In honor of National Poetry Month, Queens Library poses a question: Did you know that the Borough of Queens has a poet laureate?
It does! Since 1997, a borough president-appointed poet laureate has been the ceremonial ambassador of the spoken word across our borough of 2.3 million.
Paolo Javier is our current poet laureate. He’s the author of several books and chapbooks of poetry, as well as the publisher of a Queens-based tiny press, 2nd Avenue Poetry.
He organized the ETERNiDAY: Queens Poet Lore Festival at the Queens Museum. The event featured more than 100 poets from the borough, presenting in a multitude of languages. He’s also helping us all this month by curating great poems to share with all of you on social media!
We sat down with Paolo to discuss his life, poetry, and the literary atmosphere of Queens.
Where were you born?
I was born in Manila. When I was 12, my family moved here. We lived in Westchester County, but pretty much New York City was my second home. I had two aunts who were living in Queens. One was in Sunnyside, one was in Astoria, so practically every weekend we would come down and hang out. I’ve been living in Sunnyside since 1999.
How did you become interested in poetry?
Rap was what got me to actually write my first poem. I wrote my first poem when I was in the fourth grade. I got introduced to Run DMC some time that year. We had to do a poetry assignment, and I didn’t prepare beforehand. I just did a freestyle poetry thing that just came out. I would say that experience gave me a lot of permission. I didn’t get back to writing poetry until I was in the eighth grade. It just became something very serious for me when I was in college. I embarked on a quest for a very meaningful sort of life-centered study and experience an immersion of poetry
How did you become the Queens Poet Laureate?
In 2010. there was a call for candidates for poet laureateship and I threw my hat in the ring and I was chosen by a poet laureate committee that is put together through the Borough President’s office. It actually surprised me as much as it delighted me. The kind of poetry I write, you probably won’t be such a poet and serve such a public role. It was a great honor. Three out of four books I’ve written, I’ve written here in Queens.
What has been your top moment in the position?
I would say the ETERNiDAY festival. So many people participated in it, and it drew from so many different poetry communities, and it took place in the Queens Museum, which is my favorite museum in the entire world. And I was just able to curate freely and execute my vision.
So what is the poetry scene like in Queens?
There is actually a very vibrant poetry and writing scene in Queens, but they are legion, and they’re not just located in one area.
The poetry centers are many, are varied, diverse, which is what I love about Queens. I t’s a completely decentered experience. There’s no “92nd Street Y” kind of scene where you’ve got this hierarchy of literariness and value. It’s all across the borough. I have to credit the Queens Library to a great extent, because there are a lot of readings at local libraries. They’re doing their own thing for their own communities.
What do you think is the biggest misconception most people have about poetry?
I think there are three:
1. That it’s difficult.
2. That it’s precious and that’s why it’s difficult — that it has to be handled with kid gloves.
3. When you read a poem, the poem automatically has this complex meaning that the reader is beholden to unpack and unravel and if they’re not able to find this profound meaning, they fail.
I can ask a room full of strangers whether they’ve ever made a short film and I may get at best one or two hands up. But everyone in that room is comfortable talking about movies. They’re not intimidated by it. But then I’ll ask a roomful of strangers if they’ve ever written a poem. I guarantee you every single hand will be up. But when I ask them to talk about poetry, not one hand will go up.
Could you offer these strangers any advice on appreciating poetry?
Read prose out loud and read a poem out loud: There’s a big difference because of all the senses that the poet brings to bear on the making of the poem. And meaning is often actually the last step that the poet cares about.
The language instinct is something we all have. If you go to Germany and you don’t speak a word of German, you’re going to apprehend a sign any way you can — and that’s how most poets work. They heighten all the senses. Sight, sound and “sense-sense.”
The reader should always trust their intelligence when they’re reading a poem. Their own reading of the poem — how they read it out loud — if it made sense to them, it counts. How it looks on the page? That counts. It’s not a problem that needs solving. It’s not a question that has an answer. It’s poetry.
And, as a special treat, Paolo has agreed to curate a selection of poems for us to tweet! (Hey, that rhymed!) Follow us on Twitter @QueensLibrary and look for the #PoemADay.