A Conversation with Antonio Lopez by Colin Bonini
BY COLIN BONINI
Antonio López is a poetician working at the intersection of poetry, politics, and social change. He has received literary scholarships to attend the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Tin House, the Vermont Studio Center, and Bread Loaf. He is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop and a CantoMundo Fellow. He holds degrees from Duke University, Rutgers-Newark, and the University of Oxford. He is pursuing a PhD in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. His debut poetry collection, Gentefication, was selected by Gregory Pardlo as the winner of the 2019 Levis Prize in Poetry. Antonio is currently fighting gentrification in his hometown as the newest and youngest councilmember for the City of East Palo Alto. www.barrioscribe.com
Colin Bonini: There are several homages to music in Gentefication. “La Reina de Tejas” is about Selena, and she makes an appearance in “DRA. DACA” as well; “sideshow” is a mashup of E-40 and Danez Smith; the final poem in the collection, “Ya Es Hora (It’s Nation Time Remix),” is your own spin on Amiri Baraka’s song, “It’s Nation Time”—a call to action, celebration, and reclamation-slash-assertion of Black identity. What was it about these artists that inspired you to incorporate them into your poetry, that turned them into such lasting experiences? What is the relationship you see between music and poetry, between the acts of reading and listening?
Antonio López: Music is such a core expression of my identity. It’s what was always around me growing up, whether it was the busted grabadora my mother perched on the kitchen counter washing dishes, or the coupes that sped through the street and whose metal bodies reverberated with Keak da Sneak.
Similarly, the cage of my poems rattles with sound. Alliteration and neologism and internal rhymes are the bones of my letters. If “stanza” is indeed Italian for “room,” then the music in my poems is its walls. With it, I shape the dimensions of whatever struggle my poem’s engaging: a lost loved one, an award ceremony gone microaggressive. Music informs me of the scene before I am aware I am writing at hand. At the risk of being ableist, there is a kind of blindness the poem’s visionary scope demands, and music helps us hear the rooms out.
To put it another way, music is the language beneath language.
CB: On the music note, just for fun, if you had to recommend one album to everyone, what album would you pick?
AL: Jay-Z’s 4:44. No question. That album was a pivotal moment in the genre. An esteemed mogul like him opening up about questions that, lamentably, most rappers don’t tell (often times ’cuz they don’t live long enough to see it): fatherhood, intergenerational wealth, masculinity.
Speaking as a cis-Latino male, one of the toughest things about writing is learning not to be tough. I hide a lot. Read that last sentence again. I hide a lot. Resee hide not as the verb for disguise, but as skin that’s been cured and dead. This is probably one of my biggest weaknesses as a poet, and one of my biggest fears as a man, to be tender enough to risk the shallow sense of manhood I cling onto. It’s something I’m actively working on.
In the title-poem of Jay-Z’s album, he says, “I apologize for all the stillborns/ I wasn’t present/ your body wouldn’t accept it.” In its confession, the song is just as gorgeous as it is tragic.
I guess what I’m saying is HOV’s a helpful interlocutor. Being a generation ’bove me, he’s a figure to learn from, and lean on.
CB: You also enter into dialogue with a number of non-musicians in Gentefication: Roger Reeves, Octavio Paz, Richard Rodríguez, and, several times, James Baldwin. What was it about these figures’ work that inspired you to respond? Aside from these names, who else would you say have been formative figures when it comes to your writing, both stylistically and in terms of your subject matter?
AL: Reading Roger was the suggestion of one of my good homies in the poetry game, Willy Palomo. His feedback on an early version of this manuscript reads like this, “Reeves employs dense rhythmic lyric to completely transform experience. He’s one of the densest poets I absolutely love because no one can transform and crystallize an experience like he does.” I couldn’t have said it better. I’d add that Roger’s a master of “tumbling” in his work. Foo just keeps going on and on but not in a way that is overwrought, but that accumulates, that adds productive stress to the subject matter. Roger knows how to bear witness to a larger collective without coming off as pedantic or at sacrifice to revealing the speaker, which again, is that aesthetic pocket I’m tryna get into too.
I’m tryna chase that Reeves aesthetic.
And regarding Paz… oh, Octavio. La neta, I see him as an old guard mexicano who was a helpful citation insofar as describing the perceived deficiencies of the U.S. male Latino, a.k.a. the main subject of my work. In Gentefication I call him “ese,” but he shape-shifts into many avatars: the foo, the homeboy, el carnal.
The ese is an archetype inspired by the young men I grew up with in classrooms, street corners. In many respects, my work is an homage to those boys I rarely saw in letters or film, and when I did, it was largely negative. The ese is also a homophone for the “essay,” the French term, “to try.” To me that’s an ese, an elegant embodiment of try’s: tryna chase the bread, tryna vote, tryna apply for a job but his record don’t help, tryna buy a Beamer but he can afford a bucket.
If I had to summarize it in a sentence, my work is a one long love poem to all foos everywhere.
CB: Many of your poems beautifully incorporate elements of religious practice and faith—how Catholicism, Islam, and Nahuatl tradition have each influenced you, how they’ve caused dissonance in your personal life. In parts of my experience, it seems creative and academic spheres are pretty strictly secular places where the conversation about religion shouldn’t overlap with the conversation about art—unless it’s as critique.
As a writer considering the role a lifetime of religious traditions can play in new creative work, I’d love to know: What did poetry offer you as you grappled with the consequences of converting to Islam, and vice versa? What did religious tradition offer you as you navigated the creative and academic spaces you found yourself in? On top of existing as a Latinx person in universities, workshops, and residencies, did existing as a person of faith ever present obstacles?
AL: It’s important to highlight that the Islam that I stepped into was emphatically Black. Ever since Malcolm X’s old speeches in high school, I always saw Islam as a religion of resistance, of truth-telling against a system which hurt me, too. And so, when I fraternized with the Black Muslim communities in Durham, NC, I instantly made a connection.
I don’t think I need to mention this, but my life post-conversion was difficult. The week before I took my shahada, the Paris Attacks occurred. The atmosphere was saturated with anxiety, one that quickly devolved into Islamophobia. My family wasn’t any different. Many of those early months were spent explaining, rearticulating what this faith means to me, and what it isn’t. It was heart-wrenching to see my parents question my decisions, for them to assume the worst (of me).
At the same time, I understood where they were coming from, at least over time. That first year of Islam was less about learning and more about living. The dīn taught me that oftentimes, people are speaking from fear, even if it’s misplaced. Ironically, I became more empathetic to prejudice—well, at least coming from kinfolk.
Islam means submission, and like all believers, I had to abide by the ethical frameworks prescribed by God. It’s not an overnight process. That’s why forgiveness (tawbah) is such an important virtue for converts. I realized it’s not so much about reducing transgressions, but realizing I am human, and a young man at that, and slowly orienting my heart and body to submit to Allah’s will.
Poetry offered the possibility to articulate my relationship to Islam when I barely understood it. I do not mean this in a sublime way, but on a basic level of language. I hardly knew how to pray, how to recite surats (books in the Qur’an). It’s also important for me to iterate that I became a Muslim my senior year in college. As the president of a fraternity, my lifestyle had to change, too, in ways I’ll leave for the reader to imagine (Dixie cups, sleepless nights, wandering the school steps from dorm to home in the dead of night). All that astaghfirullah gone.
The other way of saying all this is that poetry gave me permission to tease out the complexity, the images of Black boys in the mosque, of me praying in my dorm room, in short creating my own myth.
Speaking more in the immediate present, I will be candid and say I struggle with how much I wear my dīn on a sleeve. Any identity in a rarefiedrarified space runs the risk of being fetishized. I often ask myself the following: how widely do I publicize my faith, whether in politics and/or poems? In universities and workshops where I am already busy being brown full-time, why throw another in the mix? Maybe this requires more personal work of being comfortable with my Islam in public, perhaps it’s a mechanism to create less stress for myself. Insha’Allah, all will be revealed.
CB: The way you’ve partitioned this collection echoes a course syllabus. We have “Course Description,” “Learning Goals,” “Texts,” “Document-Based Question (DBQ),” and “Final.” There’s such a rich dichotomy between the way you use this format and the content of your poems. The classroom is widely thought of as a space for learning, for opportunity, but it’s also often a space of suppression and eradication. How did you come to the decision to structure the collection this way, to turn the syllabus on its head? Was that a natural approach for you, or did it come later in the process? If you had to look at this collection as a “course,” what do you hope readers would learn from it?
AL: When I was at Rutgers-Newark, my thesis adviser Cathy Park Hong held my printed manuscript in hand and said, “You need to think of your work as a score.” I chewed on this advice for precisely four months.
In the summer of 2018, as I began preparing my next journey, now overseas at Oxford, I began to look back at my work, the crossroads it represented. I began to see just how profoundly academic it was and is.
What I saw was a young man who, through the grace of God and grit of grinding, I had achieved what parents and peers dreamt: an elite university education, a merit scholarship to study in the UK, and eventually, a PhD program at Stanford, an institution my people clean, cut, wash, cook for, but rarely study at.
As a kid from East Palo Alto, do you realize how impossible Stanford feels?
I wanted to complicate the narrative that immigrants and their children alike consume: that college and higher education is the gateway for success in life. And while I sincerely believe this to be true, there’s so much violence embedded in that process. Worse, we rarely discuss it, and if we do, it’s always spun so as not to dissuade the next brilliant generation of 1G PoCs from entering the academy.
This is the fundamental lesson I wish to impart on all readers alike: the hurt involved in the hopes we embody.
CB: Social mobility in the US can require the suppression and even violent sacrifice of non-white identity, as your poems attest. In your definition of the term “Gentefication,” you write, “when mobility/ just isn’t enough/ and the poet must populate,/ raza-ify/ the canon itself.” In other poems, you critique the workshop, the residency, and the generally accepted white-majority pathways to academic and monetary success. I’m thinking specifically of moments in “When Amá Asks Me, ‘Descríbame Escuau?” and “Conjugations of my Tía’s Back,” but this vein of thought courses through so many of your poems in rending, powerful ways.
The poems are much less about gaining access to social mobility through traditional “pathways” and more about changing what counts as social mobility, and thus also changing the pathways themselves. How does that happen? Where do retail politics and art meet when we try to work for such changes?
AL: Spot on! I wanted to redefine mobility on my terms: not as a hyper-individualized, masculine narrative, but one that is above all collective. I wanted a concept that stayed true to the sentiment I’d always say to people when they asked me, “How’s it feel going to Duke?” And I’d answer, “I don’t feel like I’m attending here alone, but that my whole family goes here.”
I’d argue that’s the experience of hundreds of thousands of Latinx college students across this country. This is especially the case for first-gen kids, for those of us who go to predominantly white institutions where our numbers are slim and we’re compelled to make community in creative ways.
Moving onto the “how” question: collective mobility is not accidental, but a political act. When I was at Duke, I joined a historically Latino fraternity whose singular mission is to create a brotherhood whereby men of color can feel part of a greater community that looks like them. It served as my springboard to mold my own leadership.
Frankly, much of my answers on organizing come from women of color, who are brilliant and proactive in their efforts to create spaces that look like them. Us men of color don’t do that. And that’s to our detriment, because what we lose in the process is an opportunity to be vulnerable enough to create spaces that can transform us.
Poetry is a solitary project. I mean, just literally speaking, it involves you separating yourself from your family and your loved ones for periods of time long enough for your emotional thoughts on them to begin surfacing in the form of image. This is probably why I have so many characters crowding my poems. Gentefication, as a thesis against individual mobility and its loneliness, requires populating this high-brow genre with the sensibilities of my people. When I say my people, I do not mean just those who wave El Tricolor on the hood of their car. I mean Black people, I mean Tongans and Samoans, I mean moms and older siblings who know what it’s like shopping with WIC checks at Safeway. I mean the working-class people of East Palo Alto, of Belle Haven, of North Fair Oaks. Greg Pardlo had it right when he prefaced my book by saying, “these poems build community, an ever-expanding circle of ‘my people.’” As I globe-trotted cities, I befriended the Algerian food vendor in Oxford who I visited on too many late weeknights, the Turkish imam where I attended Friday prayers in North London, the Guatemalan janitor worker who became my second mom at Duke.
My poems are blueprints to your question on pathways. My poems reach their arms to other people not as a kumbaya gesture or for its own sake, but as a mechanism that first began as survival mechanism; now, it’s about thriving.
CB: In a November 2020 Ozy article, you say the argument about whether or not poetry can be political is dead (of course it can). I’d like to ask about the politics of the poet.
You’ve recently been elected city councilman in East Palo Alto, the city you grew up in and where many of your poems are placed. To what extent do you think poets—and writers at large—have a responsibility to step off the page in order to alter political and social landscapes? And how do you see acts of creativity shaping that landscape? What can they offer?
AL: They have the highest responsibility. As astute observers of the social order, poets are uniquely positioned to elucidate the latest trends—both troubling and tender—of our world in ways more intimate and accessible than any sociological paper.
Long gone are the Baudelairean proclamations of poems for their own sake. Look, that’s cute, but that’s not me. I wrote and write poems living in the hood, a hood that regrettably is rapidly losing its cultural character. We’ll get to that issue in a moment.
All my work, particularly my earlier shit, takes its inspiration from Amiri Baraka’s manifesto on “Black Art.” I’ll defer to my elder.
“Poems are bullshit,” he writes, “unless they are/ teeth or trees or lemons piled/ on a step.” Here’s how I interpret that opening: though we may not end there, we start with conflict. ’Cuz that’s exactly the world we live, where my people are at. Though not surprising, many of the same issues he wrote about—from police brutality to wealth inequality—persist to this day. It’s unacceptable, and I say that with the least melodrama.
As someone who humbly considers himself in dialogue with this luminary, I labor my poems to “move” people. I mean to use this term ambiguously, as it can mean to take someone from one place to another. Emotionally and physically, intransitive to the transitive.
When I was at Rutgers, a fiction writer pulled me aside after the reading and said, “Every time I finish hearing one of your poems, I want to go fight.” I took this as the highest compliment.
At the same time, I do not want to reduce poems as instruments of rebellion. Fanon said it best, under the colonial order man is a reactive animal. It is our job to render them proactive. To deploy my poems only as a weaponas weapon against the political order reduces both the art form and the subjects I write about. Worse, it’s counterintuitive to the humanist project that is at the root of my letters.
Here is this interview’s final admission: I want my poems to feel like a dinner table, the same mesa Danez Smith writes about in Homie. It’s a table that stretches its arms to their, and other, diasporas, that at its premise acknowledges that many of those we loved have died, often by causes all but natural. And while there is time to mourn them, there must also be time to laugh, to cry, vacilar, bromear, chismear—all the emotions that make us human.
CB: I’d like to close with a question about home: East Palo Alto, and more broadly, the Bay Area. That pocket of California could be the poster child for gentrification; it has some of the most unaffordable rents in the country, and the rapid-fire tech and startup industry of Silicon Valley means six-figure salaries are pushing out community members that have been settled for generations. And while the effects of gentrification—higher incomes, raised property values, business booms—might seem to be net positives, they’re really only a boon for the high-earning people who can afford the new costs of living. That is, gentrification essentially turns communities inhospitable for anybody who’s not part of our modern-day “gentry” class.
Your collection’s title, Gentefication, is a push back against this trend. The term linguistically places la gente—the people—at the root of the word, and politically, it indicates that the upper-classes shouldn’t be the priority when considering urban investment and development. That people, not capital, should be given precedence. As a recently elected politician in your hometown, how do you envision gentefying East Palo Alto? How can everyday people work to gentefy a place if they aren’t part of the political sphere?
And finally, as a poet, does your commitment to politics ever interfere with your daily life and artistic goals? How are you managing to balance your writing life with your political life?
AL: This a question I seriously wrestle with, so I appreciate the opportunity to conclude with this topic.
At the heart of our issues is that, as a community, we’re civically divested from the status quo. To put it shortly, our kin, particularly our youth, have lost faith in the system. And why would they not? Mainstream politics, in both its message and the members, is alienating. It doesn’t look like them. It doesn’t speak in the same slang youth do, it doesn’t congregate in the same digital spaces our kids do. And so when our youth look around at the changes in East Palo Alto, to the tall brick buildings that replaced the old clothing stores and markets of their childhood, and are told this new development will bring new wealth to the city, of course they’ll say fuck you.
Look, there is no question that cities like East Palo Alto need new streams of revenue. But the million dollar question is how we go about revitalizing our hood.
We have done well in creating strong safety nets for our most marginalized. From our Tenant Protection Ordinance passed in 2014, to the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance passed in 2019, we have been committed to supporting the poorest populations in EPA since day one of our incorporation.
Of this I am proud.
But a city cannot simply be a place for “affordable,” especially when we live in a county where frankly, surrounding municipalities are not pulling their weight to create homes for the working class. It means enriching our inner city on the community members’ terms, not on the developers’.
Gentefication means asking the uncomfortable questions that address the root of our problems. For me, this is the blatant inequality of opportunity in the Silicon Valley. In one of the most ostensibly liberal places in the country, inequality was architected and designed on racial lines, in the bones of government policy. This is true whether we’re talking about the racially restrictive covenant that lasted until the 1950s or the blockbusting where realtors sold properties to aspiring Black homeowners at four or five times the amount for whites. The powers that be used a whole set of devices to stack the odds against my community.
Gentefication means leveraging my privilege as an elected official, as someone with cultural capital, as a formally educated Latino man, to encourage the next generation to find their voice. Gentefication also speaks at the level of poetry, that we populate this tradition with those voices as candidly as we perceived them. We aren’t in the business of representation, but re-presentation, changing the canon and its perspectives on our kin.
Gentefication means knowing your role in history. In my short time in office, I’ve learned that it’s the young people who will usher in the most lasting change. At the present moment, few millennials are active in EPA leadership. As both poet and politician, my job is to widen the parameters of what’s possible. Gentefication is this name I give for this act.
In sum, the name of my book understands that change is inevitable. What it questions and negotiates is who that change is for.