When I held the collection of poems, admiring the beautiful cover, what most caught my attention was the author’s name, ‘Leo Romeo Valentino.’ Who is so lucky to be called like that? It wasn’t just the sound of the vowels but also the remembrance of Valentino, the actor, Romeo, the tragic character of Shakespeare, and Leo, well, the astrological sign. By contrast, the title has this weird made-up word Jibberjabber that seems to self-deprecate the poet’s work. It took me a moment to assimilate the word, the title, and the author’s name. For all our readers, consider that name and title by themselves serve as appetizers for Leo Romeo Valentino’s first collection of poems.
Leo Romeo Valentino (I need to say all these three names), thank you for granting this interview.
LRV: First of all, thank you for that wonderful introduction. It’s an honor to be interviewed by such a great poet. I would say, though, that it is: Leo, of course for the lion, but for me, I was born named Daniel and thrown into life’s lions’ den but became a lion myself; Romeo for the prefix connecting the name to “romantic”, in that the name would be the identifier of one of or from romance; Valentino for the saint and all the gruesome labors of love. The name itself is very etymologically intentional and weighted with each names’ histories. I appreciate how you liken the name and title as appetizers, I wanted the readers to know what was the meal and who was the chef – I hope it’s not too late or early to say Bon Appetit.
JS: As I started writing this interview, I read the second stanza of the “Flash non-fiction autobiographical poetry memoir,” which reads, “How to summarize a personality that isn’t about the resumés: the champions coached: the destiny’s fulfilled: how the rockets launched: How the stars all twinkled…” The question to ask here is what biographical elements make you a poet.
LRV: First, I’d have to say I don’t know what else makes a poet a poet, except the practice of writing poetry. I guess there are definitely biographical occurrences which can affect one’s poetry. I should also say that poetry is beyond any one individual poet. I guess there’s also a question of is a poet ‘made’, when really the authenticity exists or it doesn’t, and one can choose to practice as best as possible, theoretically. I don’t think poets are made. I don’t think I was made into a poet, even by biographical elements, which I’m trying to specify, exactly; I’m interpreting that in two ways: how are my poems biographical, and also what life events led me to poetry specifically.
I think that, for me, writing and reading are very interconnected. I learned how to read at a very young age, my mother would take me to the library regularly. There were two books I’d ask my mother to read to me every night, and she was surprised when I began to read them; at first, she thought I had memorized the books, but then she started pointing towards different sentences and words, and she saw I was reading them.
It might also sound like a very small occurrence, but I remember the moment I saw somebody writing with ink on paper with a regular pen, and I remember when I first held a pen and witnessed ink on paper, and at that moment I thought it was such a powerful thing, because it meant I could potentially write something like a book or really that anything my hand could do with a pen on a blank paper was my limit. It was really a life changing event to witness that somehow made a deep impact on me and the recognition of creative possibility. Specifically, I was also recognizing that a paper could turn into an object by the work of the hand.
It’s really difficult to answer a question that is basically biographical, given the constraints of the magazine – I’m trying to do my best. I guess there are moments which signaled for me artistry. I always, since I was a kid, had a dream of playing the violin. When I switched schools, to a larger district, my new school now had an orchestra, and I knew I wanted to join. I tried joining in the 4th grade, but my parents said no. I tried again in the 5th grade, my parents said no again, but it was the last year of elementary school, so I signed up anyway. It came very naturally to me. In less than a couple months, I auditioned for a youth orchestra and got in as a first violin, where we played at a major venue. In middle school and high school, I would maintain my position as first violin, concert master, and soloist, where we won various competitions. It was in middle school, however, that I got accepted from the largest pool of auditions for a youth orchestra, as that year Daniel Heifitz and his orchestra were playing at the Bass Performance Hall, and this orchestra would serve as the accompaniment, and I got into that youth orchestra, barely, as a first violin – but I think that was a barely because somebody was talking to me during the auditions and I did respond briefly. My point though is that that was a signal to me that arts could be a possibility for a future, and that my artistic output was at a particular level.
Fast forward to college, I end up taking a poetry class with Wang Ping, who tells me after sharing the very first poem, that I was a poet and I needed to keep writing poetry. Being that I was first generation from a very humble economic background, I just did not see poetry as a possibility. I did enjoy creative writing classes, however, so I kept taking them. There was this strange fork in the road where I won the Loft Inroads Fellowship in poetry, and needed to choose a major for school. If it wasn’t for the Loft fellowship, I probably would have chosen to be a pre-med student, but instead saw that was a plausible sign that my poetry could actually make an impact in poetry and art. I will say that my friends were the ones who encouraged me to compile the poems, fill out the application, and mail the materials to the Loft – I was really very skeptical, but I’m still largely this skeptical of my work even now, and I think that’s a good thing because it keeps my creativity at edge.
I basically maintained my practice of writing poetry. I think the real test for me were the moments when I was going through homelessness, or when I was in the homeless shelters. Those were difficult, because the focus is basic survival and yet poetry requires time, and in those moments, sometimes food can be the primary thought instead. So, while I would sit down and write or write when I could, a lot of this book represents poems I wrote in the spur of the moment, and I was able to keep the journal or file long enough to compile this work. During the struggle, I could have easily not written poems or done my art, but there was still an impulse to create coming through. Although, I also follow this impulse – I have a really good example.
I was living in a hostel in South Brooklyn, it was about 5 rooms and 40 plus people. I was grateful, though, because I had spent the last weeks hopping from place to place, and the hostel offered a nice bunk bed, it was cheap, and it did not ask for a deposit. That hostel was the most stability I had experienced for a while, but it made me reflect on how long my struggle with housing actually was – which began around like 2011 or 2012 in Texas, although my housing struggle didn’t get any easier after moving to NYC. Anyway, during this time, I started writing about my father, which I never ever did, ever. I don’t think much of them – I don’t even like them as ‘poems’, they originally didn’t have titles, but just ‘journal’ as the entry, because they weren’t necessarily poems, for me, but rather just bare thoughts about the whole situation. I wrote them, put them aside. A few weeks later, I get an email from a colleague/friend who says he’s putting together an anthology, that it was about fathers, fatherhood, and fathering, and if I had any relatable poems, to go ahead and send them his way for review. I said sure, knowing I had these quasi-poetic journal entries about my own father, and fast forward, it ended up in an anthology published by Palgrave, edited and selected by Gibran Guido. That’s just one example, but I found that listening to my artistic impulse has been a more fortunate decision than ignoring the impulse to write and not writing at all.
JS: Let’s talk about “The Wound Series.” Those are five poems with provocative titles. Reading the poems, I had a physical reaction, but at the same time, you’re talking about philosophical/ psychological concepts like “The Wound and Existentialism.” What’s the purpose of writing those series?
LRV: So, “the wound” is what I personally called the personal struggle I had in dealing with my paternal grandparents’ rejection of me and another family member in lieu of their pedophilic son; this is something I dealt with through the end of my 20s, and I had to really consciously bring to the forefront very real questions of pain, while also practicing compassion, understanding, and forgiveness in the deepest sense, in that processing through that allowed me to grow and be the “bigger person” in understanding my grandparents’ positionality, and really learning how to fulfill my newly found adulthood, starting my 30s, in a way where I was acknowledging, processing, and working through what was this chronic emotional pain I had been acutely aware of but hadn’t yet processed.
This led me to a deep meditation on wounds and healing, the very real ways that emotions are connected to physiological health, while also researching on Bodhisattvas and notions of human suffering and understanding.
It was really when my maternal grandmother died that it prompted me to seek peace with my paternal grandparents. My maternal grandmother would encourage me to call and speak with my paternal grandparents, but I would always refuse – honestly, because I thought my maternal grandmother would live forever. When she died, it made me really reevaluate how I was living, and I knew I wanted to keep her lessons and her way of life, which was going to require a radical change, and therefore a radical shift in my thinking. I had been practicing meditation since 2007, and so it felt natural that this shift would arise, and I now had a valid reason to live by my grandmother’s very strict words.
Living by my grandmother’s words meant I would have to face my own paternal grandparents in terms of forgiveness, and so I had to figure out my own wound, but that led me to an exploration of “wounds”, how individual and universal they are. I was interested in creating a set of texts which would create the language of survivors and witnesses, those who are left in the ravages not only to process what just occurred, but to create a language which would communicate their experience. I was engrossed in the psychological nuance of the process of psychological or emotional wounds, much like Kant described his liminality of beauty – going as far to describe the visual pathway of beauty to the eye, I wanted to map out how wounds interact with the spirit and the body.
Similar to how I wanted to make the book like an 8.5X11 journal and found object, I was also, through the Wound Series, attempting to create a living guide through trauma; I was hoping to create a language vast enough in the world of wounds and wounded people that the language would reverberate with anybody who was wounded at one point or still wounded while reading or hearing the poem, and that the poem itself would guide them through the healing process. I once read that poems were akin to amulets and talisman, and I was hoping to create a healing amulet through the Wound Series. The Wound Series is also supposed to be an homage to “Montage of a Dream Deferred”. Originally also, the spine and pages of the Wound Series was meant to be gray and different from the rest of the book, so as to imitate the “Montage of a Dream Deferred” series in the Rampersand Edition of the Langston Hughes collection of poetry; so as to aesthetically pay homage to a montage I was trying to create, but with wounds instead of dreams deferred.
JS: I think “Deboning a Chicken” is a political poem. It’s not a harangue. It is a painstaking description of the deboning of a chicken that somehow made me think something like, “I should eat less meat.” Is that the way politics work in poetry? Is your poetry political? Can you give me some examples of that? If not, why?
LRV: I’m not sure the way politics works in poetry, or even how poetry, on a very grand scale, works; I’m certain I could just say yes, but then there’d be some poet’s work who antithetically disproves my point. To some extent, I couldn’t even tell you how my own poetry works, which is why I usually identify as the work that was produced and not the poem I wrote or authored – it’s primarily a very archetypal dance with language and sound and memory, but in the right moment, when and if I sit down, usually every poem is produced in less than 5 minutes, but that’s as far as I know for my poetry, much less poetry in general.
To that end, I think existing itself is political, and speaking especially so. Sometimes an artist creates an artifact which certain parties find threatening, and even if the artist’s original intent was to create art the artist ended up becoming object of great peril and evil beyond politics. I’m specifically thinking about the questionable nature surrounding Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s death, around the advent of her “Dictee”. Or how Yolanda Saldivar’s personal politics and mishandling of business led her to murder Selena – evil and power, unfortunately, in some shape, have a dark history with artists. Art is also ripe with artists who have been killed by some political movement, one way or the other, and so maybe identifying myself as an artist of any kind is already some kind of marker. I think here would necessarily need be a conversation pertaining to “political”, as it is such a tremendous word; I believe political in the broadest sense would be anything that creates any movement, no matter how small or big, overt or nuanced, or if they manifest as physical actions or immaterial thoughts, particularly if they affect object materialism and social “reality”, or personal or public opinions and thoughts.
Not to demystify the poetic interpretation, but I wrote “Deboning a Chicken”, practically from when I was on a tight budget where I could only buy big 10 pound bags of chicken thighs which were I think like .49 cents a pound, and I had a process of deboning the chickens and putting them in freezer bags. But while the whole process occurred, I realized I was systematizing how I would butcher and freeze these chickens. It’s also an extremely visually visceral experience, and one becomes more intimate than not with the anatomy of a chicken thigh, which is incredibly intricate to a point where I systematized how I would go about butchering and cutting the chicken to save time and exhaustion. I arrived at a point where I was thinking, poor chicken if it was alive although I was also very much aware of being desensitized to the smell, while also knowing full well I was going to enjoy whatever meal I cooked from it – to be conscionable of what has been the center of many ethical debates, but to also remove myself enough to fully engross myself in its process. From a free-market consumerist perspective, it was very Stanford Prison Experiment, almost, to be implicated in such a system. The whole thing just actually led me to some ethical and poetic meditations. To be clear, my intention was never to create a poem about animal rights – it still isn’t, neither the poem — but rather I was interested in converging poetic language and its visceral qualities with the long form of prose and paragraphs and flash fiction – that was probably at the base of my inspiration for this piece particularly.
My father taught me about colonization and the Civil Rights Movements when I was a very young kid, even taking out his encyclopedia and map of the world to show me which countries had colonized which other countries. And so, from a very young age, I’ve been aware of racial dynamics and histories, it’s something that is somewhat of an obsession. I taught a composition course at LIU Brooklyn called “Racism, Poverty, and Gentrification”; and so, personally speaking, I am deeply and personally invested in the intellectual understanding of race as a system and a dynamic, generally speaking.
When I was writing “Deboning a Chicken”, I was thinking about the general racist systems that were impacting Black and Latino bodies and communities in very real ways – although poetically, I used the color ‘white’, but that’s just because that’s how it came about while writing it, and I always go for the more poetic, not necessarily political, answer. I’m not one to blurt political typicalities to an audience, but being a queer man of color I uphold my responsibility to the community through my art. I represent my vision and voice as best as possible. Sometimes, a lot of the time, what I experience is beyond my own power. In this world and in this country, it’s not so much that politics are unavoidable, it’s that the colonial hegemony is a very real power structure which has its very real, numerical impacts on individuals and communities of color. I couldn’t be a poet and blind to these facts. I look at Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Gloria Anzaldua, Cheri Moraga, who upheld their responsibility as artists and who were still within the vein of being the voice of our inheritance. I see it as a special role with great responsibility, terrible risk, and frightening history; but it is absolutely a labor of love, and maybe the fact that it is a labor of love is probably what makes it so frighteningly political.
In the same way that I was thinking about how colonization, neo colonization, racism, and neo-racism impact the individual body in “Deboning a Chicken”, where the individual chicken is elevated as an object of systemic violence, “Chinatown Fruit Market” addresses, for me, the systemic violence projected onto entire communities. In CFM, the aisles are lined with dead, dying, decaying, bitten off-pieces of molded fruits, the voice is more a shocked survivor to see so much flesh; the lady does not use her bare hands, but must make-shift some bags into gloves that she draws from a coffin-like box, and the bag has no end – here I hoped to have given an image of endless, numberless death and massacre – until, alas, the narrator buries the seeds.
Again, I won’t overtly state words like “democrat” or “republican” in my poetry, but there are some pieces where the undertone is very overtly political movements. Poetry is bigger than politics though. I’m churning and combining and recombining and imagining and visualizing as I’m searching for the right words, sounds, and visions to create the poetic language that will unfold itself as the poem – I think the poem becomes interpreted as political because it has power, especially unintentionally so.
I know that walking through Chinatown’s fruit market was a real visceral experience, and it’s true that I would go to a lady for discounted fruit that was all molded, enough to become another dimension of thought from which, after much combining and recombining, became the visual playground from which emerged this poem. It’s just interesting how a simple regular walk can become a fitting metaphor for a poem.
Leo Romeo Valentino, I was born in Fort Worth’s Museum District, and I grew up on the North Side. I’ve been a community organizer and civil rights leader and activist in various cities nationally. I’ve also been a professor and administrator for various universities nationally; I held professor and administrative positions at three universities in NYC simultaneously during one time period. I started writing poetry in 2007 and have won national and international recognition and publication. I also vogue in and fashion design for underground ballrooms. I also draw and dabble in photography, and there is a new book coming out with both of those works. I’ve danced at Danspace and was invited to dance at the Smithsonian.