Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, raised in Essex County, New Jersey, Julio César Villegas is the writer your elders warned you about. His scriptures can be found in PANK, Puerto Del Sol, Rigorous Mag, Grist Online, Waccamaw, Subprimal Poetry Art, Into The Void, and the inescapable mouth of the abyss.
Robert Evory: Your poem, “Paola” , which won the 2017 Atlantis Award (and which will be included in the W.W. Norton’s Seagull Book of Poems, 5th ed. coming out in October), is written so that each stanza addresses a different Latin American country – at the end saying, “I carved an atlas from forests of gunpowder— / the pages of Latin America.” You are a writer that addresses underrepresented identities in American media and art. Can you recall your attitude or “headspace” when you wrote the poem, and those stunning ending lines; and can you tell us where it is now, after major movements, court cases, and protests involving underrepresented communities?
Julio César Villegas: Before I begin, I want to thank you for allowing me this conversation, and for seeing something in this poem estimable for the Atlantis Award. I titled the work after my sister, my lifelong best friend, and it was very much necessary to craft something I felt honored the magnitude of its namesake. I wrote the poem in a day and a half; it was in the summer of 2016, somewhere after my first year of college. The first 13 stanzas were written on the first day, the rest on the second. My headspace was that I wanted to challenge myself for fun. There was really no intent to craft this as a piece for submission or public eyes; it just happened to turn out the way. I spent the last disposable income I had at the time on the submission fee. Very much had faith in this work. It’s Latin America’s pages I intend on expanding in my own way throughout this century. The world’s been looking a little different since summer 2016. Yet, almost 6 years later, the hunger remains. I intend on separating hobbyists from authors; to hold the name of a Latin American writer, let alone a Latin American poet, you’re operating from a primordial desire to not let the tribe be erased. I don’t speak for anyone else or for the culture as a whole — I can only speak for where I personally intend on leaving this blade. This is a story of gunpowder, yes, but it’s not the entire mythos. It’s one element of a countless, intricate many; some acknowledged and realized, others repressed, disrupted, and willfully forgotten — many of us children of the crossfire. There’s this particular weight of your own success and visibility as a first-generation anything in the diasporic family unit which isn’t lost to us. The unspoken traumas, secrets you wish you could be told, the unrealized, unprocessed inner lives of those tasked with modeling for you how to engage with this great big world as an integrated human being. But how would I do that if I was directly and indirectly shown to feel shame for my individuation? What example would I have been modeling for my sister? To distill my belief in self or any of my pursuits in her presence, to not strive to leave an outline in this game no motherfucker will dare to fill – that regret would hang over me eternally. It’s denial of my own truth. For many years I’ve watered myself down, internalizing a belief that I’d be friendless if I was actually serious. It wasn’t fear of failure, it was fear of alienation and deliberate misunderstanding. From both peers and full-grown adults. Ego control games, jealousy, guilt-tripping, sabotaging. I don’t exist to perform someone else’s interpretation of me. My pursuit of the arts, all that I muster myself to leave for the culture, know these are my most honest photographs. I’m my own validation. ‘Paola’ was a smoke flare two miles out from the harbor letting you know what’s waiting on that horizon. Purpose above the person. Always. We’re messengers for both the living and the dead.
RE: In the first stanza of “Paola” there is a reference to becoming a son and burying a father; and later there are references to a “Womb of the universe,” “Anatomy of the world,” and forging a cross from the “bones of my mother.” What is the relationship between body and land, family and the connection to country?
JCV: I don’t have an immediate answer for this, but let’s lean into it. The earth has more than enough to sustain all of present humanity. We’re blessed with crops free to consume, raw materials free for clothing and shelter. The suffering, displacement, and catastrophe arises when more than is necessary for any one human or community is hoarded. Pretexts in forms of divine doctrine, royal decrees, genocidal ‘liberations’ of peoples living peacefully on their resource-rich lands by false messiahs adorned in democracy’s cloak. Identifying with anything external of me is illusion of the ego — it’s how I attach myself to a story and invariably suffer for the tale, yes. It’s imagined, but it’s very real at the same time. It’s deeply saddening thinking about the bounties and teachings lovingly offered in the Nature around us, only for us to ravage it, and have the audacity of developing a God complex against the planet which can humble any species at will. Science has yet to catch up to Nature. I’m a child of the Caribbean, I have an intrinsic commitment to my first images of the world. The land and the sea are a duality you can see before your eyes. We live with an awareness that, regardless of what is provided for us to enjoy, it can all just as easily be taken away. Be it tropical storms, flooding, lightning strikes, power outages, infrastructure. It’s incredibly humbling being surrounded by an immensity of water on all sides. Swim past any given point and you’ll understand why it’s foolish to believe that anything is owed to us. It’s offered lovingly, and we in turn forget ourselves. This covenant is of a multigenerational inheritance; my parents, their parents, their parents, onwards, connected intimately with the natural world. Whether or not we wanted to, we can’t turn a blind eye to needless suffering. To have an awareness is to have a responsibility, and my relationship between body, land, family, and the Caribbean is one which only deepens as this world ages towards something where our parents’ wisdom can no longer find us. It’s making shrines from their bones and knowing the work’s story is now authored by our own hand. The primordial images within us is a playground I like to visit when attempting to write on something larger than our immediate selves. What’s our mythology? How did it begin? Where is it going? Are we moving in accordance with the times? The ink on any of these questions will never fully dry.
RE: You are also an MC, a hip-hop artist, and the collaborative album you contributed to was the first-time rap lyrics were nominated for the Outstanding Poetry category of Emerson College’s EVVY Awards—which ironically, your individual poetry submission was selected as recipient, being evaluated by Don Share, then-Chief Editor of Poetry Magazine. How does rapping and freestyling influence your poetry on the page, and what meaning does it bring to your life?
JCV: Yes, yes. It brings an incredible meaning to my life. Cannot be overstated. It’s like a shaman summoning stories from the other side, surrendering themselves right in front of you. That takes courage, love, an earnest belief in yourself. You’re fostering a relationship with your inner world so that it can provide you with the lines you transcribe, relayed through the Soul or ego selves. Far easier said than done, but it’s a practice of fulfillment. It self-soothes, allows me to channel nervous or excess energy, gives the shadow free time to play, requires that I sharpen focus to the immediate present, and forces me to become aware of my personal lexicon as it pertains to both language and storytelling. The brain has a desire to make meaning, so I could spit the most unrelated series of images and references and you’ll try to deduce a story from it — that’s pretty much the cheat code. Freestyling and rapping, at least in the years since 2017, have served as a practice for combating writer’s block, allowing for cultivation of free-associative lines which make sense after you suspend your barriers of logic and realism. It gets me out of my own way sometimes, letting me create from a place of play as opposed to one of chore-like obligation.
RE: What is the influence of previous generations of writers on you? What current writers do you see having a big impact on poetry in the future, and who do you wish people read more of?
JCV: For the first question, I also don’t have an immediate answer. My main influences are Poe and Paz, with García Márquez, Neruda, Parra, and Camus making their secondary visits. Even then… though I massively loved learning, I massively hated reading. A lot of my influence really comes from anime and videogames, if we’re talking about the poetry/rapping lane. The diegesis of Naruto, Kingdom Hearts, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, Tim Burton’s films; the quality of shows running on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon at the time. Nor can the influence of pop punk upon my post-9/11 psyche be dismissed. These worlds were, and still are, my friends. The zeitgeist I draw from has heavy influences in them, though they’re by no means my whole. As for contemporary writers I see leaving an impact… I’m not at best qualification to say, but there’s no doubt within me that Bradley Trumpfheller, Kaveh Akbar, and Ocean Vuong are wizards in their craft. It’s humbling and motivating to see that energy: a love that you’re willing to reorient your entire life for if it had to come to such circumstances. These are the first names that come to mind, but there really are countless others, leaving remarkable works across the space. I’m far too ignorant in the scope of talent to be making any confident predictions like that. We have to also think about the wordsmiths who’ve yet to recognize their gifts or be given a chance at sharing them. There are definitely variables here. As for recommended authors, I suggest the works of the psychiatrist Carl Jung and the historian Yuval Noah Harari. The world is on fire, and we need to figure out what the actual fuck is going on. We don’t have the pleasure of living willfully ignorant. It’s what got us here. In the Information Age, Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus provide us with an elucidating insight into the story of humanity from past-to-present, present-to-potential-future, respectively. With Jung, the understanding of our psyches, our shadows, the primordial archetypes which govern our expressions and the ways we relate with our inner and outer worlds – in essence, the path towards self-individuation – is paramount to cultivating if we wish to live an autonomous life. For this, I recommend his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, from which you can branch off into whichever concepts draw your attention the most. This is not just for artists, but for the collective sake of humanity. We cannot solve a compounding problem with the same level of thinking that generated it. Nor can we expect that what worked once under a certain set of conditions is bound to work again given the present set of conditions. Do the beautiful work. Find beautiful answers.
RE: What is your biggest obstacle in the crafting of a poem? How do you approach a blank page? Do you see yourself as having a style, or a writing quirk? Do you have a goal in how a reader sees, interprets, or is moved by your poetry?
JCV: Analysis paralysis, to be honest. I procrastinate heavily when I know my writing is on a deadline, moreso when I’m creating for an evaluation from someone else’s personal lens of creativity. I’m aware that it’s an element of internalized perfectionism, but it’s also due to the fact that I don’t have patience for classroom poetry and have a toxic relationship with academia. More often than not, the motherfuckers outside of the classroom can’t understand what you just wrote. That’s something fundamental I try to approach my writing with: how can I authentically express myself, conveying understanding of the craft, while not alienating the lay reader? Am I writing for myself, or am I writing for people’s conception of me? Am I writing for myself, or am I trying to impress someone in the cohort? Am I writing for myself, or am I writing in a style I know my professor has particular fondness for? Do I actually believe in myself, or am I afraid of making the executive decision of writing, revising, and submitting a poem on my own accord and facing outcomes without attaching myself to them? For every poem published, I’ll show you the landslide of rejections preceding it. Language capable of being understood across class, race, gender… that’s when you’re a problem. Because there’s no gateway of specific knowledge barring the wisdom you share with the reader. It’s what made Nietszche stand out from his contemporaries; both an aristocrat and a peasant can hold a conversation about the death of God. Both an aristocrat and a peasant can ruminate on what it means to “have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” It’s awareness of the primordial images within, an awareness sharpened in solitude. It opens a conversation. To love this path is to love yourself and humanity to such a degree that you’re willing to forego earthly distractions. You can’t fake this energy, because the page is your snitch. I usually approach blank pages with a random line that enters my head and then build the entire poem from there. From the outside looking in, there’s elements of surrealism, magical realism, the gothic. From the inside looking out, it’s my regular mindstate. Very fond of alliteration, especially when there’s a rhythm to it. Can’t say I have any particular goals for how a reader engages with my work. Once the poem is written, it’s independent from me. I can’t control its perception. And my opinion of it is not the opinion I wish for you to perceive it through — it’s not “the author’s true intent.” Just like you, I’m an observer. I offered you the portrait, but we’re both making sense of the image.
RE: What is the strangest thing Poetry can do? What is the oddest truth about Poetry itself?
JCV: If done well, it’s capable of suspending you from your notions of reality. To sit in the world of the long poem, or to engage with dreamlike imagery you wouldn’t have otherwise consciously summoned to your mind, and now having a cluster of neurons formed in your brain to retain that imagery… it’s alchemy. There’s really no other way for me to put it. It teaches you to surrender and feel the meaning of things instead of trying to explain them. It’s someone baring their unconscious contents to you, which is what makes it personally intimate for me. Because now I want to bare my unconscious contents to you. And if not in front of you, I’m capable of alchemizing it through the page, and sharing that instead The levels of doggedness at which this extraction is done varies, but if a piece manages to engage with your inner child, your intrinsic sense of play, it could be far more healing to your soul than anything on the outside. All is poetry. But how will you convince the reader of that?
RE: You were recently accepted into the Periplus Writing Fellowship for the 2022 year. Tell
us about the Fellowship and what kind of projects you have planned for the near-future.
JCV: First thing’s first, we’re giving the loudest shoutout to Vasantha Sambamurti – poet, translator, academic extraordinaire. They were the one who brought this opportunity to my attention, so I shot my shot. PERIPLUS is a mentorship collective serving emerging writers of color. Prose, poetry, journalism, and the like. Writers chosen to be Fellows are paired with established writers in their fields and offered mentorship throughout the year. This is all voluntary, and the mentors do their work in earnest faith to democratize and shed light upon the writing and publishing process for underrepresented identities. I’m humbled to have been paired with the Boricua tour-de-force Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, author of the poetry collection The Life Assignment and Associate Director for 92Y Poetry Center. He’s also one of the minds organizing The Puerto Rican Literature Project, which is a free bilingual and digital resource to be used within and beyond academia in PR and the Diaspora. Its essence is the accessibility and dissemination of Puerto Rican literature and literary history in all of its genres. Both of us agree that Lin-Manuel Miranda needs to go, and I’ll sharpen both scythe and saber in defense of this position. Excited to see how we develop as writers throughout this Fellowship. I do indeed have ideas for the near-future, but I won’t speak on them until they’re realized.
RE: You emailed while I was developing the questions for this interview saying you wanted to offer some insights that we can refer to in times of strife, as artist & human. Is there anything else you would like to say about the role of art in making a real difference in everyday life, especially in this unique time filled with disease and war?
JCV: I feel I’ve touched on those insights throughout my responses, but I will say this: the world we’re heading into is not the world we grew up with. It’s changing at an institutional, geopolitical rate which you won’t notice until it becomes abruptly immediate; by then, you’ll be a straggler catching up. I understand and empathize with the sadness of growing up through post-9/11 America feeling helpless, only to rewatch an entire new generation now growing up beneath the Pandemic, during historic inflation, now witnessing a war of aggression unleashed onto Ukraine which covers the headlines of any given news network. Understand that this, right now, is serving as this generation’s first images of life. A lot of the adults who didn’t have their shit together when we were children and looked towards them for psychological, emotional guidance still don’t have their shit together now. Children are still utilized as political tools, backdrops for the signing of bills and hollow speeches which have none of their generation’s interests at heart. The difference is now, for those of my own generation, we can consciously create the life we wish to pursue. The world we wish to leave. We’ve seen and lived these lessons. We can co-create a second childhood, giving both ourselves and Gen Z that which we knew we once needed. Or still need. A lot of us made it here. And a good sum of us didn’t. How are we going to move in a way that honors the memory of our story? What is our story? This is a necessary discourse. Believe, I’ve been waiting 20 years to do what I intend on doing with the english language. There’s grievances to address, and cultures to represent. But before any of this can be done, we need to look at our own selves with a brutal honesty and address the wounds left there from family, relationships, and the society at-large. It means combating the stories of your ego and integrating them to the wisdom of your Soul. Every person possesses an intrinsic genius. Any stories you tell yourself otherwise, I guarantee you you’re not the one who authored them. It feels isolating, angering, stagnant, and ineffectual at times – but the only way to usher in a more conscious world is if we first begin with becoming conscious of the way we move and behave with ourselves, and take accountability for it. When we were children, the child-parent relationship was one of dependency; now we’re young adults, where we’re wholly responsible for our actions, consequences, and self-identity. Who are you? Without making your identity relative to another? This is a lifelong journey. For artists, the work we create serves as a timestamp to the selves we were while creating it. Our interests, environments, headspace. At least that’s how it feels for me. During these past two years, it’s been incredibly easy to look at decisions made on a global scale and understand the necessity for doing the inner work. There’s an immense crisis in masculinity, with a lot of motherfuckers unconsciously stuck in 6th grade walking around in a man’s body. The bar is immensely low, and if we sincerely wish to model a new adulthood, an adulthood where we don’t repeat the sins which formed aspects of our shadows, we need to actually confront that which we project as the responsibility of others. If you knew the horror stories your closest ones hide from you, you would’ve started last year. This world is ravaged, in a painful transition period, and our inheritance is very much disproportionate. There is zero denial of this. To acknowledge what is immediately in front of us, this is the first step. Feel what you feel, be honest with yourself, and allow yourself grace. To shift the unconscious towards consciousness: this is how healing begins. This is my open call to artists — if there’s any time where the world needs your voice the most, it’s now. You’re going to face pushbacks, guilt trips, alienations, and some very dark nights. But may you remember that your purpose is far above any person. I’m already proud of you for being here. It means that there was something in your life and spirit that you chose to continue living for. And that’s the very same force that, if you allow it to channel into your creations, will make you understand the bliss of transcendence, initiating your return to who you organically were before the world inflicted itself onto you. There’s no way we’re given hellfire and gravity and expected to become anything lesser than diamonds. You got me fucked up if you think we’re moving passive this time around. Blessings to the Ancestors, blessings to the Culture, blessings to Essex County, New Jersey, and blessings to all underdogs. Thank you to Poet’s Billow once again for offering me this space for conversation, for seeing something in ‘Paola’ back in 2017, and for believing in it.
Gracias, continuamos, y recuerden que Puerto Rico Se Levanta.