Featured Poet: Willy Palomo

Interview by-Natalie Solmer

Willy Palomo is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Indiana University, where he also earned an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. His debut collection of poetry, WAKE THE OTHERS, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in March 2020, and I predict we will all be hearing much more from this dynamic poet, advocate and educator. I was so pleased that he agreed to talk to Indianapolis Review and answer all of my questions with depth and thoughtfulness. He also contributed three poems to this issue, which begin on the next page.

NS: I really enjoyed listening to your interview on Willamette Wake Up where you talked about many things, including a wonderful poem you wrote, “Where We See Mama’s Back,” in which you describe your mother’s journey in crossing into the U.S. as a refugee from the U.S. backed Civil War in El Salvador. At the end of the poem, you ask the reader to imagine themselves in the place of the mother and sort of carry that burden. I thought that was one of the most interesting parts of the poem, but you mentioned that several editors said they would only publish that poem if you changed the ending. I wondered if that poem has since been accepted (and if we could possibly publish it), and if you had any thoughts on the difficulty in getting poems published that deal with race and immigration but don’t necessarily tell the narrative that White America wants to hear. It feels like sometimes there are only certain types of poems that the poetry world wants to hear from poets of color.

WP: What’s interesting is that all who have expressed dissatisfaction with the ending to me directly are people of color. One mentor even suggested I only wrote the ending because I believed I was imposing my own insecurity onto the reader. What fascinates me about the ending is that it asks so little of the reader: just imagine yourself as this woman fleeing warfare to cross the border for a few seconds; yet there’s something oddly confrontational about asking for a handful of empathy. I like the ending because of how it shifts depending on the audience. I’ve had white readers tell me they felt a lot of white guilt reading the ending. Performing the ending for the children of Latin American immigrants gives it a completely different flavor.

“Where we see Mama’s back” has been published by Revista Antagónica, a Costa Rican literary magazine that publishes almost entirely in Spanish. I’m literally the only English writer I’m aware of in the mag. I’m not entirely sure how they got their hands on the poem, but I suspect my colleagues in El Salvador sent them my poems at some point and they decided to publish them. I’m glad they appreciated my work enough to publish it. I’m not too caught up in the fact I was out of the loop. I’d be happy to let this poem and others be (re)published in Indianapolis Review.  

But to answer your question about the difficulty of publishing poems that challenge White America’s perspectives, I guess it depends where you are trying to publish. Yes, racial, sexual, and gender diverse writers, among other minoritized identities, are still marginalized in mainstream publications. We live in an age, however, where there has been a proliferation of platforms for all kinds of voices. Over time, I have built myself a digital writer community dominated by queer & POC voices, who publish in a wide range of styles in all sorts of zines. If you cannot find a platform to support your work, the best thing you can do is start your own and find your people.  

NS: You have a very accomplished background in slam poetry, performing nationally and internationally at National Poetry Slam, CUPSI, and V Festival Internacional de Poesia Amada Libertad in El Salvador. I feel there are still misperceptions about slam in the academic and publishing side of poetry, and I wondered if you experienced any of that in going from doing slams to publishing on the page. Do you feel that there are adjustments that must be made when your piece goes from being read out loud, to being read on the page?

WP: For the record, I have eight years of experience performing poetry, but I’m hardly “very accomplished.” I’ve never competed in IWPS, only have one video on Button, and I have yet to place in a regional or national slam competition, nor am I very interested in doing so. I like slam for the sorts of community and creativity it sometimes encourages. Slam made writers like Danez Smith possible, even if they are much bigger than the platform slam provides.

The question and problem you posed used to plague me during my undergraduate studies, but I mostly considerate myself past these concerns now. As a youth poet, I was insecure about the way my spoken word would be received in academia. I had a pretty toxic set of poetry mentors coming up with the exception of maybe Jesse Parent, one of the slam veterans of SLC. Most of my challenges came from the fact my white mentors could not, despite their expertise, help me understand who I wanted and needed to become. I was a young Salvi without an understanding of my cultural heritage, my queerness, without an understanding of how growing up in a predominantly white Mormon society warped my views on gender, sexuality, and race. They didn’t understand POC spoken word traditions and used to shame me for drawing from hip-hop and Nuyorican traditions. The biggest challenge was learning how to negotiate the relationship between the stage and the page. Because I didn’t understand enjambments or form quite yet, some of my mentors would treat my spoken word techniques as an impediment, rather than a strength, rather than teaching me how to translate my sonics-driven poetry to the page. Of course, the stage and page are different, but when I was young, I would push back and claim they should be the same. I think I did that because I feared that if the stage and page were different than my mentors’ criticisms of spoken word poetry were valid; I definitely did that because many poets who have a disdain for spoken word also have no sense for sound and rhythm themselves.

But of course, there are opportunities on stage that don’t exist on the page and opportunities on the page that don’t exist on the stage. I think it all changed for me when I started thinking of so-called page poetry as visual art. I strive to make form match content match performance. I think the best poetry is a marriage of the three. I think there’s some jaw-dropping poems that can’t be translated from the stage to page and vice versa. 

NS: I’m really excited for your debut book, Wake The Others, which will be published by Black Lawrence Press in March 2020! You have talked about it as a collection of the stories of your El Salvadorean family, and you have also spoken about how you avoided writing about your family history for a really long time because you didn’t know many details about it. I was really fascinated to hear how a couple of your mentors in undergrad pushed you explore your family history, which of course helps you to understand yourself on a deep and fundamental level. I admire your persistence in getting your parents and extended family to reveal these histories, which is not easy for them, understandably due to trauma. As a kid, I was told to never ask my grandparents certain questions about their pasts (they were immigrants from Eastern Europe), and to this day, I really regret it, as they have all passed away. I was wondering if your mother and family members have read the manuscript and what are their thoughts on it? How do you handle the responsibility of representing their stories in such a graceful way?

WP: A lot of heritage speakers of English struggle with poetry. On top of the challenges of the genre in general, my parents are only semi-literate in English and Spanish. So, no, my parents and tias and tios have not yet read my manuscript. That said, I have had conversations with my mom about every poem in the manuscript and tried to convey what I was trying to do. She had interesting feedback here and there—details to include, what to omit. I had the blessing of taking my mother with me to El Salvador in the summer of 2018, and she was there for the V Festival Internacional de Poesía Amada Libertad. For the Festival, I read to Spanish-speaking audiences and was forced to translate three of my poems. Until then, I hadn’t translated my poems in fear that they would suck. But the only thing shittier than poorly translated poems is poems in a language the audience can’t even understand. I started translating my poems thanks to the encouragement of Alberto Serrano Lopez, Jorge Lopez, Josués Andrés Moz, and especially Claudia Flores. I feel immensely blessed that the first time my mother heard my poetry about her it was in her native tongue in her homeland. She wept as I read “Witness” and “Where we see Mama’s back.” I am currently translating Wake the Others into Spanish with the help of Moz and hope I can read it to my mom when I’m done.  

NS: I don’t know if you listen to the Vs. Podcast, but I was just listening to the most recent episode with Paul Tran, and they talked a lot about trying to understand their history through their mother’s stories (which reminded me of your project) and also how their mother’s stories often change in the way that she tells them. Tran also talked about intergenerational trauma, which is something you mentioned in The Writing Bull podcast. I wonder if you think it is possible to heal intergenerational trauma or at least begin to understand it by examining the past through an artform like poetry? 

WP: I LOOOOOOVE Paul Tran and LOOOOVE the Vs. Podcast. My mother’s stories change depending on context too. I feel like this is natural. There are details she sometimes emphasizes, details she sometimes omits. Her experiences were overwhelming and memories are hardly reliable, but the core truth of her experiences has always remained the same.

Poetry is literally just talking carefully. I believe it is probably impossible to heal intergenerational trauma without talking about it at all. Many of the best poets I know write to break the silences that harm us. Many of the children of Salvadoran refugees grew up in households with lots of silence about the war and our culture and in educational communities that erase our histories. There’s a poem, “Where We Find Mama’s Tongue,” where I talk about an experience I had the first time I went to El Salvador at age eighteen. As we were getting ready to go to sleep, I asked my mom why she never told me about El Salvador. She didn’t even answer me. A year later, I reminded her about the question I asked and she said, she couldn’t respond because she felt a huge knot in her throat and tears welled up in her eyes. My tia Morena asked me, how could you expect your mom to translate this entire country and everything we experienced to you? A lot of my book came from my personal need to understand El Salvador and what my family underwent. It has been immensely healing for me in some ways to bear witness to my mother’s stories and preserve them. I don’t know if intergenerational healing is completely possible through poetry—the idea sounds too romantic to me—but the poems I have seen come closest to what feels like healing are Janel Pineda’s “In Another Life” and Yesika Salgado’s “Hermosa.” 

NS: Speaking of the power to change things, I am so impressed with your work serving undocumented people, which has already affected real change in Indiana. You have said that “spitting poems and leading protests are the same skills for me” and that if you write about activism, you should ‘walk the walk’ if you ‘talk the talk’. I wanted to know if you think that while we know activism is one of the only ways to affect real change, do you feel that poetry has any power to do so? And do you think that all poets have a responsibility to be engaged with the world in a political way? What do you think of the notion of the “personal as political?”

WP: I think everyone has the responsibility to minimize harm and maximize the health of all life with which we share this planet; this will inevitably involve politics for most people. I believe poetry can save lives, because I’ve witnessed it do so too many times. I believe poetry can create change, because I’ve literally sat in activist group meetings and asked people why they showed up and they referenced the poetry of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Natalie Scenters Zapico, Christopher Soto, and others. Who was it that said art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed? It’ll take a lot more than poetry to save us from our contemporary political crises, but without it, a number of wonderful people I know would no longer be with us.

The personal is political because QPOCs’ lives have been politicized to the point that nothing seems to belong to us anymore. Who I fuck is personal. Whether I feel more comfortable in a dress or in a tie is personal. My choice to love my undocumented friends, partners, and family is personal. My family’s experiences of war and migration are deeply personal. But each of these things is also politicized by people trying to do my communities harm; I doubt my communities would politicize these aspects of their experience if they did not have to. Right now, I’m at a point where carving out space for what is sacred to me and only me and my kin is my primary concern. Everything can be political and I am trying to be conscious about politicizing my stories only when it seems necessary to comfort and/or defend my community, to change the minds of potential allies. In my opinion, politicizing the personal becomes necessary far too often. I rather live in a world where what’s personal to me can stay that way.

NS: You have said that the slam community, as well as researching and reading Salvadorean literature helped you to find the courage to initiate your activism and get out into the streets. Can you share with us the literature that inspires you to write and to fight?

WP: sad girl poems by Christopher Soto and also their Best American Poetry Essays. The work of the 2013 Albuquerque NPS Team, specifically Matthew Brown, Mercedez Holtry, and Eva Crespin. The work of Jozer Guererro from Slam Nuba. The poetry of Roque Dalton and La Generacion Comprometida. 2013-2017 CUPSI tournament poets, especially Nikolas Martell, Ollie Renee Schminky, and Face Hammond. Everything by Martin Espada. “Black Art” by Amiri Baraka. “Blk Girl Art” by Jamila Woods. “Nikki-Rosa” by Nikki Giovanni. Everything by the Dark Noise Collective. The Third World mixtape by Immortal Technique. Sailorfag and Kevin Fret (RIP). SEAN THOMAS DOUGHERTY!!! Elena Salamanca is flame. Also, the work of my younger peers has especially inspired me the past year. Please check out the work of Ruben Reyes, Jr., Janel Pineda, and Alejandro Córdova.

NS: You’ve also said that you are working on a novel which features a main character who is Salvadorean, Mormon and loves hip hop (and who is based on a young version of yourself)! How do you manage to work on several projects at once, and did you also have a clear idea that your forthcoming book of poetry was going to have this distinct theme? How does your writing process tend to work?

WP: I am not sure if my tendency to jump between projects is healthy. I literally have five different books I want to work on that I jump between intermittently. BJ Buckley once told me there was two ways to write a book: 1) to write and write and then after you get a sizeable amount of poems play with organizing them and see if a book emerges organically or 2) set out to write a book with certain themes. She said she noticed women seemed to maybe write books the first way and men seemed to maybe write books the second way. I def lean towards the second way. I tend to get absorbed in a given project for a period of days or weeks and work feverishly on it; then life takes over for a bit with its work and activist demands. I just follow my heart and mood. I return to things semi-frequently until they are done. This has made me a slower writer I think, but I tend to be like that as a person: exploring multiple genres and career paths at a time. Learning how to cut out the noise and focus has been one of the greatest skills I’ve learned. Another of the most important things I’ve learned is to listen to my body and my heart, instead of trying to mimic another writer’s process.

NS: I read in your bio that you cofounded “La Piscucha Magazine, a bilingual Salvadoran literature and culture magazine published online by Editorial Kalina”, but I could not find it online. I wondered if you could give our readers the website and further information about the magazine?

La Piscucha will hopefully be out by mid-to-late March. Everything is translated; we just need to design the webpage now. By the time this interview is published, you should be able to access it at www.lapiscuchamagazine.com. The magazine features articles, interviews, fiction, and poetry from prominent Salvadoran writers in the homeland and the diaspora. Everything is available in English and Spanish. We hope this magazine will provide a space for Salvadorans to rebuild communities torn apart by war, migration, and deportation. We hope it will amplify the marvelous work Salvadorans in the homeland and diaspora are creating.

Willy Palomo is the son of two immigrants from El Salvador. WAKE THE OTHERS, his debut collection of poetry, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in March 2020. In 2019, he co-founded La Piscucha Magazine, a bilingual Salvadoran literature and culture magazine published online by Editorial Kalina. In 2018, he graduated with an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and an MFA in Poetry from Indiana University. In 2017, he received the City of Bloomington Latino Leadership Award, the MLK Building Bridges Graduate Student Award, and the Latino Faculty & Staff Graduate Student Award for his work serving undocumented communities in Indiana.

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