Since not everybody got to read all the poems in The Wind Shifts, I thought I would take this blog as an opportunity to share a set of poem that I found really beautiful. My poet was Kevin A. Gonzalez. To give a brief biography, Gonzalez was born in San Juan, attended his undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, and got his MFA from the University of Wisconsin. He now is a professor at Trinity.
I found the way in which Gonzalez performed his narrative to be extremely unique because he rarely invokes the “I” pronoun. In the poem ‘Cultural Stakes; or How to Learn English as a Second Language,” “Cultural Stud” and “Cultural Silence; or How to Survive in the last American Colony” he speaks almost entirely in the second person, telling the reader that these things are happening to them, putting himself in a voyeuristic role as opposed to a performing role. At first, when I read this style, I was stricken by the immediacy that this form of narrative takes. These are not vague memories that have happened sometime in the distant past, but are happening—right here, right now, over and over again every time the poem is read. In our discussions in this class, we have been very hesitant to use terms of universality. I don’t think that by using the second person, Gonzalez tries to impose a universal experience of what it means to be Puerto Rican, especially because some of the examples he uses are so specific (the waitress’s names, what beer his father ordered, ect.) that they have to be in relation to a single experience. But by using the second person, he is able to tell his narrative in the present—moving it from the realms of distant memory to something far more tangible. I think it is an effective strategy.
Especially interesting to me about the poet, and why I chose to write a blog post on him, was the way in which he performed and shaped his masculinity in the poetry collection. The first time I read through the collection, to be honest, I did not really enjoy them. The version of masculinity they promoted—this clichéd bravado of boxing and beer and strippers—seemed inauthentic to me. However, reading deeper into the poems, it became clear that these events, and the poets participating in these events, was just that—a performance. A major theme through all the poems was the poet’s relationship with his father, and it was through these typically masculine things that the poet tried to connect wth and relate to his father. It’s not to say that the poet didn’t enjoy these activities, but that his motives for being a participant were far more complicated than I had initially gleamed. In understanding this version of performance as just that, the narrator’s inauthenticity becomes uniquely sincere (if that paradox makes any sense).
In the poem I’ve chosen to post, we see similar theme of masculinity in sport and another interesting way in which Gonzalez choses to perform his identity:
To Roberto Clemente
Like you, Roberto, I went from the town
of giants to the city of steel, where smoke
arcs over antennae & signals drown
in the Ohio, where the same broken
carburetors sleep still in cribs of mud
at the bottom. The people, still in love
with your arm, your bat-speed & speed, your broad
range at Forbes Field, your eternal gold glove.
Do you miss the bridges, their fortified shadows,
the three rivers exhaling their vapor?
There is something to be said for this: how
every morning I open the paper
to the weather forecast page & scan for
Pittsburgh, though we don’t live there anymore.
This was one of the few poems of Gonzalez’s that actually contains the first person, but still it seems to be spoken to and by someone else. It is not a narrative the predicates and revolves around the “I”, but one that is aware of itself in interpellation with its audience. He apostrophizes to both a baseball legend and the fans that loved him, seemingly aware of how the audience is shaping his identity in the poem.
In an interview, Gonzalez said of Clemente “he doesn’t only appeal to me as a sports fan, he appeals to me as a human being, as a model. Not only was he one of the best baseball players that ever lived, he always remained very modest, and was a great humanitarian…I’m from Carolina, the same municipality as Clemente. Then, I went to college in Pittsburgh, which is where he played his entire career. It was incredible to see how much the people of Pittsburgh revere Clemente, even to this day, just like I did growing up in Puerto Rico.”
Roberto Clemente seems to act as a bridge between Gonzalez’s Puerto Rican identity and his identity in Pittsburg. This brought me to another interesting theme: the way in which location affects identity and the performance of identity. A reoccurring image in the poetry collection was that of rusting buildings, cold and dirty rivers and dark cityscapes. Gonzalez uses these images to contrast to his childhood home. In his poems, he seems to identify closely with both cultures, deriving his identity from both locations. While I would not say that he view his identity as fixed by any means, he does not seem to be using a strategy of compartmentalization by location, but rather has relied on hybridity in order to shape his own understanding of the “I.”
A quote from Gonzalez in an interview addressing his notions of his own ethnic identity is this:
“In general, I’m not sure why the ethnicity or background needs to be connected with the fact that you’re a poet or a writer. If I were an accountant, would I be a Latino accountant? Would the two things go together? Or would I be a Latino and an accountant? I’m not sure what makes literature and art so different from everything else. I don’t think “categories” or “labels” should be used as scapegoats to justify the work: as literature, it should stand alone….This year I had a couple of stories in anthologies that use the “American” category in their title, like Best New American Voices and Best American Nonrequired Reading. So I guess that makes me American. The truth is, I’m a writer, and I just want to get my work out there. I don’t write for a specific audience, but if the fact that I’m from Puerto Rico makes certain people want to pay attention to my work, so be it. Momotombo Press, for instance, would not have published my chapbook had they not considered me to be “Latino.” Do I personally consider myself to be Latino? I’m from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is part of Latin America. So, I guess so. But I don’t usually (or, ever) refer to myself as Latino. If someone asks me what my background is, I say I’m Puerto Rican. It seems to me that for someone to either resist or desire a specific label, they would have to feel as if something about them (be it their background, race or ethnicity) is being either overlooked or threatened. And I don’t feel either of those things. No one can ever make me doubt my patriotism, or what I feel towards Puerto Rico. It’s something that lies so deep within that no one can ever threaten it or make me question it.
I found this perspective to be very interesting, so a few questions I leave you on: Why is identity different for artists than it is for different professions? How is identity used as a strategy (as described by Gonzalez)? And how is ethnic identity given to someone? Can it be taken away?