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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