Gonzalez and Identity Performance

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? 

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One thought on “Gonzalez and Identity Performance

  1. I often think about why certain labels are added to someone’s name and title. I often see newspapers that add in the title of a latin@ congressman, a latin@ pope, and a latin@ writer. It is interesting where these labels appear and where they don’t. As Gonzalez was saying if he was an accountant such an add-on would have been assigned to him. I think this has a lot to do with the context of a person’s work and exactly how far into the public sphere their position is placed. The accountant for instance does work not developed around self-expression. The object of the accountant’s work is not in their voice but in the conclusion of right or wrong calculations. Yet, the congressman, pope, writer, actor etc. are jobs that highlight the voice and identity of the figure behind such a title.
    In a country where the primary voice has only been given to privileged few, the less-represented voice will be defined as such, as the primary voice will have made standards around itself. In other words there is a certain pride in the less-represented voice that succeeds in being heard. Those non-represented will cling to it and call it theirs. This can be both empowering and limiting to the person being labeled. While it is a statement to the primary, telling the dominant culture that the other has a voice and is using it for their own expression. It also limits the other to that such title. A Latin@ professional with such a focus put into their title must always deal with being acknowledged as such without the ability to separate into a non-related subject of their choosing. It is terrible it’s as if there were two types of name tags yellow and purple. While yellow is defined by being yellow the purple name tags are defined by being non-yellow.
    There is a problem in that I can see that the title of Latin@ as a book genre is a great market scheme for capturing a certain market. But it also might defer other people from reading it as they could see such a thing as only limited to the Latin@ experience. As if that poet or author is saying things that are solely about their ethnicity and doesn’t apply to non-Latin@s. Also it even suggests that the Latin@ experience doesn’t stand as a universal experience. I had always been confused with that. You go into the fiction section and there are books from all over the world. Yet there are also fiction books within the Latin@ sections of the shelves. Why are they separated? I have a feeling that if I looked at it like a capitalist it would make perfect sense to me. There is a group out their and they are identified as such and such. Well I know that if I sell something that I sell is from those people I should label it as such. It is an attraction scheme to say, “Hey! You are a “such and such” come and read these stories written by people like you, but by doing so has made it very obvious of our “us and them” relationship.”
    I’m also thinking of Latin@ writers who might be beyond having their writing being in a Latin@ section and instead found in regular fiction or what have you. I’m think specifically of Paulo Coelho from Brazil who had written books like The Alchemist and The Witch of Portobello. His work had all been translated from Portuguese and can be found in regular fiction sections. His author’s bio calls him “one of the most beloved writers of our time”. Is this the standard it takes to take away the Latin@ label on a Latin@’s work. When an author has reached the point of international where their work had been translated into hundreds of languages and broken linguistically like swish cheese so they can be a universal fiction, non-fiction, poetry writers, or (fill in job here)?

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