The three poets who will take the stage at the Queens Museum of Art this Saturday know what it is to straddle boundaries.
Formerly of Argentina, Colombia and Puerto Rico, the two Queens residents and one from the Bronx have left childhood homes behind, crossing waters to live in places wildly different from what they had once known, where they must speak other languages, navigate foreign cultures and translate what it means to be a poet on the United States’ East Coast.
On Saturday, Feb. 11, these three will draw upon their experiences and backgrounds, reading poems in Spanish and English in an effort to bring out people from the surrounding community to a literary event that focuses on the idea that everyone, no matter where you’re from or what language you speak, is always translating. That, for example, language changes not just when moving from, say, Spanish to English, but depending on whether you’re texting a friend, speaking on the phone with a parent or writing a — gasp — letter to a grandparent.
Titled “Poesia: Poe-SEE-ah: An Afternoon of Poetry and Visuals in Spanish and English,” the event is being presented by Queens in Love with Literature, which is run by the Queens Council on the Arts, and features artists Urayoan Noel, of the Bronx, and Guillermo Filice Castro and Elizabeth Torres, of Astoria and Long Island City, respectively. The program, which will run from 4 to 6 p.m., delves into questions of how writers can be inspired by visual works, which will be shown during the program, and translate them into poems — and then, how the poets can take those words and perform them out loud before an audience who must interpret the phrases in a way that is recognizable to the worlds in which they reside.
It is, essentially, two hours of defining how exhausting, and almost miraculous, communication is.
“My dad is from northern California, and my mom’s Puerto Rican, and I was raised in a bilingual household in Puerto Rico, so translation comes second nature to me,” Noel said. “I grew up speaking Spanish, English and Spanglish, and a lot of my work includes translation and the idea that some of the most fun parts of language aren’t translatable —slang or curse words.”
“If you read my book, ‘Hi-Density Politics,’ which is a play on identity politics and which I’ll be reading from extensively on Saturday, I use apps or voice translation software and read Spanish text into an English voice software,” Noel continued. “It’s a way of showing how stuff like Google translate and apps are making all language obsolete because it’s all translatable, but it doesn’t translate the beautiful stuff, the stuff that binds us all together. It’s fake interpreting. Smartphones and iPads have become extensions of our bodies, and it’s so personal and corporate and impersonal at the same time.”
Noel said —and this is something that will resonate in Spanish-speaking communities of Queens, or likely many places where languages other than English alone are spoken —that the fluidity of language is amazing, and often amusing.
“In Spanglish, there would be the formation of a Spanish-style word but an English root,” he said. “For example, people will say el roofo for the roof, when there are formal Spanish words for that. And even if you’re monolingual, you have other languages within you — a text language or language of intimacy.”
Noel is taking a break from his normal gig teaching literature and creative writing at SUNY Albany to complete a book on Nuyorican — New York-Puerto Rican — poetry. On Saturday, he will show photos by Brooklyn-based artist Martha Clippinger that are part of a multimedia project they recently completed together, “The Edgemere Letters,” inspired by the Edgemere neighborhood in Far Rockaway.
“I love taking subways to far-off locations, so I’d been going to the beach in Rockaway for a while when I saw this old, abandoned neighborhood, which was Edgemere,” said Noel, who added the project was, again, much about translation. This time, it was about him, a Puerto Rican-turned-Bronxite, and Clippinger, a Georgian native living in Brooklyn, translating what this Queens neighborhood had once been and what it has become.
Members of Queens in Love with Literature, or QUILL, are hoping that all this talk of translation, specifically the focus on Spanish and English, and the fact that the program’s located in Corona, will draw borough residents who may not typically attend cultural events because of barriers of language or geography.
QUILL was founded in 2010 with the aim of offering audiences authors not only from their own neighborhood, but ones who speak their language.
“It builds a real sense of community and a sense of pride in the people living in your neighborhood,” said Zoe Rabinowitz, a project coordinator for the Queens Council on the Arts.
Castro, who lives in Astoria, emphasized that point and said how refreshing it is to do readings in not just Manhattan, but in his home borough —and especially in his stomping grounds in western Queens.
“I got to read in Jackson Heights this fall, and it was so nice,” said Castro, who left his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the U.S. 24 years ago. “It felt good to read in your neighborhood, especially because things can be so Manhattan-centric. It makes you feel like you belong to a community more.”
Castro will be displaying art by Eleen Lin, which he said especially attracted him because of her use of water imagery — something he said seems especially prevalent in the works of immigrants.
“Ever since I was very young, it seemed like I was near a body of water or about to go in a body of water,” Castro said. “As an immigrant, you often have to cross water to get here, and I’m a swimmer so water is very important to me.”
Torres, a 24-year-old native of Bogota, Colombia, who published her first book of poetry at the age of 8, will display her own artwork while reading.
“I really feel it’s going to be a great opportunity to interact with different poets,” Torres said of Saturday’s event. “We’re all different ages and come from different backgrounds, so it will be interesting to share that diversity with the audience.”
A poet and multimedia artist, Torres is now Kean University’s poet in residence and the director of Red Door Magazine, an online multimedia publication that features works from people worldwide, including soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and correspondents in Mexico, Colombia and Australia.
“I’ve been writing my whole life in Spanish, but I’ve lived in the U.S. for 14 years, so I work with Spanish and English differently,” Torres said. “My poetry in English is more musical and playful, while my poetry in Spanish tends to be a little more organized and classical.”
When: Saturday, Feb. 11, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Tickets: Suggested $5 donation