If You Don’t Know, Now You Know: Talking with Joseph Rios

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Joseph Rios’s debut collection, Shadowboxing: poems and impersonations, published last year by Omnidawn, is a middle finger to the institution in both form and content. This isn’t to say that Rios isn’t well-versed in tradition, as Rios steps into the ring exchanging blow after blow with poetic tradition. Rebellion bobs and weaves on each page. Rios throws combinations of playwriting, lyric, narrative, and experimental techniques that often have a Romantic ring to them.

What makes this collection a knockout is its investigation of the self through Josefo, a laid-back farm boy turned scholar whose concept of love, language, narrative, truth, family, academia, psyche, and music start and facilitate Rios’s objective to destabilize American notions of tradition. There is a pride in this collection that reinvigorates the Latinx/Chicanx community to find strength in their history, to love that history, to not be erased. Rios asks: What is poetry that doesn’t save nations and people?

The California native was a recent winner of the Before Columbus American Book Award, a VONA alum, a Macondo fellow, and was named a 2017 Notable Poet by Poets and Writers Magazine.

For the interview Joseph and I chose a bar in West Adams called The Living Room, a place filled with people who looked like aunts, uncles, and older cousins—the same people who make the world within Shadowboxing raw and honest. I had never been there before, but the name alone made me feel welcomed, made me feel like as soon as I walked through the front door shit was going to get real, and it did. Rios and I talked about who he’s trying to impress, digging in the crates for inspiration, and speaking for the often silenced.

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The Rumpus: In your debut collection Shadowboxing: poems & impersonations, your prologue did something that many prologues fail to do and that was establish a true connection with the work that follows it. It wasn’t simply something you grazed over or skipped. It was profound, gut-wrenching, and raw. I read your prologue several times before I started the rest of the collection.

I found myself interpreting the prologue as a series of voices that represented this constant tug of war with the self. The bracketed text had a different tone than the parenthetical text. A brutally honest conversation between the three different texts was at play. Three different voices that I assumed all belonged to the main speaker in this work, Josefo. The three voices sometimes cleaved and other times divorced from one another based on their understanding or lack of understanding of language, politics, institutions, family, and defining oneself.

Joseph Rios: I wrote the prologue at a very important transitional time in my life. I had been at Berkeley for two years and been front and center for the Occupy movement. I was coming into social/political consciousness in a way I hadn’t before. I had experienced adversity plenty throughout my life, but that place gave me a language and understanding of the systems that make our oppression so, you know what I mean? Getting hands put on us by campus cops was almost a weekly occurrence between 2010–11. Me and my roommate would go to Occupy every day. All that was real. I can remember being on Telegraph in downtown Oakland in front of a hundred riot cops while they’re launching flashbangs and smoke bombs. I remember being in front of Sproul Hall linked up with people while they’re hitting us with batons. All very real.

But I always felt like some country bumpkin at Berkeley in those English classes. The first weeks, I would go sit in the bathroom, on the toilet, in between classes. That’s how afraid I was. I would go to the bathroom in the multicultural center and sit there in the stall and wait for my next class. I even printed out a copy of my acceptance letter, just in case it came down to that. So, I had all this energy. I had all that energy from this newfound academic knowledge, being in white spaces, being from farmland central valley, being a young man trying to understand what that means, and all that getting churned up by this righteous anger found its way to the page. The only way I could describe it all was by putting everything in all these different voices.

Rumpus: So, when we have the poem “If You Don’t Know” where it is exclusively the bracketed voice and the parenthetical voice and they are having a face off, is this an example of the voices overpowering the subject? Is this a moment when these voices are saying, “Hey, we can articulate this poem better than you. So, let us do that.”

Rios: Yeah, so I intended for the parenthetical voice to represent the Hood Authority/non-academic voice. I see him as like an uncle. Or someone who knows better than me, at least in his mind. The brackets are always the academic trying to give credence to what’s happening. The basic text is Josefo, mostly.

Rumpus: On the page, that’s a true success. And as an emerging writer I was really excited about the execution and separation of subject and poet. But I’m curious about how Joseph Rios, the poet, navigates in the “real world.” When you’re in a literary space and the only writer of color surrounded by all these people who are trying to give you credence or by the academic voices, how do you navigate that space? How do you know that Joseph Rios is present and that your work is what you want it to be?

Rios: When the book first came out, I went to New York. I had three or four readings lined up. A couple of them were painfully white. No shit, every non-white person in the audience was someone I had personally invited. And at the same time, I was the only person of color set to read. It’s awkward, for real. I can’t even skirt around it. It can be uncomfortable as all hell. And some of these rooms are full of the most well-meaning-est white people, too. It sucks. In those spaces, they’re always really quiet and they just stare at you when you read. There might be like forty or fifty people in the audience and they don’t clap, laugh, hum, whistle, or nothing. I sometimes prefer spaces where people aren’t interested in poetry, so you have to win them over. The rowdy kind, the ones who would much rather watch the game or shoot the shit with their friends.

I got an example. I was invited to Chicago to read some years back and my mom and grandfather came with me. The reading was at the theater at the state college. During the reading, there were two or three custodians there talking hella shit. It was just a work day for them, understand. These dudes stood behind my family the entire time (my grandfather had to park his wheelchair a few sections up and all). Later that night my mom told me the custodians talked through everyone, but when I was up there they were laughing so hard. They were finishing the movie lines before I could. This was three years before I would publish the book. But that moment right there, it did something. It was like, that’s it. You know? The things that may be inaccessible to the literary world were obvious for these three guys. After my mom told me that, it was like, yes, that’s all of it.

Rumpus: So, when you write, who are you trying to impress? Do you have an ideal audience?

Rios: Well, yeah. My audience is my cousins, which I say in the prologue. But particularly, the most pivotal person is Javier Huerta who was a grad student in English when I got to Cal. He’s from Houston and also a poet. He was my mentor. We’d do a lot of dumb shit together, but we also talked poetry. Javier is the perfect marriage of pop culture and academic brilliance. I was writing to him most of the time. I could hit him on the academic shit, and he’d get it. I’d hit him on some professional wrestling reference, and he’d get it. I could drop literally any Biggie line, and he’d know it.

Rumpus: Speaking of Biggie, music was so important in this collection. From Glady Knight to Bootsy Collins to Biggie to a Tribe Called Quest. Basically, many of the musicians who have shaped my idea of poetry were in this book. So, naturally I was blown away by the poems that took music into their arms and cradled the lyrics. What’s your relationship to music as it relates to your poetry and your process?

Rios: I feel like poets have a strong kinship with the producer and the DJ. I’m thinking of someone like Q-tip or 9th Wonder. I am a student of the crate dive. It’s magic: digging through crates to find a snare, to find one hook, to find any small bit of music in order to make a beat. Hip-hop has given us that model of digging in the unknown and the discarded to find treasure and re-remember tradition, you know? It’s simultaneously new and honoring tradition. You’re putting this new artist in line with some resurrected artist from the past. I love that shit. My mom was a huge Tower of Power fan and is still in love with Lenny Williams. When I was at home, I listened to her music collection. She had stuff like the Isley Brothers, Santana, Heatwave, The Dramatics, and The Spinners. Or Switch! The first CD I ever bought with my own money was The Very Best of Switch.

Rumpus: I love what you said about hip-hop and production being like scavenging through a barrel of vinyl to find all the right pieces. This reminds me of your collection. You use bits and pieces of literature. You’re basically sampling literature. Take me through your crate search.

Rios: I never talk about Javier this much, but he created this hideaway for me. He and I would talk shit about books and what we liked and didn’t like about books. How we didn’t fit into it. I feel like under his umbrella, I was able to write the book I wanted to write and needed to write without any demands or expectations. Honestly, the process was about writing to him and people like him who were tired of hearing the bullshit. Sometimes you read poets’ work and you know exactly who they read. You know who taught them and who they want to be like. It gets old sometimes.

I am a follower of Jose Montoya. He said shit like, “On our own terms, ese” and meant it. From him is where I begin. Gertrude Stein has this line, “A rose is a rose is a rose” after Shakespeare. You know it. I don’t gotta explain it. They teach classes on what her work meant to poetry. Jose Montoya, however, wrote this line after hers, “Arroz is Arroz is Arroz.” And I feel like that’s where I enter. To me, Jose is saying, “I read all your literature, but I’m going to do something different.” There is a simultaneous nod and a middle finger to the Western canon. Our foremothers and fathers did so much work to create this huge terrain for us to fuck with. Creatively, I mean. Our people have been writing poems and stories forever. So, for me, when Jose Montoya says, “Arroz is Arroz is Arroz,” that’s me. I read Gertrude Stein. I read Shakespeare, but I’m also this other shit. It’s like, why reinvent the wheel? People have already been in your position two, three generations deep doing this work. I count myself in the tradition, and that’s not a bad thing. That’s actually everything. Tradition is the only reason I’m here. I’m them. And they’re me. If you tell me to be something else, then that’s where I bail.

Rumpus: The conversation around tradition and writers of color poetry has often included the words catharsis, confessional, or too narrative and plain to be labeled poetry. How are you able to successfully write your work without the weight of those labels ridiculing your process and determination to stay true to the page and to tradition?

Rios: In a unique way, I’m a Fresno poet. Everyone from Fresno writes narrative poetry or writes stories through poetry. Gary Soto, Phil Levine, Andres Montoya. The list is long, you know? The first writings committed to paper were poems. Those poems were stories. Like The Iliad is poetry and story. A history. It is our birthright as poets to tell stories. This all makes me think of my grandmother and how she was the storyteller in our family. I inherited her stories from having to listen to them so many times. But also, I inherited the responsibility to recount these stories. I never understood the real role of a poet or storyteller until I had to eulogize a deceased relative. In a very tribal sense, the poet’s duty, to hold story and speak for the dead, is a necessity. Every group of people must have a holder of history and tradition to pass that down to the next generation. And when my grandma passed, I was the one chosen to tell her story because that had become my role. I had the capacity to encapsulate our mourning. I feel like that moment, more than the book, has taught me that my purpose is to retell our stories in my poetry. It’s romanticized and cliché to think of literature as something that immortalizes people, but it’s very real. It is our jobs as poets to speak for the people who cannot speak. We are the ones who make their stories immortal.

Rumpus: Shadowboxing speaks to and for the illegal immigrant, the field hands, the mechanics, the people who cannot speak because they are targets in our country and all over the world which makes it such a timely read. Because of all the political unrest and injustices, did you feel even more motivated to speak for them?

Rios: My family is three generations farm worker, so timeliness is not new. My grandmother worked fifty seasons packing grapes. My mother worked in the grapes. I worked in the grapes. My grandfather worked in the grapes. The burden of that labor has not changed with administrations. That’s what we’ve always done. For a hundred years, we’ve worked in the fields. So, it’s not like I was consciously writing a collection that anticipated the bully of Trump. I was simply writing the story we have always known. We’re brown. We’re migrants. We’re farmworkers. We’re gardeners. We labor. We’re working class. This is us. And it has always been us and our story has always been relevant. Sometimes this group looks different depending on where you are. Sometimes it’s Latinx. Sometimes it’s Black. Sometimes it’s poor white people. Writing about this experience is already timeless in the worst way because the struggle has always been the case.


Brittany Ambree Williams aka B.A. Williams is a queer writer and performer from East Long Beach, CA. She is currently working on a novel-length manuscript and a poetry collection. Her poetry and prose focus on all things "other" with a heavy emphasis on Blackness, motherhood, and queerness. More from this author →