Yesenia Montilla

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Q: Where do you currently live/reside?

Harlem NY

Q: How do you self-identify?

Afro-Latina. Afro-DominiCuban. AfroLatinx. She, her, hers.

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Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the poem above?
Maps was inspired by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo a beloved friend and incredible poet. It was inspired by undocumented people and the struggles of coming to this country to escape a million tribulations in their home countries and looking for a better life and never being fully seen as human. It was inspired by my travels and the footprints we all leave behind when we visit a place that is dependent on tourism and we take more than we give. It was a deep meditation on place and borders and maybe it was a deep tribute to Marcelo and his family and it was maybe a way for me to see if poetry matters.

Q: How did you get your writing/performing start?
I always knew I would be a writer. That’s been my dream since I was a little girl. I would spend countless hours writing stories. My grandmother has a box of them in her apartment in Miami. So for me I always wanted to write. As children we know what we want. Our form of play is our form of real life. We play at being teacher, and policeman and dancer and detective and if we’re left to our own devices, we become that, or a form of that, we grow up to want to teach others, or help others, or save others, or move our body. If we’re left to grow and be without interruption we don’t stray far from our baby dreams. I never strayed far in my heart. Although my life took so many turns and I didn’t graduate high school and I didn’t finish college till well in my 30’s, I always had in the back of my mind that writing was the way I would express myself this lifetime. Poetry however was an accident. I was at CUNY Hunter College and desperately wanted to take a fiction class, but being a full time worker I had limited time slots and everything filled up so quickly. My second semester Tina Chang’s poetry class caught my eye. First class she read The Blue Terrance by Terrance Hayes and these lines gutted me:

….I love

watching the sky regret nothing but its

self, though only my lover knows it to be so,

and only after watching me sit

and stare off past Heaven.

Once I read that I knew poetry would be it for me. That blank page could hold so much if you just took the risk and dared to surprise yourself.

Q:Use a metaphor, simile, analogy or other literary device to describe your writing style:
You know when you realize you love someone, like really love someone and that you might die if they don’t love you back, you might disappear if they don’t say I love you too? You know when you first lean in to kiss them, your love? My poetry resides in that first space between the two mouths. I think that space holds every dream, every entanglement, every loss, every hope we have, I write from that small little space. It’s the truest place I know….

Q: How does your identity shape or influence your work, writing process, or writing life?
My writing is my identity. I don’t separate the two. It’s fun to play the “speaker” of a poem, hide behind that, but at the end of the day everything I write, who I am, is in the poem.

Q: What’s something you LOVE about being Afro-Latinx/Afro-Caribbean?
I LOVE my blackness. I LOVE it. I saw this show with Ava Duvernay in which she is finding out what percentage of African she is and I can’t remember what the number was but it was a nice amount, not 50%, but a good chunk of that and she was SO HAPPY! She was afraid that she might be so much less African descent than she was. I honor my ancestors every day by loving myself, Loving the kings and queens and shepherds and medicine people I come from. When I dance a Merengue or a Rumba I know that my africaness is in every hip shake in every ‘“get low”. My taste in food, my dreams are all tied to the ancestors and so who would I be without them, not this person. So that’s what I love. The legacy of who I come from. The perseverance, the will to survive and thrive and be culture makers and creators of art and everything beautiful. I love who their love made, so I love me.

Q: Tell me about your (new book/current project):
The new project is done, but looking for a home. The title is “Muse Found in a Colonized Body”. You know how some editors can be vultures? Like every time some shit goes down in our communities they want us to write about it. & they don’t want us to write intelligently about it, they want poverty porn, they want the token black or brown person talking about their devastation. I wanted to analyze this for myself, I wanted to look back from colonization to this still colonized body of mine and see my own beauty, my own muse, make my own noise, on my own terms about everything that is ailing me, about how colonization never dies. It’s still in us right now, shaping how we view things, even how we treat one another sometimes and so the new collection is a lot about that.

Q: What else are you working on or what future projects do you have in mind?
Surviving. Seriously, this world has me so twisted and it is A JOB to wake up everyday and try to live in JOY and in love. So I have dreams, I want to write plays, and short stories and movies, but at this moment survival is pretty much my full time job.

Q: What have been some of the highlights/defining moments of your writing/performing career?
I am not a poetry biz person. I measure success in how many people I love and how many love me back. With regards to writing, my metrics are always about learning. How much have I learned this year about myself, about the human condition, can I write about it? Mentorship is important to me, so I guess if I have to choose the defining moments they will all be tied to teaching. When I am teaching a workshop, I am as at peace as when I am writing. Also being mentored, being able to learn from so many magical poets that I love and admire is a true highlight for me. I pinch myself daily on that. Community is also important to me so being a part of the Drew University community, the CantoMundo Community, the Cave Canem community, these spaces defined my poetry and so I can’t ignore their value.

Q: Who are some of your biggest influences and/or mentors?
So many! So the folks that totally shook up my poetry: Natalie Diaz, Aracelis Girmay, Cornelius Eady, Anne Marie Macari, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Judith Vollmer and Michael Waters. Without them I wouldn’t be brave or better put, I would’ve taken a lot longer to be brave. But I also learn every day from those I walk with, they are my mentors too: Christina Olivares, Peggy Robles-Alvarado, Sheila Maldonado, Carina Del Valle Schorske, Mahogany Browne, Diana Delgado, Elizabeth Acevedo, Ysabel Gonzalez, Denice Frohman and honestly so many others, you for instance dear Jasminne, your very existence pushes me to excellence.

Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give new writers/performers?
Not everyone has to like you, but you need to like you.

Q: Who/what are you reading now?
Oh, at this very moment I am reading a non poetry book that is all poetry in it’s own way. It’s called Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology by Andreas Weber a Biologist and Philosopher. He basically is looking at the natural world as an erotic process. It’s wild and poetic and anecdotal and it’s changing me. But on deck I have Julian Randall, Jose Olivarez, Roberto Carlos Garcia, Ada Limon, Fatimah Asghar.

Q: What’s your favorite platano dish/recipe?
Stop your nonsense! Only one: Mangu, FOREVER.

Q: What else should we know about you?
I’m a triple feline: Leo with Leo rising, but also my Chinese sign is tiger. I have all those big cat tendencies….

Fun Fact 1:
If I weren’t a poet I’d be a chef. & everyday I meditate on how those two vocations are sort of the same exact thing.

Fun Fact 2:
I wake up after a dream & draw them, so I have sketchbooks full of incoherent things. A pineapple with wings for instance….

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