Darrel Alejandro Holnes
There's always that resistance in my heart to being put in a box. And I'm always searching to point out and to identify what are those experiences? What are those details? What what's that heritage that really makes each and every one of us one of a kind.
Jo Reed: That is poet, playwright, and 2019 NEA Lit Fellow Darrel Alejandro Holnes and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.
Born in Panama and currently based in New York City, Darrel Alejandro Holnes is equally at home in poetry and theater. He was the prestigious I Am Soul Resident Playwright at the Black National Theater and is known for his research-based work—spending hours in interviews with people whose stories unfold on the stage—like the Sandstorm Cycle—a series of plays about African-American service members and veterans who are grappling with PTSD, unrequited love, and memories of war. As a poet, he is equally celebrated. His work has appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Caribbean Writer and Callaloo and elsewhere in print and online. He is a Cave Canem and CantoMundo fellow and had a residency at the MacDowell Arts Colony. He is also the recipient of a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry and a judge in the semi-finals of the 2021 Poetry Out Loud Competition. Darrel is the author of the recently released chapbook Migrant Psalms which already been awarded the 2021 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry prize. His full-length collection of poetry Stepmotherland is due out in 2022 and Holnes describes it as a collection of poems about coming of age, coming out, and coming to America. As both book titles indicate borders, crossings, belonging, the movement from one country to another, the exploration of the bridges and the ruptures between communities informs his poetry as does his stylistic range and emotional intelligence. I spoke with Darrel Alejandro Holnes recently and began our conversation with Migrant Psalms—a title I found particularly evocative.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: When I was a kid, I really loved the psalms of the Bible and I think it was my first introduction to poetry outside of the nursery rhyme Dr. Seuss world. And you know, we all loved the good [ph?] "Where the Sidewalk Ends" anthology for kids.
Jo Reed: Yes, we do.
So outside of that, psalms in the Bible were my first experience of literary poetry. And that book has always stuck with me. And one of the reasons why I carried my love of the Book of Psalms into my adulthood is because there's so much doubt in that text and doubt is the bedrock of a lot of my faith, you know, and my faith in this country and my faith in the American Dream, it always comes with so much doubt and so many questions. And so, as I move through this country as an immigrant and as a young person, I really wanted answers to those questions but many of those questions, you know, like, is the American Dream real, the answer is very complicated. And you know, the questions are in a way rhetorical; they can't really be answered so easily. And so, the "Psalms" as a title just really seemed like it fit the journey that I was on.
Jo Reed: And it fits the chapbook really beautifully. Do you mind reading a poem, "OTM," and and then I'd like you to tell us a little bit about it.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
Absolutely. Just flipping to that page.
OTM or Other Than Mexican
Other than que pedo
We que xopa
Other than ta bueno
Other than cosa
Other than vato,
Other than amiguin
Other than coyote
We ride La Bestia
Other than ¿Mande?
We ¿Que cosa?
Other than no mames
Other than culero
Other than calmate guey
We tranquilo pana
Other than me vales madre
We me vales verga
Other than chela
Other than crudo
Other than el arte de engańar
We juega vivo
Other than pinta
Other llevarse el demonio
Other than huir
Other than chava
Other than bonita
Other than firme hina
Other than casita
Other than Pachanga
Other than panzana
Other than padre
Other than nene
Other than nińos
Other than fresh off the boat \
Other than hablar
Other than vivir
Other than nosotros
Jo Reed: And that is OTM, Other Than Mexican. Tell me about the making of this poem.
I was at a poetry reading at the Asian American Writers Workshop and Ken Chen got up and he introduced the poet Javier Zamora, who is a friend of mine and Javier read a poem about being from Central America and a designation that ICE has for Central American migrants. And that term is OTM, which stands for Other Than Mexican. And so it's a very vague term that attempts to group everybody into a pile. You know, they noticed that there were differences between Central American migrants and migrants from Mexican, but they did not notice enough of a difference to actually call us by our names. And so, I became fascinated by this term and it's always great when poetry inspires poetry, right? And so, Javier's poem was my introduction to the term, but I took this term and made it my own. And what the term does is bring together words from Mexican vernacular that I encountered when I lived in Texas and with my trips to Mexico and it responds. There's a sort of call and response where the call is in Mexican and the response is in Panamanian slang. And so, the first line of each couplet is a line that features a term from Mexican vocabulary or colloquial language and I'm responding with Panamanian slang. So, Other than que pedo, we que sopa. Que sopa comes from Panamanian, you know, slang. So that is the structure of this poem and there's a narrative in here too because when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, there is a linguist there who's actually Panamanian and her name is Teresa Satterfield and she works on, or I should say, she introduced me to the ways in which the kids of Latin American immigrants to the United States are creating their own language and coming up with their own ways of approaching Spanish with their knowledge of English and of approaching English with their knowledge of Spanish. And so, I just started thinking about how as after we migrate we start to build communities here. And so, we see this family start to emerge from the language. And so, you know, we see more English start to emerge in the italics as it becomes part of what the migrants and their legacy, right, are speaking. And so, this poem for me represents that journey. And I'm really excited by the blending, not only of English and Spanish, but also of many different Spanishes, of French, you know. Panama is a country that is made up of everything that has come to it and everything that's there. It's truly American in that sense. And when you look at Panamanian slang, you also see bits of French. You also see bits of Hispanicized English in the popular terms in the slang. And so, I've always just been really excited by how we can mix and combine and reinvent languages and I think this poem represents that.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I agree. I find it, I find it so heartening. There is something about the human imagination that just, as I said, just makes me feel very optimistic about life when I encounter things like that.
Yes. Yes, it's, it takes me back to my childhood and it was just such a rich linguistic environment to grow up in. I think it's why I became a writer.
Jo Reed: Well, I was going to ask you about that. You're a poet and a playwright. When did you begin to write?
I started really storytelling early on. My parents, God bless them, they, you know, they would work shift work. So, my dad worked in the Canal and my mom worked at hospital. She was a nurse. And they would <laughs> come home sometime very, very, very tired and would always read us our bedtime stories. But sometimes I wanted the stories to keep going. And my parents, you know, exhausted and as generous as they are, they could-- they could stay up with me in the room, but they would ask me to keep the story going. And so, I actually would start to tell myself and to tell everyone in the bedroom, you know, a bedtime story that was part two and part three of the ones that I was being read. And so today I think we call that fan fiction. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yeah, I think so. But that's so cool.
Yeah. And so that was before I could actually write. That was before I, you know, even went to school, I was just, I just had this rich imagination for stories. And then eventually I started writing pretty much from the moment that I could spell, and it's just been-- and now we're here.
Jo Reed: And now, here we are. You've said that you come from a very big and very tight-knit family and that you were the youngest and I wonder how that experience shaped you.
Yes. I think it made me a really good listener and, you know, because I wasn't the biggest and I wasn't the brightest in that I was so young and everyone was always more experienced and, you know, to a point, more educated than me and so I had to listen and learn. And I tell my students today that if you want to be a good writer, be a good listener first. And I think that that's especially good. I think that that's especially true for playwrights because it's up to us to put language in the mouth of characters that resonates with an audience. And we can't really know what might resonate with an audience if we don't know what resonates with us first. And you only really find that when you are a really good listener. And so, I think that that's what I took away from being the youngest. Listen first, talk later. Write later, make later.
Jo Reed: You also studied both classical and jazz saxophone at the National Institute of Music in Panama and I know you've written songs and lyrics and that music remains really important to you. But I wonder how that musicality impacts your poetry and even your playwriting.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, sometimes I wonder, you look at, you look at poets that are, that have their feet in many different shoes and you sometimes wonder like what would they be doing if they weren't a poet, right? Might they be a rapper? Might they be you know, a TV host? Might they be, you know, these different things? And I think that I probably would have become an R&B songwriter because I grew up really, really loving music, loving music more than anything. But what attracted me even more than the making of the music itself was the making of of the lyrics, the crafting of the song in terms of the story that's being told by the singer. And you know, growing up in the early nineties, I have a lot of different musical influences. That includes a lot of reggaeton which comes out of Panama, right? But I really, really remember loving nineties R&B because I would see how my parents and a lot of my family members and neighbors and friends would just completely get washed over by Luther Vandross or Anita Baker, you know, and I wanted to create that sort of experience. And I definitely think that if I weren't a poet, I would be a songwriter. I'm still actually writing music as you mentioned and writing songs. And I have an original song in my new play. It's called "Black Feminist Video Game" and it's produced by The Civilians and it includes a theme song that, you know, I sing. And I collaborated with Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, who is this incredible singer and Twi McCallum who produced the track. It's having this digital premier, it's accessible via our website, www.thecivilians.org. And I'm excited for people to hear that, too.
Jo Reed: That's very exciting. Darrel. Go back for a second and tell me, when did you come to the United States?
I came to the United States in 2005.
Jo Reed: And was it for school?
It was for, yes, I came to attend Loyola University in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina hit. And so, then I went to Houston, Texas and attended the University of Houston and that's how I became a Texan you could say.
Jo Reed: And Hurricane Rita hit.
Hurricane Rita also hit. Yes. And so, it was quite a year for hurricanes.
Jo Reed: You were twice blessed.
<laughs> You know, when the pandemic happened, everyone was in a panic and so was I. It was very upsetting and hard to adjust to and devastating in many ways. I will also say that my introduction to this country was a year where I, as you say, was blessed by these two hurricanes and so in a way it prepared me to shift at a moment's notice because I always have the resilience that I built from that experience to rely on.
Jo Reed: And you also ended up as a researcher doing oral histories with Other survivors of both Katrina and and Rita. And you did that for the American Folklife Center. I'm very curious about that experience as an oral historian.
Yeah, absolutely. That project was created and directed by Dr. Carl Lindahl and Pat Jasper, two incredible scholars and folklorists who trained survivors and evacuees of these hurricanes to collect oral histories. That project has since gone on and grown and is now referred to as "Survivor to Survivor" and has also collected the stories of survivors of earthquakes in Haiti and Other disasters from around the world and contributed them, those oral histories to archives globally. And that experience was really important for me because as I mentioned earlier, the art of listening to me is everything. And it gave me an opportunity to listen and learn to learn about the experiences of all of these survivors and evacuees of both of these awful hurricanes. And in doing so, I was also able to learn so much about this country, so much about the local history of those places and so much about what makes a community. Because all of these survivors and evacuees were displaced and longed to be a part of their communities and were nostalgic for their communities but also had complicated relationships with those communities in many instances. And so really, getting to learn about community through Other people's experiences really built on my own. And I think it has made it an emphasis on the work that I do now today.
Jo Reed: You live in New York now. What brought you there?
You know, I have always loved New York City and I've always wanted to be a part of the community here. When I was 11, I came to New York City for the first time to visit, partly because my mom had seen Heather Headley performed a song from "Aida," the musical on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, which was broadcast in Panama. And we were trying to figure out where to go that summer and my mom said, "Let's go to New York." And I've had family members live in New York over the years, but I had never been to New York and that became our reason. And so, we went to see "Aida," the Disney show on Broadway and it was my first major experience with live theater. I had seen community theater, but I had never really seen a major production to the scale that we see on Broadway. And we sat on the front row of the mezzanine. And I remember this intently because I was at the edge of my seat and my mom was so concerned that I was going to fall into the orchestra.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
I wanted to essentially jump into the show and onto the stage. And my dad kept pulling me back by my belt, by the belt of my pants because, you know, he didn't want me to fall over either. And but that's how captivating that production was and Heather Headley was and that is the moment that I fell in love with New York.
Jo Reed: And theater too, apparently. I'm assuming you started with poetry first and then moved into playwriting, but I have no idea why I think that.
I think that that's accurate.
Jo Reed: Okay.
And in a lot of ways I continue to identify as a poet first, partly because poetry, I think is the oldest literary form. I've had this debate with some friends. Some people disagree with me, but I think it's the oldest literary form that there is and in a lot of ways even predates fiction, because the stories that-- that were passed down were passed down orally and that those oral traditions typically involved some element of poetry. And so, they would use literary devices like rhyme, rhythm in order to make these oral histories or even mythologies memorable. And so, I think of myself as a poet first and foremost because I think poetry is the root of everything. So, theater for me has always been a love, but it does come after poetry.
Jo Reed: Okay, so here's my question: what does playwriting allow that poetry might not and what does poetry let you express that perhaps you can't in playwriting?
Yeah. I, you know, a friend of mine, Preston, he always says that I am the most extroverted poet that he knows.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
And I only really think about that in moments when he and I are talking about it. I don't realize how many poets are introverted naturally and many of us are. I am not. And one of the things that has drawn me to playwriting and its process is collaboration. I love working with Others. I love to be around people and I love to work as a team. And playwriting allows me that opportunity because after I write a draft of a play, I workshop it with a team of actors, a director, sometimes a dramaturge. Everyone is offering ideas, everyone is asking questions and it gives me an opportunity to then go and try to answer those questions or address some of those concerns in a new draft. And that's the typical development process with a play. You are always developing in community. Every playwright that you see win an award or that creates work that moves you in some way, they have not done that in a vacuum. You know, we all worked collaboratively and that's why it's really important to have a great team in place. And I have been blessed in my experiences in theater with having some incredible directors that I've worked with, some really incredible and dynamic actors that I've worked with as well. And I'm excited now to be partnering with The Civilians on "Black Feminist Video Game" because it's also taught me the importance of having strong producers as well. And so that's one of the benefits of developing work in the theater, you know.
Jo Reed: And what about poetry?
And I think poetry for me is different. Poetry because it's a little bit more of, you know, a solo song, it's an opportunity to discover parts of yourself that maybe you don't typically show to other people, you know, as extroverted as I am, I also value privacy. There are also things that I don't know about myself that I'm continually discovering as we all continue to change, right, and grow. And so, poetry allows me that moment to really reflect on myself. And even when I'm writing about a topic that's not biographical, I'm still learning about its impact on me as I develop the poem, you know, by figuring out what are the questions that I have here and how is this shifting my perspective? How is a closer look at this subject shifting my perspective? So, I think of it as really important self-care and I also think of it as a way to really push yourself as a human being. I think it's important to be a lifelong learner and there is a kind of curiosity that every kid has that some people lose when they become an adult and I think it's really important for poets to hold on to that curiosity because it continues to push our work further and further the more questions we ask.
Jo Reed: Well, a lot of your writing is based on research that you do and I'm really curious about that relationship between research and imagination and when you hit the pause on one and begin the Other.
I think <laughs> that's a great question. And a lot of folks have been asking me that and I'm, I'm thinking about how I answer that question every time, but honestly, every time I'm asked that question, I feel like I'm discovering new things about how that line can be blurred or how that line is a solid one between what is imagined, right, and then what is documented. And I think it really varies per project. And that's one of the reasons why I continue to discover new ways of answering this question, because as I develop new work, that line continues to shift and with some with some projects that's very blurry and with Other projects, you know, it's very firm. And, but I think either way it's still generative to have both research in front of you and some sort of scratch pad where you're brainstorming and writing new ideas and writing new questions. And an example is I always tell my students write what you know, which every creative writing teacher tells their students, but I also tell my students write what you research because you can learn new things. And so many professors who say write what you know don't remind their students that they can learn new things. And when you learn new things then your knowledge base grows, right.
Jo Reed: Good point.
And so, I'm interested in continuing to grow my knowledge base and my curiosity and my imagination will sometimes lead me in a direction towards a subject that I don't know anything about. And that's the moment that research comes in so that I can learn new things about that topic and it can inform my process and make the work of art that I'm creating even better and more resonant with an audience and a readership.
Jo Reed: I'm curious about your process for writing poetry, if you begin with an idea, an image, a word, a sound? And if you tend to write straight through and then go back and, you know, really parse it; or if you labor over each word as you put it on the page? And I'm talking about very specifically poetry right now.
You know, when I was a student at the University of Houston, AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, came to Austin. And while I was there, I went to a poetry reading for Cave Canem, you know, of which now I'm a fellow, and I met the fiction writer Walter Mosley.
Jo Reed: Ah.
And there was some conversation there. The thing that I remember the most about the conversation with Walter is that he said writing, good writing, is like gathering smoke. You have to catch it while it's there. And I try to honor that any time the spirit takes me to write. Because yes, you can always come back, you can always revise, right? You can always make notes. Not everyone has the sort of privilege to drop what they're doing at a moment's notice and suddenly, you know, spend three hours writing a poem. But I do think that there's something special about when the idea comes that you have to honor as much as possible. So, if you can take a break and gather the smoke right before it dissipates and flows through the air, then I think you have more to work with when you go back to revise, and so I try to honor that as part of my process.
Jo Reed: Well, can we hear another poem? How do you feel about "Amending Wall?"
Sure. Happy to read that.
If “crucified” means one has died
On the cross, then what is the word
In English for dying at the crossing
Between countries? What word describes
When a brown woman’s dreams of being
Something like a white man are killed
At the intersection between his dreamt-up borders
And his dream-come-true border patrol?
“White man” like dead men printed or
Minted on money more valuable
Than the pesos in her purse.
“White man” like gods on horseback come to
Conquer their India after reading a
Mistaken map. “White man” like the grace of
Misinterpreted omens turned
Into a chance for vicious attack.
“White man” like buying but outlawing
Cocaine to catch the “brown man” in the crossfire of
Its trade. “White man” like picket fences
In award-winning films about
The privilege of being “so over”
Privilege that He yearns
For something “real.”
Something there is that loves
A wall, that builds a boundary, that calls
The structure “love of country.”
Something there is that kills those who trespass.
Something there is that buries
Bodies at a border as foundation stones
For yet another wall. But something there is that doesn’t love
Fathers saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Something doesn’t love a man carving up
A continent and its people to make a new world
In the image of old words like the name of god
Instead of new words like the name of one’s own desires
To divide life into here and after by crossing an ocean
As if it were the pearly gates. O, Amerikkka,
If anywhere there are limits are beginnings and ends,
Then Heaven has to be a nothing
Loving a something loving its everything;
Then life, country, and their borders
Ain’t nothing but a thing.
after Robert Frost
Jo Reed: And that's "Amending Wall" and you write after the end of the poem, "after Robert Frost." And, of course his poem is "Mending Wall." So, I'm assuming that it's a response to his poem in some ways.
Yes, absolutely. I like to do this thing where, you know, we call it vision revision. And I remember loving Robert Frost so much in high school, where I was introduced to his work and really his work in a way was an introduction to a certain kind of poetry, right? And I was fascinated by this tradition and in so many ways wanted to be a part of it. But as I grew up and read more about Frost and read more into his work and my knowledge of what poetry could be started to grow and transform and I found other traditions that looked more like me and sounded more like me and reflected me and were inviting of me, you know. I started to really question Frost and to question this idea that good fences make good neighbors and to question "Mending Wall" and my love of that poem. And in asking those questions and exploring that doubt I found "Amending Wall," I found this poem of my own. And I would like to think that he is somewhere both celebrating that I've written this poem and also rolling around in his grave, like if both things are possible, then <laughs> I think I've done my job, you know, so.
Jo Reed: <laughs> I think both things are possible.
Jo Reed: You received a 2019 NEA Lit Fellowship for Poetry and I'm curious what that allowed you to do.
That Fellowship was such a blessing. It allowed me to return to Panama and to do some more research and to write more poems towards what became my chapbook, "Migrant Psalms" and towards my forthcoming full-length collection, "Stepmotherland, which will be available in 2022 from Notre Dame University Press.
Jo Reed: And it’s already a prizewinner.
Yes. It won the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize from Letras Latinas.
Jo Reed: Congratulations.
Thank you. And I am so happy to have completed both of these poetry projects with the support of this Fellowship.
Jo Reed: And you were a judge for the Poetry Out Loud semifinals. Now without giving anything away, tell me about that experience.
Well, I love being a judge for the semifinals of Poetry Out Loud. It is such a wonderful experience. And it's so inspiring to see young people who love poetry who are devoted to it explore and express themselves in this contest. It's especially exciting to see so many different cultures and communities represented and regions represented across not only the United States, but it also includes American Samoa and some U.S. territories and I believe also Puerto Rico. And that is just thrilling to see how poetry continues to touch folks around the country and around the world really. And I congratulate all of the students who participate because yes, there's a winner. Yes, there are finalists. But everyone has found this gift of poetry and it's a gift that keeps on giving that they can take with them beyond the contest, you know, into their lives. And so, I am thrilled to be a part of that team.
Jo Reed: Clearly, intersectionality is so central to your work. You show diversity within specific communities, the wide range of experiences within Blackness, for example, within queerness. You just-- keep complicating and insisting on a diversity within a diversity within a diversity, like a diamond. There are so many facets.
Mmm. Yeah, that's important to me. It's very important to me because, you know, every one of us is unique and there is that, there's always that-- there's always that resistance in my heart to being put in a box. And I'm always searching to point out and to identify what are those experiences? What are those details? What what's that heritage that really makes each and every one of us one of a kind. And, you know, there's so much interest in anti-racism, diversity and inclusion these days and, you know, I'm excited to have it as a part of my practice. As a writer, language is important to me, but I think that we have to go beyond language to action. And, you know, and so I hope anyone that reads my work is inspired to act and to incorporate this vision into their practice.
Jo Reed: I also wonder if the pause we all had to take because of the pandemic isn’t also an opportunity to move, as you say, beyond language to action. This moment of pause can also be a moment of really clear reassessment and strategic thinking about how to transform vision into action.
Yeah, absolutely. And one of the key elements of any anti-racist practice is listening, listening to experiences that are not your own, listening outside of your own world, right, your own community. And it really comes back to that important lesson that I learned as a kid, right? If we-- if we all want to get along, we all have to feel heard and understood. And there are so many communities in this world that we live in that, whose voices are unheard, whose stories are unknown. And that's one of the reasons why I write. It's really to tell those stories.
Jo Reed: And I think that's a really good place to leave it. Darrel, thank you so much for giving me your time and thank you for this wonderful chapbook, "Migrant Psalms" and I'm very much looking forward to "Stepmotherland."
Thank you so much. It's my pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was poet, playwright and judge of the Poetry Out Loud Semi-final, Darrel Alejandro Holnes. For the first time in the program’s 16-year history, the Poetry Out Loud national semifinals and finals will be held virtually. On Sunday, May 2, 2021 beginning at noon eastern, the Poetry Out Loud national semifinals will stream through a one-time-only webcast. You can find the semi-final schedule and watch the event at arts.gov. Find out which nine students will advance to the finals which will be streamed on May 27 at arts.gov.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed—stay safe and thanks for listening.
Born in Panama and currently based in New York City, Darrel Alejandro Holnes is equally at home in poetry and theater. A former I Am Soul Resident Playwright at the Black National Theater, Holnes is known for his research-based work in theater, spending hours in interviews with people whose stories unfold on the stage. A celebrated poet, Holnes’s work has appeared in many publications including Poetry Magazine, The Caribbean Writer and Callaloo. He is the recipient of a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry and a judge in the semi-finals of the 2021 Poetry Out Loud Competition. His recently released chapbook Migrant Psalms has been awarded the 2021 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry prize. His full-length collection of poetry Stepmotherland is due out in 2022. As the titles of both books indicate, Holnes poetry explores questions of belonging, bridging cultures, and building and rupturing communities. In this podcast, Holnes reflects on the different practices of writing poetry and of writing plays, the ethnographic research that inspires his work, the importance of acquiring the skill of listening both as a creator and as an agent for change, and the experience of judging the 2021 Poetry Out Loud semi-finals.