We continue with our conversation with Leo Romeo Valentino about his collection of poetry titled, my heartbreaking jibberjabber. In part I of the interview, Leo Rome Valentino says, regarding his life as a poet, “I don’t think poets are made. I don’t think I was made into a poet, even by biographical elements.” Leo Romeo Valentino also talks about his poems called, “The Wound Series.” He says, “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.” To read part I of the interview, please click here.
JS: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Chinatown Fruit Market.” The poem reads at the end, “We are both grateful/& I open the bag/ to bury its seeds.” Then I said to myself, “I’m grateful, I’m gratefruitful.” I think I like the poem because it’s like play dough and I can make something else with it in my mind and because I have a sense of place, a New York place. Do you write to make a poem likable? What makes a poem likable to you? Does it matter if a poem is likable?
LRV: I definitely don’t think about or consider likability when producing art, at all. I can definitely be self conscious about a poem or have questions, but that’s not the same as likability. To be self conscious is to question myself whether or not I have upheld a certain piece to the best of my ability; to be concerned with likability is adding a thousand chains to my neck and giving away the handles to invisible anybodies who can still throw the handles down. I would imagine likability to be antithetical to poetry or the arts, and would say only artifice could be constructed, and it could only be constructed and not created, if likability were a variable in its production, as opposed to a live, dynamic, conversation between what the artist knows and what the artist knows they need to express. To be concerned with likability is to throw out God during the artist’s process and replace him with an emptied face anybody. Rumi has no idea his impact as of now, he wasn’t even writing poems, he said, here, this is my best at capturing love in words, let us both rejoice. It’s really a task unto love and for love and for nobody else.
If anything, I’m more concerned about clarity and communication – especially as I simultaneously try to evoke a sense of yugen. Even if the poetic idea is absurd, I’d like to achieve a certain level of clarity that makes the absurdity understood and visible as it stands, even if mysterious in nature or design. However, the poem should make the reader make a poetic and imaginative decision, and a poem must remain the clear line in the sand and the sword that drew it. Nietzsche said the role of the artist is to bring up the dark recesses of the collective subconscious. Behold or don’t behold, some poems exist. An old dicho says: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; I say beauty exists without the beholder.
JS: I don’t recall any angry poems in your collection. Is anger also a source of your poetry?
LRV: This collection represents poems that have survived moving from Minnesota to Texas to NYC over more than ten years, through moving from a hostel to homeless shelters to my first apartment; there have been collections which have been lost during this time, digitally and in paper journals. Shortly after finishing grad school, I had to decide how I was going to keep writing poetry. I decided I would just write it when it naturally comes to me, and I would do my best to type up, save, and email what I could. I have lost about 3 disk drives that had several manuscripts worth of writings. And so MHJ represents the remnants of poems that were written in the time that the inspiration came to write them.
Thinking about anger also makes me think about happiness – of which I’m neither while writing. If anger is a source, then its movement and destination would be poetry in this question; I think poetry is the movement towards understanding and revelation, no matter the original state, perhaps this is very zen in nature, constantly alchemizing an idea or feeling, as opposed to being lost in sentimentality
JS: You also play with the form of the poems. Why do you do that?
LRV: Several reasons. Practically speaking, I handwrite a lot, if not most, of my poems via handwriting, and the structures naturally arise as they do. A lot of time the structure guides the language, and so first the structure appears although naturally with the language. “While in the sea still wandering” is a good example, in that that was handwritten, and the spaces are as similar to what was in the journal.
“Branches”, I think is a good example as to when I am consciously changing form. I was really trying to make “Branches”, which originally reminded me of Frost, a post-structural Robert Frost piece, if I can be that open about my ambitions; it was a simultaneous recognition of the type of poem I had produced, but also the opportunity to transform it into something more modern or post modern.
To be quite blunt, I can get bored with poems that stay on the margin or spine. I’m very much influenced by structuralist, counterstructuralists, antistructuralists, ie: modernists and postmodernists, etc, who challenged even the typography as a dimensionality to consider within the world of poetry. I think Apollinaire’s horse is a good example as to where poetry can go in terms of structure. Being that generationally, I come well after the “futurists”, I feel prompted to propel poetry even further than this through structure.
I also feel that creating structures creates its own lyrical vacuum; that certain structures can create a poem within a poem, and there are some poems which can be read or interpreted horizontally or vertically. I once read this academic article describing James Joyce’s Eulysses as a hypertext, and I wanted to challenge myself in making this, somehow, in poetry, particularly and literally structurally.
JS: In our previous conversation, you said your relationship with Spanish was a relation of trust. Can you elaborate on it?
LRV: Yes. I used the word ‘confianza’. I also said I need confianza to speak to somebody in Spanish, that when I have confianza with somebody, it brings out my best Spanish. I can definitely have casual conversation in general, but being in love with someone who speaks Spanish opens up my fluency. When I love and trust somebody, Spanish flows from me very easily. Romantically speaking, I cannot open my heart enough to feign interest to speak Spanish with somebody if there is no feeling, or especially if there is mistrust, or if the feeling is off. Because I associate Spanish with intimacy, I am on some level beyond protective who I share that with. I think that when I’m speaking Spanish, it is a confluence of the various best parts of what I have learned from my herencia. I esteem Spanish, so if I’m talking with someone who is disrespectful in Spanish, my Spanish naturally shuts down, the speaker sounds like the teacher from Charlie Brown, and I not only just auditorily shut the person off, but I’m liken to leave the scene. I want to clarify these are in examples of negative social interactions, on any level. Why put in the labor translating into Spanish when the other person hasn’t valued me or my input in the first place? When I start switching codes and start speaking Spanish, I feel like I’m glowing with a particular energy; so why give that energy to someone who’s made their disrespect known? If the disrespect is too much, both my heart and brain, which are both connected to my Spanish, just won’t care and I won’t see a reason for communication, which at that point would be more an overt act of labor for the sake of translating, which here I distinguish from communicating, and my exit would be my final say.
JS: Leo Romeo Valentino is a pseudonym, something that is not found as frequently in today’s literature. People use pseudonyms to protect themselves from persecution or freely talk about specific ‘taboo’ topics. What’s your purpose in using a pseudonym?
LRV: Even before the “pseudonym” — which I would identify as penname or stage name, and really it’s essentially also a brand name which represents the production behind any and all of its artistry, ie: the book cover designers and illustrators for the book, much like “Sade” doesn’t refer to the individual singer but the band name – so, even before the stage name LRV, there were several artistic practices I kept: drawing, photography, poetry, walking and spinning – as in voguing, very experimental music production, underground ballroom and street fashion, mostly, among other things. These were all arts I not only had a history with, but I still had an artistic drive and vision that would carry me through time – but, especially so during a 3-4 year stay in the homeless shelters in Harlem and the Bronx. I also felt compelled to keep up with different arts after having lost Grandfather of the House of Xtravaganza Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza, as well as Lewis Warsh, that I saw a need to continue, and that I had major artistic responsibilities.
So, over time, I had a collection of photography, drawings, volumes of poetry edited and unedited – I also lost volumes of poetry that I really wish I could magically retrieve – I was beginning to systematize my writing and branch more into non-fictional, theoretical based essays regarding race and systems of oppression. I was very much involved in my own independent research, and also in my own ‘writing studio’, just the construction of intended time in the space of the shelter unit, which was perhaps more a laboratory of experimental thought and a combination of various texts. Absurd as it sounds, I was also getting very precise and fast and coordinated in my voguing, particularly the spins. But most of all, I was just content with being at a place where I could organize my own artistic outlets, even if I hadn’t any official outlet or venue or whatever for my art.
Hector Xtravaganza once told me I was a 007. In ballroom terms, a 007 is someone who can go into a ballroom and “kill” the scene all on their own without a house; he was recognizing that I would go into clubs, with my outfit I designed, and I would walk and spin and my vogue would “kill” the scene. He also recognized that I would do my own thing in the future, and I believed I would do my own thing within vogue and the ballroom scene, but I just didn’t know when or how, I just knew that I needed to keep with my spins and my walk.
Because Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza put that seed in me, having me believe I could stand on my own two feet in the ballroom scene, I really started to seriously consider thinking about stage names. Later on, I would be introduced to Larry Banks who introduced me to Kenyatta Beasley, and so that moreso solidified that idea that maybe I should start thinking about stage names even more. But also, in NYC, nicknames are a part of the culture and tradition, and one of the names I got in Harlem was Leo, and I liked it because someone once told me of my hair that I looked like Mufasa, and it prompted me to name my Xanga account “MufasaSpeaks” in grade school; it felt fitting in my heart to be likened to a lion and I wanted to keep it so I did. The name Leo Romeo Valentino existed as an idea for a stage name for a while in general, because I had this feeling like I needed to artistically prepare for something.
At some point, Ollie from Everybody Press reaches out to me and says that he had started this press and if I was interested I could send him some poems. I had actually been working on a manuscript for some time, which I wanted to be like a modern found object – perhaps anomalistic in nature, given the mythological odes although also contemporary in terms of the incorporated photography and drawings – almost as if found in a regular 8.5X11 journal dropped from Mount Olympus or the like. Even after re-reading the manuscript, it became apparent to me that certain tropes for me were inescapable, and some of these tropes were, I almost hate to say, as basic as love; further, the subjectivity of love was something I knew I couldn’t escape in the future. Beyond that, I also cannot, poetically speaking, escape from certain mythological tropes or perspectives. Trying to be as distal and looking as distally from these tropes, the name LRV kept growing on me as a distinct possibility of something that, in a name, describes what my poetry and art produces – it was lush, it was grand, but there was a precision and visceral nature that came out naturally when I was intuitively trying to combine feeling with language.
I’m also very deeply inspired by artists who name themselves. There is a power to name and identify oneself artistically. The whole name thing, as an artist, was and is critical, exactly because it’s like a self-aware self-birthing, which can only occur after much meditation and thinking, and it is not only an introduction and assimilation into the world, but also an understated responsibility to uphold certain lineages and traditions. Very loosely but definitely connected, I was also always a fan of superheroes, and thought there was a connection between how some artists adopted a different name as that artist, and when a superhero transformed from their alter ego and alter ego’s name. I see this at an intersectionality which is important for the artist as a visible influence to the world, to identify themselves as clearly as possible, to communicate their art further.
At this point, we, Everybody Press and I, had not only proceeded with paperwork about the book, although under my real name, but had also discussed that I would be the Poet in Resident, which would entail creating various artistic projects, etc. One of the things was that I was given permission and support to begin my own voguing house. Especially because this vogue house idea had been accepted, and because I knew the book was coming out soon, that I saw a combination of different artistic threads come together, that I asked Ollie if it was or wasn’t too late to change the name to Leo Romeo Valentino, and that there could be a house and that house could be the House of Leo Romeo Valentino; he said yes, and the rest is history with that.
And then, much later, to my discovery around the publication date, I found out that my photography and drawings would be and are in the process of being made into their own book; and so everything came together just sticking to my artistic routines and somehow magically, by luck, by chance, by sheer good will of the universe, that Ollie and Everybody Press came to me and supported various avenues which would allow me to express these arts; everything just came together in its own time, albeit a jumble of various things, including the name.
Leo Romeo Valentino, Can I say I’m gratefruitful in this case?
Leo Romeo Valentino, was born in Fort Worth’s Museum District, and I grew up in the North Side. I’ve been a community organizer and civil rights leader and activist in various cities nationally. I’ve also been 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.