I first heard Tatiana Figueroa Ramirez’s poetry at a reading in a small restaurant. After several older poets and authors read their work, a young woman approached the microphone and took a deep breath. What came out of her mouth stunned the audience, lulled into a quiet space after more traditional literary fare, and we all sat up immediately. Ramirez spoke with such authority, rhythmically telling her story with poem after poem, beats punctuated with hand gestures and closed eyes. I’d never experienced anything like it. Months later, I heard her read again. This time outside on a patio, her words spilling into the busy DC street behind us. Passersby stopped to listen. Children quieted and then clapped along, as if Ramirez was singing rather than reading.
Truly, Ramirez’s debut collection, Coconut Curls y Café con Leche, reads at times like a book of songs. Her poems have such a distinctive voice, such a driving purpose. Coconut Curls y Café con Leche powerfully explores family, culture, and the construct of beauty, mingling Spanish and English in an intertwined format.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the United States, Ramirez cites her experience growing up as an Afroboricua and desire to uplift the perspective of the marginalized as the driving inspiration for her work. She is an alumna of VONA workshop and her work has been published in The Acentos Review, Spillwords, and Public Pool, amongst others.
Tatiana was kind enough to talk with me recently about pushing beyond writing for a Eurocentric audience, the importance of language within a poem, spoken word poetry as an influence on poetry as a whole, and writing her identity into her poems.
The Rumpus: You weave in and out of Spanish and English in your poetry, and speak to that in the poem “Mi Gente.” How does your choice of language impact your poetry and vice versa?
Tatiana Figueroa Ramirez: Language is so vital for poetry. Each word matters, so it’s crucial that I’m choosing the best word for the message. When thinking between Spanish and English, it’s easy to flow between the two deciding which language is most appropriate. For me, authenticity is a huge part of my poetry. If I’m writing about my great-grandmother who only spoke a handful of words in English, it’s necessary for me to incorporate Spanish.
I have some poems that are entirely in Spanish because of the context and audience. For example, over the summer I wrote and shared a poem directed to the former governor of Puerto Rico in response to the protests in San Juan back in July. The original poem was completely in Spanish. I did translate it into mostly English to allow more accessibility for my audience in Washington, DC; however, as the poem “Mi Gente” says, some things cannot be translated. Again, I think whether I’m writing in Spanish or English, it really boils down to what is most appropriate in terms of voice and context.
Rumpus: In what other ways does the Eurocentric gaze impact your writing?
Ramirez: I think I deliberately ignore the Eurocentric gaze in most of my writing. I was once in a writing residency and my teacher asked me “who is your audience?” which entirely focused my perspective on who I should speak to in my poetry. I realized my goal is not to educate or preach to white people. My aspirations also don’t involve catering to the majority white population. There is enough work in this world that speaks to white people and celebrates the Eurocentric gaze. That’s not what my work is and that’s not what my mission is. I would much rather speak to a person of color and an underrepresented person who needs to see a reflection of themselves. If you connect to my writing and are able to get something positive out of what I’ve shared, then that’s great, but I realize my writing is not for everyone. I’m fortunate that a lot of creative spaces I find myself in are filled with people—no matter their race and background—willing to learn and willing to accept the rich diversity this world offers. They welcome my poetry and the work of other great artists who push beyond writing through a Eurocentric lens. I’m aware not everyone is this “woke” but I don’t see that as my problem. At the end of the day, my poetry isn’t for those people and I’m okay with that.
Rumpus: You write about Puerto Rico with such tenderness and reverence. Do you still have family there? Do you travel there often?
Ramirez: Absolutely! All of my grandparents live there. I have aunts, uncles, and cousins there. My nieces and nephews are there. I have family friends there. A big piece of my heart is still in Puerto Rico, which is why the island is such a huge focal point in my writing. That’s why Puerto Rico’s political, economic, and social issues are so important to me. That’s why Hurricane Maria is so present in my work. Most people are surprised that I only lived there for a little over a year, assuming that I just moved to the mainland a few years ago. I am Boricua to my core. I take pride in having been born there and I take ownership in my responsibility to educate myself on its history, culture, and current events. Part of this responsibility also means not leaving home behind, which is why I write so much about it and I go back home at least twice a year.
Rumpus: Your family turns up in poem after poem. What has been their response to your work? Is it ever hard to write about them?
Ramirez: For the most part, I’ve received very positive responses from my family. They feel seen and heard. They also have told me repeatedly that my poetry takes them back to those very moments I write about. It’s extremely rewarding for me, but it definitely is hard to write about them, mainly because I want to do it right. These are precious memories and moments that I’m choosing to retell in poetry, which can be interpreted differently, but I hope I’m doing so in a way that is still authentic. Thus far, it seems like that’s what my family feels as well.
Rumpus: I was introduced to your work via a spoken word performance. Where other poets read their pieces from books, you had nothing in front of you, almost storytelling through verse. How do you define the difference between poetry and spoken word?
Ramirez: I don’t see a real difference between poetry and spoken word. Spoken word is a form of poetry and a style of reciting poetry, but it’s still poetry nonetheless. This style has its roots in oral storytelling, so I’m not surprised that you describe it as “storytelling through verse,” which is probably why poet Elizabeth Acevedo was able to so eloquently—and seemingly effortlessly—write an entire YA novel, The Poet X, in verse. I think spoken word has an unfair reputation of being “lowbrow” poetry or it’s often associated with poets of color and urban regions, but I’ve seen and heard versions of spoken word or oral storytelling in so many different cultures and across different generations and so I think people need to recognize the influence of spoken word across all forms of poetry. Whenever a poet or a reader decides to share a poem out loud they are borrowing from spoken word, regardless of the quality of its execution. But yes, spoken word is just that. It’s poetry written with the intent of reciting it to a public or to another person.
Spoken word poetry allows for the poet to determine the beat of the poem. Also, in spoken word poetry, neither the poet nor the audience have the luxury of using written words and structure to help push the message of the poem along. Both the poet and the audience have to rely on the poet’s diction, tone, and body language, as well as the audience’s attention. I think this creates more of a connection and intimacy between the poet, audience, and poem that isn’t always accessible for poems that were not practiced to be read out loud. Spoken word poetry isn’t a straightforward reading from a paper. A spoken word poet may use a book, a piece of paper, or a phone, but there is, typically, a stronger link between what is being said and how it is being said.
When I write poetry, I don’t think to myself “this is going to be a poem for the stage” or “this is going to be a poem for the page.” When I write, the priority is the content. What is it that I’m trying to say? It just so happens that much of my poetic influences come from spoken word, oral storytelling, and music, so a lot of my work naturally includes a sense of musicality and an awareness to tone, making it more pleasing to hear to the audience. I acknowledge there are some poems that a reader may need to sit with, making it difficult to recite that poem in a way that will hit as hard as a spoken word poem, but I don’t think I’ve ever stopped myself from reading a poem because it wasn’t spoken word.
Rumpus: How does writing poetry begin for you? Do you write slowly, one poem at a time, with many rewrites? Do you pour words onto the paper and form them into verse later?
Ramirez: I like to think of my process as making soup or a stew or a broth. You can’t rush the process and you need to let things marinate. Very rarely does an idea come to my mind that compels me to immediately start writing. Even when those poems are born, they usually don’t make it out of my personal archives. Those are more of “I need to vent” poems. Most of my poems begin as a thought. An idea comes to my mind and I sit on that idea for a while, usually a few days but sometimes longer. I might make a note of it. I might do some research. Drives, showers, and late nights are great moments for me to let the poem brew in my head.
Once I feel enough time has passed and it’s ready for the page, I start writing. I prefer to get the first draft out in one sitting. Then I let it breathe a bit. A day later, I might go back and make some small revisions. This is when I focus on word choice, line breaks, structure, and all of the bells of a poem.
Rumpus: Going back to themes of family, so much of your poetry relates to motherhood. How did becoming a mother change your writing?
Ramirez: Actually, I’m not a mother—yet. But a lot of my poetry does circle back to motherhood. I have a very close relationship with my mom and I was very close to my great-grandma, who are two women you’ll see in a lot of my poems. I just have an immense amount of respect, admiration, and love for them. I know their stories and I recognize the challenges they went through as women. I acknowledge the sacrifices they made as women. I know they grew up in a different time, in a different culture, with different limitations, so I’m aware that without them allowing me the knowledge, freedom, and support that I grew up with, I would not be who I am today.
Rumpus: I had no idea you weren’t a mother! You write so beautifully, so viscerally about motherhood and children. How do you approach writing about experiences you haven’t lived yet?
Ramirez: Thank you! I hope I’ll continue to write that way about motherhood once I get the opportunity to experience it. I think the main thing to keep in mind when writing about experiences that aren’t your own is understanding your responsibility. You have to be mindful when telling someone else’s truth. This means taking the time to understand and listen to those who have lived those experiences. It also means opening yourself to what they possibly could be feeling or acknowledging that you can’t know what they’re feeling. There has to be some level of authenticity and an absolute respect when writing about those experiences. I think also in every experience I have not lived, but have written about, I’ve witnessed some part of the experience. For example, in dealing with motherhood, I am a daughter. I am very close to my mother and was very close to my great-grandmother, and I have witnessed and felt what motherhood can do to a person and for a family.
Rumpus: Some of your poems could be read as love letters to future daughters, then. Your poems are so hopeful, always reaching forward! What do you wish for, when you think of the world your children will live in?
Ramirez: I think I hope for the same things any person would want for their children. The short answer is a better world, but I guess “better” is relative, so to define that more I would say a world full of love, security, compassion, understanding, a willingness to learn, community, opportunity, true freedom, and growth. I don’t want my children to have to witness police brutality protests, equal pay protests, LGBTQ rights protests, immigration rights protests. I don’t want them to have to worry about neo-Nazis, sex trafficking, and gun violence. I don’t want them to feel like they need to adhere to standards set by society whether that means gender roles, Eurocentric beauty standards, or colorism. My partner and I plan on having children within the next few years, meaning our children will be multicultural and the children of an immigrant. I don’t want this to be an issue. I have trust in my partner and myself that as two poets with progressive thinking our home will be a safe space for our children—but I want the world to be a safe space for them, too.
Rumpus: Speaking of beauty standards, you use your hair as a symbol of so many things—power, cultural identity, your story.
Ramirez: My hair is such a big part of me in so many ways. If you see pictures of me when I was little, I still had the same big, curly hair. Always black and always curly. I see it as a connection to previous generations in my family who had the same dark, curly hair and also as a connection to my younger self. However, growing up in a household where the women had less curly hair than me and hair that was relaxed or flat-ironed on a regular basis, there was an added pressure to be ashamed of my curly hair. I vividly remember being told to “fix,” “straighten,” or “brush” my hair. I remember hearing that my hair didn’t look good and it was embarrassing. I’ve straightened my hair before, not because I necessarily wanted to, but because I felt like I had to, and I just never felt like myself after doing it.
Now, as I’m more sure in who I am, it’s important that I openly celebrate dark, big, curly hair because it is beautiful, even though Eurocentric beauty standards don’t say so. It’s important for others with similar hair to hear that they are beautiful even if they don’t have bone-straight hair. Part of our responsibility is to build up those around us, and the ones coming after us, by making sure they know their worth and beauty. My hair is political and I’m reminded of that each time it sparks a microaggression towards me, but, more importantly, it’s a part of me and so many others, and so it should be celebrated.
Photograph of Tatiana Figueroa Ramirez by Jacob Frederick.