Published On: Sat, Jun 20th, 2015

Rich Villar – 5 Books I Must Pack For My Trip To VONA #LatinoLit

richBy Rich Villar

I’m flying to Miami this Saturday, after I lead my final session for this cycle at #LaSopaNYC: The School of Poetic Arts. I’m actually going to be in workshop as a student. I haven’t had the chance to do that for a minute.

Last year, VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation) moved its multigenre workshop for writers of color (the only one in the nation) from California to Florida. They are now in residence at the University of Miami, Coral Gables. Since much of my Cuban familia lives there, I decided to apply. I got in. And so did my fellow SoPA workshop facilitator, Anthony Morales. We are breaking out straight from The Loisaida Center onto a plane, and we’ll be in workshop for that entire week.

I’m in the middle of writing some of the most personally difficult poems I’ve ever set down to paper. How do you express vulnerability and still write poems with power, ones that resonate with the readers you wish to serve? This is what I’m hoping to ask my VONA workshop, and this is what I’ll be bringing back to the classes I teach at La SoPA.

This week in particular, I’ve needed to reconnect to what’s important—namely, what it means to be a poet in the present day, in a present moment full of simultaneous joy and heartache. I’ve had to consider the way the Puerto Rican community is portrayed in popular culture. I’ve contributed to new narratives, proudly so. And just today, I’ve dealt with the news of continuing violence and genocide against black people, in South Carolina and in the Dominican Republic.

I’m lucky that I’ll be surrounded by some of the most brilliant teachers and writers of color in the nation at VONA. The community there is responsive, loving, and like-minded. And I’m sure they will be working through their place in all this insanity, same as me.

I’ll also have a few books with me. It’s a habit. When I travel, I like to have my links to history and the larger world with me. Makes me feel less alone. Here’s the short list:

(Note: each book is linked to for easy purchase)

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

If I am a successful essayist, it’s because I’ve learned how to state what I know, plainly and without doubt, even if the thing I know terrifies or complicates. James Baldwin taught me this. The Fire Next Time is prophecy. Written for 1962 (before the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., his warnings ring more true every day.


Refusing Heaven, Jack Gilbert

This collection of poems deals with grief and loss in the most self-aware way possible. When I divorced in 2011, these poems lifted me up and helped carry me across some difficult emotional territory: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,/but just coming to the end of his triumph.”


The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon, Willie Perdomo

The title character was taken the from the name of a poet in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. The book, nominated for a 2015 International Latino Book Award in poetry, is a meditation on salsa, poetry, love, and puertorriqueñidad, told from the perspective of the musician, the muse, and the poet who tries (and often fails) to fully capture it.


I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé

This was actually my homegirl Angelique Rodriguez’s book club pick for this past month. Sorry, Angie, I’ve been bad! And busy. With any luck, I’ll get a chance to pick it up again during my downtime. The legendary Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé retells the story of Tituba, the only black victim of the Salem witch trials, from Tituba’s point of view.


The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, edited by Mark Weiss

This is a hefty anthology to sneak into my carry-on, but I’m bringing it anyway. These poems (and their English translations) pick up the poetic history of Cuba where the 1959 Cuban Revolution left off. There are famous poets here, Virgilio Piñera among them. But the centerpiece of the book are those poets virtually unknown outside the island. A must-have if you wish to understand the fullest possible literary history of Cuba.

I’m still waiting for the Daily News to apologize for painting an inaccurate picture of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Next week, I’ll be in the most mixed Latino city in the known universe, writing and working at VONA. If the apology ever comes, forward it to me at the beach, so I can laugh in between poems.

Rich Villar – 5 Books I Must Pack For My Trip To VONA #LatinoLit