, but we always return to the “listening body” described by Algarín. 

GI: Some of the poems in this book were composed on a smartphone or were written with a variety of smart phone apps, such as “United States/Estado Unidos“ in which you used an anagram app to create a series of anagrams with the word “United States.” The reader gets treated to results like: “Steadiest Nut,” “Sedatest Unit, and “Estate Nudist.” Can you offer one to two examples of how such digital technology entered into your writing of these poems and what discoveries, good or bad, you made while colluding with such gadgets?

UN: There is usually a cultural/social dimension to such experiments, even if they seem like gratuitous playfulness. For instance, the book includes a homophonic translation of a sonnet by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz which was generated by reading her poem into a smartphone with voice-recognition set to English. I got the idea for that kind of experiment after watching my mom struggle with the voice-recognition software on her computer because it would misunderstand her accent. The idea that our accented, Spanish-tinged language could subvert neoliberal gadgetry was very much in keeping with the thrust and the spirit of the book, so I included that piece.

I have also discovered that smartphones can be very powerful when incorporated into live performances, and I now almost always read with some kind of smartphone accompaniment, whether by using noise-generating or sequencer apps to create soundtracks and ambient textures that evoke the urban landscapes of the poems, or by using translation apps to reinterpret the self-translations in the book. It is a way to reproduce in live performance the improvisational dimension of many of the poems in the book, maybe adding a “free-jazz,” dissonant beauty to the reading.

GI: Finally, you straddle the larger geographies of Puerto Rico and the United States in this book while at the same time writing poems on a much more personal scale. For example, “My Burning Hemisphere” touches on your experiences with epilepsy in honest, upfront ways. You even write of being in the hospital on the Fourth of July:  “The July fourth I spent at the hospital I woke up staring at the smudge of waterfront across the East River. That night the fireworks would crawl like serpents up my skin, matching the wires tangled in my head.” What role has epilepsy played in how you write or perceive yourself as a poet?

UN: That’s such a difficult question, and one that I’m just beginning to address. The same epileptologist mentioned in that poem suggested to me that, in effect, the verbal part of my brain had compensated for a lot of the other stuff that had been affected by epilepsy, and I began to understand what I had always suspected, that the verbal overflow of my work is ultimately inseparable from the noise that’s constantly in my brain. Additionally, my epilepsy has often manifested itself in synaesthesias (smelling colors, hearing bodies) and I think that synaesthetic impulse is key to my work. These mediations continue in a long piece toward the end of the book about my mother’s own struggle with neurological issues. I am very lucky in that my epilepsy is largely under control, but certainly that struggle had a profound impact on my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

Throughout that struggle, poetry was there for me as a refuge and as a way to channel and redirect neural energies. In terms of the book, it is a personal struggle, but also a family and a social one. I come from damaged hemispheres, both biographically as someone with epilepsy, and politically as the child of a colonized island.

GI: Let’s close with one off-the-cuff questions to get a sneak preview of your likes and dislikes: What is your perfect idea of happiness?

UN: Process. Happiness is a process, as is poetry, and in both cases I try to live the process as best I can and accept the end.

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

*Top image: Poet Urayoán Noel performs. Courtesy photo.

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