Q: Where do you currently live/reside?
I currently live in Pittsburgh, PA, where I teach at the University of Pittsburgh.
Q: How do you self-identify?
African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Boricua, Afro-Seattleite, Black. He, him, his pronouns.
University of Pittsburgh (MFA graduate and Visiting Lecturer), CantoMundo fellow, Member of Black Plantains Afro-Caribbean performance poetry duo with JR Mahung, Vandy Spoken Word alum
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the poem above?
“The Bomba Man and The Blues Man walk into a bar,” was a really important poem for me as it ended up becoming one of the foundational poems for my MFA thesis and ultimately my first full length. I had really started thinking about how important music figured in my understandings of what it meant to be African-American and Puerto Rican. I began turning to that as a way to discuss those two identities, both separately and in the ways they intersect. Equally important, I started thinking of the ways I had sometimes postured or performed either identity while trying to fit in. Music was always something that played a big role in that. Thinking about this, I had first thought about the music my parents played growing up and the music I heard from peers, but none of that really seemed to fit what I was trying to do. I then started thinking of the poets Langston Hughes and Luis Palés Matos and how folk music (blues for Hughes, bomba for Palés Matos) figured into their configurations of black poetry. Blues music and bomba music ended up becoming things through which I could start thinking of these questions of identity, and The Bomba Man and The Blues Man ended up becoming these sort of haunting figures that could critique and teach the speaker. This poem was the first to come out of that thinking.
Q: How did you get your writing/performing start?
I’ve been writing in some shape pretty much since grade school, writing fiction in my Language Arts journals from third grade through eighth grade. I started writing poetry in high school after writing a poem for a class assignment, and started sharing my work at my high school’s Coffee House (essentially an open mic). But I really got into performing my work in college as a member of Vandy Spoken Word, Vanderbilt’s performance poetry organization.
Q: Use a metaphor, simile, analogy or other literary device to describe your writing style:
This is a really hard one for me, but if I had to describe my writing style I’d say it’s shouting over and over again until your voice overlaps with the echo to make a new sound.
Q: How does your identity shape or influence your work, writing process, or writing life?
My identity is extremely important in my work and writing life as it’s the lens through which I experience the world. Being Black, being Puerto Rican, there are times when I find I can’t escape thinking about different issues, and of course writing becomes the way I try to make sense of it. If I’m participating in a reading and I’m the only Black/Latinx reader or the audience is primarily white I notice that and prepare myself accordingly.
It’s also affected how my work has been workshopped in the past. Before the MFA, I would regularly get comments from folks saying they couldn’t understand the bits and pieces of Spanish in my work, or how my accent sounded so nice when I read aloud. Occasionally, I’d be read with the assumption that I was a Nuyorican poet, an identity I’ve never claimed even while looking at Nuyorican poetry as a starting point for my own work. I’m grateful for workshop leaders who always tried to turn things back to the page and make sure I got the full workshop experience, but occasionally it left me feeling like I didn’t get all I could.
Q: What’s something you LOVE about being Afro-Latinx/Afro-Caribbean?
If I had to say just one thing, it would be the music. I love all the different musical traditions that have been born from Afrodiasporic communities and at times through the points of contact different communities have had.
Q: Tell me about your (new book/current project):
My book Our Bruises Kept Singing Purple won the 2017 Hillary Gravendyk Prize and is slated to come out later this year with Inlandia Books. The book was born out of my MFA thesis, and is about home and the different places we find it--in food, music, sports, culture--and what it means to try to locate that as a body in diaspora. It’s about the ghosts that follow and sing through us, the echoes we can’t shake.
Q: What else are you working on or what future projects do you have in mind?
Hurricane María was something that really shook me. As someone who grew up in Seattle, about as far from Puerto Rico as you can get in the US, and as someone who doesn’t have a lot of ties with my family on the island, I found myself unable to come to terms with the aftermath. It was a combination of having to once more come face-to-face with Puerto Rico’s colonial status and having to rethink my own relationship to the island. I’ve finally started to write around how all that history comes together for me as someone who lives with it at a sort of distance.
Q: What have been some of the highlights/defining moments of your writing/performing career?
First and foremost, being a CantoMundo Fellow. Getting into CantoMundo was huge for me. It was my second semester of grad school and the first semester had just kicked my butt so bad that I didn’t feel good about myself as a writer and only ended up applying because a friend of mine at Pitt gave me the meanest look when I said I wasn’t sure if I would. Being told I was accepted gave me a huge confidence boost and then getting to the retreat and seeing how talented everyone was pushed me to keep working harder on my own poems. After that I would have to say getting my chapbook mxd kd mixtape published by Glass Poetry and winning the 2017 Hillary Gravendyk Prize from the Inlandia Institute.
Q: Who are some of your biggest influences and/or mentors?
The list is so long I’m bound to leave someone off, but it definitely starts with poets like Tato Laviera, Langston Hughes, and Sandra María Esteves, who I was fortunate enough to meet and learn from at my first CantoMundo retreat. I would also include Aracelis Girmay, John Murillo, Yona Harvey, and Willie Perdomo, the latter two being poets I’ve also had the privilege of working with. A couple of other teachers who really helped my work grow are Beth Bachmann and Rick Hilles at Vanderbilt, who guided me as I was just settling into poetry as something I wanted to do.
And I’m also always learning from my peers, who push me to do and be better. Folks like JR Mahung, Cameron Barnett, Jennifer Martitza McCauley, Yalie Kamara, and Julian Randall.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give new writers/performers?
Read outside of your genre, and not just creative work. As much as the workshops in my MFA helped shape my work, I feel like I learned as much if not more about my work through the scholarly work I was introduced to in the Lit courses I took.
Q: Who/what are you reading now?
I’m currently re-reading Kazumi Chin’s Having a Coke with Godzilla and Jess Rizkallah’s the magic my body becomes. And of course I try to read individual poems folks share over social media whenever I get a chance.
Q: What’s your favorite platano dish/recipe?
Mofongo. Always mofongo. Though I’ll never turn down a good jibarito either.
Q: What else should we know about you?
Along with my own work, I’m a poetry editor for FreezeRay, a literary journal dedicated to poetry inspired by and focused on pop culture.
Fun Fact 1: I’m double-jointed in both my shoulders. No real benefits to that.
Fun Fact 2: I make some mean ass coquito come Christmas season.
For More Info and Work: malcolmfriend.com