A Conversation with Emanuel Xavier

Next week sees the release of Emanuel Xavier’s compilation, The Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier, from Rebel Satori/Queer Mojo Press, (you can preorder here) and we were lucky enough to get the man himself to carve out some time and answer a few questions about his life and career:

What impressions do you get looking at your older work? Is there anything you’d change or does it hold up for you?

I think most writers would appreciate the opportunity to improve on their earlier work. It’s only natural to grow and want to edit and perfect. So, yes there is plenty I would change from my backlist titles. There is much that I see differently now through a more mature lens. However, the poems included in “Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier” are the ones that still stand the test of time in my book. Literally. To have this opportunity is special because it usually happens after one has passed and then it’s someone else making those selections for you, whether it’s a publisher or editor. Even then, it only happens if you reach a certain status as a writer. Putting this out into the world is me raising my hand and saying I was here all along. It is me bringing my own folding chair to the table and taking a seat to say I will no longer be sidelined because I never had the opportunity to attend your colleges or universities as a scholar or because I was writing about being openly queer at a time when it was still something to be implied in metaphors or because I was proudly flaunting my heritage on the page and on the stage at a time when white boys from the Midwest were being celebrated and diversity, equity, and inclusion weren’t part of the larger conversation.

Writing such personal material had to be difficult. Did you ever receive feedback (or blowback) from your family? How did you deal with it?

I have made relatives feel uncomfortable because they feel I am exposing my mom by speaking my truth about our shared history. However, they weren’t part of my experience and perhaps they never really knew what I had to endure as a child. I love my mom and I would never allow anyone to come for her. But I have a right to share the stories about the mistakes that were made. As a teen, I already experienced being abandoned by a parent I never even met, lost my innocence to molestation and was kicked out by the only parent I ever had during the AIDS  pandemic affecting the gay community while coming out. Losing the love of my family was not necessarily a power lingering over me. Nonetheless, I did get support from some of my family. Initially it didn’t really matter that I was gay, they still loved me over time because the world changed and they realized it was them that were wrong all along. 

“Radiance,” your last book, came out in 2016, and I know you’ve gotten married since then. Has settling down in a steady relationship mellowed your work at all?

I think anyone who has lived a decadent life and publicly shared it without regrets is entitled to sit back and enjoy the quiet moments. Nonetheless, I think by nature my literary style and approach will always keep me from the mainstream.

Has there ever been a time when you’ve held back in your work, thinking you’ve gone too far?

As far as my work, I’ve written some gay erotica which perhaps maybe went a bit too far. It’s crossed over into my poetry most famously in a poem titled, “Golden Shower at a Motel 6 in San Antonio” which I read at the Museum of Modern Art surrounded by a group of jaw-dropped tourists. Let’s just say I wasn’t getting any invitations to read as an inaugural poet anytime soon. However, I think what hurt me the most in my career was my decision to host and curate an event for El Museo del Barrio which they had named Spic Up! Speak Out! At the time, I looked at it as an opportunity to reclaim a word that had been used to hurt me personally much like the word ‘queer’ within the gay community. I grew up in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn before it was all hipsters and trendy cafes. At the time it was made up of working class minorities and my mom decided to place me out in a school in Queens where I was bussed in for a year because it was supposedly “better.” It was a predominantly all white school and the kids would chant “The spics are here! The spics are here!” every morning when the bus pulled up. I was miserable and bullied for being a Latino and gay. This was only my personal experience with the word but many had their own real histories with it. After everything I experienced in my personal life, I failed to see the controversy at the time and defending the museum’s stance didn’t necessarily endear me to the Latinx community. I was on watch for being so brazenly outspoken and queer. I didn’t come up with the name of the event. I just agreed to host and curate but unfortunately got caught in the crossfire. The museum changed the name of the series to Speak Up! and everybody seemingly moved on. In hindsight, though it was a great opportunity for me as an artist, it had nothing to do with me and I should have simply stayed out of it.

Conversely, has there ever been an instance where you think you could have gone farther?

I think the novel Christ Like could have gone much farther in exploring the main character’s child abuse and experiences as an underage homeless prostitute. There was so much more to explore but I didn’t have any training as a writer of fiction or the support of an editor or publishing house. I was so close to the material. I just wanted to get it out into the world because I was already in my mid-twenties and seriously thought I would be dead like everyone else around me who had lived my life from AIDS or drugs or hate crimes. I took the first publishing offer that I received. Though I’ve had the opportunity to edit and release Christ Like as a twentieth anniversary edition, it remains rough around the edges, even if it is considered to be a cult classic by a select few.

How has the pandemic affected your work?

I suppose much in the same way the AIDS pandemic affected much of my work back in those earlier decades. It helped put things in perspective which is why I agreed it was a good time to put out a collection of selected poems. My husband and I had COVID-19 early on during the pandemic and we watched as people struggled and died around us. I didn’t feel particularly relevant pre-pandemic and so I didn’t feel inspired or motivated to write. But then this opportunity came along to publish a collection of selected poems and revisit my own history and it inspired me to write a new poem and a preface for the book.

How do you recharge? What relaxes you or gets you motivated to write again?

After getting married, I moved from a crowded Bushwick area to a quiet neighborhood which turned out to be incredibly suitable during an epidemic. We love going out for walks and listening to the squirrels and running into the occasional wild turkeys. That sounds hilariously suburban but really it’s not that different from running into hipsters with vocal fry and hideous bangs. All kidding aside, I’ve been very lucky to still keep my job in publishing so I have continued access to great books and still get them delivered to our home.

What are your influences? Whose work has most informed your own?

I didn’t actually meet Jean Michel-Basquiat but we shared an experience at the West Side Highway piers shortly before his passing. I was an underage hustler and didn’t know who he was at the time. It was early one morning and he was stoned and either cruising me for sex or just contemplating on how fucked up of a situation we were both in. In any case, I can’t claim to have been in his head but I do remember it being long enough that it would be deemed stalkerish had it been anybody else. Later, when I found out how talented and famous he had been, it left an impression on me because it made me realize how it didn’t matter where you were in life. At any given moment two people could be in the same place at the same time due to whatever circumstance. That was one of the experiences that influenced me to share my work regardless of the fact that I had no formal education as a writer or the support of editors or publishing houses. Here was a minority street artist that became a worldwide phenomenon in spite of adversity. I also have to credit Willi Ninja and the ball community because they literally gave me the balls to get up on stage in front of a notoriously homophobic hip hop audience that followed spoken word poetry in the mid-90s and fearlessly slam them with my truth. As far as literary influences, not only did Leslie Feinberg provide much personal support but I loved his book Stone Butch Blues. I really miss him. Poetically, I miss Justin Chin. We used to write silly fan letters to each other and meet up during visits to San Francisco and New York before we lost touch with one another. Unfortunately, he also passed away. And if it weren’t for Miguel Algarin there wouldn’t have been a Nuyorican Poets Café for me to openly step up and spit some poetry. 

 What’s next? After this collection, what are you working on and what new projects do you have going? 

I can say the new poem included in the book came about because I was invited to contribute to a UK spoken word album as a benefit for the five year anniversary of the Pulse massacre. Another one of the poems in this book has also opened up the possibility of a collaboration for a documentary project. So I’m just going to enjoy THIS moment right now because we’ve all gone through so much.

© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler

1 Comment

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One response to “A Conversation with Emanuel Xavier

  1. Had the pleasure to meet Emanuel and hear him read his brilliant work at his launch of “Radiance” in NYC. Great interview!

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