Since my arrival in New York, I have heard people talking about Hamilton. I was embarrassed to admit I had not seen any musical in Manhattan. But I was interested in this one, and I asked my fellow writers to join me. I even offered to buy tickets! They stopped talking and stared at me for a couple of seconds— enough to remind me that I was an International student, disconnected from the nuances of New York life. One of them revealed this was impossible, since only God could grant you access. “God as in…that God?” I asked pointing to the ceiling. Everybody laughed.
Months later I met Victorio Reyes Asili. He was one of the AWP panel members of “The World Upside Down: Hamilton, An American Musical,” organized by Judith Baumel. Victorio talked about the hip-hop poetics of Hamilton connecting its musicality to this specific genre, and explained the Shakespearean vein in hip-hop. I still had not yet seen Hamilton, but I reached out to him shortly after AWP to find out more about his philosophy on how teaching, writing poetry, and hip-hop complement one another, and talk about where his true passion lies.
CLARA BURGHELEA: How did you start writing poetry? What triggered the process if you can recall?
VICTORIO REYES ASILI: The first time I remember writing a poem, though I must’ve written a poem before, was the NYS Regents exam in 11th grade. There was a prompt to use a literary form to respond to a question. I think the idea was that someone would use essay or short story, but I asked if I could write a poem, and the teacher said as long as I hit the word count, yes. So I wrote a long poem about something, I can’t remember anything about it, except writing it.
CB: Do you follow any writing routine? How is a poem born?
VRA: I don’t have a solid writing routine. I write when I can. That’s probably bad to admit, but it’s true. I have always been this way. That said, I do try to be intentional about finding writing time when I can. To compensate for my unpredictable schedule, I write poems in my head. Not typically whole poems, but lines. The lines will come from an idea I have percolating. Each idea will represent a poem. I can carry twenty of these in my head at a given time, some for years. When I get to it, I finally start writing them, starting with the lines I’ve memorized.
CB: How comfortable are you when people wish to make an equation between the poems and the author?
VRA: I’m cool with it. I know we need to draw a distinction between the speaker and the poet, especially as instructors. However, much of my poetry is autobiographical. When it isn’t, it’s explicitly not so, as in a persona poem. I suppose those poems are autobiographical too though. I guess my feelings on this issue are this: most people associate the speaker of the poem with the poet. People who are serious about reading poetry may have trained themselves not to, but the vast majority of people, in my estimation, instinctively make the connection between poem and author, so I’m not bothered by it. As long as people get that as a poet I can lie with impunity, they can feel free to associate my poems with me, especially the ones that make grandiose lies about how awesome I am. (laughs)
CB: You served on panels at the AWP conferences in which you relate hip-hop to poetry. How does this really work?
VRA: Hip Hop is written in poetic verse. Not only is it written in poetic verse, but it’s written in formal poetic verse. Every Hip Hop rhyme ever written, good or bad, is a poem. When I say this, I don’t mean in the way many songs are poems. I mean that the lyrical arrangement in a Hip Hop track is a poem. That’s simply how the genre works. It’s not that I relate Hip Hop to poetry; it’s that I recognize Hip Hop as a poetic form, one of the most widely travelled poetic forms in human history.
CB: You teach poetry and you are also the executive director of The Social Justice Center of Albany. Which is more conducive of writing poetry?
VRA: I was the executive director of The Social Justice Center, for 11 years. I currently teach writing, sometimes poetry, but often other types of college level writing. Neither job, on its own, is conducive to writing in the sense that both jobs require a lot of emotional investment, requiring skills that are different than writing poetry. That said, jobs that inspire you, as both of these jobs have for me, can create the circumstances from which poems are born. After all, being inspired is that state of being that makes poetry happen, ya know?
CB: I read this poem on your blog about breathing. I am not sure it had a title. I love the way you speak of the beauty of simple freedoms such as breathing. How important is such a message in the contemporary world?
VRA: Good question. Breathing is pretty important because, you know, it’s something we all need to do. And of course, some people are not allowed to breathe. So we have to appreciate air, and fight for those who are in danger of losing it.
CB: There is this idea that certain poems have a way of looking out of the window. Does it apply to your poems and if so, what do they gaze into?
VRA: I don’t know. A window? Maybe? Hopefully not? I don’t know. I think, in general, I like to be present in my life, so I don’t think of myself as someone who is always looking out the window. At the same time, if a poem wants to look out a window, by all means it should do so. Clearly I have no good answer here.
CB: As a poet, do you have a keen sense of history?
VRA: Hmmmm. History matters to responsible practitioners in any field. It certainly matters to me, and I believe it matters to most poets. Take the work of poets like Tyehimba Jess or M. NourbeSe Philip, as just two examples. History is so fundamental to their projects. Kevin Young is another poet who comes to mind. I need to stop, or I’m just going to list the name of every poet ever. So yes, history is an important subject for any poet.
CB: How was the AWP 2017 conference from the perspective of the poet rather than the panelists?
VRA: From the perspective of the poet, I love the community at AWP. It is by no means perfect, but the sheer volume of wonderful people that care about the world all under one roof at AWP is heartwarming to me. I go to see people more than anything.
CB: Who or what are you currently reading? Is there a poet or a collection we should know about?
VRA: Well, all people everywhere should read Rigoberto González. I’m currently teaching his book Unpeopled Eden, I strongly recommend it. What else? How about: Tara Betts’ Break the Habit, Doug Kearney’s Black Automatan, and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. I have to get Jamaal May’s new book too. And… many, many others.