Quintessential Queens: Interview with Paolo Javier, Queens Poet Laureate

I’ve always lived in Queens. I was brought up in Bellerose, Queens; I went to high school in Fresh Meadows; I do all of my shopping in Jackson Heights, and a lot of my dancing in Woodside. I’ve taken every Queens subway line, and I’ve suffered for the Mets.

Yet, I can’t say I know Queens – I can’t say I’ve seen it all. Queens, I think, is endless; every day, it shows me a new face, a new set of steely eyes; every day it grows, a protean city. I went to the Quintessential Queens Conference to learn more about my borough – and that I did. I learned, for example, that Queens was, at first, a rural area, and that Queens is the most ethnically diverse city in the world. I learned about the roles Queens played in numerous conflicts, and about demographic changes within the borough.

Indeed, the conference was as abundant, and as diverse, as the borough it celebrated; lecture topics ranged from demographics to jazz music, from The Great Gatsby to environmental science. I, however, was most interested in learning more about the Queens literary scene. I wanted to know where Queens poetry was, and what it looked like; I wanted to know what it meant to write, to work, in Queens today.

I was able to sit down with Paolo Javier, Queens Poet Laureate and presenter at the conference, to talk more about writing in Queens, and also about his own role in that abundant process.

Elena: You are the current Queens Poet Laureate. What are your goals? What do you hope to achieve?

Paolo: I guess it’s still in the present tense, even though I’ve got ‘till December. Well, my goals when I set out to become the Poet Laureate haven’t really changed much. Really to explore and locate poetry in Queens. I mean, where poetry is written, where the poets are, where the venues are that foster poetry. It’s as much a selfish act as it is a selfless act – I wanted to really see where poetry was at in Queens. It’s another way of really understanding the literary spirit of this borough that I have refused to leave for the past 14 years. I remember when Brooklyn was being built up as this cool literary space, and I’ve always been in Queens. My family is living in Westchester, and we didn’t really explore another borough but Queens. What I can do is really try to find poets and poetry, and hopefully present it, represent it, draw attention to it through my visibility as Poet Laureate. But I also didn’t want to be self-important about it: Queens has very working-class roots, immigrant roots. We know what we’re about; we don’t really need to prove it. But did want to know where they [the poets] were… As I said on stage before, I’ve just scratched the surface. It’s a big, big borough; there’s so much poetry across the borough, and so much literary history… I still have to put my feet in that geography.

Elena: What, in your opinion, does it mean to be a writer in Queens today? What does it mean to create in such a vast and disparate borough?

Paolo: I don’t know what it means, generally, to be a writer today, but I can tell you that for me, writing, living in Queens has been nothing but hospitable and generative to my writing. I’ve written two books, two of my three full-length books, in Queens, and most of my chapbooks that have been published… I’ve just finished another book that’s coming out, collaborating with another artist who’s my neighbor. I think this ties in to the second part of the question: I like the anonymity that living in Queens affords you. I think we have a really amazing literary history in Queens; On the Road was written in Ozone Park; we have hip-hop being born here in Queens and Brooklyn; Malcolm X had a house in Elmhurst; The Beats made their way here; Joseph Cornell was in Flushing… I’m aware of that, but I also like the fact that Queens is vast, it is huge, the literary center is not stable… it’s not like everything’s happening in Jackson Heights, everything’s happening in Sunnyside… I like that quality. For me, that is a strength, rather than a loss, that I don’t know where the scene is… and that does have to do with the fact that Queens is vast, it’s huge. I’ve got to tell you, I’m overly familiar with Western Queens; I’m not as familiar with Eastern Queens. It’s been my goal from day one as Poet Laureate… I’ve made my way out to Jamaica, I’ve made my way out deep into Flushing, but I still need to go to St. Albans, and other places. It’s still a borough I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of, even though I’ve been a long-time resident… I like that.

Elena: Awesome. In what direction would you like to see the Queens literary and art scenes grow? How can Queens College be part of that growth?

Paolo: I think poets – I’m very poet-centric, because poets, we are so marginalized in this society, and yet we’re so fundamental to this culture, so I will always champion poetry first. I say poets should stand up and say they’re from Queens. I should also say that poets who do stand up, who do have access to capital and to cultural institutions, should be about their neighborhoods, should be about the communities that these cultural spaces are in, and not try and match Brooklyn or Manhattan – which I see with a lot of new organizations and poets who are coming to Queens. But not all of them. And I think that having a child’s view, a beginner’s mind about being an artist and a poet in Queens, and responding to Queens and allowing Queens to be in your work, in whatever way, shape, or form that takes, is critical. And explore Queens – don’t just be in Western Queens! Try and read out in St. Albans, or locate the Polish center in Ridgewood, or the Guyanese community in Richmond Hill, and reach out to them, and work with the Queens Library… I don’t want to say this sounding prescriptive, because to be honest with you, as Poet Laureate, I realize I still have a lot more to know about this borough. But those are a few things, and I think, more importantly, just create in this borough, write in this borough… and avail of the resources in this borough, like the Queens Council on the Arts, reach out to Queens College. I think you have an amazing MFA program, and I know you guys do wonderful things. Seeing the MFA program connect with the Queens Council on the Arts or even the Queens Museum… which is easier said than done, it’s hard… But I see it. And I think, more than anything else, trying to be aware of the history of this borough, the literary history.

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Paolo Javier is our current Queens Poet Laureate. Check out some of his work here. Also, he has a new book out – definitely look in to it. Paolo is amazing!

Also check out the Queens Council on the Arts, and the Queens College MFA program, for information on writing in Queens.

Source Material

Art is not a leisure activity. Art is something we do – something we struggle with, something we form out of the raw materials of our lives. Art, simply put, is a process.

Source Material is ostensibly an exhibition of still life works, but it is so much more – indeed, it is a celebration of that artistic process, of that struggle. Here, artists show us how they respond to their worlds; they show us how art emerges from everyday materials, from the building blocks of myriad lives.

Xico Greenwald’s “Source Material Dioramas” are fascinating insights into the artistic process; here, indeed, the artist brings us in to his own worlds, his own responses, his own ways of living and seeing. In the first “Diorama,” we encounter a bottle of Goya peppers, a couple of shells, and a worn brush; we see here a universe, a place of collision, an artistic process in and through which raw materials – source materials, perhaps – collide and are changed, thereby producing art, a reimagining of worlds.

The second “Diorama” is also a process. Here, indeed, we encounter sketches of plants and flowers juxtaposed with actual plants, and actual flowers. We see, then, how source materials interact with each other, and we see how the artist has drawn from his world the materials with which he will experiment, with which he will struggle. He responds to those source materials; he changes them, molds them; he pours his own mind into their winding leaves. Ultimately, he makes art of them, and they of him.

The “Dioramas” are, fascinatingly, stationed outside of the exhibit room; inside, we encounter paintings in various stages of completion. I am drawn, especially, to Despina Konstantinides’ “Thanking Z,” which is a whirl of color, texture, and process. The artist has poured her paint, her arms, and her body onto the canvas; raw materials collide, and art is formed, unformed, and challenged.

And just nearby, Kim Sloane’s “Pale Flower” is engaged in a different, yet related, process. This, I believe, is a breaking-down, a vivisection of source material, of natural properties. Sloane’s flower is distilled, is torn down to its constituent elements; the artist has shown us how she, with cutting eyes, sees and responds to the objects, the world with which she is confronted, and in which she creates.

Source Material is indeed beguiling – it is a rare and exciting look into the lives, the vision, and the processes of artists. As I leave, I feel my own eyes changing; I feel that I, too, am engaged in a process, a world-building exercise, an artistic endeavor.

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Source Material is located right in our Library, on the 6th floor, at the Queens College Art Center. Go check it out!

Biala: Vision and Memory

As I step in to Biala: Vision and Memory, I am greeted by fracture – a noise, a rustling, an oceanic groan. It recedes, it fades; it reappears, a foam-wave. And I realize, as I make my way upstairs, that I am listening to motion – to paint, to brushstrokes, to Biala herself, all arm and spine and deft hands, her brow furrowed, brow shining. This is what painting sounds like, feels like – and I, too, will paint for hours, the tip of my paintbrush darting like a bird, my muscles taut like ropes. Indeed, I am stepping into Biala’s studio – into my old studio, into any artist’s studio – here, at the Godwin-Ternbach museum.

Biala: Vision and Memory is ultimately a hybrid exhibition – a riveting mix of sound, painting, literature, and photography – and rightfully so, as Janice Biala’s decades-long career was as varied as it was successful. Born in 1903, in Poland, Biala rose to prominence as an abstract expressionist painter. She contributed immensely, and irrevocably, to modernism; her ground-breaking work encompassed a range of subjects, stylistic choices, moods, and media.

Upstairs, at the start of the exhibition, I first encounter “Bull and Toreadors in the Arena.” As I look onto that bull-fighting scene, I note how omniscient, how sumptuous my gaze is; with one glance, I take in an entire arena, a deluge of life and violence. How different, indeed, from “Blackbird” – here, I see only fragments, beams of light and lush feathers, an energetic and disparate mass, a harried flight.

Two different modes of seeing, of vision, and two types of memory – the all-encompassing versus the small, the full versus the shattered. Neither one victorious; neither one is greater than the other. Rather, they coexist – they breathe, together, in this space of wide angles and multiplicity.

When I go downstairs, I am immediately drawn to “Paris Façade” – a portrait, a study of half-closed windows, of curtains, of opacity. Here, my vision is occulted – I do not see what goes on in these cozy rooms. But I am nevertheless intrigued; I am captivated by that lack of vision, of knowing, that rich interior life which I will not, and cannot, grasp. I have encountered yet another kind of vision – a vision of the downcast gaze, of the hidden, of the intricate and loving silent.

And after that ecstatic interiority, that quietness, we experience a sudden and jarring shift in vision – in “The Flower Pots,” we encounter a woman, her face turned, glancing (we think) at that very same row of half-closed windows. Here, we gaze at a gazer; her eyes are unknown to us; her lips are a mystery; we do not know what she feels, what she thinks. She, too, is a rich interior, a calm sea. We find, then, two interlocking interiorities, two winding silences, two modes of not-seeing – this, indeed, is the brilliance of Biala.

The Flower Pots, Janice Biala. From www.janicebiala.com.

The Flower Pots, Janice Biala, 1985. From www.janicebiala.com.

I leave the Godwin-Ternbach with notes, coffee, and expanded vision. Undoubtedly, I will return this exhibit like I would a half-dried painting – with awe, with creativity, and with a desire to ask, to know and not know, to see and to remember.

For more information on Janice Biala, visit www.janicebiala.com.

For more information on the Godwin-Ternbach Museum, visit http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/godwin_ternbach/.

5 Pointz: An Introduction

I’ve been riding the 7 train since I was a little girl. I’ve sat, content, between grandparents; I’ve stood, I’ve swayed; I’ve looked out over a ripe, yet jagged borough and I’ve lost myself, as I am so prone. It wasn’t, however, until I was accepted to Queens College that I began, however tentatively, to understand the art of 5 Pointz.

Image (c) The Village Voice Blog: blogs.villagevoice.com.

Image (c) The Village Voice Blog: blogs.villagevoice.com.

5 Pointz is art in an urban place – it is an art of the everyday. Since 1994, artists of all stripes have worked in and on 5 Pointz, a sprawling outdoor art exhibition space. Over the years, it has become an artistic hub, an institution – a central, yet wonderfully strange component of Long Island City’s otherwise dour skyline. And indeed, out from a charred landscape it appears like a bruise, a defiant mark. Faces, mythical creatures, graffiti, poetry – all of this, and more, was always visible to me from my rocking vantage point. But I didn’t see it.

Or I saw it, but didn’t understand. To tell the truth, I did not consider myself an artist until about 2 years ago; I guess I am a late bloomer. And indeed, I did not lose myself in 5 Pointz until that day, last April, on which I looked, with new eyes, into that landscape.

I was a poet. I had been accepted. But for what, and why? What made me a poet? A painter? What made me an artist?

And 5 Pointz appeared. I stared; my eyes searched its eyes; I wanted to know the how more than the why.

People – artists, humans – had taken a blown-out shell of industry and made it into a temple. How? They had worked – they had climbed, hacked, painted, sprayed, dreamed.

And I realized that art is not a leisure activity – no, art must be seized. That was what I would do at Queens College – seize my art. I would work.

Art is not a leisure activity. Art has to be looked for, chased after; art is something we do together. Indeed, I have dedicated this blog to the work of art – the chasing, the looking, the seizing. I hope that you will join me as I explore art, thusly defined, at Queens College, in Queens, and beyond.

Yours,

Elena

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To learn more about 5 Pointz,visit the official website. And remember: 5 Pointz is just a 7-train ride away!