When I was nineteen years old I used to work at Boomerangs, a thrift store benefiting the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. One day, I was looking through the used book stacks and I encountered a book with the cover and edges frayed. That book was Americano by Emanuel Xavier. It was a life-saving moment for me, finding another queer latino poet out in the world. Earlier this year, I reached out to Emanuel to curate an exhibition honoring the 20 year anniversary of his first self-published chapbook Pier Queen. To my amazement, he replied. We connected and created an exhibition at Cuchifritos, as part of my collective’s [Sweety’s] residency, Edicion Especial with Artist Alliance in the Lower East Side. This is a continuation of that conversation.
—Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz
Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz: Who is Emanuel Xavier? Tell us a little bit about you.
Emanuel Xavier: Well, I’m a native New Yorker, my background is Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican. I was a big part of like the ‘80s, late ‘80s/early ‘90s, ballroom club scene. Eventually, I found myself working at a gay bookstore and realized there weren’t really a lot of books that spoke to my experience as a gay Nuyorican. So I stepped into the Nuyorican Poets Café and I was inspired by the spoken word poetry that I heard coming from the stage and I decided that ya know, that’s something I really want to do; so I started writing poetry. Five poetry collections, one novel, three edited anthologies later….
Photograph of Emanuel Xavier by Mark T. Harris (1997)
XIU: (Laughing)…and a CD…
EX: AND a CD… I can say I’ve come a very long way. Now I work for Penguin Random House, which is one, which is the largest publishing company in the world and I get to be around a lot of incredible books and continue sharing that joy for literature with others.
XIU: So, you had gone to the Nuyorican Poets Café before you started writing or were you already writing?
EX: I was already writing. I was working at the bookstore and someone took me there on a date to see La Bruja, who didn’t show up because she was sick. So instead they had the slam, which at the time was usually on Wednesdays and the big, big, grand slam was on Fridays, so it must have been, I don’t know, I guess a Tuesday or something. The person I was with, who’s also a poet, knew that I wrote and had poems in my pocket so he signed me up. I entered the competition.
XIU: Oh, so that was your first time there?
EX: That was my first time there.
EX: I might have been there once or twice before, but never for a slam competition. At the actual venue, I might have gone to see a play or something, but that was my first time there, definitely for the poetry competition.
XIU: And you won?
EX: And I won. I remember there being a really big poet, a big Chicano poet, who came in from the west coast to compete. He was the sure shot winner and it wasn’t expected for me to A) compete and B) to win. That was just a very significant moment in my history because after everything I had experienced like being out on the streets, hanging out at the clubs, and so forth, it validated me as an artist. It made me feel that this was something that I could do. I wasn’t a trained writer, I didn’t get my MFA—my education was limited to a communications degree. Grew up with some poverty, so, literature was not something that I was expected to pursue. So that was very redeeming for me as an individual, as a person to be able to do. So that’s what really sort of inspired me to continue seeking out the poetry scene. Reading a lot on my own, I was really self-taught. I think for a lot of reasons I’ve been labeled a “street poet” so that was a real dirty word, it was very derogatory. But then, ya know, I looked back at our history and discovered people like Miguel Piñero and Pedro Pietri, some of the other poets who, they weren’t necessarily teaching at like Ivy League schools but their poetry mattered. Their words mattered. A lot of poets that came before that were not necessarily academic or affluent, but poetry, like art, is for the people, the general public, it’s not only for the elite or the educated.
XIU: Right, and the idea of a street poet is a very racialized and classist term.
" I THINK FOR A LOT OF REASONS I’VE BEEN LABELED A 'STREET POET' SO THAT WAS A REAL DIRTY WORD, IT WAS VERY DEROGATORY."
EX: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
XIU: So that’s something that’s important too. Who has access to being a part of the elite?
EX: Mhmm. Some of us sometimes make it, especially in the art world. You have street artists like Basquiat, or even Keith Haring, as a white gay man, who are huge.
Emanuel Xavier reading his signature poem “Tradiciones” at Irving Plaza (1999).
But they had very different experiences coming into their own, as opposed to Andy Warhol. So, who’s to say who’s better than the other? There’s always that, a lot of "street poets” felt like, oh the academy is against us, they don’t want us to be part of the system, we have a lot to say because poetry is not something that can be taught, that mentality. But then the academics are like, oh, there’s a certain way to, ya know you can learn a lot from pursuing a degree in poetry or literature, studying the past. So there’s no right or wrong, it’s just a matter of maybe working together to support one another because genuine talent is not necessarily something that’s taught at schools, but it’s not also necessarily out on the streets—it’s somewhere in between.
Emanuel Xavier’s very first poetry reading was as The Spotlight Feature at the Nuyorican Poets Café (September 5, 1997).
XIU: I want to talk about the postcards because that’s a way you really started to put yourself out there—a way to self-publish and share your work, and also as a visual practice for you at the time.
EX: Well that was very street artist of me—I did have an affinity to street artists. I had an experience, not where I had actually met but was cruised by, Basquiat at the Westside Highway Piers. After I found out who he was I really sought out his work and also I never had the opportunity to meet Keith Haring but I knew a lot of his partners. He was known to, he had a flavor for Latinos. He had several partners. Juan Xtravaganza I met, they were together for a certain period of time and I remember when I was working at A Different Light Bookstore, Juan had an exhibit because he had some old photographs of him with Keith Haring. We hung out, he took me out on a date to Lincoln Center for a big event. He was a really cool, funny guy. We never actually dated but we definitely had a friendly relationship.
Back to the whole postcard thing, I was already being labeled “a flash in the pan” and “sweetheart,” a “one-hit wonder.” I was already the brunt of all those derogatory terms and so I decided I was going to own it. I was going to take it and make it my own. I didn’t care what the scene thought of me, I was going to build my own audience. So I had these postcards created which were wonderful, and I distributed them at the West Side Highway Piers where I used to hustle. I spent a lot of time at clubs like Sound Factory, Sound Factory Bar, Limelight, and just leave them like in the restrooms, in the men’s restrooms. Hey, you might be taking a shit, hey what’s this, now you’re just reading a poem. It was sort of like my graffiti art, my tag. It was just like, leaving them at phone booths because, back then, we had phone booths so people would actually use the phones. I left them anywhere where I thought people might come across them, throughout the city, throughout Manhattan. I printed I don’t know how many copies of those and put them out there.
XIU: How did people respond to them?
EX: People really enjoyed them. Some people actually kept them, which I’m sure they’re very valuable. I mean, it was only two poems: “Pier Queen Radio Blues” and “Oya St. Therese.” But then when I was picked up by Urban Latino, which is a big, sort of like vibe magazine from back in the day, they were starting out and they wanted to work with me and somehow incorporate my poetry into their publication. There were so many ideas I had, I was like how about if we did a postcard with “Tradiciones,” using the image that was used in the magazine, distributing it that way to get publicity for your own publication and people would recognize it as one of my pieces.
XIU: So there was also a moment right after that when you were getting published in a lot of magazines?
EX: Yes, like most people do when you’re starting out, especially trying to get published, because the big thing, and the irony about publishing, is you can’t get published unless you’ve already published. It was weird. So I was sending stuff out, a lot of them are not around anymore, but I was getting published in a lot of like journals, magazines, and a lot of publications that were prominent at the time. I was really making my rounds in the New York City underground arts scene, which was very vibrant; a lot of people were part of it. It sort of dissipated.
Original postcard flyer of “Pier Queen Radio Blues” as found throughout the New York City underground club scene and phone booths (1997).
Original postcard flyer of “Oya/St. Therese” as found throughout the New York City underground club scene and phone booths (1997).
XIU: Let’s talk a little bit about the club. I feel like it’s a space in your life where you were not only a club kid, but you were working and disseminating your art in this space. What was that experience like for you?
EX: I kind of really miss it, not because things have changed and I’m not as connected as I used to be, but I loved…people go to clubs for many different reasons, especially gay clubs, but the clubs that I frequented, it was about being around other creative people, other artists. Yes, maybe we were there to socialize and just dance, have a few drinks, party, and have fun, but there was a real sort of energy—there was that real excitement in the air of meeting other people that were also creating, that were also out there in the world doing stuff. And a lot of the clubs incorporated like, whether it was visual art, spoken word, dance, or music, it was definitely a place people could congregate, inspire, and feed off one another. So, that’s what it meant to me, going out, just the excitement of meeting somebody who was like the Gautier, the next great artist, discovering new people. I guess that’s sort of been replaced throughout the years slowly but surely with social media. People just kind of turn to social media to discover new work and new artists.
"...I HAD THESE POSTCARDS CREATED WHICH WERE WONDERFUL AND I DISTRIBUTED THEM AT THE WEST SIDE HIGHWAY PIERS WHERE I USED TO HUSTLE. "
XIU: On the way here on the L, I was rereading the intro to Pier Queen and I was reading about how you wrote that you thought you might die from HIV. So there’s a poem in here that’s about your resume, “Pier Queen for Hire,” and I wanted to talk about what came after. What happened, how did you feel when you survived, how is it tied to that poem?
EX: Well, I mean, when I realized I was not HIV positive, I had what I guess I would call survivor’s guilt. I had people in my life, not only friends, but boyfriends, who were positive and we had our…we didn’t know at the time so we had unprotected sex, or it was discovered later, or whatever.
Postcard flyers featuring Emanuel Xavier’s poem “Tradiciones” to promote an event co-sponsored by Urban Latino Magazine (1998).
So, they would test. I had one instance where my boyfriend at the time tested positive and we went in together to get screened and I tested negative. I remember being incredibly distraught, I was very, very young, I remember telling him, “It’s fine, ya know, I still want to be with you.” He was the one who actually pushed me away and I couldn’t fathom that, like wait a minute, you’re HIV positive, I want to be with you and you’re pushing me away? But, of course, it’s because he had just found out about his own status and was going through a lot and probably realized, ya know, this kid is young and I need to sort things out for myself and let him live his life. I didn’t appreciate that at the time, I was really angry, but in retrospect, I understood why that happened. But, even after I tested negative and everything, I still had to live with that survivor’s guilt, ya know? When so many people around you—people that were in the same circles, the same scenes, doing the same things you were doing—either turned out to be HIV positive or were dying and here you are perfectly healthy, I couldn’t understand how that, how or why that was happening. But by that point, after like Pier Queen was said and done and being self-published, I had made a name for myself and realized this was something that I loved and was very passionate about and still had a lot to say. I still had a lot to share and that’s why I’ve continued writing since then. It was a very scary time…
XIU: Yeah, also thinking about you switching your life from one way of being in the world, which is part of what that poem is about, I guess. "Pier Queen for Hire," like what’s next…
EX: It would have been tragic and unfortunate if I had not survived, like after Pier Queen. I wonder if, since it was self-published, people would have acknowledged it or remembered it, or found it...This is like a Barbara Walters interview. You’re gonna make me cry. At least I’m at home.
XIU: I know, I’m also like....well, let’s talk about collaboration. You’ve worked with a lot of different people, you work with dancers, you work with musicians, there’s also the House of Xavier. Let’s talk about collaboration in general.
EX: I think it’s important. I think one of the things that might be said about me, which I think is really helpful when you’re an artist, is I tend to be very easy going. I try to be when it comes to a collaboration with someone on something that is creative. You got to listen to the other person, what they want, what their input is. You should also feel free to speak out and not feel judged, just be able to have that interaction where two very different, or very similar, people can sort of come together and create something that’s bigger than you.
Promotional shot (with Mother Diva Xavier a.k.a. Andres “Chulisi” Rodriguez) for The House of Xavier’s XXX Ball (1998).
XIU: What inspired you to start the House of Xavier?
EX: I actually just found a really great picture of that, it’s with Willi Ninja and his mom in Central Park. Well, The House of Xavier, I have to say, was quite a challenge. It only lasted for like a decade and I think when we first started it sort of really made sense to me personally because I was in a unique situation. I had come from the ballroom, so I knew of scoring, the categories, and the drama of it all. But I was also familiar with the slam poetry competition scene—I knew about their scoring process and how it’s not only about the poem itself but the presentation. So I wanted to bring all that together, bring a group of artists together who didn’t necessarily compete at the balls. There were balls like every weekend and it's an entire community that you are really inside—you’re either a part of that community or you’re not. So, it was really hard because we weren’t immediately welcome, despite the fact that it was Willi Ninja who was like, “You need to do this, you need to put this together, it’s great.” I had some great support from some very prominent figures within the ball scene but for the most part, we didn’t fit in because we were like the geeks, the nerds. We weren’t like doing like femme-realness or voguing, those weren’t our strengths, but, then, also, on the opposite spectrum there was the slam scene—it was sort of still pretty new. It came about in the mid/early 90s and they had their own set of rules, it had to be a certain way, then you’re bringing in categories like "best of erotic poem: sexy lingerie" or something. It was unheard of, it was insulting, I thought that was kind of funny because people would say, “You’re taking away from a very serious art form,” but meanwhile we were making poetry a performance!
EX: I remember when we first started I was getting shit from both ends, quite frankly, and then the people who were drawn to the House of Xavier, aside from like our core group, a lot of them were coming in expecting and hoping it would be more of a House. As in, there is the father and the mother and they were the children and you had to cater to them, help them find their way. It’s understood, because that’s what Houses were there for, they are makeshift families, especially crucial and important ones for trans and homeless folks. So, I found myself like, I was young, playing the role of a father to kids who were like my age, so it was definitely a challenge. I think I was way in over my head but we stuck it through and we had competitions and it went from several events to just like once a year and then eventually it became a real challenge because I was also playing the role of a producer. I was putting on all these events, so I was wearing many hats. I was like putting it together, working the venue, I was trying to book the acts, I was trying to set it up, it became a lot for me to do it on my own.
Emanuel Xavier, Willi Ninja (and his mom) and several members of the original House of Xavier in Central Park (1998).
It really needed more of a collaboration, more of a team, more people who were very passionate about it and willing to make it happen. But, I didn’t really have anything to offer them, financially or in any other way, so eventually it just kind of fell on my shoulders. It was great, I did what I could and I think we did, I can’t say we, I think I did a great job with the help of some other people, and I’m very happy it’s a part of our underground New York City history. It probably, maybe, inspired other people.
". . . THAT’S WHAT HOUSES WERE THERE FOR, THEY ARE MAKESHIFT FAMILIES, ESPECIALLY CRUCIAL AND IMPORTANT FOR TRANS AND HOMELESS FOLKS."
XIU: Definitely, where do you feel you are now in connection to that circuit?
EX: To the ball scene? I am wayyy out of the scene, I’m in a different place in my life. I still have friends that are actively involved in the scene. I’m happy that it still exists and that it’s come a very long way and that people are acknowledging all the contributions that it has given to very many different forms of art, whether it be dance, music, or drag, there’s a lot that’s come from that scene.
Original flyers promoting House of Xavier ball events (1998).
XIU: Do you feel like people who were in that scene have been given proper credit for it? I’m asking because I feel it is really in the mainstream today, like vogue and voguing and what it is, but I wonder if you feel like the people who you were around in that scene have been given the proper credit for what they contributed?
EX: Some have, but others have been forgotten. I was very close with Willi, I’m very happy that he gets his props and that he gets acknowledged. You watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, and RuPaul is really good. He was never really a part of that scene, but he gives a lot of credit to it, he always makes sure that other people get credit, too, so I give him a lot of props for that. He even recently just put out a single that’s very like ballroom. I’m happy that it’s someone who is gay and a person of color who is out there in the world promoting it and getting recognition for it, as opposed to…
XIU: Laughing. Katy Perry…?
Promotional flyer for a House of Xavier ball event (1998).
EX: …I love her songs...but yes. I don’t know, I have not been able, I haven’t really pursued it, but I also haven’t been reached, but I know, like, Ryan Murphy is working on a television show called “Pose,” which is about the ballroom scene in the late 80s/early 90s. I tried to reach out to be like, "Hey, there’s this book that I wrote called Christ Like, you might wanna read it, or put it in the backdrop or something…"
XIU: But they haven’t reached out to you?
EX: No, so I’m not sure how that’s going to go. But I’m sure if it’s done correctly and brings in people who were actually a part of the scene…
XIU: So what was “Realness and Rhythms” and what made you start it?
EX: I think originally it was going to be called “Urban Rhythms,” something weird, but I liked “realness” because it’s a word that came from the ball scene and “rhythms” which is something that kind of came from spoken word poetry so I think it was a precursor to the House of Xavier.
It was just like events that I wanted to put together to feature. Spoken word poetry hadn’t necessarily reached the queer community yet—it was still something that was underground and was probably more prominent in the hip-hop world. The gay community wasn’t really like embracing it just yet, it was still too new, it was not something that was immediately welcomed and I just said, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna do it.” I was working at a gay bookstore—they had different events—and I knew that there were some nights where they had something featured so I asked if I could put something together. I wanted to do something that celebrated spoken word poetry specifically with people of color.
XIU: What year was this?
EX: ’97, ’98, ya know, spoken word had already been like…but not in the gay community, it was still not something that was fully embraced, so it was like a new art form. We had people, there were great, great people I knew, Pamela Sneed who is still doing a lot of work, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Reggie Cabico, eventually Staceyann Chin. So we did these events at A Different Light Bookstore—they had their events in the basement downstairs, it was a big basement, a big, sizable room—and we would have great events and great turnouts featuring maybe like 5 different poets and they would do 10-15 minutes each. The focus was spoken word poetry from people of color. It wasn’t a spoken rule, but I was the one who was putting it together so I was booking the people who I wanted to hear, who I wanted to share the stage with, who I wanted to feature, and as it turns out, we had great crowds and a lot of them went on to do wonderful things.
"SPOKEN WORD POETRY HADN’T NECESSARILY YET REACHED THE QUEER COMMUNITY—IT WAS STILL SOMETHING THAT WAS UNDERGROUND... THE GAY COMMUNITY WASN’T REALLY LIKE EMBRACING IT JUST YET...AND I JUST SAID, 'FUCK IT, I’M JUST GONNA DO IT.'"
Photograph of the original House of Xavier by Lawrence Grecco (1999). Pictured left to right (top to bottom): Danny Xavier, Godmother Stephanie Xavier, poet Andrew McCarthy, Jose Xavier, poet Aileen Cho, Mother Carlos Xavier, Father (and poet) Emanuel Xavier, poet Suheir Hammad, poet Caridad de la Luz (“La Bruja”), singer Trance and poet Mariposa.
XIU: What was the public’s response to that work, to you starting this poetry series. I’m sure people noticed it was like all people of color performing. What kind of responses were you getting?
EX: I think, at the time, people thought it was great. Like I said, we had great turnouts, we had great coverage in like the local gay media and it was like a hot, new thing that was very exciting for a lot of people—whether you were in the audience or up on the stage. It was very exciting to be able to hear this and feel connected to this and hopefully inspire other people and open those doors. This is what we were doing in New York and I guess eventually, we didn’t really have social media back then, but I was able to connect with other poets and writers like in Chicago and San Francisco and down in Texas and we sort of kept in touch and were like, “Hey I’m doing this.” Some of us got to travel to New York, or to other states and meet and get to know one another and share our thoughts and our poetry, so there was definitely that sort of community building that went on as people of color, as queers, as artists. It was very, very exciting and I think it was part of opening the doors for a lot of people. I don’t really sit around and think about it too much, it’s something that you feel needed to be done, or was missing. I didn’t sit around and think, oh, I’m the first one to do this, nobody else is doing this so I’m gonna. It was more the mentality, nobody else is doing it, then we have to do it.
Promotional flyer for one of the first queer spoken word poetry series events, “Realness & Rhythms,” held at A Different Light Bookstore (1997) featuring poets Trance, Emanuel Xavier, Janis Astor del Valle, Carlo Baldi, Regie Cabico and Pamela Sneed.
XIU: I really want to talk about Radiance. It is such an amazing book—your newest publication. I want to talk about nighttime, it’s a common theme in a lot of your poetry, not just in Radiance. What does the nighttime mean for you? I feel like a lot of your poems take place at night.
EX: I haven’t really thought about that. I guess a lot of my writing happens at night and I think it’s sort of embracing that time of day, the darkness. I guess it came from perhaps being out on the streets. While the rest of the world was home having dinner or watching television or just being with their families, there was this whole other world out there going on that was often ignored or people who assumed it was just all seedy and dark, yet there were a lot of wonderful things that came from that. So I never really thought about it, it’s funny, because I think of myself more as a day person, but I guess a lot of my writing is very night. It’s also like right now, you can look up at the sky and just see clouds and it’s beautiful, it’s a blue sky and clouds but at night you can see the stars.
XIU: It’s a very different world almost.
XIU: I think a lot of people also look down on those who work at night, but it’s a different place because so much happens at nighttime. In the book you talk about that a lot. The first poem “Witness” is one of the shortest poems you’ve written, or that I’ve read. Let’s talk about that a bit. How do you feel reading it now? It encompasses so many things but it’s such a short…
EX: I feel like I’ve written a lot about having been sexually abused as a child and sometimes it has really struck a chord, it’s made a connection with the audience, and other times perhaps not. So this particular poem was really like a memory, or a dream, something that was just kind of recurring and I felt like I needed to write it down. I felt like I could really convey that imagery without as many words. Just kind of leave it there.
XIU: Yeah, I think what’s so impactful about this poem, too, is that it really puts you in the mind of a very young you—what you were seeing, what you were focusing on. I think that’s what’s so powerful about this poem.
EX: Yeah, it was definitely something that, like I said, was very recurring and I don’t think I really needed to say much. You probably have a lot of questions, but at the same time, it kind of tells everything, says everything it needs to. So yes, I do appreciate you recognizing that.
XIU: How do you feel about the collection in general?
EX: I’m very proud of it. I mean, like any artist, in retrospect, there are things that perhaps I would have changed or liked to include or wouldn’t have included. I think it’s definitely one of my strongest collections, but I’m not as connected, I’m not really on, I never really have been on this scene and I’m perhaps not as like hungry or thirsty as I used to be. So it hasn’t really received the sort of publicity or promotion or recognition that my previous books have, and I’m fine with that ‘cause like I said I’m in a different place ‘cause I know it’s one of my stronger works but I think more people need to read it. More people need to pick it up, more people need to include it if they’re going to read the work of contemporary Latinx poets and writers. It’s something that should be on their queue, their radar, something to come across. In comparison, some might appreciate it and some might disregard it, but when you put your art out there, you’re hoping to reach a certain audience that perhaps it speaks to. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters. So maybe I’m not speaking to a lot of people these days.
XIU: No I don’t think that’s true, but I definitely agree with you that it’s one of your strongest works.
EX: I think it’s funny, ya know, because ya never really like, I think a lot of times a lot of us poets think, I’m just going to put this out there, someone might pick it up after I die, when I’m gone. Because a lot of great poets, when they were out there writing, publishing, creating, they were often overlooked or disregarded, but then…
XIU: Or they’re known for one thing…
Willi Ninja voguing at one of The House of Xavier events at La Escuelita (1998).
EX: And then when time would go by, be like, oh wow. What’s most important is that the work is out there, that it is available. Hopefully, if it hasn’t reached its audience, it will reach its audience.
XIU: Speaking of that, I want to talk about the poem “Beside Myself.” And there’s a line where you say…
EX: Oh that’s a very, very...kind of symbolizes a lot…
XIU: Very relevant…
EX: Yes, to this whole discussion.
XIU: So it reads, “Let go of the past, the revolution has fresh faces at the forefront. Move on.”
EX: Yes, that’s sort of a note to myself (laughing). That whole poem is kind of like, it’s fine, you’ve done your work now it’s okay that other people are picking up that mantle and moving forward with that. I think the most important thing is for people like you—like a lot of millennials get a bad rap because people feel like they just don’t care about the past, they don’t care about what came before them, and think they’re the first ones to do anything.
XIU: Very true. It’s a good critique.
EX: And that’s possibly true for a lot of them, but then I’ve met some wonderful people that are like, when I first started I made it a point to seek out the work of those who came before me and read their work.
Photograph of Emanuel Xavier for Urban Latino (1999).
Especially, I think a lot of people were like, oh he’s like a beatnik poet, and I didn’t know what that was, I hadn’t read any “beat poetry” so I was like what the fuck. I sought out these books and was like, oh...I could see that. I had an experience where I briefly met Allen Ginsberg and was like who is this person? I know I’ve heard of him but I’ve never read his work. It was important for me to go out and whatever, whatever it was, whether it was books or documentaries or well, we didn’t have everything up on YouTube so you had to really look for some film footage or something or somebody doing a reading event somewhere. So it was important for me to learn the history of those who came before me to sort of put my work into perspective and figure out where I was gonna go from there. I think that does definitely still happen, but then, yes there are those who are probably just like…
XIU: Who are forgotten.
EX: Yes. And it’s interesting because the time when I was starting I didn’t think, I didn’t realize I was one of the first gay Nuyorican poets out there. I was gay and I was Nuyorican and I was writing poetry. So it wasn’t like I was trying to claim something, it just happened. That’s what we do as artists, we just go off and do our thing. Sometimes you might be doing something that has rarely or ever been done before.
XIU: Something I really appreciate about the book is that you’re also not only doing that, but you're also keeping up with what’s happening to young people. You have a poem “Sometimes We’re Invisible.” I think it’s a very important poem because you’re talking about how so many times we’ve been forgotten about, or the deaths of young people of color, queer people of color, trans women especially, are happening, things are happening, and in the mainstream news they just don’t get talked about. Let’s talk a little bit about that poem and how you started to write it. What was happening?
Emanuel Xavier on the Café con Leche float at the NYC Pride March (1999).
EX: A lot of trans women have been murdered or died throughout the course of my life. I mean, I had that poem, that single “Legendary,” and I when I started it was more about satisfying my own curiosity about what was happening. So I had to do a lot of research about people who had been murdered or attacked, which we didn’t hear much of. Like, where was I in life when that happened, why didn’t I hear about this, or why didn’t I know about this?
Then I started discovering other things like, oh that same year, I was trying to put it into perspective for myself, this is when Osama Bin Laden was killed, or this is when Eminem won the MTV award, or this is when Hurricane Sandy hit, this is when 9/11 was going on. So then it was a matter of like making, building it from something as a time frame, and sort of, that’s where it came together. I was trying to remind people that these horrible things happen but they were overlooked because you were so focused on all this other stuff. Which I’m not saying that any of that stuff was not important, but ya know, don’t forget that this happened. Yes, sometimes when talking about my work you do feel like you’re invisible and you’re overlooked or you’re just…and…sometimes by our own communities…
XIU: What I think is so important is that there’s a reason why people are overlooked. It’s not random.
EX: It’s interesting, too, because other times, shortly after the book came out that’s when the Orlando incident happened, and that poem, really like, for me personally, and the people that read it, took a whole different resonance. That was kind of the ultimate...
XIU: Yes, I’m from Florida so I know people that were there. And...
Radiance, a collection of poetry by Emanuel Xavier
EX: It’s horrible that it still happens.
XIU: It is. Let’s take a moment and talk about Alexis the cat because Alexis has a lot of cameos in your work. I’ve heard you talk about Alexis as your muse. How has Alexis impacted your life?
EX: He’s been with me for 18 years and has definitely given me a lot of love and a lot of happiness. He’s seen a lot, he’s experienced a lot. Through 9/11, through my incident, and my hearing loss, and just everything. He’s been like my best friend, my buddy. Now I’m in a happy long-term relationship, but for many years he was the only one that I cuddled with. Guys came and went, but Alexis always stayed. He’s definitely been a muse, especially when I’m there writing and trying to be on, by me, by my work. I think love is, obviously we all know this, love is not only between two people—it’s family, it’s friends, it’s your pets. We forget that. I’ve been hearing a lot of horrible stories about dogs that were left tied up, and I suppose I could understand if there was no way they could save them or take them with you, but that’s cruel, that’s horrible. How can people do that? I think if something like that happened here, Alexis would be the first thing I would think of. I couldn’t leave him behind, it would be so cruel.
XIU: I can relate, I was actually laying on my cat, Ocean, on his belly and I was listening to his heart and I just started crying because I was just overcome with emotion understanding that he’s a living being. He’s there.
EX: Yeah, I’m not necessarily religious—I guess I’m an atheist but I do believe in karma. I believe what you put out there in the world does come back to you in one way or another and if not in this lifetime, if there is another life time.
XIU: Definitely. I feel like the book is also about coming to terms with things. Do you feel that way?
EX: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
XIU: There are a couple of moments where you talk a lot about, we’ll call it “the incident.” Do you know the poet Cesar Vallejo? He’s a Peruvian poet, and he has this poem that goes, "Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes... Yo no sé.” I’ve been thinking about that line a lot and it made me think about the incident you experienced because it has shaped a lot of things. I feel like in this book you really were coming to terms with that.
" I THINK LOVE IS, OBVIOUSLY WE ALL KNOW THIS, LOVE IS NOT ONLY BETWEEN TWO PEOPLE, IT’S FAMILY, IT’S FRIENDS, IT’S YOUR PETS. WE FORGET THAT."
EX: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting because after all the work I had done trying to make people see us as equal—as a Latino, as a gay man trying to do my part in sharing a universal truth—to be a victim of a hate crime, it hurt in a lot of ways. Not just physically, it didn’t just leave me scarred physically, I honestly didn’t think I was ever going to write again after that, because of that incident. That was in 2005. I lost my hearing in 2006 in my right ear and I think If Jesus Were Gay came out in the like 2010. It was a big thing for me, so it took a long time to sort of find my way back. Yes, I still often wonder what my life would have been like had that not happened, ‘cause it really kept me from writing and from taking on a lot of gigs, and from really pushing to get myself out there. I think that’s when you’re moving along, that’s sort of like crucial because then you just kinda fall back by the wayside. People forget, people move on. Art is constant. There’s always somebody out there who’s just doing the work you could be doing. I think it took a while for me to sort of get my groove back, and maybe for a while, for that time, it was great, but then I don’t think, I’m not sure I ever quite found my footing in the same way as before the incident. So I think it definitely shaped me as an artist, shaped me as a person, shaped my career.
XIU: You also have a poem, “For Colored Boys Who Have Been Considered Criminals.” Tell us a bit about it.
EX: It was something that really did happen. I suppose it struck me because, like I said, after all the work I’ve done and everything, I never really thought that I would be the one to experience something—I mean I’ve experienced it throughout life firsthand, like you cannot be a person of color and not have had this experience in today’s world, somewhere along the way. But I’m older and it just really struck me—what a lot of us experience and go through. Sometimes we just brush it off, other times we just laugh it off, and other times we just disregard it. But that moment really, really struck me personally on a lot of levels. I guess because there was so much else going on in the world. Here I was experiencing this again. It doesn’t matter what we do in our lives, or who we are, or what we contribute, at the end of the day, people just see us for our color. They make assumptions about us based on that.
An article covering an anti-violence protest held after attacks on recording
artist Kevin Aviance and poet Emanuel Xavier.
XIU: I’m thinking about your poem “Deliverance.” You’ve encountered moments in your life that make me wonder where you are in a place for forgiveness, or if you are. What’s your relationship to that word?
EX: I think it’s very, very powerful because you’re able to let go and move on. The most important thing for any of us to recognize, if there’s any lesson that I want people to walk away with from my own personal experiences, it’s that none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, we all do things in life that we shouldn’t regret because regret is self-destructive, but we should take into account and acknowledge. It’s okay to say I fucked up or I didn’t do the right thing in this situation, and accept that and learn from that and move on. So in that sense, for me, forgiveness is all about understanding that other people in our lives, whether they’re family or friends or loved ones or just strangers, they don’t perhaps really know that they’re doing something wrong and so it is important to forgive and move on. Sometimes, the person who’s caused you that pain or caused you that hurt doesn’t really acknowledge it or grasp that or understand it, but that’s on them. So my philosophy is like, we all deserve a second chance. I am the queen of that, ‘cause I was given a second chance several times. Yes, I was out on the streets—I was a prostitute, I was a drug dealer, and nobody had to give me that second chance to become a poet and be taken seriously.
XIU: So the book is a lot about coming to terms with things, but there’s also a lot of joy in the book, so let’s talk about that. There’s a lot of everyday-ness and the combination of dealing with events that are really difficult to live through, but also the joy of the every day.
EX: I think it’s important for us to capture some of those daily joys. I think a lot of my work has been very dark, but I think anybody who really knows me, knows I have a really good sense of humor and I’m able to laugh about the silliest things and I’m not like so terribly depressing and suicidal, although my poems could probably inspire someone to think that. I think I’m in a different place and I realize there is a lot of joy in our lives, a lot of beauty in doing things that are probably mundane, that are probably just taken for granted. I’m just happy that I’m still here and am able to enjoy the small moments and appreciate the quiet moments that I probably laughed at, or disregarded, or looked down, upon when I was younger.
XIU: So just a couple closing questions, what are you reading right now?
Photograph of Emanuel Xavier taken for PAPER magazine when
he was selected one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” (2000).
EX: I just finished reading this book called The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne and I really loved it. It just came out, I was reading a galley of it. I think the author is gay and I believe he’s Irish. He is famous for a novel called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas from 2006.
XIU: Yes, I’ve seen that film.
EX: He’s won several Irish book awards, he’s part of an International Dublin Literary Award. So he’s like this gay, Irish writer. But, that book was awesome I really enjoyed it, I really loved it. It was a pleasure because I often read a lot of poetry. I try to read a lot of the work of my peers, my contemporaries—that’s how I stay in touch and stay connected—but it was nice to just pick up a fiction novel and just like lose myself. I absolutely really enjoyed it very much. It’s kind of odd, it’s not like, what does Emanuel Xavier recommend, you’d think I would say something like David Martinez but no, The Hearts Invisible Furies by John Boyne. I’ll give him a plug.
XIU: Cool. Any artists that you’re looking at, any visual artists that you’re inspired by?
EX: One thing I do love about living in Bushwick is a lot of the art—I don’t know if you’ve seen the mural right across the street. I did a walking tour of Bushwick recently just to find where a lot of the artists were. That one right there on the corner with the two women, I love! I absolutely love. It’s been there for a while, they’re putting stuff over it and everything. I know it’s temporary, and I don’t know who the artist is, but I do love a lot of what’s going on as far as the murals and the street art. Other than like walking around my own neighborhood, seeing a lot of the murals from the street artists, which I love a lot of them, that’s what I think I’ve been looking at as far as visual art.
XIU: Any last thoughts, final?
EX: No. Again, I have to say I really appreciate you taking the time to interview me and I love what you guys did at Sweety’s because I think everyone who came out, whether they knew my work or not, were really, really listening. You don’t really often get those opportunities after doing it for like 20 years. So I appreciate you trying to keep my work alive.
XIU: It’s important.
EX: Thank you.
Special thanks to Madison Ray for transcribing this interview.
Emanuel Xavier, an LGBTQ History Month Icon and Gay City News Impact Award recipient, is the author of the poetry collections Radiance, Nefarious, If Jesus Were Gay, Americano, Pier Queen, and the novel Christ Like. Formerly homeless in NYC’s ball scene in the 90s, and one of the first openly gay Nuyorican poets, he has been a longtime gay rights activist, AIDS activist, and LGBTQ homeless youth advocate. Buy his books here.
Ximena Izquierdo Ugaz is a multimedia artist, curator and educator based in Brooklyn and originally from Perú. She is the co-curator of Visual Art at Nat. Brut as well as Teen Programs Coordinator at the Brooklyn Museum and co-curator of Sweety’s, a gallery and platform dedicated to supporting and exhibiting artists of color.