Award-win­ning Latino poet José B. González reads tonight at Arts Cafe Mys­tic


He’s the per­fect ex­am­ple of the lo­cal kid made good. He grad­u­ated from New Lon­don High School and Bryant Univer­sity, scored a master’s at Brown and his PhD from the Univer­sity of Rhode Is­land, is a Full­bright Scholar and pro­fes­sor of English at the Coast Guard Academy — and lives with his fam­ily just down the road in Quaker Hill. He’s also an award-win­ning poet and an in­ter­na­tion­ally-renowned and sought-af­ter in­spi­ra­tional speaker. Il­lus­tra­tions by Nor­man Rock­well, right? Of course, that’s not the com­plete story. His name is José B. González, and he was born in El Salvador at the height of that coun­try’s civil war — when 75,000 ci­ti­zens were killed in 12 months — and lived in a San Salvador hous­ing project in the heart of the vi­o­lence. His par­ents had em­i­grated to the U.S. to find jobs, and González joined them in New Lon­don at the age of 8 — a fright­ened, emo­tion­ally frag­ile, ten­ta­tively ex­cited boy who couldn’t speak English.

The years since González’ ar­rival in Amer­ica were re­mark­able and com­plex and are tes­ta­ments to dis­ci­pline, re­solve and, al­ways, his dreams. He learned English and nav­i­gated the cul­tural tightrope of his eth­nic­ity, and one of the defin­ing ways González nav­i­gated his evolv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences was through the ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties of the writ­ten word — specif­i­cally, poetry.

He’s been hon­ored as the re­cip­i­ent of the New Eng­land As­so­ci­a­tion of Teach­ers of English Poet of the Year Award and the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of His­pan­ics in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Out­stand­ing Latino Fac­ulty Mem­ber of the Year Award. The founder and edi­tor of Lati­noS­to­ries.Com, Gonzáles has been fea­tured on the na­tion­ally syn­di­cated show “Amer­i­can Latino TV” and has been a con­trib­u­tor to Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio. His po­ems have ap­peared in a va­ri­ety of es­teemed pe­ri­od­i­cals and lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, and his de­but col­lec­tion, “Toys Made of Rock,” was pub­lished two years ago by the Bilin­gual Press at Ari­zona State Univer­sity.

A fi­nal­ist for the In­ter­na­tional Poetry Award, “Toys Made of Rock” is struc­tured chrono­log­i­cally — and di­vided into sec­tions ti­tled “El Salvador,” “U.S.,” “Steal­ing Shake­speare” and “Class­rooms,” “Toys Made of Rock” is a haunt­ing, beau­ti­fully writ­ten, poignant yet witty, and al­ways pro­found. It also serves, in its way, as one of the most mov­ing pieces of mem­oir you’ll likely en­counter. For­tu­nately, González will read from “Toys Made of Rock” and other works when he head­lines tonight in the lat­est pre­sen­ta­tion by the Arts Café Mys­tic. It takes place in the Mys­tic Mu­seum of Art and also fea­tures acous­tic folk-group the Bee Keep­ers and Ju­lia Paul, the Poet Lau­re­ate of Manch­ester, Conn.

By phone ear­lier this week, González dis­cussed his life, work and art. Here are ex­cerpts from the con­ver­sa­tion. An­swers have been edited for space.

On how — and why — poetry helped him un­der­stand and sur­vive the in­deli­ble ex­pe­ri­ences as a boy in El Salvador:

There were a lot of times when I was just left speech­less by events. My mother and fa­ther left us to get work in Amer­ica so we could es­cape the ter­ri­ble vi­o­lence. That was dif­fi­cult. And while they were gone, we had a hur­ri­cane that fur­ther dev­as­tated our fam­ily. I lost two cousins. I mean, I was play­ing with one of them one day, and overnight he was gone.

How do you have the con­fi­dence that ev­ery­thing will be okay? It was in­cred­i­bly trau­matic, and how does a child cope with that? There

were emo­tions I couldn't un­der­stand or ar­tic­u­late, and or­di­nary lan­guage didn't suf­fice. Even­tu­ally, as I ex­pe­ri­enced those mo­ments, I learned to write down how I felt, and I some­how learned that poetry was the best way to ar­tic­u­late it.

González’ work — as per po­ems such as “English Words,” “Lines Break­ing” and “So­ci­ol­ogy 101: Es­say on Il­le­gal Im­mi­gra­tion” — al­ways fea­ture evoca­tive and lyri­cal lan­guage. In ad­di­tion, he might uti­lize Spanish and English, ital­i­cized or al­ter­na­tive fonts, and a cre­ative sense of word place­ment/lay­out that pro­vides a very rhyth­mic pulse. It all im­bues the pieces with a very mu­si­cal con­text, of which he says:

I didn't start to write poetry in an ex­clu­sive sense or as op­posed to other forms of ex­pres­sion. For a long time, I over­lapped between mu­sic and poetry. I grew up in New Lon­don lis­ten­ing to R&B and rap and jazz and (ra­dio sta­tion) 107.7 out of New York. I'd hear those rhythms, and I matched them up with what I was writ­ing, mim­ick­ing the beat as I wrote. I felt as though it was mu­sic that re­ally spoke to me and in­spired me in the way I wrote poetry. That was it, ini­tially. The more I wrote, the more I re­al­ized the two didn't have to be sep­a­rate, that I could bring the two to­gether.

The cen­ter­piece of “Toys Made of Rock” is a long tour de force called “Au­to­brownog­ra­phy of a New Eng­land Latino.” Stylis­ti­cally rem­i­nis­cent of Gil Scott-Heron’s mu­si­cal prose-po­ems, the piece has a re­lent­less rhythm and em­pha­sis on var­i­ous con­texts of the word “brown” that be­comes in­can­ta­tory and spell­bind­ing. On the idea that “Au­to­brownog­ra­phy” might be a mid-ca­reer peak:

I love how you say “peak.” It makes me think of the poem as a re­flec­tion and also reach­ing a stage in my writ­ing that dis­plays a bit of con­fi­dence. I'm ab­so­lutely at that point and can look back and be able to ex­hale a bit. Be­ing brown and Latino has de­fined my life. It could have kept me from mov­ing for­ward but, be­ing brown, I reached a point where brown moved me for­ward. Orig­i­nally, my ca­reer was only go­ing to be about ed­u­ca­tion, but I re­al­ized I can't sep­a­rate my brown­ness from the idea of ed­u­ca­tion. If I were to de­scribe my life, I'd have to talk about ed­u­cat­ing oth­ers and what be­ing brown means to oth­ers — and how for­mal ed­u­ca­tion kept me go­ing for­ward.

On whether, in the con­text of ed­u­ca­tion, at a time when so­cial me­dia and a con­stantly evolv­ing stream of in­for­ma­tion has ver­i­fi­ably re­duced at­ten­tion spans, poetry might be the ideal form of artis­tic ex­pres­sion:

We were talk­ing about that just last week in my cre­ative writ­ing class. Hope­fully some­thing like Twit­ter forces us to choose our words care­fully. It's not go­ing to go away, so how do you teach poetry in the time of so­cial me­dia? I don't pull away from it but em­brace it. I found clips of Wil­liam Shat­ner read­ing Sarah Palin's Tweets. It sounds funny, and it is, but it also ac­tu­ally sounds po­etic. Th­ese are new pos­si­bil­i­ties.

My sec­ond col­lec­tion (which should be out any day from the Univer­sity of Hous­ton Press) is called “When Love Was Reels,” and I use YouTube clips and other forms of so­cial me­dia to help de­fine the poetry and tell the story of a young im­mi­grant's life. I wouldn't have been able to ex­plore that even a few years ago.


José B. González

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