DOGBYTES Interview: Darrel Alejandro Holnes

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Cave Canem fellow Darrel Alejandro Holnes is the co-editor of On Poetics, Identity & Latinidad: CantoMundo Poets Speak Out, Happiness, The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, co-author of PRIME: Poetry & Conversations, and a recipient of the Cave Canem Residency at the Rose O’Neill Literary House. His poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Callaloo, Best American Experimental Writing, and elsewhere. Holnes works with writers at the United Nations and teaches at NYU and the City University of New York – Medgar Evers College, where he is an Assistant Professor of English. Hear Darrel Alejandro Holnes and Jessica Lanay Moore read poetry as part of the Brooklyn Museum First Saturdays event series on October 7th, 2017.

You are a playwright, ethnographer, radio producer and in general, a multi-media creative: is there something poetry can accomplish that other mediums cannot when it comes to storytelling?

Poetry is the oldest of all of the art forms in which I work. I don’t know that the ancients were any wiser than we are today, but I do think traditions that last are worth looking at. I’m glad that I looked to poetry when I was in middle school and struggling with fitting in at a new private school in Panamá.

What poetry did for me back then was remind me that there’s always a silver lining to the trials and tribulations we suffer through in life. Poetry for me was inspirational and uplifting. The silver lining isn’t always positive, but it is real. Sometimes it’s the scar you have to show for enduring phoniness in life. The scar may not be beautiful but it’s proof that up until now you’ve survived. That’s what writing poetry does for me. It gives me something to show for all of the hardship I’ve put up with; it says, “Look, I’ve learned how to survive. Let me help you survive too.”

What can poets do to promote social justice?

I grew up in a family of government people. Civic engagement was always important in my house. If you’re a Jackson (as in Michael, Janet, and Jermaine) you grow up playing an instrument. If you were a Holnes, you grew up volunteering and working for the common good. Growing up in that world taught me that promoting social justice is what we do every day; it is how we act based on our personal constitution. We must live principled lives if we expect principles like “the justice system should be unbiased” to ever be a reality. We must be the change we want to see in this world.

I believe that evolution is a choice, and I think that as poets we must help the world make the choice to evolve. We can do so by writing poetry that asks hard questions, questions that challenge systematic oppression, the victor’s telling of history, the paradigm of empire, and socially constructed identity.

Not every poet wants to “promote social justice” but for those of us who do, I think we can do so by using poetry as a tool to build bridges across the lines that divide us and put us in opposition with each other.

“Harmony” sounds like the name of a horse on My Little Pony, or a CareBear from the TV show by that name that I’d watch when I was a little boy. But I think that harmony is a real goal. Other species have achieved that on this planet. Other species are not constantly at war. I think we as human beings can achieve that, and perhaps poetry can help us do so. Perhaps poetry can truly help us choose to evolve.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Any poetry collection by Elizabeth Acevedo and sam sax. I also enjoyed reading the novels Grace by Natashia Deon, and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

What’s something you recently tried for the first time?

I’ve been inspired by my friend Jeremy to make my own recipes. I’m happy to say that I developed my first one last year. I call it “Spicy Fish Cube Soup,” and it’s delicious! There are definitely more new dishes to come!

Name a major influence outside of literature or art.

Anthropology. I’ve always loved human beings since I was a child. I’m fascinated by people. I remember being a young man in Ms. Gondola’s Environmental Science class in 10th grade. Even though that was a science class, the most interesting part for me was learning about how we humans affect our planet and about how we work as one of the many animals in the kingdom.

While I was a student in that class, I watched a documentary about early humans and our migration out of Africa. It really ignited a fire within me to learn more about people and to write about human beings.

Many years later, I had the opportunity to study anthropology in graduate school and to conduct ethnographic research with incredible scholars and activist like Ruth Behar, Carl Lindahl, and Pat Jasper. I think about what I learned from anthropology every time I write a play or a poem about who we are as a people, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I see as much theater, dance, and attend as many poetry readings as possible. Aside from that I love to travel. Check out my Instagram, @iamdarelo, and see where I traveled this past summer.

I decided to travel more this year because things in the world feel a little bleak. There is so much political turmoil and social injustice here and abroad that I set out in search of hope. And I found it in the new friends I made on the road. We connected despite language barriers, cultural barriers, and other differences.

Yes, peace is possible. No, “harmony” is not just the name of a fairytale creature. The more we learn about what’s out there the less scary the world seems. For me, that’s what being an American, both part of the USA and part of the American continent, has always been about: finding ways to connect with people who are different from you, and building the strongest community possible. I believe our strength has always been and always will be our diversity. I travel to keep my life, through an ever expanding friend group, as globally diverse as possible.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Stay Black
  2. Write poetry and read poetry
  3. Who you are is enough.

What do you mean by “Stay Black”?

I think Walt Whitman said it best, “We contain multitudes, y’all.” Well, perhaps I’m re-writing that line a bit. But ultimately, I believe that to “stay Black,” we, as self-identified Black poets, must celebrate the multitudes of blackness through poetry.

Black people are not a monolith. As an artist from the Diaspora (Panama), I always looked to Black media in the US for inspiration because when I was growing up, it presented the widest variety of blackness. I wasn’t much of a Hip-Hop head as a teen, so I latched onto Lenny Kravitz as an example of Black maleness in popular media that I could relate to. Now that I live in the US, I look to media and art created by Black people outside of the US for inspiration. I’m inspired by artists like the rapper Young Paris, out of the Democratic Republic of Congo and France, Stromae from Belgium who is half Rwandan, and Afro Panamanians like the singer, Aloe Blacc, and singer-songwriter, Erika Ender, who wrote the lyrics to the smash hit “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (featuring Justin Bieber).

The way that I “stay Black” is by celebrating their great art and entertainment in my poetry. Blackness is awesome y’all. It definitely deserves a party, and with some of my poetry, there’s a party on the page.

What life experience has shaped you the most as a writer?

I think experiencing love has shaped me most as a writer. I say this because love fills me with feelings that I struggle to describe using everyday speech so I turn to art to express it. It’s through art, like poetry, that I find ways to say the unsayable, to describe the indescribable, and to spread the love that dwells in my heart.

Not all of my poetry is romantic or about other kinds of love, but I believe that even my more political work comes from a place of love. I really love this world enough to genuinely want it to be a better place, and I think that spreading love, perhaps through poetry, is a huge part of that.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those experiences?

I participated in the CC retreat in 2010, 2011 and 2012. My favorite memories include dancing to Terrance Hayes’ DJing at one of the closing night parties, taking a workshop with Claudia Rankine, and listening to Toi Derricotte who told me to write a poem about my greatest fear. At the time, I feared my interest and curiosity in drag performance. So I wrote a poem called “I Always Promised I’d Never Do Drag,” where I perform in drag for the first time. It was liberating and became my first poem to be widely included in anthologies and a favorite at my poetry readings. Thank you, Mama Toi, for the courage.