Spotlight on Queens Writing: Machu Picchu Me by Carlos Hiraldo

Newtown Literary is pleased to spotlight Queens writer Carlos Hiraldo. We interviewed him about his new poetry collection, Machu Picchu Me, and his responses are below.

 

Tell us about Machu Picchu Me. What is it about?
Machu Picchu Me is a collection of poems I wrote between 1993 and 2007. They rcarlos-hiraldo-and-a-pinteflect the thoughts, feelings, and desires of an urban young man struggling to achieve what he would consider success in the personal, professional and social spheres. I wouldn’t say the poems are autobiographical. At least, I hope they are more than that. But the starting point is always an experience or a feeling or an idea evoked by an experience. Or rather, the memory of an experience.
 
 
Tell us about the process of writing Machu Picchu Me.
I guess the process lasted from 1993 to 2015. The first step was writing the individual poems throughout the years. As I wrote these poems, I didn’t think of them as forming part of a single book. I would send them off for publication in journals along with other poems I was writing at the time. Some of the poems that appear in Machu Picchu Me have appeared before in print and electronic journals. The second step in writing the book came when I put together the first version of the manuscript in 2008. It had the same title, and the title poem with its poetic manifesto of sorts opened the book as it does today. That early version, however, contained many more poems. Throughout the years, I have added and deleted poems from that period according to the advice and suggestion of fellow poets and writers who are closed and trusted friends. The third and final step came when the book was accepted by its current publisher. Then I engaged in an extensive revision process in which many of the poems were, I hope, strengthened.
 
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
 First and foremost, I hope the readers can identify some of their own experiences, ideas, and feelings in the poems. I think that’s part of what every poet hopes for his or her book. Specifically, for Machu Picchu Me, I hope readers discover a voice that is seldom heard in American letters – that of a U.S.-born Latino trying to find a satisfying place within his native country, a country that doesn’t always acknowledge him and when it does, it is often hostile to him. Latino literature in the U.S. has been predominantly that of the immigrant experience. Though there’s been a large Latino community in New York City since the late nineteenth century, large enough for there to have been Spanish language newspapers in the city since then, and though we know that the United States arrived in what used to be Northern Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century, Latinos are still seen as “coming to America.” It’s is like we are never already here, like we never finally arrive. What’s considered the best of Latino literature reflects this perception. Many if not most Latino writers have been immigrants themselves. The voice of Machu Picchu Me identifies with the immigrant experience. It is that of his parents and of the community in which he is born and raised, but immigration does not inform his own relation with the United States.
 
What else have you written?
I am a poet and an English professor within the City University of New York. I have written many other poems, some of which have been published in poetry journals. I have also written academic works that have appeared in various publications. In 2003, I published Segregated Miscegenation: On the Treatment of Racial Hybridity in the U.S. and Latin American Literary Traditions. It explores the ways in which the definition of a “black” character evolved differently in U.S. and Latin American novels. Those definitions of course have influenced and reflected how the two societies have traditionally established who is black within their respective populations.
 
How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
I can’t say that being a Queens writer influenced most of the poems in Machu Picchu Me. I wrote these during periods when I was living in Boston, Manhattan, Long Island, and then back again in Manhattan. Only “Off Sylvia Plath” is a proper Queens poem. It reflects my thoughts upon first moving to Sunnyside from Washington Heights where I was born and mostly raised. Queens does have a very strong influence on my writing today. I live with my family in Astoria. I can say the pace of life in Queens is slower and more open than it is in Manhattan at least for now. One gets more of a sense of community in Queens while still enjoying the thrills of living in New York City. I think my poetry today reflects more of that openness and sense of belonging.
 
What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
Many writers have inspired and influenced me. So many I couldn’t possibly do justice to all of them. I love the power of the images in the works of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, and Stevie Smith. Baraka was so inventive and re-inventive. His poetry and his overall writing style would change with shifts in how he perceived our social-political reality. And Stevie Smith’s sense of irony. I hope my poetry has that. A certain ironic distancing can be such a powerfully useful tool for the individual to grapple with the world. But again, I feel like speaking of influences is only an exercise in momentary recall. I just remembered that I am leaving out Charles Bukowski. I have devoured everything he has written. He seems to have been the only U.S. poet able to write successfully about class. Influences and inspirations… influences and inspirations… there are so many. Some poets can influence you with just one poem. Erik Pihel’s “Manhattan.” Paul Beatty’s “At Ease.” May Swanson’s “How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the Waves).” So many poets, so little time to acknowledge what they have all meant to me at different periods in my life.
 
When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Hang out with my two boys. Seriously. I am not just trying to seem like the cool contemporary dad. They are great. They live in the moment and say whatever it is that comes to mind. And I can steal some of the stuff they come up with for my own work.
 
Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
My family has nothing to do with my book. They came along after the poems in the book were written. I tend to think the best poetry comes from the darkest of places. My family has made me very happy. So even though I still tend to write poetry when things aren’t going that well, my current poetry can only get so dark. Some of it might actually be downright happy.
 
What should I have asked that I didn’t?
 Que pasa, cabrón?
 
Where can readers buy your book?
Readers can find my book on Amazon and on the website for my publisher, Palamedes Publishing.
 
 Thanks, Carlos!
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Spotlight on Queens Writing: For My Son, a Kind of Prayer by Richard Jeffrey Newman

Newtown Literary is pleased to spotlight Queens writer Richard Jeffrey Newman. We interviewed him about his new book, For My Son, a Kind of Prayer, and his responses are below. His website is  www.richardjnewman.com.

Tell us about For My Son, a Kind of Prayer. What is it about?
For My Son, A Kind of Prayer is a chapbook of poems about my son and about mimage010y experience of being a father. In particular, there are poems exploring what it’s like to be the father of a boy growing up in a culture where ideas about manhood and masculinity are changing, but where traditional notions of what it means to be a man—especially sexually, and especially in terms of sexual violence—are still prevalent. One question the poems take on in several different ways is how to find a language in which to talk about these issues without inadvertently perpetuating that violence. In particular, the final poem in the book explores what it’s like to be, myself, both a survivor of childhood sexual violence and the father of a son who will have to work out his own relationship to those issues as he grows up.

Tell us about the process of writing For My Son, a Kind of Prayer.
I did not sit down and say, “I am going to write a series of poems about my son.” Rather, the poems emerged slowly, over time.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I find it hard to think about a specific take-away when talking about my poems—not because the poems don’t deal with substantive issues or raise what I hope are important or interesting questions, but because, for me, the poems that are most successful explore those issues and questions without proposing a specific answer or moral or “correct” political stance. What I hope is that people who read this book will come away with their own, perhaps new questions about fathers and sons, men and masculinity, with their own, new feelings to explore when it comes to these issues.

What else have you written?
In addition to For My Son, a Kind of Prayer, I have published a book of poems, The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006) and three books of translations: Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan and Selections from Saadi’s Bustan (Global Scholarly Publications, 2004 & 2006 respectively) and The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011).

How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
What I find most important about being a Queens writer is the community I am so fortunate to be a part of.

What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
My two earliest, conscious influences as a poet were June Jordan and e. e. cummings. Other writers whose work I have found important over the years: James Baldwin, Sallie Tisdale, Ana Castillo, Hayden Carruth, Lucille Clifton, Yasunari Kawabata. There are, of course, others.

When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Aside from spending time with people I care about: listening to music and/or playing piano.

Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
When I was in college, what I wanted most was to study music. These days, I fulfill that part of myself by performing in the end-of-the-year musical the faculty at my college puts on every May.

What should I have asked that I didn’t?
Well, I am privileged to serve on Newtown Literary’s Board of Directors, and I also curate the First Tuesdays reading series at Terraza Cafe in Elmhurst. Each of these activities allows me to participate in the Queens literary community in fulfilling ways.Picture1

Where can readers buy your book?
For My Son, A Kind of Prayer is available for $10 from Ghostbird Press.

Thanks, Richard!

Readers, mark your calendars:

 

Spotlight on Queens Writing: Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo

Newtown Literary is pleased to spotlight Queens writer Joe Okonkwo. We interviewed him about his new novel, Jazz Moon, and his responses are below.
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Tell us about Jazz Moon. What is it about?
The novel is set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. It’s about Ben and his personal and creative odyssey which takes him from rural Georgia to Harlem to the Paris of Josephine Baker. The story is about coming out, coming of age, race, jazz, the blues, poetry, and the difficulties that the search for love presents. And it’s an ode to a vibrant and difficult cultural period that saw an explosion of black artistic and political movement. Artistically and politically, The Harlem Renaissance was the first time people realized that black is beautiful.

Tell us about the process of writing Jazz Moon.
Jazz Moon started off as a short story in 2004. I heard about a short story contest with a word limit of 1500. I thought, “Oh, yeah, I can write this story in 1500 words.” 95,000 words and twelve years later, here it is! The process drew on my knowledge of and affinity for the era: its music, its literature. I also did a ton of historical research to get the details right and make them tangible and really transport the reader to this world.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Ideally I’d like to spark a revival of interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, I’d like to continue sparking that interest. Queen Latifah starred recently in a TV biopic about Bessie Smith who was known as the Empress of the Blues. Audra McDonald is currently starring in Shuffle Along on Broadway. That show was originally produced in 1921 and was a landmark in terms of successfully bringing black entertainment to the Great White Way. So Jazz Moon is participating in bringing the Harlem Renaissance into the 21st Century.

What else have you written?
Some short stories, one of which (“Cleo”) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. And some poetry, most of which I’m not too proud of.

How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
I can’t tell you how often I’ve told people that I live in Queens and the swift (and rather rude) reaction is: “That’s SO far.” Queens is often dismissed, if not outright denigrated. The implication is that if you live in Queens, you’re not really part of New York City. You’re an outsider. I think that “outsider” status influences all of my writing, certainly Jazz Moon where my protagonist is black and gay and a poet and, therefore, not part of the mainstream.

What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
Toni Morrison is my favorite writer. Her novel Beloved makes you understand how slavery destroyed people on an intensely personal and spiritual level. James Baldwin’s Another Country was the first gay book I ever read. I got depressed when I finished it because the characters had become friends and it hurt to leave them. Shakespeare has influenced me, too. His grand language hits the mark and is so beautifully crafted. And, believe it or not, I find political writing inspiring. Political writers have to quickly get the facts across and be creative enough to keep the reader’s attention. Fiction is often like that, too. Reading politics absolutely helps my fiction writing.

When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Read. Drink wine. Think about what to write next.

Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
I’ve lived in a multitude of places: Syracuse, NY; Flint, MI; Lagos, Nigeria; Vicksburg, MS; California; Houston, TX; and Astoria, NY. I’ve lived so many places that I don’t feel I’m really from anywhere.

What should I have asked that I didn’t?
About my next book! I’m staying with the Harlem Renaissance. There’s still more to learn there. The next novel will be about Gladys Bentley (who makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon). She was a real person. Blues singer, pianist. She was a drag king, known for wearing a white tux and top hat. She would change the lyrics of popular songs and make them naughty and flirt with the women in the audience. She claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City ceremony, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. In the McCarthy-tainted 1950s, Bentley gave an interview to Ebony magazine saying she had “cured” herself of lesbianism by taking female hormones. It seemed to be a pretty rich life. And not that much has been written about her, so that makes for fertile and imaginative subject matter.
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Where can readers buy your book? Here’s a link: http://www.joeokonkwo.com/purchase-jazz-moon

 

Thanks, Joe!

Readers, mark your calendars: