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Artist Profile: Kevin Ray Johnson

Name: Kevin Ray Johnson

Hometown: Brooklyn Park, Minnesota

Residence: Brooklyn, New York

On Writing…

What is your earliest memory of writing?

Okay I have to admit something from the start. I was never that great of a student but I always did well on papers and in English class. So I would say my earliest memories go as far back as the 4th or 5th grade. I loved when we would get creative type writing assignments.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer when I was 19 and I wanted to write something that chronicled my life while living with diabetes and I started writing it while in school. That play was called Life Inside an Open Kaije (Kaije is pronounced like Cage) and something about that made me realize that this wasn’t a one shot deal this is something I want to do forever.

Tell us about your writing process.

I generally want to develop the arc of the story. The beginning, middle and end and when that is done it’s all about fleshing out the characters as much as possible. Making them real and relatable and someone you want to invest in. Revisions and being objective are essential for a writer you should never ever feel your job is done and you should never be above taking criticism.

Tell us about The Unpredictable Times and Reginald: From Baltimore to Billionaire.

The Unpredictable Times is a piece I have been working on for well over ten years. It originally started off as a 10 minute that I wrote called “The Next Day” my last year in college. I grew up in Minnesota and it’s a coming of age drama based on five friends from Champlin, Minnesota. They come back home to Champlin for the summer after graduating college to be met by unresolved issues from the past that will challenge their childhood friendships now as adults. To me, I wrote it because I wanted a coming of age piece that anyone no matter what generation (millennial, gen x etc) can relate to when it comes to letting go, forgiving and growing up. I wanted the situation to be relatable while at the same time being something I know so well which is Minnesota. When you grow up in MN it’s like no other place and you truly no matter where you go bring a little bit of the Midwest with you.

Reginald: from Baltimore to Billionaire is a piece based on the first African American Billionaire Reginald F. Lewis. I want to start by saying that I wake up every day feeling like the luckiest man alive that I am allowed to write this story. I was working with a wonderful NYC actress named Lora Nicolas. We were at her place one day working on lines and she brought up through a conversation that her uncle is Reginald F. Lewis. My jaw dropped. She responded with “Oh wow you know who he is?” ha yea I did. She knew that I was a writer and that’s when the original idea came to write a play about Reginald.

It follows the life of Reginald Lewis from the time he is 13 up until the time he signs the Beatrice Deal which made him become the first black billionaire. You see him go through college and get accepted into Harvard, meet his wonderful lovely wife Loida Nicolas (who I had the pleasure of having dinner with not too long ago and is truly such an amazing and beautiful human being) to his law firm, creating TLC (The Lewis Company) and the Beatrice Deal.

When I spoke to Loida I remember saying to her that this isn’t a piece that I want to be told this is a piece that NEEDS to be told. We live in a time where “reality stars” are claiming to want to Make America Great Again. I feel there is truly something inspiring about seeing a man that looks like Reginald live in a time like the 50s and 60s and him having the mindset that this isn’t gonna stop me. I’m gonna keep going no matter what. I have lost many nights of sleep because of this play (not a bad thing at all) because I just sit up and read it and think that this is something that could inspire a lot of people while educating them on who the first really was.

The first reading took place August of 2016 and it featured Isaiah Johnson (Who played mister in the revival of The Color Purple and who will be starring in the upcoming tour of Hamilton) as Reginald F. Lewis with Lora Nicolas playing her Aunt Loida Nicolas-Lewis. There was such an amazing visual that I tell Lora about all the time. She was sitting there in the reading and her Aunt was sitting right in front of her with her eyes closed just listening to the play. It was just such an amazing visual that I will remember for the rest of my writing career.

What else are you working on now?

I have several projects. One is a play cycle called “Before it Got Unpredictable: Short Plays by Kevin Ray Johnson” which features three short plays I wrote. It was performed last June and was headlined by Remy Zaken (Original Thea in Spring Awakening on Broadway) and featured an amazing cast.

I also am in the beginning process of working on a One-Act play called Obsolete Classified which is one of the heavier pieces I have worked on ever. I am someone who is very passionate about the discussion of mental health and that no one should be afraid to admit that they are not okay. Obsolete Classified follows someone who is wrongfully put in suicide watch at a hospital for 4 days and how those 4 days didn’t help them but only made it worse.

Also what I talked about earlier, The Next Day, will be performed at The New York Theater Festival and will featured an amazing cast of two up and coming actors in Michael Coale Grey and Megan Albracht. Show dates are March 7th, 11th and 12th at the Hudson Guild Theatre.

What books/plays have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Marriage of Bette and Boo and This is our Youth as well as Othello and I know its cliché but I learned so much as a writer from Romeo and Juliet.

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On Acting…

Tell us about your process of preparing for a new role.

I read the script and then I ask myself how I want to take on this role from talking, expressions, mannerisms, to even the way I stand, are they likeable or unlikeable, how do I relate, can I relate and so on. I am not someone who tries to completely go against the grain from what the writer was wanting to get across but I still want to make it my own. When it comes to musicals and if it’s a well known show I try not to listen to the soundtrack. I feel as actors the one thing we should always do is put 100 percent trust in our directors so if we are able to do that then the performance will show.

What is your dream role? What do you feel you would bring to it?

Oh wow. This is a tough one. Musicals I am gonna say Jake in Sideshow. Plays would definitely be Chad Deity in the Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and for Shakespeare I would say Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Othello in Othello.

For all four roles, I feel I would bring being able to relate and understand them. All four characters (even Tybalt) you can feel sympathy for and even if you don’t agree with how they go about things there truly is a reason why they are and in their own mind they believe what they are doing is right. I find that fascinating as an artist.

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On a life in the theatre…

What have been the defining moments in your career as a theatre artist?

Making my Off Broadway debut in The Love Note in 2014, having the honor of playing the role of Dr. Madden/ Dr. Fine in Next to Normal on 4 different occasions, becoming a board member at Rise Above Performing Arts in Florida led by Jacob Ruscoe because being around kids who love theatre is always a gift in itself and most recently performing in Guys and Dolls at The Asolo Repertory Theatre because the entire time I truly didn’t feel worthy. Josh Rhodes is truly one of the greatest directors I truly feel in the entire world and working with him truly was a defining moment in my career.

Who has had the biggest impact on your journey so far? Do you have any mentors or heroes in the theatre?

My mother for her support and for believing in me.

Molly Donnelly, my voice teacher in college who truly was the only one I felt believed in me when even I didn’t believe in me.

Isaiah Johnson and Jessica Frances Dukes for being the epitome of what a black artist should be and two people I truly look up to on and off the stage.

A wonderful artist named Michael Kevin Callahan who was my dance captain for Guys and Dolls at Asolo Repertory Theatre. He truly deserves all the amazing things coming his way. One of the most talented dancers I have ever seen in my entire life and with all that I can truly say one of the kindest beautiful spirits I have ever encountered.

My fiancé Rachael for truly being my rock and making me see things from a different point of view. I truly don’t know what I would do without her.

What advice do you have for aspiring theatre artists?

Believe in yourself. If you don’t have confidence in yourself you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you started. We all get that little negative voice in our head. The sooner you have the strength to block it out the sooner you will become the best performer you can be. Stay in your lane and if things come faster to people around you than it does to you it doesn’t mean that you aren’t talented so don’t give up. Everyone I feel has the ability and capability to make it in this amazing business. The reason why people don’t is because they are not able to stick it out through the tough times especially when it comes to “not being cast” or “being overlooked.” Stick it out. You can do it.

Is there anything else we should know about you?

I am the biggest wrestling fan and probably Nirvana’s number one fan but lol that’s a story for another day.

***For more on Kevin Ray Johnson, see:

 

Artist Profile: Edward Vidaurre

Name: Edward Vidaurre

Hometown: East Los Angeles, CA

Residence: McAllen, TX

What is your earliest memory of writing?

High School. I would write love letters to girls and never give it to them. I loved words, I would write full pages from the dictionary and lyrics to favorite songs.

How did you become a writer?

I became a reader before I became a writer. I don’t remember reading a single book in school until my senior year. My English teacher was teaching Macbeth and I said something like, “No one in my hood talks like that, why should we even learn this?” The following day she gave me the book, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. The book changed my life not only as a writer but it gave me that hope that there was life outside of the hood.

Tell us about your writing process.

It’s unpredictable. I write when I am alone mostly. Early in the morning or late at night when my wife and daughter are sleeping. I surround myself with books, so when I get sidetracked from writing I start to read.

What are you working on now?

I am editing my 5th manuscript and a chapbook. The manuscript I’ve titled Jazz Violence and the chapbook is tentatively Ramona and Rumi: a love story during oligarchy… It’s about a poet I named Rumi and his muse Ramona.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I never attended college or any type of university, I don’t hold back in my writing in fear that it may not be good enough. I write from the heart, inspired by what I read, see and feel. But when I have short moments of it I read or write haiku poems.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

Richard Wright, Luis J. Rodriguez, Cohen, Lorca to name a few. I love the poetry of Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, but the one who I really give credit the most to is The BUK, Charles Bukowski, a bad motherfucker who gave no shits and just wrote. Let’s not forget the beat generation either, especially Ginsberg.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

Love is a Dog from Hell by Bukowski, Lorca in New York, Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen. I’ve been inspired by some C.S. Lewis, Brian Allen Carr, and recently, Juan Felipe Herrera and Francisco X. Alarcon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?chicano-blood-tranfusion

Read other authors. Go back to books you started and never finished and finish them, keep a journal, workshop with peers, submit your writings and celebrate the rejections. Be your toughest critic. Edit, Edit, Edit!

***For more on Edward Vidaurre, see:

Artist Profile: Denice Frohman

Name: Denice Frohman

Hometown: New York City

What is your earliest memory of writing?

In high school I had a special notebook where I wrote raps and jokes. Those were the two artistic forms of expression where I thought I could really be myself. At that time, I thought poetry sounded a particular way and nothing like me, so I steered clear of that until college.

How did you become a writer?

That’s a tough question because I think “becoming” a writer is something I’m constantly doing in a sense. Paying attention to my voice and how it evolves and develops feels like a supernatural thing to me. But to answer your question in a more straightforward way, I really stumbled into it. I didn’t know a world of writing and performance existed for me until college, but once I was introduced to writers that were speaking in a language that was familiar to me everything was a flood. I wrote frantically, filling up notepads, and finding a new thirst for understanding myself and the world around me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I feel like this is something I’m constantly developing a new understanding of: the “what works for me” question. And truthful it changes. I do know I’ve always liked writing very late at night. and I think it has to do with my subconscious taking over. In terms of writing the poem itself, often times the first line of a poem ends up somewhere in the middle of whatever I end up with, so that I’m really filling out what’s missing in the beginning and end. However, if I have a strong first line that captures some kind of unnamable feeling I have, then that’s always a good sign that the writing will flow a lot easier. I hate the feeling that I’m forcing something. It also means that I write way more poems than I end up finishing and I’m okay with that, because I think these freewrites (which I always save) lead me to the poems I really need to be writing.

What are you working on now?

My first manuscript of poetry.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I have and it’s quiet frustrating, but it’s always less about the writing itself and more about what I have going on elsewhere in my brain.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, and my students.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

  • The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Sister Outsider
  • La Frontera/Borderlands

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

Tell your version of the truth. Write authentically. There are so many reasons to be silent, often times I look into those rooms for what I need to say. Worry less about “how good it is” and more about whether you’re writing honestly. Chances are the more you write about the things you care about, the more the audience will respond to that.

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***For more on Denice Frohman, see:

Learning How to Leverage Leadership at #LTCNewYorkCity

On the second day of the Latina/o Theatre Commons New York City Regional Convening (#LTCNewYorkCity), attendees chose between three tracks: aesthetics, identity, and leadership. While I recognized the value in each track, I chose leadership. I wanted to learn more about how to become a stronger leader and hear more about other arts leaders’ experiences in their respective communities. In recent years, I’ve come into more leadership roles, but, as expected, I’m not always sure how to best position myself and negotiate my privileges in different spaces. So what did I learn on the leadership track at #LTCNewYorkCity?

The leadership track took place in Teatro SEA’s intimate theatre space at The Clemente in the Lower East Side. The panel consisted of Jacob Padrón (Artistic Director of The Sol Project), Stephanie Ybarra (Director of Special Artistic Projects at The Public Theater), Nikko Kimzin (NYC-based actor and arts entrepreneur), and Sharifa Johka (FAIR Experience Manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

After everyone in the theatre introduced themselves, Padrón led us in a popcorn brainstorming session centered on the word “leadership.”

Inspirational, visionary, authenticity, risk taker, driven, political, listener, innovator, strategist, accountable, colleague, conviction, impact, empathy, shared, ingenuity, learner, fearless, courageous, inclusive, not crazy, wholesome/whole, communicator, flexible, all-embracing, curiosity, charismatic, aware, reflective, honest, respectful, passionate.

While our group popcorn session certainly tested Padrón and Kimzin’s quick spelling (and we learned that Noe Montez placed 19th in the National Spelling Bee), it was generative to hear what other theatre artists associate with leadership.

Next, Padrón asked panelists Ybarra and Johka what being an agent of change means to them. How do they use leadership to tell the types of stories they want to tell? How do they leverage leadership to affect change?

Ybarra encouraged us to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What kind of leader do you want to be?
  • What kind of producer do you want to be?
  • Which decision most aligns with my values?

Essentially, each leader needs their own personal mission, vision, and values that drive forward their work. In addition, Ybarra prioritizes hiring people who share her values and can take care of the people in the room.

Johka doesn’t think about the word “leadership.” In the beginning, she thought that everyone wanted to be a leader and then realized that it is a politic. As a person of color in a primarily White institution, her leadership style is to hold the door open and help situate people in the organization who can become allies later on.

Both Ybarra and Johka stressed the importance of cultivating relationships with allies, finding peer groups, and identifying collaborators within and outside of your institution.

The next portion of the leadership track was spent in small groups discussing what leadership means to us. Each group was tasked with creating a mission statement, finishing the following prompt: “An agent of change in the American theatre is _____________.”

  • Group 1: An agent of change in the American theatre understands their power and privilege and uses that purpose to build resources, opportunity, and equity to dismantle white supremacy, isolation, and ignorance by actively organizing and building alliances that come together around core values.
  • Group 2: As agents of change, our mission is to identify the strengths and areas of growth needed in myself in order to actively inspire and challenge the American Theatre to grow and take active responsibility in changing the landscape. Let’s make sure there’s room at the table for those need to be heard and bandwidth to support it.
  • Group 3: An agent of change in the Theatre of the Americas mindfully creates a home with the community where everyone is welcome and able to define their own agency and to make art that reflects, challenges, and helps shape the values and narratives of their community.
  • Group 4: Being an agent of change in the American theatre means localizing, sharing leadership (past, present and future), and being the resource.

The conversation then shifted to mentorship. While it was beneficial to hear others comment on their relationships as mentees and mentors, perhaps the most productive portion of the session was the one-on-one mentorship speed-dating. In pairs, we discussed our specific mentorship style. Since my partner was also a professor, we discussed the balance between teaching and mentoring and how those lines can become blurred based on the types of courses we teach.

While the leadership track certainly offered its fair share of constructive takeaways, I find that LTC events are best understood by looking at the whole. Leadership was on display throughout the weekend. In addition to Jacob Padrón, Rebecca Martínez and David Mendizábal flexed their leadership muscles time and time again, leading by example and showing attendees what dynamic leadership looks like in real time. The artistic collective of The Sol Project was launching their ambitious initiative the same weekend (congrats to Hilary Bettis and the creative team of Alligator!). LTC Producer Abigail Vega continues to amaze and inspire me to become a better leader.

To conclude, there is no conclusion. Becoming a stronger leader is a never-ending process. I still have much to learn and am thankful for events such as #LTCNewYorkCity that give me a crash-course into different ways to become a more effective arts leader.

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From PARTY PEOPLE to INTO THE WOODS

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the ambitious and necessary Party People by UNIVERSES at The Public Theater in New York City. Weaving oral histories of members of the Black Panthers Party and the Young Lords Party with the contemporary sociopolitical climate, Party People is an incredibly powerful multi-sensory and genre-bending performance that left me inspired (Clips here, here, and here). Come to find out, my day was teeming with inspiration, at times from the unlikeliest of places. When I left the theatre, I met with playwright Maria Alexandria Beech on Lafayette St. She had just seen The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, the new documentary about Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 musical that closed after only 16 performances and has since become an iconic Broadway musical. While I was jacked up about Party People, our conversation quickly went to Sondheim (as can happen with two musical theatre nerds). “I love Sondheim. I do,” I confessed to Alex. This shouldn’t have been news, but I felt the need to tell my Twitter bestie (who I was just meeting in person for the first time!)… Sondheim inspires me (and so does Alex).

So while my brain has been in theatre overload this week, still living in the powerful performances of Party People and Vietgone, I was also looking forward to seeing Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). I was looking to be inspired in a different way.

Full disclosure: I’m an Into the Woods junkie. It’s not my favorite Sondheim show; I’m not even sure it would be in my top 5, but I love it. Whether it’s both cast recordings, the filmed Broadway version, the movie, or Fiasco Theater’s masterfully stripped-down Off-Broadway revival, I’ve enjoyed every iteration of the show that I’ve come across. So when TUTS announced their season with Into the Woods filling the slot usually reserved for holiday-themed shows, I marked it on my calendar as a must-see in the Houston theatre season.

While I’ve never been one to formally review theatre, I do want to give some takeaways from TUTS’s top-notch production of Into the Woods.

  • Nearly 30 years after it first opened, there are no surprises with Into the Woods. The first act gives us the happily-ever-after of our famed fairytale characters and our lead duo—The Baker and The Baker’s Wife. Act two shows us what happens after the happily-ever-after. In short, happily-ever-after doesn’t exist. At least not as we know it. I must confess: my interest in the show begins to peak once Sondheim begins maiming and killing off characters. I’ve always enjoyed a dark musical and act two is indeed dark.
  • The Baker’s Wife’s Shoes. Confession. Anytime the superb Stephanie Gibson was on stage, I simply could not take my eyes away from her shoes. I couldn’t. When she tried to give Cinderella those blue and yellow shoes, I was a little jealous that she wasn’t gifting them to me. Not that I had a gold slipper or anything, but I digress. All of this is to say that the design team knocked it out of the park. Not only were Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes well-realized across the board, but Kevin Depinet’s scenic design was lush, filling Sarofim Hall in ways I’ve seldom seen. Even so, I had a hard time paying attention to the show whenever the actors were near the lip of the stage because I was afraid they would slide right into the orchestra pit. While the design choice to have the set extend into the pit was visually appealing, it took me out of the show more often than not.
  • Emily Skinner as the Witch. I’ll be honest, it took me some time to warm up to Skinner. And this isn’t entirely Skinner’s fault. One of the issues with iconic characters is that audiences inevitably will associate them with the actor who created the role. In this case, I find it impossible to think of Into the Woods and not think of Bernadette Peters. Once I forgot about Peters, I was able to live in Skinner’s world. In many ways, Skinner breaks the mold for the Witch and the opening of “Last Midnight” is just what I needed last night.
  • By this point Into the Woods has surely been produced every conceivable way, but Robert Longbottom’s direction took the show to new places at times (for me, at least). The show began with a bare stage, save for a costume rack and actors dressed in simple black clothes. They ran to the rack, grabbed their costumes, and the show began. Interesting. Unfortunately, except for a few moments (such as when Cinderella gets her ball gown), this concept wasn’t revisited until the show’s finale. After killing the giant, The Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red come out in contemporary black clothes. They now seem to be reflecting on not only the story they are in, but the story they have just told. During “Children Will Listen,” the adult actors enter dressed in black while child actors accompany them dressed in miniature versions of the iconic adult costumes. At first, I questioned this choice, but by the end of the song, it put a smile on my face. If anything, I thought it was a beautiful touch to give these kids an opportunity to perform in a professional production of Into the Woods.
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in "Party People" by UNIVERSES

Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in “Party People” by UNIVERSES

Scholars: Up for Multiple Roles in the Movement

Though the United States is quickly approaching a Latinx majority (2044 is the projected year), Latinx theatre remains largely invisible despite the presence of some high-profile artists—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Karen Zacarías, Melinda Lopez—and a robust national movement spearheaded by the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC). One place it’s increasingly visible, though, is among scholars, who have been welcomed and woven into the fabric of the LTC. Why are scholars suddenly being so thoroughly taken into the fold now? Where have they been all these years? And might they have a role in increasing the wider visibility of a movement that’s gained increased coherence and purpose in recent years?

Scholarship around Latino theatre—or teatro, as it’s commonly known in the movement—traces its origins to Jorge Huerta, who received his doctorate in 1974, becoming not only the first Chicano with a Ph.D in theatre but also the first person to formally study Latino theatre. By the turn of the 21st century, enough scholars had done graduate work in Latino theatre and performance that Irma Mayorga, assistant professor of theatre at Dartmouth College, and Ramón Rivera-Servera, associate professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, were able to found the Latina/o Focus Group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

Still, there haven’t been many scholars studying teatro. That began to change in 2013, when the LTC emerged with a national convening at Emerson College in Boston. The newly formed LTC steering committee met with Latino theatremakers from a diverse array of artistic disciplines, regions, career stages, genders, and sexual orientations. In partnership with HowlRound, the LTC formed to create, in its official words, a “national movement that uses a commons-based approach to transform the narrative of the American theatre, to amplify the visibility of Latina/o performance making, and to champion equity through advocacy, art making, convening, and scholarship.”

Continue reading at American Theatre Magazine.

Artist Profile: Malcolm Friend

Name: Malcolm Friendmalcolm-friend-2

Hometown: Seattle, Washington

Residence: Pittsburgh, PA

What is your earliest memory of writing?

This isn’t a memory of writing, exactly, but I remember that when I was really young (it was either pre-school or early elementary), my older sister had a goldfish. I used to draw pictures to place behind its fishbowl and as I drew them I would be coming up with stories behind them—almost like a movie or maybe even a TV episode since they always seemed to revolve around the same characters. In terms of my first memory of actually writing down some of those stories, it has to be third grade. We had journals we were required to write in and I would always write stories in them, fictions where my friends and classmates were the main characters.

How did you become a writer?

My mom likes to tell this story where I was first learning how to write and I kept bugging her to teach me some letter or spelling and I told her “I have to know because I’m gonna be a writer when I grow up.” While I have no idea whether or not that story is real (I take her word for it most times; sometimes I think it’s a sort of origin myth), I do know that I “became” a writer fairly early in life and really do have to go back to those early journaling experiences. There was a certain joy they brought to writing and also a certain ritual. There was a specific time of day every day that we were supposed be writing. When I switched schools in fifth grade, journaling was still a requirement, where we had to produce a certain number of pages per week for homework in Language Arts. All of that got me into the ritual of writing and the practice of setting time aside to write. By the time I was in seventh grade I had fashioned myself a writer and knew that’s what I wanted to be.

Tell us about your writing process.

My writing process starts before there’s any actual writing done. I’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, just repeating a line (in my head and out loud) that I’m obsessed with but don’t know how to place a full poem around. I’ll do this on the bus, in between classes, between grading papers, as much as I need to until I get another line or two that I think I can base the poem around.

Once I actually start writing, it pretty much always starts with music. I grew up in a household where music was frequently present. My dad puts on music whenever there’s nothing on TV and my mom plays music sometimes when she cooks and pretty much always whenever she decides it’s a cleaning day in the house, especially around the holidays. I got used to working with music in the background, to moving with a beat in my head. Plus growing up with three siblings I just got used to noise being in the house and kind of need it to work. If what I’m writing is related to a specific artist or song (as it frequently is), I’ll listen to that artist or song on repeat while I’m writing. Otherwise I put on reggaetón, because the beats are so repetitive and it allows me to stay within sort of the same space mentally.

As I’m writing I’m also saying everything out loud (or wording it, depending on whether or not other people are in the room). That way if anything sounds kind of funky, I can just scrap it immediately or change it into something similar that sounds better, or even switch up the order of the poem to where the different grouping of words sounds better. I keep up with this until I have a draft of poem that I feel satisfied with, sometimes meaning I feel the poem is done or just needs minor edits, others meaning I’m ready to share them with other people and get feedback on them, and then some others that the poem itself isn’t going anywhere but I feel I’ve gained something from the writing process and from writing that poem in particular.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, which will hopefully turn into my first manuscript. The work is really drawing off of my experiences growing up in a mixed cultural household (my mom being African American, my dad Puerto Rican), and how different influences (friends, family, pop culture, literature) affect how you interact with or claim a cultural heritage. In it I’m also interested in looking at different iterations of blackness across the diaspora as both of my parents are part of the African diaspora and, regardless of what heritage or heritages I claim, my body is read as such—as black—in many spaces around the world.

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Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Absolutely. There are good days for writing, when everything is running smoothly and there are bad days, when every line I write comes with difficulty and feels like the worst thing I’ve ever written. Usually I take it to mean I’m too much wrapped up in myself and not open to letting the poem take me anywhere. At that point I usually find some household chore that needs to be done (do the dishes, cook dinner, etc.) in order to pull myself out of my head for a little while until I’m ready to get back into that writing space.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

In terms of writers, I absolutely have to name Langston Hughes first. Hughes was the first poet I read and enjoyed and a good deal of my early poetry was me trying to imitate Hughes—the first form I learned was Blues and the Blues poem. And then I also have to writers like Rita Dove, Kevin Young, and Martin Espada, who gave me contemporary examples of things I wanted to write about.

In terms of teachers I have to give a shout out to Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles, and Beth Bachmann, who were all teachers of mine in college. I point to Jarman because it was during his poetry workshop as a junior in college that I realized I wanted to seriously be a poet (I had originally come into college wanting to be a fiction writer). He was also the person who turned me onto Espada, lending me his copies of both Imagine the Angels of Bread and City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. I point out Hilles and Bachmann because they believed in me and worked with me my senior year of college. I highlight this because it showed me the importance of teaching to writing, and what having people in your corner can do for a young writer. And along those lines I also have to highlight Yona Harvey here at Pitt. As my first graduate workshop teacher, she really whipped me into shape and helped get my poems. But she did it in such a nurturing way that I never felt like I couldn’t write and I could tell that it was out of care. She was also the first Black writing instructor I had ever had and that was a big for me. Her presence alone was an affirmation to my place in an MFA program but also her comments on some of my work, pointing out that certain things reminded her of experiences she was familiar with, affirmed me as a writer.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes– I first learned to write poetry by reading it and Hughes was a big part of that, really what made me want to continue writing poetry. During my junior year of college I checked out a copy from the Seattle Public Library and just kept renewing it, hoping no one would place a hold on it and that I’d have to take it back.

Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove- This wasn’t the first book by Dove that I read but it’s probably the one that sticks with me the most. Thomas and Beulah got me thinking much more so about how poetry can serve as something to document history and in particular to document family history.

La Carreta Made a U-turn by Tato Laviera- This book was big for me because going into my junior year of college I had never read a Puerto Rican author before. I mentioned Jarman turning me onto Martin Espada, and that made me want more. The Vanderbilt library had copies of all of Laviera’s poetry collections, and I dug in, completely caught by Laviera’s attention to Afrolatinidad and the connection between different populations in the African diaspora. Laviera was the first Afro-Latinx poet I read and made me feel for the first time that I didn’t have to choose between being Black or Puerto Rican because I could be both.

Reggaeton, edited by Wayne Marshall, Deborah Pacini Hernandez, and Raquel Rivera- This is a recent add to the list and the only scholarly/critical text, but I turned to this book last year while working on a project about Puerto Rican national music and what claiming reggaetón as Puerto Rican means. Going through the book and seeing how much a part of the African diaspora reggaetón is (having ties to Jamaican dancehall and hip hop in the States, being tied to Afro-Panamanian reggae en español, growing in San Juan neighborhoods populated by poor Afro-Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, etc.), reggaetón became something that I started writing not just through but about.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

First, read. A lot. I first learned how to write poetry by trying to imitate the writers I loved to read. And I’m not saying “just reproduce what’s already been done because that’s the only way to write,” but rather that there are things to learn from other writers. Some writers will teach you imagery, some will teach you form, somehow to turn a phrase—and good writers will take lessons and techniques from the writers they enjoy reading and turn them into tools for their own benefit.

The second piece of advice is to find a writing family. And there are a number of ways to do this, whether through school clubs, classes, or even outside workshops. It’s just that there’s this idea that writing is something solitary and I think that’s only half-true. Absolutely you need time by yourself, away from distractions, in order to reflect and write. But you really get better by opening that up to the world; by both opening yourself to critique through sharing your work and by surrounding yourself with other writers who push you to stay on top of your game with their own work.

***For more on Malcolm Friend, see:malcolm-friend-1