Vincent Toro: Challenging Whiteness and Refusing to Be Colonized

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As a Puerto Rican poet, playwright, director, and educator, Vincent Toro has spent the last sixteen years teaching communities of color and writing about the conflicts, issues, and themes that directly engage these communities. He was a finalist for the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize, the Alice James Book Award, and the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. In 2014 he was named a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellow and was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

Vincent Toro’s first poetry collection, Stereo.Island.Mosaic, won the 2015 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, judged by Ed Roberson, and Poetry Society of America has recently awarded the collection the Norma Farber First Book Award. “The voice of the island itself,” says Roberson, “plays in stereo through the broken language of the book, now jazz and now hip-hop, coming from everywhere and nowhere. What we are given in Stereo.Island.Mosaic. is not a comfortable beauty; we feel the ‘torn… tendons’ of the worker who comes to the mainland to earn money for home.”

Toro and I spoke through email about his collection, influences like Vicente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra, and Chuck D., and his time in an MFA program, where at one point he was accused of trying to alienate his classmates by making historical references they didn’t understand.

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The Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that you began the book as an undergraduate, and that you were wondering where you fit in as a Puerto Rican raised in New Jersey who doesn’t speak Spanish. You said you wanted to know why you were different. Did your goals remain the same throughout the project, or did your vision shift in the revision process?

Vincent Toro: Great question! Though I think I need to clarify something before I answer: None of the poems in the book were written during my undergraduate years, nor was the book concretely conceived there. But the search for identity that led me to the creation of this book twenty years later began during those formative years.

I think poetry is too dependent on experimentation for a poet to have a fixed goal. I’m sure other poets might disagree, as we all have a different process. The issue of identity was my impetus to write, but I didn’t know where I would end up. At first the question was about identity: Why am I this person? What are the factors that made me? But the unifying answer to these questions was already somewhat apparent to me: colonialism.

As I was researching and writing through these conflicts, what became more interesting to me was the “how.” Specifically how did colonization impact Puerto Rican and Caribbean identity and culture? And how have the colonized resisted? What methods and practices did they adopt as means of resistance? And so the book organically became about the tension between the acts of the conquerors and the tactics of the colonized to not be erased. With this shift also came a move away from the self as the center of the narrative into an imagined “we” as the book’s focus. The teacher in me began to see collective sharing as the means to personal healing.

Rumpus: And have you felt healed, now that this book is finished and has come out?

Toro: In writing the book and thinking about these issues I might have learned some new things, even found an answer or two, but I probably pried open more questions than I found answers. Healing, or at least a semblance of peace, comes in waves. It’s easy to feel healed when your work is being acknowledged and read and you’re getting a tiny bit of attention, but underneath it all, the conflicts are simmering, waiting to bubble up again. Or new conflicts are queuing up to disrupt things again before you get too settled. I will say that, personally, at least for now, I feel a bit more centered and content, though I know it’s temporary, as are all things.

But let me say that healing, collective and personal, will never fully happen until Puerto Rico is no longer a colony of the US, and until all occupied territories are no longer occupied. Even to say that is probably not entirely accurate, as healing is not really ever so clear and finite. Even if by some strange chance we stopped colonizing one another (literally and metaphorically), the effects of five hundred years of invasion are not going to magically disappear. You can make peace with certain things, but so long as we are alive we are in a constant state of learning to heal and forgive. That said, it’s very hard to heal when a wound is still open and being prodded, which is what is happening with Puerto Rico. Being still a colony, there is still an open wound there.

Rumpus: How has your voice shifted or evolved since you began? You’ve spoken in another interview about being obsessed “with attempting to expand the fields (of access, of territory, or thought) that I inhabit.” What does this mean?

Toro: My first experiences with poetry were through the Nuyorican and spoken word movements, so my early voice was very much in the cadence of hip-hop and the Beats: heavy internal rhyme and alliteration, jazz-like improvisation and staccato cadence. The work was akin to extended lyrical monologues. I think reading more world literature, particularly Latin American literature, has also affected my voice. The lyrical excesses of someone like Vicente Huidobro and the political humor of poets like Nicanor Parra started to creep into my work. More recently I’ve been interested in the notion of compression. How can I make all of these elements work in a confined, dense space? I think the change has gone from creating sprawling, hip-hop influenced dramatic monologues to more surrealistic and lyrical pieces interested in the mythical dimension of poetry. I’ve also become more concerned with the visual aspect of the poem along with the sonic dimensions of verse.

Now, what I meant about attempting to expand the fields I inhabit is quite simply about learning. An artist’s greatest asset is their insatiable hunger for knowledge. So much about what I love about my work as both a writer and educator is that I am constantly learning. I see knowledge as the well from which I draw in order to create. The deeper that well is, the more materials I have at my disposal, the more options I have when I set to work. It is also a way of helping to avoid repetition in your work, and it is a way of continuing to be passionate about the work. If I know there is something else there is to be learned today, something that will make my field of vision broader, I will be excited to approach the work, and it will make the more tedious parts of the process more rewarding to me.

Rumpus: Is there anything that’s often misunderstood about your work?

Toro: Oh wow! I don’t know that I can claim to have any insight as to how others see my work. I’m not even sure what they understand or take away from it. I guess I can speak to this in terms of the feedback I have gotten in workshops and Q&A sessions over the years, and during my MFA. I have received a lot of pushback from others concerning my work, usually in response to those elements that are not seen as part of the American or Western tradition of literature. I’ve often told the story of how in the first weeks in my MFA we were told that we would be writing sonnets, which I adamantly refused to do. I pretty much took the position that I won’t write a(nother) sonnet in this lifetime. I explained to the class that the sonnet, for me, was a tool of cultural colonialism, and that I was too old to willingly succumb to being force-fed imperialistic notions of genius being white and Eurocentric. I made a counter offer: every time a sonnet was assigned in class I would instead write a décima, which is a formal tradition from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. I also invited my colleagues to write them with me, which no one did. And, for the most part, when I presented my décimas in workshops there was almost no feedback given.

Moreover, the references and historical moments in the work (I also use words from the Taino language in addition to Spanish), it seemed, were often ones that most people in the room were not familiar with, and so there was a lot of questioning there, not only of identifying the references but of their relevance and validity. I was even asked why I felt the need to “alienate” my readers by using them. In “Rumsong” for example, there were grumblings that I was being judgmental of those who like to party. Whereas, for me, that poem is about power’s manipulation of symbols, the way in which Captain Morgan, who was a “terrorist” in his time, is now being propped up on labels and banners to advertise the drinking of rum and the debauchery that the spring break crowd associates with it. (Captain Morgan rum has long been a proud sponsor of spring break events everywhere. In fact, the poem was inspired by huge Captain Morgan banners that were lingering at a venue on South Padre. It was a few weeks after spring break and they hadn’t gotten around to taking them down.) I’ve never shied away from a party, so I don’t see the judgment being aimed at those who like to drink and dance, unless I’m also aiming that judgment at myself.

I also feel that the spoken word and hip-hop influenced parts of my work have been misunderstood at times, or at least some have made it clear that that particular aspect of my work is undesirable to them, which I’m confident is an issue of class and of race. Certain factions of the literary world have long been trying to discredit these genres for some time. They see themselves as gatekeepers to what is “good art,” and they have used their own race and class biases to attempt to keep these forms on the bottom shelf. Too often I’ve had to hear some academic or lit snob claim that spoken word and hip-hop are not even “art,” even though the level of sophistication and craft in hip-hop and spoken word often exceeds that of some of the traditionally accepted (read: academic, white) poetry.

They will find, though, that is a losing battle, because people love hip-hop and spoken word. All over the world. Hip-hop and spoken word are here to stay.

Rumpus: It sounds like you might have felt somewhat isolated, at least in that first semester of your MFA. How was the rest of the experience for you? Were there other conflicts? Did you find good readers of your work there?

Toro: I think I was going to feel isolated no matter what. For one, I was more than a decade older than most of my cohorts. I was in a different stage of my life than they were. But admittedly, I also tend to make myself feel isolated. I’ve never been one to just gel with a group. It’s a strange paradox: I’m very extroverted, but also extremely protective and private.

Moreover, speaking directly to the MFA, I wasn’t going there to figure out how to write or what kind of writer I wanted to be. I was attending because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my work and writing the book had been stalled because my job running a theater had been taking up every minute of my time. The MFA was, above all things, just two years to create space to write and finish the book. For my younger colleagues, they were looking for an entry into the literary world and to negotiate what it means to be a writer and how to write and what they wanted to write about. My professors, some of whom were wonderful in helping to mentor me, were around my age or just a few years older, so my relationship to them was going to be different.

My thesis advisor, Rigoberto González, was certainly the best reader of my work, not only because he’s just a brilliant writer and scholar, but because he is a Latinx poet, so he could see what I was trying to do with my work without my having to explain every little thing. He could see my vision and help me sharpen it; he knew what legacies I was drawing from. I also had peers who were “allies” for my work, though they themselves admitted they often needed more time with it or didn’t always know what I was trying to do. But a reader who can admit that, rather than impose their tastes and their cultural breeding onto your text, is going to be valuable. I always appreciated when they said, “I don’t have a point of reference for what you’re doing here, but this is what I do see, and I’d like to know more.” Because I am of the opinion that the clearest value of the workshop environment is to have readers tell you (without judgment or bias) what they are seeing when they read your work. I value those peers who did just that, and still do; they are my poetry [email protected] I’m talking to you, Michael Van Calbergh and Marina Carreira.

Rumpus: What would your advice for a young writer, in an MFA program, perhaps, who wants to challenge the academic, white version of poetry?

Toro: Just do it. Challenge it. Question whiteness in poetry when you see it. Be brave. It needs to be done. And you are going to get push back, hostility even. They will try to make you doubt yourself and your work. They’ll try to position it as an issue of “quality.” But don’t allow yourself to be colonized by it. Do not doubt the value. Equip yourself with the knowledge to defend yourself by reading everything and then forcing them to see all the movements and legacies outside the tunnel of American literature. Use it to show them their blindness.

Here’s an example of strategy I used during my MFA in workshops: One practice in a workshop when giving feedback is to liken someone’s poem to a known published author as a way drawing a connection or positioning the poem in the reader’s larger context. When this happens in a workshop the references are almost always white and Eurocentric: Dickinson, Merrill, Plath, Whitman. Whenever I felt the need to make such a reference I made sure that my reference was always a writer of color, often one not from the US. So I’d say something like, “Your use of the colloquial here is reminiscent of Olga Nolla,” or “I can hear Leopold Senghor in the cadence of this poem.” It really puts them off balance, forcing them into a position of having to do work to meet you in that territory, as opposed to you always having to meet them on theirs. And it reminds them (and they need to be reminded) that all things do not begin and end with (American) whiteness.

I, of course, read white poets (though I prefer the ones who do not exude white privilege), but for two years in MFA pretty much every book and author I mentioned inside and outside of class was a non-white writer. This was deliberate. I was taking a stance that was forcing everyone in these spaces to acknowledge and consider the work of writers of color as equals. Or at least it was making sure that a complete totalitarianism of taste was not occurring. Not on my watch.

Rumpus: You’ve spoken about influences like Huidobro and Parra, more traditional poets. Are there spoken word and hip-hop artists you look to for guidance when you’re working on a project?

Toro: Is Huidobro traditional? I imagine he scares more people than he woos. Or maybe I like to see him that way because I dig him so much. I wonder about Parra, too. His work seems too subversive to be traditional.

But I think I know what you’re getting at. There really weren’t books in my home. Or not at least “literary” books. So the first poets I admired were MCs. I’ll start with my hip-hop Neruda: Chuck D. At fifteen, Chuck D’s lyrics were gospel to me. They still are. I am in awe of his ability to fuse history and politics with meter, alliteration, metaphor, and internal rhyme to reframe the narrative of black people in the US, and to undermine the power structure of white supremacy. In “Shut ‘Em Down,” Chuck rhymes:

I like Nike, but wait a minute/The neighborhood
supports so put some money in it./Corporations owe/
They got to give up the dough/ to the town/
or else we got to shut ‘em down!

Hearing that as a teenager was mind blowing. It’s so direct (but also so cool-sounding). He’s not masking anything here. He’s going straight for Nike and other corporations that get rich off the poor and never put any of the money back into the communities they exploit. The exploiting is not only in using marketing to fuse the product to their identities and then overcharging poor folks for the product, but those same communities are also their wage slave labor. Chuck is instructing his listeners to boycott any corporation that wants to exploit you. This lyric is twenty-five years old and it’s probably more important today than it was back in 1991. I’ll give you only one more, because I can do this all day. You’ve touched on my sweet spot. I was also schooled by Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. This is from “Bulls on Parade”:

What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive and moving.
They don’t got to burn the books, they just remove them.
While arms warehouses fill as quickly as cells.
Rally around the family with a pocket full of shells.

Those lyrics are twenty years old and also more relevant now than ever before (read those lyrics again and then go check out some election rhetoric online). Before, I was talking about compression in poetry. This is what I was talking about. Zack is the master of compression. There’s five hundred years of history in these four lines. These lyricists were my first poetry teachers, as far as I’m concerned.

Rumpus: And which contemporary poets are you reading at the moment, while we’re at it?

Toro: I think we are living in what may someday prove to be one of the great poetry booms in American history. There are just so many writers doing such exciting and important work. Here’s a short list of what I’ve been reading recently that blazes my synapses (knowing I’m missing countless great poets here): Jesus Castillo. Susan Briante. Fred Moten. Solmaz Sharif. Raquel Salas Rivera. Tarfia Faizullah. Ishion Hutchinson. Philip B. Williams. Layli Long Soldier. Rafael Acevedo. Rosebud Ben-Oni. Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Denice Frohman. I’m really looking forward to Kaveh Akbar’s book. His work has been just Boom For Real so far. This list is too long, right? Or maybe too short?

Rumpus: It’s a tough question! No, this is great.

I especially love the first section of your book, MOSAIC: ZEMÍS. You define zemís as divine objects in the Taino culture: keys to the spirit world or memorials to those who have died or to major events. Why is this the title of the first section? What were your intentions in placing this section first?

Toro: Thank you. Yes, so this is kind of a trick question for me, as MOSAIC: ZEMÍS is actually the last section(s) of the book. The idea is that the beginning of the book (if there is a “beginning”) is in the middle. From there, the text unfolds in two directions so that the end is bisected, appearing both at the beginning and at the end but in different forms and with different outcomes. I wanted the book to unfold like time, or rather like the Caribbean notion of time as detailed by Antonio Benitez Rojo in his book The Repeating Island, which is to say, like waves, rolling in to shore and then back out again. For the Caribeño, time is not unidirectional.

With that in mind, MOSAIC: ZEMÍS is the last (first) section of the book because the zemí is the gate to the spirit world, the bridge between the material and the immaterial. They are the physical embodiment of the spiritual history of the tribe. The poems in these sections are where things end and begin again, they are portals to knowledge. As such, the figures I write about in these sections are my own personal bridges to the mythical or the divine. They are my master teachers, and those that I love. And don’t all things begin with and return to those who have taught us and given of themselves to us?

Rumpus: So, what goes into making a poem for you, and how do you go about writing? Do you find writing enjoyable?

Toro: One of the biggest challenges teachers of creative writing face is that there is no one way to go about creating a poem. It really is such a personal process. There is no one formula one can teach to write a great poem. Every poet I talk to has a different process than I do, so I’ll just try to map out how I go about creating a poem.

To begin with, I never make the decision “to write a poem today.” The poem is really just the last step in my learning process. As Borges said, all writers are readers first. I do a great deal of reading. In fact, my students always gasp when I tell them how much I read (because they don’t want to read), which at peak is about a book per week. Plus I am constantly reading (lit and non-lit) journals and magazines, the newspaper (print and online), and individual poems that come my way, as well as reading work for my students and peers. As I am reading, tiny seeds start get sprinkled in mind, and my heart, that over time—sometimes months, sometimes years—start growing until I can tangibly see a poem, or a play (which I also write), stewing in my head.

When this happens, I will set to the task of writing by first reaching back to what I’ve read that first got me interested in writing that particular piece. And I’ll take notes, jot down words or terms that strike me, free write lines or passages. In the initial stage it really is a nonlinear mess for me. I joke with students that if a stranger ever found one of my notebooks they would think they found the incoherent ravings of a lunatic. So the next step is more like collage work than anything for me. I start to move around the pieces to see what fits, what needs to go, what needs to be expanded. I think I get obsessed with the final poem looking as polished and unified as possible so I can hide the messiness (read: craziness) of my process. Once I have crafted the poem into a single body, I then revise it somewhere between five to fifty times. Poems such as “Caribbean Sea Crab Canon” and “Sugar Island Fugue” were constructed this way.

That is one way I come to create a poem. The other way is somewhat easier to explain, though it is more mysterious. Often, I just “hear” a poem. I am very much music obsessed, and my hearing is acute. So a line of poetry that has a particular sound might come to me, or a rhythm invades me and I have to work quickly to set to words so I can remember the rhythm. From there what happens is similar to jazz improvisation. I follow my ear to hear the poem. In these poems anaphora is often my anchor. The anaphora becomes the musical head I return to. Here, sound and image tend to take precedence over meaning. I used this method for “Operation Commonwealth” and “Threnody for Jean-Michel Basquiat,” for example.

These poems may be looser in theme and narrative, but they tend to be the ones I have more fun performing at readings. It seems to me that these poems where the meaning is not as clarified, these poems that are less structured around narrative, they often have a deeper emotional weight for reasons that seems a bit mysterious to me. When everything falls into place, when the architecture and meaning can find a way to unify—those poems are the ones that can sweep me up when I am using my body to project them. On the rare occasion I can find that kind of harmony… those readings are really fun for me.

So yes, writing is enjoyable for me. My ancestors worked themselves blind cutting cane and callused themselves in factories. It’s hard not to see writing as a privilege and joy in light of that history.

Rumpus: As we wrap up here, I wonder, what are you working on now? What’s next?

Toro: Ooh, the scary question. Right now I’m back to the early part of my process. I’m just reading a lot, and scribbling and gathering raw materials, experimenting with the fragments to see what takes shape. I don’t have a clear vision yet. I can say I’m still meditating on issues of identity (both personal and collective, and their relation), but instead of examining what does it mean to be Puerto Rican or Caribbean I am wondering about how the meaning of what it means to be a person in the 21st century is changing as we synthesize our personalities with our machines and devices. I’m reading a lot of tech theory stuff right now: Kevin Kelly, Jaron Lanier, Ellen Ullman. Lots of Sherry Turkle. I’m a bit Sherry Turkle crazed right now. I’m sure my students are tired of hearing about her work.

I’m also (at a snail’s pace) working on a new play, but in the theater world we’re told to NEVER talk about what we’re working on. Let’s just say I hope to have complete first drafts of both projects in the next year. Fingers crossed.

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Author photograph © David Flores.


Maria Anderson is from Montana. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Big Lucks, and The Atlas Review. She is an editor at Essay Press. More from this author →