Emanuel Xavier. A man who has endured a great deal and has much to say. The day we prepared for this Conversation was the first day I had ever heard of him. And now, with what I know coupled with what he's done in his professional life, he is someone I won't soon forget. And I'm a better person because of it. (This interview originally appeared in Conversations Magazine in 2006 and is in the April/May 2011 issue.)
Emanuel, you have had so many accolades thrown at you in your career as a spoken word artist. What is it like to be so respected as part of the artistic community?
Sometimes it feels awkward because some people forget you're human and have expectations of who you are supposed to be. But mostly, it's a great feeling, no doubt. I've worked really hard to make up for the mistakes of the past and am simply grateful for the opportunity I've had to reach so many people.
I know from your website www.emanuelxavier.com that you went through a lot before achieving your current success. When did you turn to writing and your gift with words?
First time I ever heard spoken word poetry at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe back in '96 I knew right there and then this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. At the age of 25, I knew if I kept going the way I was going I was going to die and nobody was going to ever hear my story. I started writing with a vengeance. While my friends were out playing handball or cruising, I was reading everything I could get my hands on and typing away at my friend Stephanie's apartment up in Harlem because I didn't have my own computer back then. That was the most happiest and creative time of my life because I really believed I had something to say and discovered something so profound within myself ready to be unleashed. It was like divine intervention.
Writing your poems as a form of therapy is one thing, Emanuel. But with the subject matters being so intense, was it hard to decide that you wanted to publish them?
You know, I never really had any doubts about what I was about to reveal through poetry. I think when poets start second-guessing themselves, that's when they're in trouble. Its one thing to ask the opinion of someone you really trust to give constructive criticism, but it's another thing when you decide not to publish or read something because you're afraid of the repercussions. Like any art, it's important not to feel constrained or limited when you're creating. The audience truly appreciates when you're being real because you might be sharing something they're afraid to speak out about or don't exactly know how to put into words. I always try to keep myself in check by reminding myself what we do as poets is not for us but for those out there that don't have the opportunity. We have the responsibility to give voice to those who are silenced or choose to remain silent in order to survive.
I am always interested in how artists decide the route they want to go as far as promoting themselves and creating the buzz around their work. Walk us through you journey.
When I first started, I was fully aware I already had three strikes against me- I was young, I was a minority and I was gay. Add the fact I was just pulling away from being known as a notorious drug dealer and prostitute and you might understand it was such a challenge for me to be taken seriously as a poet. I still remember those people who made fun of me and criticized me for trying to get my work out there. Also, I had no formal education as a writer so there was much speculation about what I was trying to bring to the table. But I was determined and full of ambition because I had never been so passionate about anything in life. Having been a hustler, there was no shame left whatsoever and because of the thick skin I developed while out on the streets I managed to get past all of this. It felt really good being able to go back to the West Side Highway piers where I had once hustled and the New York City nightclubs where I had once dealt drugs to distribute the postcards I had printed with my poems on them.
Is it difficult for you to promote yourself? Does it take away from just wanting to do your craft?
I am blessed to have an awesome manager, who happens to be my best friend, handle most of that for me. Of course, as entertainers, we're always promoting ourselves. You can't possibly reach everyone you want to if you just spend your time writing. It's important to be informed about opportunities to get your work out there and reach your target audience. Being savvy is just part of the business and it helps if you're out enjoying life and meeting other people.
How did the repeat appearances on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam come about? Reaching such a large audience did it change the way people saw you as an artist?
I was skeptical at first that I would ever be considered because I was an openly gay poet but fortunately Russell Simmons and the producers of the show were looking to feature poets based on talent and air a dynamic program that would open the eyes of viewers. I knew it was going to be ground-breaking and change people's perceptions about poetry when I found out who had been cast for the show on Broadway. These were some of my peers- poets I had much love and respect for. It was a really exciting time for all of us. I've only appeared on the show twice and both poems featured were from my first collection of poetry so I certainly hope people realize this is not the full range of my work. It was a wonderful opportunity but I hope people look up their favorite poets and find out more about them and read some of their work. Three minutes on television can reach a lot of people but in the end it's just three minutes on television.
Spoken word has been linked so many times with hip hop, especially with the popularity of Kanye West and Common. Do you think it has helped the craft gain more validation or hurt it, making it guilty by association?
Throughout history there have always been poets in the music industry. Of course, musicians have the opportunity to reach so many more people than spoken word artists do but that doesn't take away the fact that we're all just trying to move and inspire people with our words. These musicians could be recording so many other things that the masses would still run out and buy but they choose to create in more meaningful ways that strikes a chord with the times. More power to them for using their success to try to create change.
I'm curious about something, Emanuel. Let's say you were going to tour with one of your projects, we'll just say your book CHRISTLIKE. What would be the deciding factors as to what states you would visit, where in those states you would go as well as how you would advertise?
Funny because I just signed a contract with Suspect Thoughts Press to reprint that novel in a few years now that the original publisher is no longer in business and the book is out-of-print. When the book first came out in '99, the publisher was a small press and I didn't have the opportunity to properly promote it. It did quite well and has a small cult-like following but that was mostly from word-of-mouth. Because of the nature of the book, I suppose I will be touring cities with prominent gay and latino communities. The story is very New York but the theme is universal and so I wouldn't limit myself to just targeting these two groups. Simply put, I would visit any city that would welcome me and leave the advertising to the manager and publisher.
I googled your name online after your manager Leo Toro contacted me about you. I read an article you wrote for the New York Post that appeared online on January 11, 2006 about your attack that occurred a few months prior to that. An interesting thing that stuck out to me was your spin on what happened to you, bringing attention to the fact that there is a problem with Latino-on-Latino violence. You went on to say that these young men who commit crimes don't have a clear father-figure at home and look for one on the streets. My question would be, do you see yourself as a role model for these young people as to what you can accomplish and give us some feedback on some experiences you have had in dealing with the youth?
That incident really threw me for a loop because I try to do a lot of work with at risk youth and I hate that it made me question if everything I was doing was worth it. I suppose I have come to accept my responsibility as a sort of role model but I just wish they didn't have to go through everything I had to endure throughout life. It's so unfair that we have to suffer so much before we grow into ourselves only to suffer in other ways. But I always quote graffiti artist Keith Haring for this one, "To find hope and beauty in the face of struggle and oppression is certainly a challenge but also carries with it the greatest rewards ."
What's in the works for you right now?
Besides the forthcoming reprint of Christ Like, I'm working on a new poetry collection. Bullets & Butterflies: queer spoken word poetry, a collection I had wanted to publish for the longest time and finally edited for Suspect Thoughts Press was just nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in the Anthology category, which is pretty ground-breaking in itself. However, I will not be able to attend any of the events and awards ceremony on May 18th in DC because I'm scheduled to be in New Orleans and Austin during this time. Besides my own appearances, I'm still putting together the annual Glam Slam competition in New York City with the House of Xavier during the summer and other exciting events and benefits. I should also mention I'm collaborating with a record producer to lay down one of my poems as a dance track. I've always been a fan of Mutaburaka's house classic, "The Poem" and look forward to giving back to the underground club scene and ballroom community which nurtured me back in the early days.
Any advice for those who might be reading this interview that are interested in pursuing a career as a poet or spoken word artist?
If you're truly passionate about what you're doing, don't let anyone ever tell you it's not possible to make a career out of being a poet. There's much sacrifice involved but dreams are meant to be followed. Words alone can't save the world, but they can definitely start the revolution.
Thanks for the time, Emanuel. Any last encouragement you want to share?
Yeah, it's important to realize that though spoken word starts with the solitary act of writing a poem, we're not alone in this struggle. We must keep writing and telling our stories because, if we don't, no one else will.