Nuyorican Poet of the Third Generation: Interview with Bonafide Rojas

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La Respuesta magazine recently had the chance to interview poet Bonafide Rojas about his life, work, and most recent book “Renovatio.” Here is what he had to say:

BA: Your newest book is titled “Renovatio”. What is the word and what is its connection to the work? What does Renovatio mean to you?

BR: Renovatio is the core of the word “renovation,” and when I started writing this book renovation and reinvention were the two main concepts I wanted to focus on. How we reinvent/ renovate ourselves everyday through art, or how we reinvent/ renovate ourselves through the everyday and how every interaction/ action affects us positively and negatively.

BA: How did this project start and how is it different from your past two books?

BR: My first book “Pelo Bueno” was an early collection of work working under the subtitle “a day in the life of a nuyorican poet.” It was more political, more musical in terms of subject matter (hip-hop, rock and roll). It spanned from the ages 18-25, so much of the work had that perspective: young, angry, yet optimistic, confused, searching for meaning. My second book “When The City Sleeps” is a love letter, ode, lament, and complaint to New York City. I wanted to write about N.Y.C. and how it has influenced me. I really enjoyed that whole process; some of my favorite poems are in that book.

BA: Renovatio is a very tender book full of “howling hearts”, “sonnets” and “lamentations”. Do you remember the first book/poem to move you to tears or action? The last?

BR: The first poem, no. I don’t remember it but the ones that have had lasting impact especially in forms of laments: “Lament For Ignacio Sánchez Mejias” by Federico García Lorca, and “Lament For Federico Garcia Lorca” by Pablo Neruda. A poem to move me into action was “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri – it allows me to understand my mother’s generation and have patience and respect for them because they dealt with issues that I never had to.

BA: How does Boricuaness/ Nuyoricanness influence your work?

BR: How does it not? There are times I funnel everything through the perspective of a Boricua/ Puerto Rican ideal. Would it be different if I wasn’t? Why do certain images affect us and some not? It’s historical perspective, it’s an anti-colonial perspective. Now if people choose not to identify with it, that’s a whole different conversation, but I do identify with it. Nuyorican is the “school” I am attached to. Much like The Beats, The New York School, The Black Arts Poets, Nuyorican has a history, a space, a culture, a cadence – its not really a slam background, that in its own right is different – but Nuyorican encompasses Puerto Ricans living in the northeast region of the united states and their influence has a long reach. I had the privilege of being a late second generation and early third generation Nuyorican poet, depends when I feel I came into my own. By 19, I had the honor of knowing the majority of the Nuyorican Poets and sharing stages and breaking bread with a lot of them: Louis Reyes Rivera (RIP), Sandra Maria Estéves, Willie Perdomo, Tony Medina, Pedro Pietri, Papoleto Meléndez. It was and still is a humbling experience.

BA: How do you think the Bronx, or New York City in general, has influenced how you are as a poet?

BR: Once I read Lorca’s “Poet In New York” I became much more aware of the small nuances N.Y.C. has. I became obsessed with detail, and wanted to write my N.Y.C., my Bronx, to show people, look, there’s magic here, you just have to find it, see it, it’s not all grit and glamour. The way people talk about European cities is exactly how I wanted them to talk about N.Y.C., about the buildings, the tunnels, the people, and the history. Everything in N.Y.C. / The Bronx has affected the way I am as a person and an artist.

BA: What is one of your most special childhood memories of your building/ street/ block/ hood?

BR: As a kid, I was the youngest in a group of 10 guys. We had camaraderie and brotherhood. Those things affect you when you’re that young, and through the years I always enjoyed having that, being able to have a group to build with, to leave lasting effects.

BA: Would you ever leave the Bronx/ New York City, and if so, do you think it would affect your writing?

BR: I have. I lived in Chicago for three years and spent time with wonderful artists there that made me a better writer. Ironically, the majority of “When The City Sleeps” was written in Chicago and then edited in NYC. I love traveling, it’s the only thing I wish I did more. There are so many places to visit in the world and I think we get caught up with the United States. There’s so much to see, so much to experience, but I always will have a home in N.Y.C.

BA: Do you visit the Island? If so, how often? Does it affect you and your work?

BR: I try to visit Puerto Rico as much as I can but I’ve gotten into the habit of, if I travel, it has to be a business trip and Puerto Rico is one of the few places in the world that when I go its almost strictly a vacation. My next planned trip there is going to be business but it’s always pleasure. Puerto Rico has an influence on me because of what it represents. Home. Family. Past. Future. Politics. Colonization. Struggle. A lot of pros and cons. I have a project in place that involves Puerto Rico that I will eventually speak of in the future.

BA: This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Julia de Burgos. What’s on your list of best Puerto Rican or Diaspora poetry and/or literature—past or present?

BR: Well, De Burgos is one of my favorites. My list would comprise of Piri Thomas, Pedro Pietri, Martin Espada, Sandra Maria Est´´ves, Willie Perdomo, Tony Medina, Jack Agüeros, Victor Hernández Cruz, Papoleto Meléndez, Shaggy Flores, Urayoán Noel, Luis Palés Matos, Francisco Matos Paoli, Tato Laviera, Mariposa, Nancy Mercado, and that’s a good list for now.

BA: How do you think the Diaspora affects people, particularly artists and writers?

BR: I think the Diaspora can be either the main source of inspiration for artists or the one thing they want to stay away from. The Diaspora is a massive subject to speak about and I hope when artists do talk about it, they are very well educated on it and how far it stems back. Some colleagues of mine – Shaggy Flores, Tony Medina, Rich Villar, Ekere Tallie – have great perspectives on The Diaspora.

BA: I know that you have a son. What traditions and cultural beliefs are important for you to pass down to him?

BR: I try to teach him how important imagination is and trying new things like painting, guitar playing but also staying with them, letting those skills develop. Honestly, my son and I barely see each other: he lives in Michigan and I’m still in N.Y.C. He was born in Chicago, then we moved to N.Y.C. and then he moved to Michigan a few years ago. It’s been a very hard road; when we see each other, depending on the season, sometimes I just enjoy sitting next to him and having a conversation. The next ten years will be a very flourishing one for us. I am anticipating him growing up so much. I want to show him everything I love but as a teenager, as a young adult.

BA: You write a lot about your father in this book. What do you think your parents passed down to you in the form of wisdom and traditions?

BR: My mother passed down my sense of adventure. She instilled the passion to travel, independence, and a slight sarcasm/ attitude that I feel might be as much N.Y.C. as it is Puerto Rican. With my father, on the other hand, we had a strained relationship. Even until his death I was observing him and wondering why he chose to live his life the way he did. That’s what I got out of him, I want to live my life totally different than he did. When I am prepared to pass I want to celebrate my life wholly and cherish all the memories/ friendships/ poems I have collected through the years and tell my son, “HERE! THIS IS WHAT I DID WITH MY LIFE.”

BA: Describe your perfect day.

BR: A slice of pizza. Book hunting and thrift store shopping. A great movie and possible walking around finding secrets in whatever city I’m in.

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Brian Acevedo

was raised in the Barry Square neighborhood of Hartford, Connecticut. He migrated with his family in 1992 from Ciales, Puerto Rico. Brian works in a non-profit organization and is in the process of finishing his degree in education.