PaPo Swiggity, host of the Capicu Cultural Showcase had a moment to chat with Brooklyn-born Nuyorican poet, novelist, editor, and activist Emanuel Xavier a few days before his feature performance at the Capicu Pride! Open Mic Event that will unfold in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on June 21st about his journey as a writer… we want to share that conversation with you.
In your pre-poetic past life, you were a Brooklyn raised hustler and drug dealer at some of the biggest clubs in New York City. Then you found poetry, and became one of the most prominent Nuyorican poets of our generation. Walk us through that transition…
I guess I have a compelling background. That helped set the groundwork for me as an artist. Most artists are somewhat emotionally crippled and we use this as strength to express ourselves creatively. I think having been homeless and surviving the streets as an underage hustler and later becoming a club kid drug dealer made me defiant and tough- two significant qualities for any artist. I used my struggles as fodder for art. I never imagined my life would be what it is today. What I did know was that I was a smart kid who just happened to be in a really really bad situation. People like Willi Ninja saw this in me and encouraged me to keep my head up and stay strong. Eventually, a gay cousin and his lover took me in. I stopped turning tricks and selling and doing drugs.
The first time I experienced spoken word poetry, I was completely blown away and I knew there and then that I wanted to be up on that stage. I went on a date with this poet who took me to the Nuyorican Poets Café to see La Bruja, whom I had not yet met. I had poems in my pocket I brought to share with him. Bru never made it that night so they held a slam instead. Behind my back, he entered me for the competition. To everyone’s surprise, including myself, I ended up winning. Keith Roach, who was in the audience, booked me for the legendary Friday night Grand Slam which he hosted. It was when I won that as well that my life took a different direction.
Except for a spoken word poetry workshop I took with Regie Cabico, I wasn’t trained or considered an educated poet. It was a difficult transition for me because nobody took me seriously. I did not study poetry in college. I was rough around the edges and yet I fit perfectly into the emerging spoken word poetry movement of the ‘90’s. I read tons of poetry books and went out to listen to a lot of poets. If there was an open mic, I was totally there. I was everywhere I could be. I wanted to immerse myself in poetry. I remember my friends at the time making fun of me while, at the same time, more established writers took the liberty to criticize my work. I honestly don’t know what it was that kept me going- ambition, determination, hunger. It was the most challenging and exciting time of my life because, at least I knew, my life was changing. It seemed highly unlikely that this was going to be my journey. It seemed transitory but it felt so natural to me.
If I have any literary acclaim, it was not due to any formal education but by my popularity in the underground arts scene. I had to learn to become a better poet and fight that much harder just to get any recognition.
There is an idea in the Nuyosphere that you are the first openly gay Nuyorican Poet. What do you think of this? Also, in your opinion, how has the supposed cultural phenomenon of machismo affected our Latino writers, past and present?
It’s possible. It’s a box but I’ll take it! I suppose in this case it means Nuyorican in the sense of being a Latino spoken word artist because there were several non-Latino openly gay spoken word artists slamming at the Nuyorican that I knew of. And, of course, there were lesbian Nuyorican poets. I didn’t think I was being revolutionary or ground-breaking by being an openly gay Nuyorican poet at the time. There were others but they either identified as bisexual or were not out of the closet.
I was also publishing. My ‘97 self-published poetic manifesto, Pier Queen, is an identifiable beginning to the modern mariposa lit movement according to Rigoberto Gonzalez (Red-Inked Retablos).
I had no problem going up to the Nuyorican Poets Café stage and sharing my poems about being gay. I don’t remember the audience having any problem with it either. Though I did get my jacket stolen once by this hip hop poet that was pissed that some “faggot” had won over him at a major slam competition. I hope he still has that jacket to keep him warm cause he totally dropped out of the scene.
Anyone who appreciates poetry as an art already has an open mind. There was no reason for me to deny or downplay who I was as a gay man. I suppose the fact that I was a contradiction to this ideal of Latin machismo set the tone for other gay Nuyorican poets to come out or be more open about their sexuality. The fact that my being openly gay was not a detriment to my success perhaps helped others step up to the plate. I think Latin machismo was a very serious threat that silenced many gay voices throughout the years but the world was changing.
However, it’s not just about us convincing one another that it is okay to be gay but about our brothers and sisters who are not gay spreading the message that we all have a right to love whom we choose. Rappers need innovators like Jay-Z and Russell Simmons to pave the way for artists like Macklemore and Frank Ocean to share songs supporting same love. We need more high profile straight Latino men to raise a single middle finger to the concept of machismo and come out in support of gay rights. It’s great that we have Ricky Martin and others like myself that are openly proud gay Latino men but the general straight Latino from the ‘hood needs to see others like himself supporting an issue that has long been considered taboo and does not affect them on a personal level. There’s still a lot of ignorance within our community but that’s because it’s still considered taboo.
One of the biggest things you are known for early on was creating the annual House of Xavier’s Glam Slam in 1998 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe then Bowery Poetry Club, which now runs in London. How did you make that happen, and how involved are you in the Glam Slam today?
During my time out on the streets, I was part of the ball scene and House community before I discovered spoken word poetry. Once I started making a name for myself as a poet, I wanted to bring these two worlds that had inspired me to dream bigger together. The first House of Xavier Glam Slam competition we ever had featured guest judges like Bob Holman and Penny Arcade from the literary scene and Willi Ninja and Juan Rivera Xtravaganza from the ball scene. We had “children” like Suheir Hammad and La Bruja in the House of Xavier. That’s where I met Freddie Xtravaganza who went on to stage an entire choreographed dance presentation at El Museo del Barrio based on my spoken word/music collaboration album, Legendary.
It was fun for everyone involved to go out to a slam competition with categories like Best Verbal Vogue and Best Erotic Poem in Sexy Underwear or Lingerie. At the time, the slam competitions were sacred and nobody wanted to fuck with them. It was the formula Marc Smith had created and anything outside of that was considered blasphemy. I got so much resistance from prominent people in the scene about adding props and shit. Yet, it was a huge success and now there are any number of poetry slam competitions that deviate from the standard method.
I put it together for ten years and always had Mother Diva Xavier (Andres Chulisi Rodriguez) host. It was so much fun and such a very New York City underground arts event. But it became a huge production and I wanted it to go out with a bang rather than beat a dead horse.
They picked it up for the London stage and I attended the very last one several years ago. It was fantastic and such a pleasure to watch something you created take off in another country and with a British accent to boot. However, the event producers soon realized how much work it actually was and we often don’t get much appreciation as poets in our lifetime so it simply lives on in other ways. The combination of poetry, House music, voguing, trophies and costumes was truly unique to our Glam Slam competition and we brought much excitement to the scene.
I know a lot of people have much regard for what we tried to do and I get asked all the time to bring it back. But I lost my friends Dominic Brando, who was the DJ for most of these events, and Willi Ninja, who was always one of the honorary judges. It’s hard to imagine putting the event together without them.
On the world stage, you appeared in 2 seasons of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. There is some controversy in the Latino poetry circle about headlining with this as a promotional tool. How was your experience with Def Poetry, and what are your thoughts about using it in promotion?
I sometimes see it pop up as a promotional headlining tool with my name attached. It was many years ago but organizers still use it to draw people to their events. I don’t think it’s a big deal. We can’t always have control over how other people promote us. What annoys me is when someone doesn’t bother to confirm the correct spelling of your name. It’s a damn literary event! Double check with the artists, get spell check, find an editor, just don’t fuck it up! However, I do think it’s funny when they use that television credit and they end up listing you as having been on Def Comedy Jam. I hope I’ve done enough that being part of the show will only be a mention in passing when I die.
It seemed to me that you gained a broader audience a few years ago with the ‘Speak Up!/Speak OUT!’ series at El Museo Del Barrio. Has your experience there shaped your outlook and work relative to the Latino community? What were the benefits and challenges of being at the forefront of such a sizable institution?
That broader audience you speak of was unfortunately a result of the outcry due to the original name of the series which incorporated the word “spic” in an attempt to re-appropriate it much like the gay community took the word “queer” and made it our own. Besides a purposeful play on the word in my poem “Americano”, it’s not a word I ever use myself or particularly care for but I understood the dialogue the series organizers were trying to create. I knew where they were coming from and it was not a place of malice.
As the host, I became the poster child surrounding that controversy. I got a lot of hate mail thanks to a rather biased New York Times article. Some of it ignorantly demeaned my stance in relation to my being gay. I’m not gonna lie and say it didn’t hurt deeply to feel so demonized by my own community and people I looked up to. In retrospect, I comprehend why that word conjured up so much anger. I’ve had that word used toward me too amongst others.
The event name was changed, things eventually settled down and I was invited back as the series host for two seasons. We went on to have some wonderful features. I even edited an anthology based on the series (Me No Habla With Acento) and it was a great experience to have a small part in having a museum embrace spoken word poetry as a genuine art form.
I only wish my welcome into the Latino literary familia had not been so dramatic but I don’t think anything in my life has ever been subtle.
You have a long history of the written and published word to go along with your spoken word resume. You have written or edited a whole list of works: Christ Like, Pier Queen, Americano, Bullets & Butterflies, Mariposas: A Modern Anthology of Queer Latino Poetry, Me No Habla With Acento: Contemporary Latino Poetry. How important is poetry for our community, and what is the role of publishing that our people need to know about in the greater conversation about writing our stories?
Publishing is essential to our legacy. It’s wonderful to have an amazing stage presence and be remembered for rocking the mic. However, after we are gone, it is the books and poems we leave behind that others will turn to to learn about our lives. It’s creating history and giving future generations the opportunity to understand who we were and what the world was like for us. I work for Random House, the largest publishing company in the world, and yet I publish through small presses because I am not Billy Collins or Maya Angelou. That disparity helps me have a better understanding of the overall importance of publishing. Our stories not only need to be heard by our immediate audiences right now but also read by the person looking for inspiration out in the middle of nowhere in years to come. As poets, most of us will never have a publicity team heralding us as the next big thing and we’ll probably die unknown but, if we leave something behind, there is a chance someone will appreciate our work down the road.
You were born and raised in Bushwick Brooklyn, not far from where we do Capicu shows. A neighborhood undergoing heavy changes with gentrification. How do you view these changes?
I wrote a poem, “Bushwick Bohemia”, in ’97 that was an ode to the neighborhood where I grew up. I read it now and it is totally retro. Bushwick today is nothing like it was sixteen years ago. In another sixteen years it will be that much more nostalgic. I said this at a recent event in Bushwick and I meant it. When I was growing up, I never felt like I fit in because I was artsy and I was gay. Now I totally fit in and I could have brunch in my own neighborhood if I wanted to. This is not some unique phenomenon exclusive to Bushwick. It’s happened to other areas of New York City and other parts of the country. Nothing is forever. The reason hipsters gentrify neighborhoods is because they are struggling artists looking for affordable housing. Once those neighborhoods are hip and trendy, the wealthy become interested, the rents get raised and soon the hipsters get displaced themselves. It’s a matter of how we learn to survive these changes. This is one of the greatest cities in the world and everybody wants to find a way to live here. I will say this for gentrification- our local school systems benefit.
If you could go back in time and talk to 16 year old Emanuel Xavier, what would you tell him?
Don’t be such a punk ass! Everybody has challenges and, yeah, your life totally sucks but follow your dreams and don’t give up. Learn to love yourself. And don’t go visit your mother in Bushwick at night on October 25, 2005. If you do, you’ll survive that too. It does get better and your life and perseverance will prove that.
PaPo Swiggity is a Brooklyn born Nuyorican Poet, emcee, community leader and cofounder of Capicu Cultural Showcase, a multicultural producer of performing arts events in New York City formed using the philosophies of the most progressive intellectual and artistic movements of the last century. He has recently been commended by both the New York State Assembly and the New York City Council for developing literacy communities through the arts.
You can connect with PaPo on Facebook & Twitter
Here is a message from PaPo about this very exciting event.
Mi gente! The Equality and anti-violence movements are part of a growing national conversation, and Capicu is committed to engaging our urban community about these important topics and showcasing some of the best talent on NYC’s LGBT realm!
Join us on June 21st as we celebrate Pride month with groundbreaking Brooklyn-born Nuyorican poet, novelist, editor, and activist ✯ Emanuel Xavier!
Plus, socially conscious and original designs – currently superpopular for her line of bowtie art- ✯ Wonder Lee! and spinning on the wheels is the supertalented producer and DJ, Brooklyns own ♫ Cocotaso!
This all takes place at CASA CAPICU, our location right in the back of EvilolivE Pizza Bar- serving up all day every day bar specials: $20 for a pitcher and a pie, and get to us early for the 2-for-1 Happy Hour from 6pm-7:30 pm.
Adonde? Where @@@??
Friday June 21st, 7 PM
@ EvilolivE Pizza Bar
198 Union Ave., (between B’way and Montrose),
Williamsburg Brooklyn, NY, 11211
18 & Over
(We are across from the 90th Precinct)
✯ About our Feature Poet:
Once a street hustler and drug dealer, Emanuel Xavier has conducted spoken word poetry workshops and produced benefits and events for youth organizations around the United States. He is author of the poetry collections “Americano: Growing Up Gay & Latino in the USA”, “Pier Queen”, “If Jesus Were Gay & other poems” (an American Library Association selection), the novel “Christ Like” and editor of “Me No Habla With Acento: Contemporary Latino Poetry.”
Recipient of the Marsha A. Gomez Cultural Heritage Award, a New York City Council Citation, a World Pride Award, and named a GLBT Icon by the Equality Forum, he has been featured on Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry and co-starred in the independent film, The Ski Trip.
His spoken word/music compilation CD, Legendary- The Spoken Word Poetry of Emanuel Xavier, was released in 2010. He created the annual Glam Slam competition, which ran in NYC from 1998-2008, and is now held annually in London, England. He curated a successful monthly spoken word poetry series at El Museo del Barrio where his spoken word/music collaborations were staged as a dance presentation by choreographer, Ferdinand De Jesus.
✯ About Our Feature Visual Artist:
Wonder Lee is a self-taught green assemblage artist based in New York City’s borough of The Bronx. Wonder Lee aims to inspire a positive social conscience, and encourages all to use what they have, be less wasteful, and leave a better eco-footprint.
Wonder creates an originally designed line of bow ties handcrafted with both reused Lego bricks, and various materials. To see her latest lineup and to place an order visit her website at https://