Latino poet/Coast Guard prof José B. González reads tonight at Arts Cafe Mystic
He's the perfect example of the local kid made good. He graduated from New London High School and Bryant University, scored a master's at Brown and his PhD from the University of Rhode Island, is a Fullbright Scholar and professor of English at the Coast Guard Academy — and lives with his family just down the road in Quaker Hill. He's also an award-winning poet and an internationally-renowned and sought-after inspirational speaker.
Illustrations by Norman Rockwell, right?
Of course, that's not the complete story. His name is José B. González, and he was born in El Salvador at the height of that country's civil war — when 75,000 citizens were killed in 12 months — and lived in a San Salvador housing project in the heart of the violence. His parents had emigrated to the U.S. to find jobs, and González joined them in New London at the age of 8 — a frightened, emotionally fragile, tentatively excited boy who couldn't speak English.
The years since González' arrival in America were remarkable and complex and are testaments to discipline, resolve and, always, his dreams. He learned English and navigated the cultural tightrope of his ethnicity, and one of the defining ways González navigated his evolving experiences was through the therapeutic properties of the written word — specifically, poetry.
He's been honored as the recipient of the New England Association of Teachers of English Poet of the Year Award and the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education Outstanding Latino Faculty Member of the Year Award. The founder and editor of LatinoStories.Com, González has been featured on the nationally syndicated show "American Latino TV" and has been a contributor to National Public Radio. His poems have appeared in a variety of esteemed periodicals and literary magazines, and his debut collection, "Toys Made of Rock," was published two years ago by the Bilingual Press at Arizona State University.
A finalist for the International Poetry Award, "Toys Made of Rock" is structured chronologically — and divided into sections titled "El Salvador," "U.S.," "Stealing Shakespeare" and "Classrooms," "Toys Made of Rock" is a haunting, beautifully written, poignant yet witty, and always profound. It also serves, in its way, as one of the most moving pieces of memoir you'll likely encounter. Fortunately, González will read from "Toys Made of Rock" and other works when he headlines tonight in the latest presentation by the Arts Café Mystic. It takes place in the Mystic Museum of Art and also features acoustic folk-group the BeeKeepers and Julia Paul, the Poet Laureate of Manchester, Conn.
By phone earlier this week, González discussed his life, work and art. Here are excerpts from the conversation. Answers have been edited for space.
On how — and why — poetry helped him understand and survive the indelible experiences as a boy in El Salvador:
There were a lot of times when I was just left speechless by events. My mother and father left us to get work in America so we could escape the terrible violence. That was difficult. And while they were gone, we had a hurricane that further devastated our family. I lost two cousins. I mean, I was playing with one of them one day, and overnight he was gone.
How do you have the confidence that everything will be okay? It was incredibly traumatic, and how does a child cope with that? There were emotions I couldn't understand or articulate, and ordinary language didn't suffice. Eventually, as I experienced those moments, I learned to write down how I felt, and I somehow learned that poetry was the best way to articulate it.
González' work — as per poems such as "English Words," "Lines Breaking" and "Sociology 101: Essay on Illegal Immigration" — always feature evocative and lyrical language. In addition, he might utilize Spanish and English, italicized or alternative fonts, and a creative sense of word placement/layout that provides a very rhythmic pulse. It all imbues the pieces with a very musical context, of which he says:
I didn't start to write poetry in an exclusive sense or as opposed to other forms of expression. For a long time, I overlapped between music and poetry. I grew up in New London listening to R&B and rap and jazz and (radio station) 107.7 out of New York. I'd hear those rhythms, and I matched them up with what I was writing, mimicking the beat as I wrote. I felt as though it was music that really spoke to me and inspired me in the way I wrote poetry. That was it, initially. The more I wrote, the more I realized the two didn't have to be separate, that I could bring the two together.
The centerpiece of "Toys Made of Rock" is a long tour de force called "Autobrownography of a New England Latino." Stylistically reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron's musical prose-poems, the piece has a relentless rhythm and emphasis on various contexts of the word "brown" that becomes incantatory and spellbinding. On the idea that "Autobrownography" might be a mid-career peak:
I love how you say "peak." It makes me think of the poem as a reflection and also reaching a stage in my writing that displays a bit of confidence. I'm absolutely at that point and can look back and be able to exhale a bit. Being brown and Latino has defined my life. It could have kept me from moving forward but, being brown, I reached a point where brown moved me forward. Originally, my career was only going to be about education, but I realized I can't separate my brownness from the idea of education. If I were to describe my life, I'd have to talk about educating others and what being brown means to others — and how formal education kept me going forward.
On whether, in the context of education, at a time when social media and a constantly evolving stream of information has verifiably reduced attention spans, poetry might be the ideal form of artistic expression:
We were talking about that just last week in my creative writing class. Hopefully something like Twitter forces us to choose our words carefully. It's not going to go away, so how do you teach poetry in the time of social media? I don't pull away from it but embrace it. I found clips of William Shatner reading Sarah Palin's Tweets. It sounds funny, and it is, but it also actually sounds poetic. These are new possibilities.
My second collection (which should be out any day from the University of Houston Press) is called "When Love Was Reels," and I use YouTube clips and other forms of social media to help define the poetry and tell the story of a young immigrant's life. I wouldn't have been able to explore that even a few years ago.
If you go
Who: José B. Gonzáles
What: Headlines Arts Cafe Mystic along with acoustic trio The BeeKeepers and Opening Voice poet Julia Paul
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight, doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Mystic Museum of Art, 9 Water St., Mystic
How much: $10, free for students under 21
For more information: (860) 912-2444, artscafemystic.org